Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

A Dialectical Analysis of Myth

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The abject failure to understand mythological thinking is one of the most serious problems of our age, politically, culturally, philosophically, and spiritually. Irrational forces drive individual behavior and collective action, and the failure to understand and live in productive dialog with the energies of the psyche leaves reason vulnerable on several fronts, and cedes a deep matrix of human motivation to noxious and self-serving ideologies.

The essay that follows, I must emphasize at the onset, is not a critique of science or an endorsement of myth; rather, it is a dialectical analysis of the interplay between both.

ernst

The Cages are Always Imaginary, Max Ernst, 1925

We live in an age of reason – at least, if we confine ourselves to the dominant intellectual cultures of Europe and the United States. Science, as reason’s totalizing exemplar, is widely accepted as a method for interpreting nature and history and the sole source of intersubjective legitimacy – so much so that we increasingly look to scientists to address social and cultural problems that were once the domain of philosophers, historians, and poets.

In common usage, “myth” refers to superstition, false belief, or dangerous ideology. Mythological thought as such is rarely an object of critical reflection, and is generally posited and valued in a purely negative mode as the antithesis of reason. It is cloven from reason in a dichotomy that on one side includes myth, superstition, tradition, barbarism, and authoritarianism, and on the other includes science, fact, modernity, civilization, and democracy.

Science and myth are not mutually exclusive; they are both essential features of modernity. There is no human society without myth, and no human being who does not engage in mythological thinking, which, properly understood, accompanies and structures all thought. Nor does myth itself lack a rational structure. Myth renders concrete images of the operations of the mind, the world, and the understanding, and contains within itself the essence of critical reason in the Kantian sense.

A structure of critical rationality is not an accidental or occasional feature of mythological thinking, but its deepest meaning – at least, according to the perennial view espoused by its elite interpreters the world over. The central mystery of all major mythological systems consists in a dialectical analysis of the relationship between the knower and the known, between time and eternity. This can be clearly seen in every religious tradition I have encountered, from Black Elk to Thomas Aquinas, from Al-Ghazali to Lao Tsu.

If we look to mythology itself for its essential character, we find that mythological thought consists of two complementary movements. First, experience is posited as a totality, by virtue of which its individual elements have meaning, such that they may be understood and valued. Elements of the world-system posited by the understanding are grasped, both semantically and existentially, in terms of their relationship to the other parts of the system, and to the system as a whole. This corresponds to what Joseph Campbell called the cosmological function of myth.

This function, which is prerequisite to the experience of the world as a domain of meaning, is integral to the vitalizing and redemptive character of mythological thought. I would refer the interested reader to Daniel J. Siegal’s book The Developing Mind, which chronicles years of research inspired by a developmental psychology study which found a strong relationship between mental health and an individual’s ability to articulate a coherent, meaningful narrative of their lives. Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, a cornerstone of the field of narrative psychology, also sheds much light on this important topic.

In its second movement, mythological thinking self-reflectively recognizes that this very experience of meaningful totality has a merely provisional character. It is a necessary condition for all sensible experience, but lacks any ultimate or transcendental basis.

Dogen expresses the character of this dialectic with beauty and elegance in his masterpiece Genjokoan:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only look circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Dogen characterizes liberating insight as an understanding of the mutual constitution between interaction and interpretation. Our field of activity determines the domain of our concern. Our ontology, or the way we posit the basic elements that make up the system of interest, follow from that.

For one illustration of this issue, consider the coastline problem. Lewis Fry Richardson found that the perimeter of Great Britain is described by textbooks with a high degree of variability. Upon investigation, he found that the differences in measured length was a result of the fact that different surveys used different “yardsticks.” If you measure the shoreline with a mile-long “yardstick,” than inlets, outcroppings, and other features that are smaller than a mile are disregarded. The smaller the yardstick, the longer the coast becomes.

adameve

Adam and Eve, Augusto Giacometti, 1907

So what is the “real” length of the shoreline? There is no such thing – the very concept is incoherent. The measured perimeter depends on the scale of your analysis. In other words, some elementary physical properties of the world follow directly from how we frame or measure. Additional analysis is always possible, and there is no ultimate framework from which the entities we posit cannot be deconstructed by a reconsideration of the basic terms.

That is not to say the shoreline has no perimeter, or that it is all up to us in any simple sense – rather, the very concept of a perimeter is contingent on how we frame the problem. When we change our scope, the terms of our analysis have to account for different interactions, and different classes of interactions, and those modified dynamics are themselves the framework by which we posit the very elements of the system that we analyze.

