On Myth

We in the west tend to think that myth is a naive attempt to understand nature. That’s untrue and not sufficiently generous to those who came before us. Myth is not a failed theory of the universe; it’s a brilliantly successful technology for changing it.

What is the world? It is of course the stars, the Earth, the weather, life, and all the things that are out there. But we do not perceive these things directly, nor do they affect us. What affects us comes through our senses, and the way we perceive is as much a product of our embodied senses and our mind as it is a representation of the true disposition of things. Our perceptions are shaped by the ideas we already hold.

As soon as our ancestral apes became intelligent enough to affect the world, seeking to make it more hospitable to their vulnerable existence, two paths were open. They could make tools, draw predictions, and try to alter the physical world immediately around them, or they could alter their own minds so that their experience would be less harsh, more hopeful, more meaningful, fanciful and interesting, and even less bound to the actual sensations of cold and hunger that the body sometimes offered. The ability to alter the human experience of the world through the communication of ideas is myth.

For most of time, myth was the dominant means for controlling our experience. If someone fell ill, the village could attempt a cure, or they could make the illness and possible passing away more tolerable through a shared imagination supported by art, mythical narrative, and ceremony. Faced with danger, people invented mythical protectors but also monsters to regulate that fear, as well as imaginary refuge of various kinds. People filled expanses of nature such as the forest, the mountains, or the sea with imaginary creatures and places, affording themselves a rich experience of these otherwise inaccessible environments.

When we look at other cultures we underestimate how much they control their environment. We see hunter gatherers of the present day and think that they live in nature. Not so. They live in a theater of experience constructed with art, ceremonies, tradition, belief, and imagination – much like ours but on an open stage. When we visit a great cathedral we admire it as a triumph of construction. That’s ironic, because the great construction was the artificial world of religion that it once radiated, transforming the entire city. We’re like kids who examine an old movie projector at the museum without ever having seen one switched on.

Myth is like beer, the other great technology for affecting perception. They have had an interesting relationship through history. Sometimes it has been complementary, such as in mysteries where ceremony and intoxication are used together to generate an intense alternate reality. At other times the relationship appears to be antagonistic, with religions attempting to be the monopoly providers of a constructed perception. The great advantage of myth is that it is socially constructed. Myth avoids the solipsism problem. Living in an imaginary world, but one that’s shared with your fellow humans, is a meaningful life. Living in a private illusion is a kind of death. The need to inhabit the same world as each other seems deeply wired in us.

Myth is humanist. Belief in myth affirms that only the perception of the world by humans matters, and the physical world is not in itself important. Materialism is worth pursuing only insofar as it leads, indirectly, to a new shared experience of humanity that is, in some subjective way, better. It’s not ignorance that led the majority of human generations to build their societies around myth. It’s just that materialism didn’t look like a useful belief system until the development of agriculture, and even then the balance of credibility was unclear. The bold stance of living materially, without myth, didn’t emerge as a serious consideration until the renaissance. The story of human thought is the story of one humanist technology, myth, being replaced by a more promising technology, science, and not some tale of liberation from the forces of darkness.

The world doesn’t compel us to believe in any particular thing. Certainly not truth. We believe what we want, and we’re all realists and mystics in some measure. We accept new beliefs according to what is most compatible with beliefs we already hold, and what accommodates with our psychological needs. Many of us gather a mix of practical realism, objectivity, convention, and comforting principles that’s close to what would serve us best. Others evidently suffer under their own beliefs, feeling oppressed in mysticism or empty in realism. What we cannot do is move our belief system voluntarily. Someone who becomes more rational is absorbing a web of rational beliefs, not willing their mind towards reason.

Consideration of what belief system would best serve another person is the only valid moral guide for anyone who seeks to change another’s beliefs. The believer who wishes to convert others to a religion using some argument from dogma, about the existence of god, a duty, or anything of the sort is acting out of simple selfishness. Faiths want more people to support their myth, so that suspension of disbelief is more effective. Understandable perhaps but not moral. The atheist who admonishes people to see the world as it is, or stop believing in nonsense, is just as callous and immature. They’re like the headmaster who takes your beer away because “it’s bad for you” or like the fool who stands up in the theater to point out that Juliet is not dead. Debating faith on the basis of rationality, or the opposite, is a useless and aggressive stance, as it denies the other person’s worth.

Myth is not going away, nor should it. When we see ourselves as the complex web of ideas that we are, part of this realisation is frightening. It’s very uncomfortable to become aware of the core ideas, the root nodes of the graph, our moral axioms, our principles, our metaphysics – but we all have them. Some people personify them, leading to the belief system where purpose comes from god. Others use the instincts of human empathy and connectedness as the basis and try to live a good life as social beings. Still others become fixated on the pursuit of ideals (money, ideology) or become addicted to pleasure from time to time. But we all have our private metaphysics, our own existential myth that drives us forward in an otherwise indifferent universe.

Myth is an evolutionary adaptation. There’s no rational imperative to prefer a world with thriving human beings over one that is desolate. Our individual urges to stay alive, have children, and do good are instincts created by our evolutionary past. Death is frightening not because it is the end of life but because it calls the value and conduct of our life into question. A mind without foresight, such as the minds of animals lacking a large frontal lobe, can live on instincts alone. We use myth to extend our instincts and basic drives into our conscious mind, and in this way flourish and protect ourselves from nihilism.

This post is dedicated to Paul Crowley and Alison Rowan, whose opposed perspectives, as I remember them, illuminate this discussion.

6 thoughts on “On Myth

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! It’s fascinating to juxtapose the noosphere against the world of technology, and of course at the interfaces and interstices is where the fascinating things happen…

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  2. Thanks for bringing this post to my attention.

    I think what you’re getting at is the general phenomenon of ‘niche construction’ as analysed by ecologists, in which a species adapts its environment to itself (like sexual selection a mechanism complimentary to but distinct from natural selection). Humans just do this at a higher level thanks to our bigger brains. Thus, mythology, science, etc are social technologies humans invent to address problems (including problems relating to our other inventions). It follows that science’s claim to our allegiance is pragmatic rather than metaphysical: it is a much better tool for extracting what we want from the world, from agriculture to medicine to navigation to TV. Whether it is true or not is besides the point. (NB This is rather different from Dawkins’ meme story.)

    In this understanding, history matters. Evolutionary mechanisms work with the materials bequeathed by previous adaptations to previous pressures. And they work with the environmental consequences of previous adaptations. Old inventions get broken up and their components re-purposed, as modern religions borrow conceptions of literalism from science, for example. Human brains, being so big, are capable of holding all sorts of this bric a brac, with differing levels of organisation and coherence between them. Indeed our uniqueness as individuals would seem strongly related to the idiosyncratic construction of this beehive as we follow our own path of life.

    A final point. Rationalism is about the improvement of the mind. Materialist atheists and religionists may be said to see this project in the same way, in terms of asking everyone to download the correct update for how to see the world that will also delete all the junk programmes still running in the background and causing confusion. In contrast, the philosopher considers rationalism an ongoing project of self-improvement, of scrutinising your own ideas, beliefs and values, testing them for coherence and consistency and reorganising or revising them accordingly. Philosophical rationality aims at a reflective equilibrium that is not only unique to you because your unique path in life has led you to hold a unique collection of ideas, but really your own self-constructed niche.

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