A man briefly leaves his pregnant wife to fly to his dying mother, a mother who endured one last round of chemo not in any hope of remission, but merely to eke out a few more months in order to see her grandchild born. His mother dies two hours before he arrives. He stays for her funeral, missing his own child’s birth by a few hours, too. A youngster complaining of “arthritis” is dismissed because his range of motion is large, not small. His complaint thus “disproven”, he gets on with life, or tries to. Decades later, body gratuitously dilapidated and his stoicism rendered meaningless, he learns his flexibility was the one objective clue that, if heeded, could have prevented a world of hurt – even kept him off disability – but now it’s too late. Albert Camus dies in a car crash – with a train ticket in his pocket: he was supposed to take the train, but his publisher persuaded him at the last minute to go by car instead. His death, while fittingly comedic for an absurdist, existentialist Frenchman, is not “meaningful” otherwise – it’s only distinguished by its contingency, by how easily it might not have happened.
Suffering needn’t be particularly intense to seem intensely meaningless. Even suffering that’s just big enough to be unsafe to ignore, but still too “small” to explain, may qualify. There are many forms of suffering that hurt the body, but it is suffering without a story that hurts the soul. And that’s where the story of Job comes in, because Job’s story is the unstory – the story that happens when there is no story. Job’s story is that nothing – not even God – takes away life’s absurdity – life’s refusal to fit our narratives. Perhaps it’s even God’s greater story that makes absurdity possible.
AI researcher (and former Trump university officer) Roger Schank notes that in ordinary conversation, we don’t judge intelligence by sophisticated problem-solving skills, but by storytelling ability. Conversation is the mutual exchange of stories, and when people seems to understand our stories, and respond with pleasing stories of their own, we naturally judge them quite intelligent! The most basic form of intelligence, he says, is simply finding the right story to tell at the right time, perhaps even creating stories well in advance so we don’t even have to think when it comes time to answer for ourselves, just remember. Memory, moreover, is largely a matter of stories. Direct experience may be the raw stuff of memory, but when experience doesn’t fit into a story, it’s awfully hard to remember. So hard to remember, in fact, that we tend to remember stories about our experiences better than the experiences themselves.
But what if there is no story? What if there’s a huge chunk of your life that doesn’t fit neatly into a story? That fits so poorly into any story that it’s impossible to deny the possibility that any story anyone tells about it is pure confabulation? What then do you have to say for yourself when people expect you to account for your existence? The short answer is: nothing. No matter the intensity of your experience, no matter your IQ or the state of your soul, if you cannot tell a story about it, with few exceptions, it has no social existence. Moreover, the story you tell of it must be a story your audience understands and accepts. No wonder Job got into trouble.
If you had asked Job’s friends before calamity struck whether he deserved the calamities that were about to befall him, I’m sure they would have said no. Once calamity struck, though, Job’s friends were full of stories to explain Job’s predicament, and why he probably deserved it. Job, rather rudely, rejected their stories, and offered no story in return. He realized that attempts to impose the stories his friends offered upon his experience would have been dishonest, even though rejecting them also (needlessly, in his friends’ eyes) amplified his suffering. Having no credible story, Job just wanted to die. I doubt this is a coincidence. A story that’s run out is, as one blogger put it, “like living in the epilog of reality”. Loss of a storybound life is theorized as one cause of the rising suicide rate among poor whites, as Deaton, coauthor of the famous Case and Deaton paper, noted.
Job’s rejection of their stories, and his offer of nothing but unstory in return – only a complaint to God, “Why do You hide my own story from me? Don’t I deserve to know?” – so appalls his friends that at one point, one friend wishes for even more condemnation upon Job’s head, to “double Job’s prudence” and teach him once and for all that he couldn’t not have deserved much more punishment than he’d already gotten! [11:6] Worse, Job’s friends, though wrong, aren’t exactly being unreasonable. For it is indeed reasonable to use the fact that calamity has struck as evidence that the calamity was deserved.
Conservatives pride themselves in their belief in Consequences, those copybook gods, and having encountered disaster does increase the likelihood that you deserved it in a Bayesian sense. But Consequences are also a means of imposing our stories upon the world, even when those stories are spurious. Copybook stories are very easy to tell, after all – any good conservative is expected to have a rich inventory of them, ready to go at a moment’s notice. And Bayesian inference makes them legitimately plausible. But, as Job recognized while his friends regaled him with one story of Consequences after another, plausibility does not make them all true. Our copybook gods are also a narrative bias.
Some researchers of cognitive bias, like Kahneman and Tversky, disbelieve that humans reason in a Bayesian way. Others, like ET Jaynes, point out that the problem with flesh-and-blood humans is that they’re capable of much more sophisticated Bayesian reasoning than researchers may have in mind, and that researchers’ failure to see this and account for the fact that their subjects may not share all the same information or pursue the same goals as the researchers explains many instances of supposed “cognitive bias”. (p 162) One sticking point, though, is, that no matter how perfect our reasoning, we’re forced to rely on memory to have something to reason about.
Many of us are pretty well acquainted with the vagaries of our own memory, and there’s reason to believe that several cognitive biases can be explained, not by poor reasoning, but by reasoning correctly on a noisy memory channel. One cognitive bias not mentioned in this noisy-memory analysis, though, is narrative bias. And yet narrative bias fits into this framework, too, if we return to Schank’s observations about what recalling a memory does. Recalling a memory selectively strengthens its signal, making it less likely than other memories to get lost in the noise. Memories are easier to recall as part of stories – stories are a sort of lossy memory compression. It doesn’t take an AI expert to make the commonplace observation that memories attached to stories are easier to remember. What’s interesting, though, is how little human narrative bias may depend on faulty reasoning rather than lossy memory. We like to think of our biases as something we can reason ourselves out of if we try hard enough. But maybe we can’t.
