Tag Archives: fiction

Why is reductionism rude?

People have a similar dislike for many quantification related things:


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Systems and stories

Tyler claims we think of most things in terms of stories, which he says is both largely inevitable and one of our biggest biases.

He includes the abstractions of non fiction as ‘stories’, and recommends ‘messiness’ as a better organising principle for understanding our lives and other things. But the problems with stories that Tyler mentions apply mostly to narrative stories, not other abstractions such as scientific ‘stories’. It looks to me like we think about narrative stories and other abstractions quite differently, so should not lump them together. I suspect we would do better to shift more to thinking in terms of other abstractions than to focus on messiness, but I’ll get to that later. First, let me describe the differences between these styles of thought.

I will call the type of thought we use for narrative stories such as fiction and most social interactions ‘story thought’. I will call the style of thought we use for other abstractions ‘system thought’. This is what we use to think about maths for instance.  They are both used by all people, but to different degrees on different topics.

Here are the differences between story thought and system thought I think I see, plus a few from Tyler. It’s a tentative list, so please criticize generously and give me more to add.


Role of agents
Stories are made out of agents, whereas systems are made out of the math and physics which is intuitive to us. Systems occasionally model agents, but in system thought agents are a pretty complex, obscure thing for a system to have. In story thought we expect everything to be intentional.

Stories are usually from an agent’s perspective, systems are understood from an objective outside viewpoint. Even if a story doesn’t have a narrator, there is usually a protagonist or several, plus less detailed characters stretching off into the distance.

Unique identity
The agents that stories are made of always have unique identities, even if there is more than one with basically the same characteristics. In system thought units are interchangeable, except they may have varying quantities of generic parameters. ‘You’ are a set of preferences, a gender, an income level, a location, and some other things. In story thought, any ambiguity about whether someone is the same person as they used to be is a big issue, and the whole story is about working out a definitive answer. In system thought it’s a meaningless question.

Good, evil and indifference

Ought and is

Story thought is concerned largely with judging the virtue of things, whereas system thought is mostly concerned with what happens. Stories are full of good and evil characters and actions, duties, desires, and normative messages. If system thought is used for thinking about ‘ought’ questions, this is done by choosing a parameter to care about and simply maximizing it, or choosing a particular goal, such as for a car to work. In story thought goodness doesn’t relate to quantities of anything in particular and you don’t ponder it by adding up anything. People who want to think about human interactions in terms of systems sometimes get around this by calling anything humans like ‘utility’, then adding that up. This irritates people who don’t want to think of stories in system terms.


In stories, intentions tend to be strongly related to inherent goodness or evilness. If they are not intentionally directed at big good or evil goals, they are meant to be understood as strong signals about the person’s character. Systems don’t have an analog.


Overarching meaning
Stories often have an overall moral or a point. That is, a story as a whole tends to contain a normative message for the observer. Systems don’t.

Other meanings and symbolism
Further meaning can be read into both stories and systems. However in stories this is based on superficial similarity and is intended to say something important, whereas in systems it’s based on structural similarity, is not intended, and may not be important. If you see a black cat cross your path, story thought says further dark things may cross your metaphoric path, while system thought might say animals in general can probably cross many approximately flat surfaces.


No levels below social
In stories everything occurs because of social level dynamics. Lower levels of abstraction such as physics and chemistry can’t instigate events. In reality it would be absurd to think a coffee fell on your lap so that you would have an awkward encounter with your future lover ten minutes later, but in story thought it would be absurd for a coffee to fall on your lap because it caught your sleeve. Even events that weren’t supposedly intended by any characters are for a social level purpose. Curiously the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ is used to talk about systems and stories, but the ‘reasons’ are in opposite temporal directions. In system thought it means everything is necessitated somehow by the previous state of the system, in story thought it means every occurrence will have future social significance if it does not already.

Is and ought interaction
If a system contains a parameter you care about, the fact you care about it doesn’t affect how the system works. In story thought you can expect how you treat your servant on a single occasion to influence whether you happen to run into the heroine half naked in several months.

Free will
Stories are full of people making ‘free’ choices, not determined by their characteristics yet somehow determined by them. System thought doesn’t know how to capture this incoherence to the satisfaction of story thought.

Opportunity costs and other indirect causation
In story thought the causation we notice runs in the idiosyncratic way we understand blame to do. If I cause you to do something by allowing you, and you do it badly, I did not cause it to happen badly. In an analogous system, we do say that if a rock lands on a roof, and the roof doesn’t hold the rock well, the collapse was partly caused by the rock’s landing place.

Story causation also doesn’t include opportunity costs much, unless they are intentional: I didn’t cause Africans to suffer horribly this year by buying movie tickets instead of paying to deworm them, and nor did all of the similarly neglectful story heroes ever. In an analogous system, oxygen reacting with hydrogen quite obviously causes less oxygen to remain to react later with anything else.

The main components of a story need only be plausible, they need not be likely. Story thought notices if the hero is happy when his girlfriend dies, but doesn’t mind much if he happens to find himself in a situation central to the future of his planet. System thought on the other hand is mostly disinterested with the extremes of possibility, and more concerned with normal behavior. Nobody cares much if it’s possible that your spending a dollar will somehow lead to the economy crashing.

This is probably to do with free will being a big part of stories. Things only need to be possible for someone with free will to do them. To ask why a character happens to be right and good when everyone else isn’t is a strange question to story thought. He’s good and right because he wants to be, and they all don’t want to be. Specific characters are to blame.

In stories events tend to unfold in sequence, whereas they can occur in parallel in systems, or there might not be time.

Adeptness of our minds

Story thought is automatic, easy, compelling, and fun. System thought is harder and less compelling if it contradicts story thought. It can be fun, but often isn’t.

Why are fictional inventors anti-trade?

In stories, those who invent and make powerful technologies frequently seek to gain power via the technology they make.

In reality, those who invent and make powerful technologies seek to gain power solely through selling their technologies and getting status.

Fictional artists do not keep their paintings, to go out provoking and moving people themselves. Fictional chefs usually prefer trade to eating it all themselves.

Why the difference?

How much does this bias our expectations for the social outcomes, especially risks, of future technologies?