When the Madhyamaka philosophers of India state that no entity can ultimately withstand analysis, this is what they mean. They have conventionally valid attributes, but there is no ultimate framework from which they can be experienced or described. All things are like this.

This is directly contrary to the way the understanding pre-reflectively takes itself to be, which is always accompanied by the intuition of its own basic completeness and sufficiency. Physical qualities occur as entirely given by the external world, and one’s frame always occurs as adequate to analysis. There is no age which has lacked confidence in the sufficiency of its analytical framework to account for the basic facts of the world, whether it has accepted four naturally-occurring elements or 91.

There are likewise very few individuals who doubt the comprehensiveness of their own analytical tools, except in rare moments of critical reflection. The understanding posits itself as always already sufficient, except when it encounters experiences which are unresolvable by its ontology. Then, as Jean Piaget described, we try to account for new experiences either through assimilation, whereby unfamiliar phenomena are explained with our existing concepts, or through accommodation, whereby the conceptual schema itself be revised to account for some new fact that it can’t explain.

Accommodation is experienced as a minor correction or modification to the existing scheme, not as indicative of a general lack of comprehensibility. Similarly, I learn from Jerome Bruner that deliberations about the world are experienced as subjective or internal, while the outcomes of those deliberations are experienced as objectively-established fact, things that we perceive, not that we posit.

The psychological tendency to mischaracterize the sufficiency of the understanding is what Buddhists call afflictive ignorance – or in the language of contemporary theory, one might call it reification.

We spoke above of the two essential movements of mythological thought – positing experience as a meaningful whole, and reflectively realizing the provisional nature of any such frame of experience. A severe misunderstanding of mythological thought comes from the pervasive failure to recognize these two movements, but to interpret mythological thinking as though it is merely an impoverished form of proto-science. The conscious mind, in over-identification with its own rational faculties, sees its own shadow in mythological thinking which occurs as destructive, superstitious barbarism.

That this misapprehension is widely shared by religious people does not make it any more accurate. In the case of evangelical Christianity, for example, the literal interpretation of the Bible is not consistent with the core teachings of the tradition itself. Augustine argued in Confessions in the fourth century, for example, that the creation of the world obviously did not occur in seven days. Rather, it is a way of understanding that the process by which the universe took shape occurred successively in time. Or consider Thomas Aquinas, whose deep devotion to the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius may have led him to utterly abandon work on Summa Theologica at the end of his life, and to keep noble silence until his death.

No one who confesses the Nicene Creed could plausibly maintain that its doctrines of Christ or the Trinity can be resolved with the ordinary operations of logic. These are not statements of fact in the same way “Sacramento is the capital of California,” is a statement of fact – they are images rendering an understanding of the intersection of time and eternity.

serpent

“I am crucified with Christ”, Paul wrote to the Galatians; “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” To interpret this as an empirical statement would be imbecilic. To fail to recognize that there is a different kind of truth at work here is pedantry. This is a symbolic statement – Christ is an image of the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, and its relationship to the world and to the absolute ground of all being.

This is not a historical essay, so I won’t swell its length by exploring the countless ready-to-hand illustrations of analogous images drawn from the very heart of a dozen major living traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and First Nations beliefs spanning the globe. We see it in the mystery of the Quran, the Law, the doctrine of the two truths, the union of Atman and Brahman, the Tao, the Way of Heaven, and the character of sacred story, respectively.

In positing mythological thinking as its own negative image, the understanding disregards the compelling problems that are addressed by mythological thought. In so doing, it simply repeats the basic error of assuming its own self-sufficiency, leaving the deep human questions addressed by mythology unanswered.

The loss of a viable image of the world as a meaningful totality has led to an existential crisis in the United States and Europe. Near the end of his career, Carl Jung wrote that a large number of his patients had no psychological pathology to speak of, but were simply afflicted by a sense of meaninglessness, which he called “the spiritual problem of our age.”

It is often reported that two centuries of “disenchantment of the world” have produced psychological and social turmoil, but what has been less analyzed is the failure of reason to confront that turmoil. As analytical reason always operates within a field defined by a provisional ontology, it is not in itself competent to posit a whole of which it is itself part, in terms of the understanding, and it never will be.

