ROBOT & FRANK, Jake Schreier, 2012

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Narrativity, Episodicity and Identity

Robot: The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.
Frank: But how can you not care about something like that?
Robot: Think about it this way: you know that you are alive. You think therefore you are…In a similar way I know that I am not alive. I am a robot.

For John Locke, memory is the key to personal identity: it is, more than anything else, the fact that I carry within me a living awareness of my own history that makes me the person I am. In resting on memory, personal identity relies upon psychological continuity to identify a person. Locke gives the example of a prince taking over the body of a cobbler. For Locke, as long as the prince’s thoughts are transferred across to the cobbler’s body, he remains the same person – the prince – even though his physical appearance has changed. On this account what matters then is not the body or physicality but a consciousness bound by memory which over time creates a sense of who one is. But what happens when our memories become disrupted? Are our present and future so inextricably tied to our past?

In answer to this question Locke claims that, ‘in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and (our) losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing.’[i] This notion of not being able to hold on to our own personal histories; of not being the “same thinking thing” over time, may strike us with an existential dread and a fear that it marks the beginning of the end for us giving a meaningful account of who we are. A life where we cannot rely on memory seems too much to bear. Indeed, in one telling exchange between Robot and Frank, Robot declares, “The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not,” to which Frank replies, “But how can you not care about something like that?!” How else, we may ask, are we to constitute a sense of selfhood if the stories that we tell about ourselves are not grounded in psychological continuity? Do we even need a narrative as a clear foundation on which our sense of identity is established?

Some philosophers have addressed these questions by way of a distinction between two categories that act as rival claims in the construction of selfhood: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity has two main elements:[ii]

  • 1)     Psychological Narrativity: This is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says; this is our nature. It is informed by the narratives that we create for ourselves; the identities under which we construct a sense of Self. This Self is, in the words of Jerry Bruner, ‘a perpetually rewritten story’[iii] and that, ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’[iv]
  • 2)     Ethical Narrativity: This states that it does not matter whether we are storytellers by nature, but rather that we ought to live our lives narratively because a richly narrative outlook is essential to true or full personhood. As Charles Taylor argues, a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story.’[v] This understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand who we are.

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Galen Strawson calls ‘diachronic self-experience.’[vi] This is a Self whose past, present, and future has indelible continuity, stretched out across time, and is prone to think of itself in narrative terms (let’s call defenders of this position, Diachronics).

This narrative viewpoint, however, is challenged by the concept of episodicity, or what Strawson calls ‘episodic self-experience.’[vii] Here, although the Self is perfectly aware of its continuity aspect, the narrative drive is dispensed with. One’s decisions are informed by the particular demands of a situation as it presents itself and cannot be processed into an objective filter determined by a narrative of “how one has always gone about these things.” This does not mean that defenders of episodicity (let’s call them Episodics) obliterate their connection to their past. On the contrary, as Strawson makes clear:

Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.[viii]

Thus, the memories themselves are not the most important thing, but rather the fact that we are creatures who are able to remember.

Strawson, himself a committed Episodic, argues that narrative structures limit the ethical possibilities available to human beings, ‘Many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling.’[ix] In a sense, then, one is freed up to be whatever one wants to be unencumbered by what they might have been in the past. Strawson continues, ‘I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self-understanding, must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form.’[x] So, Episodics would want to claim that such a storyboard relationship with one’s past is unnecessary because it does not allow for the full flourishing of living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it.

But can we reasonably argue this thesis to be the case for Frank? Can we really take the position that Frank is better off without some sort of systematic engagement with his past? Can we make the claim that the past need not have a bearing on the present, and even less so on the future? I would suggest no as an answer to all these questions and that there are strands in Robot & Frank which pose problems for Strawson’s theory.

Firstly, however much we may argue that the Self may be able to resist the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ it is still at some level in thrall to wider social objectification. Self-telling here is indelibly linked with Other-telling. In as much as all human beings are seen by others through whichever filter of assessment they may choose to use (including diachronic analysis, as well as psychological or ethical Narrativity), Narrativity appears to be a tool far more compelling in the way that we make sense of the world than an Episodic injunction to withhold from this kind of Self/Other-telling or Self/Other-assessing. This is brought home most tellingly in the film when Frank’s daughter Madison defends him against suspicion that he has burgled one of his neighbours, “Come on, that’s ridiculous. The police have been hassling him for his entire life about a few mistakes he made when he was a kid.” Of course, this does not wholly invalidate Strawson’s argument; it just makes his task of living in the moment so rigorous that it would seem difficult to say for certain that one could wholly resist some kind of Narrative evaluation of who any person is.