So strong is our narrative bias that we cannot accept Job’s unstory, either, unless it is framed by a story. And so the prolog to the Book of Job tells us a story of how Job “earned” his suffering because his exceptional goodness attracted God’s attention and consequently Satan’s cross-examination, and so the privilege of being the rope in a cosmic game of tug-of-war. The epilog informs us that when the game was over, Job was richly rewarded for his troubles – as if having more and “better” sons and daughters could somehow make up for the loved ones Job had lost! But note that, although we are given a story to frame Job’s suffering, Job is given none:
When God answers Job out of the whirlwind, He doesn’t say, “Well, you see, Satan and I made a bet about you,” the gist of the story described the the prolog. Instead, God impresses upon Job how little Job truly understands about the cosmos, that Creation is not Job’s to control or justify, a lesson that Job already understood much better than his friends. Ironically, it is Job, not his friends, who repents for having “uttered what [he] did not understand”. [42:3] For if Job is guilty of that sin, how much more so are they? Job merely challenged God’s apparent justice. Job’s friends wrongfully attributed “justice” to God.
But because Job was the only one willing to admit the story he was living was absurd – was unstory rather than story – Job is the only one who can repent. Job’s friends are too trapped in their addiction to plausible narratives to realize their error. As God says, only Job spoke of God what is right, [42:7] something Job’s friends, founts of copybook moralizing all, somehow managed not to do. [43:8] And therefore it is up to Job, the man without a story, the man whose story is unstory, to intercede on behalf of his storytelling pals.
The greatest horror story of all is that Job spoke rightly of God, while his friends did not – that Job correctly perceived unstory where his friends insisted on story. The greatest horror story of all for a human being is for there to be no story, or at least no story we can know.
Christians should bristle at this claim – the Christian story is, after all, not just a story, but the story, encompassing the cosmos! Moreover, all of us, whether Christian or not, need the world to be morally intelligible: our sanity, our productivity, our virtue – all that we are responsible for in this life – depend on it. And how could we make the world morally intelligible without stories? How could we recall what we must remember in order to do the right thing (or at least what we believe is the right thing, based on our stories) without them?
But purchasing the world’s moral intelligibility in story form comes at a cost. If we demand that everything, no matter how vexing, have a satisfying story, if we believe it is not only narrative bias, but also a moral duty, to banish what DB Hart calls the “intolerable remainder”, the “irrational surd” of memories and experiences which satisfy no intelligible story from our own and others’ lives, we may derive
some comfort… from the thought that everything that occurs… is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss and indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely because of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known… It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings are indeed powerful, and ancient, but there’s no reason to believe they’re omnipotent. Their neat, storybook causality cannot be appealed to as the omnicompetent moral lesson for everything. Life is too absurd for that. “Thus far, and no farther” does the reign of the copybook gods extend – whatever sets the bounds of the sea, Semitic shorthand for that “irrational surd”, also reciprocally sets a bound on them. [38:11] Only God knows where that boundary is, and there’s no compelling reason to believe He’d tell us if He wouldn’t tell Job. And though it’s an article of conservative faith that the copybook gods serve the God (or whatever we call what is true and just in the universe), they are not that God. (Deride Him as a God of the Marketplace if you must – the cosmos was never contained in any book, not even copybooks.)
A God expected to be the central vac installed in the house of reality to hoover up moral entropy by explaining away the absurd is a God that fails. The best we can hope for is a God that makes recognition of absurdity possible. After all, “Nonsense does not presuppose meaning, while absurdity does.”
Seen in this light, either the apparent values of life and love are merely illusory, or else God is the only being that is not absurd. Only God’s existence and love are necessary and eternal.
“Perhaps these reflections therefore provide us with a definition of God. God is the background against which we perceive absurdity: God is the absolute meaning that makes absurdity possible. Just as we could not perceive a figure except against a contrasting background, so too we cannot grasp the absurdity of contingency and finality except through contrast with the eternal divine. Thus absurdity at once poses the greatest challenge to belief in God, while at the same time we cannot perceive absurdity except through contrast with a concept of God.
Has one little-known writer, in 2008 of all years, managed to hit upon the one definition of God worth a damn? Doubtful. But is there more sense in accepting the role of absurdity – of unstories – in a godly life than there is in insisting that a God’s existence – even that God’s revelation to and communion with humans – renders Creation morally intelligible to humans, with no “intolerable remainders”? Yes. Should we, as Hart puts it, be “satisfied with unjustified faith when its only role is to restore harmony among our beliefs and perceptions”? With “sentiments” in the face of the absurd that “amount not only to an indiscretion or words spoken out of season, but to a vile stupidity and a lie told principally for our own comfort, by which we would try to excuse ourselves for believing in an omnipotent and benevolent God”? No.
Job was not satisfied with stories. Not even the most sincerely pious of copybook stories. Job had no reason to be. And yet Job remained faithful, the only one even able to repent before God and intercede on his friends’ behalf, despite his friends’ exerting considerable moral pressure for him to “repent” by fitting his unstory into their plausible but spurious stories. That God permitted Job to have an unstory – to lack any plausible narrative for the most dramatic events of his life – cannot but horrify our nature as chattering chimps with lossy memories, but it’s honest: life really can be like that, even if our memories cannot be.
Hart remarks that Christians believe in “a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin,” and “that the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity – or outrage – of the empty tomb.” Hart may as well have added that this path need not follow the contours of human memory storage, with its storytelling bias. Even if the only way to get humans to remember to follow that path is… through stories.