This is not to suggest that a “re-enchantment of the world” by the resubscription to pre-modern religious belief is either possible or desirable. We cannot ignore the findings of science, or disaster will quickly follow. Any progress with respect to the crisis of meaning must be commensurate with what we now know to be true, or else we cede the field of semantic totality to dangerous reactionaries who negate scientific discovery out of hand for petty reasons of naked self-enrichment.

There is no necessary relationship between engaging deeply with mythological thought and rejecting the findings of science. As Joseph Campbell astutely pointed out, every religious system is scientifically accurate from the standpoint of the time in which it was initially formulated. This cleavage between myth and reason is a spurious, modern construction, and it is extremely harmful. It is no more legitimate for reactionary ideology to claim spirituality as its exclusive possession than it is for it to claim love of country.

Instead of quixotically walking backwards into an imagined golden age of the past, these problems must be taken seriously as such, and a new and more sophisticated understanding of mythological thinking is necessary. Whatever form the new mythological taking assumes, it must allow for the validity of other forms in its essential character, or the project of globalization will fail. 

With regards to the second movement of mythological thinking, the self-reflective discovery of the provisional character of the understanding’s own sense of comprehensive totality, this is frequently lacking in unsophisticated advocates of unilateral rationalism or naive realism. All too often, scientific discourse is regarded as legitimate as such, merely by virtue by using its tropes, and by uncritically carrying over a reception of a popular interpretation of its findings.

But science is a set of tools, and adopting its mode of discourse does not guarantee legitimacy and rationality. We now have decades of research since Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and we have learned something of the ideological, cognitive, social, analytical, racial, and financial factors that help determine how scientific research is conducted and disseminated. These are the practical limitations of its actuality, and no “pure science” is conducted in a cloud-cuckoo land where these constraints are not at play. 

It is worth noting that some of the branches of science that are most directly constrained by empirical results show the deepest agreement with mythological thought as I have characterized it. Particle physics, among the hardest of the hard sciences, has been mired in ontological chaos for over a century, lacking the barest capacity to express what their basic objects of study actually are. Among actual physicists, in my experience this often results in an ontological position of pragmatic agnosticism, or in extreme cases, a denial that science can and should describe the world at all. 

Quantum mechanics does not have the luxury of fudging its ontology with imprecise language to account for the problems described above. Its objects of study cannot withstand analysis, and that is why it has the least to say about what things actually are. The problem of emptiness, the lack of intrinsic existence of all phenomena, is not a metaphysical argument about the transcendent beyond, it is a practical recognition of the actual limitations of the understanding with respect to how it posits its own basic terms. For one fascinating discussion of relevant issues, see the recent Scientific American article Quantum Mechanics May be Even Spookier Than you Think, which explores an extension of John Archibald Wheeler’s “Delayed Choice” experiments.

These issues are well known to some of the greatest physicist of the last two hundred years. For example, Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

Erwin Schrödinger:

The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]

Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions.

The understanding, and any possible human discourse, cannot function without acceding to provisional assumptions about the structure and origin of the world. That is no less true for the scientist than for the Tlingit shaman. Mythological thinking surfaces an image of that structured cosmos, which is a condition for the understanding. Upon analysis and reflection, it imbues that image with the special transparency that comes from the recognition that its terms have validity merely from the conventional perspective of ordinary transactional usage, and lack ultimate or transcendental status.

The failure by those who posit mythological thinking as the negative image of rationality is a failure of dialectical reason, and like all such failures, the end result is that it becomes the very thing that it critiques. By rejecting mythological thinking, the hyper-rationalist unwittingly posits their own archaic, unreflected mythology. They take themselves as a rational hero, engaged in mythological combat with their own shadow, projected on the religious figure, who appears as an image of barbarism, darkness, and violence. This is not the culmination of reason, but its antithesis – a naive accession to terms that are drawn not from analysis, but from a set of prejudices and reified conclusions. Reason becomes its opposite.

hodler

The Truth, Ferdinand Hodler, 1902

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Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2018 at 12:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. An unusually brilliant essay, even for you! Well done.

    donsalmon

    June 1, 2018 at 10:06 am

    • Thanks Don! Some of my recent study helped crystallized some of my thoughts on this topic, and it almost wrote itself from there.

      Mesocosm

      June 1, 2018 at 11:07 am

  2. Thank you for your continually thoughtful and intriguing posts.

    337is

    June 1, 2018 at 11:52 am

  3. I like and mostly agree with Schrodinger.

    Erwin Schrödinger: “With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours?”

    My answer to this question is: No.

    ontologicalrealist

    June 27, 2018 at 6:48 pm


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