Furthermore, there is also a familial aspect in the film which would seem to override episodicity.  It is clear that Frank’s past has left an indelible mark on his relationships with his family, perhaps most fractiously with his son, Hunter, and most poignantly with his ex-wife, Jennifer. This suggests that not only is there the possibility of genetic pre-disposition to being a certain kind of Self, but there is also a clear Narrative strand which cannot be so easily dismissed by a call to Episodic priority. Again, this does not invalidate Strawson’s thesis. He accepts these linkages, but describes them as ‘piecemeal,’[xi] which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is.

However, perhaps our definitions of ourselves (and each other) lie somewhere between Narrativity and Episodicity. The visceral sense of belonging which one associates emphatically with one’s own history cannot just be explained away as “piecemeal,” or as something which should be so easily discarded. Nor should we fall lazily into the bad habits of continually constructing pulp fictions about ourselves. The attempt should be instead, as Strawson quotes from V.S. Pritchett, to ‘live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.’[xii]

There is a moving scene at the end of the film when Robot convinces Frank to wipe out his memory. Does Robot do this in an episodic manner to best meet the immediate requirements of the situation? After all, we learn earlier in the film that Robot’s primary function is to best serve Frank’s health, even if that means lying, or in this case, his own extermination.  Or is there something else going on? Is there a notion of a deeper story from a shared history which emerges here? Does Robot develop a narrative both for itself and for Frank based on that shared history?

Bash Khan


[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book II, Chapter XXVII, Section 10.

[ii] The definitions entailed below are put forward by Galen Strawson. See, Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. pp. 428-452. Also available on:

[iii] Jerry Bruner, Life as Narrative, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.435.

[iv] Jerry Bruner, The “Remembered” Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[v] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.436.

[vi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.430

[vii] Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[viii] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.432

[ix] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.437

[x] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.449

[xi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.448

[xii] V. S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.450.


PI, Darren Aronofsky, 1998

Epiphany or Apophenia?

Apophenia has been defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data; that the patterns themselves do not really exist. It is often attributed to high levels of dopamine in the brain and in some cases is seen as symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia. Yet pattern recognition is one, if not the, most critical of skills that a human possesses. As cognitive scientist Nick Chater states:

The cognitive system must cope with a world that is immensely complex but that is, nonetheless, highly patterned. The patterns are crucial. In a completely random world, prediction, explanation, and understanding would be impossible – there would be no patterns on which prediction could be based, to which explanations could refer, or the comprehension of which could amount to understanding. Even more fundamentally, without any patterns relating actions to consequences, there would be no basis to choose one action rather than another. The ability to find patterns in the world is therefore of central importance throughout cognition.[1]

So the idea that our minds subconsciously seek out patterns and connections is not contentious and neither is the idea that we all, to some degree, experience apophenia; we are all capable of making false connections. However, in the main, apophenia is attributed to people who have religious, paranormal and supernatural experiences. They believe in such things as God and UFOs, numerology, astrology, divination, and they see meaning in coincidences. But what makes certain experiences the areas of false connections and pattern recognition and others not? When does pattern recognition go from being a genuine understanding or insight into the nature of reality, to a delusion; from an epiphany to apophenia?

Max Cohen, the main protagonist in Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut film  (Pi: Faith in Chaos), believes that the patterns that exist within nature can be represented by numbers and conversely, the numbers of the stock market represent a pattern; the film centres on Max’s quest to discover this pattern. He is depicted as a brilliant and gifted mathematician and number theorist. Sol, Max’s mentor, considers him to be his greatest pupil, published by 16 and achieving a PhD at 20. However, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Max is also neurotic and paranoid. He displays phobic behaviour, shutting out most of the natural world – both physically and emotionally – and suffers crippling headaches, hallucinations and blackouts for which he heavily self medicates. Aronofsky adeptly sets up Max’s character so that Max can be seen as either a genius or as a psychotic. Clarification as to which he is, is never given and even at the end of the film, when Max perceives himself to be having an epiphany, it is very much left up to the audience to decide what it was that Max was actually experiencing and why. However, the decision is not an easy one to make. Max is a sought after expert in his field and if he says he has discovered the underlying order and structure of the universe then what grounds would we have in claiming that he is wrong?

Arguably one of the deciding factors on whether we perceive Max’s experience as an epiphany or apophenia is on how we view Max’s original assumptions and hypothesis. If we believe that Max’s position is a tenable one, that it is not only possible to discover a pattern in the stock market but that this pattern is also the underlying order and structure of reality, then his epiphany is entirely plausible. If we do not then the decision that he suffered a psychotic episode would become the most plausible. Yet if, as Chater states, pattern recognition is a universal behaviour then whose or which authority do we accept as a guide to help us make a decision? In other words which patterns offer insight on the nature of reality and which do not? It may be felt that only science and scientists have the authority and the wherewithal to offer us the best guidance, but it is not the case that science and scientists have a united voice on such issues. The prevalent scientific worldview is dominated by reductionism, viewing reality as particles in motion and considers that the deeper we go inside the atom the closer we will come to understanding the nature of reality. In part, it is the worldview of scientific materialism that has led to certain patterns that we discern within the world to be relegated to apophenia and under this worldview Max’s experience would be considered as such. As noted by Thomas Kuhn:

Normal science…whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory… seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that do not fit the box are often not seen at all.[2]

Max’s assumptions and hypothesis cannot be accounted for within the reductive scientific paradigm and does not fit the remit of what constitutes ‘normal science’ and, therefore, would be dismissed as untenable.

However, with the advent of chaos theory the scientific climate is changing. Chaos theory, contrary to its name, is about orderliness within dynamical systems; systems that are capable of changing over time. Chaotic dynamical systems are non-linear which means that unlike linear systems where the output is proportional to the input, in non-linear systems the output is disproportional; it can either be more or less. This means that slight changes to the system – its initial conditions – can have dramatic effects to its overall progression. This sensitivity to initial conditions ensures that their futures are unpredictable. One of the features of chaotic systems is that they appear disorderly and random. Nevertheless, the overall behaviour of the systems or the patterning that they follow can be known and it is because of this that chaos theory is also known as deterministic chaos. Chaos theory, therefore, concerns itself with understanding the universal behaviour, patterning and hidden order of these systems and chaos theorists examine the data that has hitherto been considered random and meaningless.

Under this scientific worldview Max’s hypothesis is a cogent one. Chaos theorists have already established that trends in the stock markets can be assessed so that the patterning, or overall behaviour of the stock market, is taken into account when attempting to predict fluctuations. The world is seemingly filled with chaotic dynamical systems, systems that follow patterns, and chaos theory has already established itself in disciplines such as biology, geology, economics, psychology, population dynamics, robotics, meteorology,  and politics, to name but a few. As more disciplines become aware of the validity of chaos theory the more widespread its use is becoming.

The patterns that chaotic dynamical systems form or make – by following strange attractors – are called fractals. Fractals are phenomena which are self similar. Their basic structure is formulated by a self repeating pattern which increases exponentially, dominated by a power law and displaying symmetry across scale. Whether you zoom in or out on a particular fractal the patterning is consistent. For example, if you zoomed in on a branch of a tree, you would not be able to distinguish if it was a branch, a tree or a twig. Only by including background information are you able to differentiate. In the same way, you can only appreciate that you are examining an atom and not a galaxy by taking into consideration the context of your investigatory process.

Just what pattern recognitions this new science validates remains to be seen and undoubtedly not all that is considered as being apophenia now will become justified. However, it is interesting to note that if an atom and a galaxy follow a similar pattern then how far-fetched is the notion that astrological charts can depict the pattern of an individual’s life? If the axiom held by many ancient traditions “as above so below” is shown to be a truism, as fractals would seem to suggest, then how many of our sacrosanct scientific and philosophical premises would need to be revised? How many theories, such as those of Heraclitus and Leibniz, will need to be taken back down off the shelves, brushed off and looked at again in a new light? We’ll see.

Maria Taylor


[1] Nick Chater, ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) pp. 273-302 (p.273)

[2] Kuhn, structure of scientific revolution p.24


Chater, N., ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) 273-302

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edn.,(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)