MYTHOLOGY written by David Cowles
Language, the principal medium of human reason, comes in three voices: systematic, poetic and mythic. Each voice lets us probe the secrets of the real world using a different set of tools; each produces its own unique map of reality. Of course, any non-trivial exercise of language will incorporate elements of all three voices; but it is important to listen for those voices and to understand how each operates if we are truly to understand the maps of reality we are drawing.
We use language systematically to analyze the world into component parts and to describe relationships among those parts. Systematic reasoning helps us understand how the world works. It is the tool kit to use when we are looking to manipulate the world in pursuit of some concrete objective. Therefore it is the language of technology and, of course, science.
In fact, the paradigm of systematic speech is scientific method:
(1) Identify a problem or concern
(2) Ask a question
(3) Form an hypothesis
(4) Construct a methodology
(5) Conduct an experiment
(6) Assess the result
(7) Confirm or invalidate the hypothesis
(8) Draw a conclusion.
Surprisingly, this apparently stilted approach to reality probing did not drop from the sky during the Enlightenment nor was it mystically revealed by any of its prophets: Ayer, Wittgenstein, Popper, Kuhn, et al. In fact, systematic thinking is common to all phases of human development in all human cultures. Consider the following:
(0) “Eat your spinach!”
(1) Problem: I don’t like spinach.
(2) Question: Do I really have to eat my spinach; will anything happen to me if I don’t?
(3) Hypothesis: Nothing will happen to me if I don’t eat my spinach.
(4) Methodology: I will refuse to eat my spinach.
(5) Experiment: “I won’t eat this spinach!”
(6) Result: Sore bottom
(7) Hypothesis invalidated; I did not eat my spinach and something did happen to me.
(8) Conclusion: I must eat my spinach.
Apparently, it does not require a diploma from MIT, or even from the 4th grade, to understand scientific method and to apply it flawlessly in the field. But however powerful, systematic reasoning has inherent limits:
(1) The catalogue of conclusions can never be complete. The world can be analyzed into innumerable sub-systems, each with innumerable internal and external relations.
(2) You can never achieve total certainty. There is always one more experiment to perform and that experiment just might be the one that invalidates a long accepted theory.
(3) Systematic reasoning only allows us to draw conclusions about parts, sub-systems, never about the totality (Heisenberg, Gödel, et al), the world itself.
This last limitation, largely ignored in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, became the center of intellectual attention in the 20th. Yet it is far from self-evident, even today. So why can’t you use systematic reasoning to draw conclusions about the whole?
First, systematic thinking requires certain assumptions about the whole. For example, it assumes a causal relationship among events and a reasonably flat and continuous extensive background (spacetime). Since the validity of systematic reason per se presumes a whole with certain fairly specialized features, it is obviously not possible to use that form of reasoning to test for the presence of those features.
Second, systematic reasoning in science (and ordinary life) is closely allied with algorithmic reasoning in mathematics and logic. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem proved that there are necessarily true statements that cannot be proven deductively from the axioms of any formal system. According to Roger Penrose’s interpretation of this theorem, we know things with certainty that cannot be deduced through any algorithmic process. Somehow, there must be another avenue to knowledge beyond systematic reason.
Third, scientific method, at least ideally, requires the separation of the observer from the observed. Conclusions are considered tainted to the extent that the observer, or the experimental apparatus, may have influenced in unpredictable ways the behavior of the sub-system being studied.
Of course, the notion that the observer can ever be totally isolated from the observed is a fiction. At best it is an ideal that we try to approximate both in the laboratory and in real life. Like spies…or anthropologists…we try to observe without being ‘observed’ by what we are observing.
The separation of the observer from the observed is a problem for every scientific probe, even into the most mundane or narrow phenomenon. When we imagine using systematic reasoning do develop a theory of the whole, this problem becomes completely over-powering. After all, anyone seeking to probe the whole is by definition an integral part of the whole.
Quick quiz: What do Fredrick Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Carl Jung have in common? Not much, right? But they all agree on the utter impossibility of reasoning about the whole from a perspective within that whole.
So clearly, if we really want to understand the world of our everyday experience, we need to find other methods of inquiry that complement systematic reasoning but transcend its inherent limitations. Fortunately, there are two such methods.
Poetic language approaches the world holistically. Instead of breaking the world down into component sub-systems, parts, it addresses it as a gestalt. Spacetime relations are therefore non-essential and causality is totally irrelevant.
Systematic reasoning focuses on the internal dynamics of various sub-systems…but in the process it often discovers relationships that hold true over vast stretches of space and time. Poetic reasoning, on the other hand, is exclusively concerned with a particular here and now, a ‘momentary entirety’.
If the world of systematic reasoning is like a huge mountain with a labyrinthine network of connecting passageways running through it, poetic reasoning is like a 1960 style 35mm slide show: always full screen…but never more than one slide at a time. We might say that systematic reasoning shows us a horizontal view of the world while poetic reasoning gives us a vertical perspective.
Poetry is the language we use to dialog with the world; science is the way we dissect it. Poetic reasoning lets us discover what we like and don’t like while systematic reasoning helps us figure out how to get what we want and avoid what we don’t (e.g. a sore bottom).
While systematic reasoning seeks to minimize the impact of the observer on the observed, poetic reasoning focuses exclusively on the relationship between the two. Poetry is specifically about the relationship of an observer to an observed. In that sense, the poetic forms a perfect template to the systematic. Like systematic reasoning, poetic reasoning assumes the reality of the observer-observed duality but unlike systematic language, poetic language is dedicated to describing that duality.
The relationship between systematic and poetic reasoning forms a perfect template. These are in fact complementary ways of viewing a common reality. One is tempted here to paraphrase Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: The more we know about how the world works (systematic reason), the less we know about what the world is (poetic reason); and the more we know about what the world is, the less we know about how it works.
Systematic reasoning tells us a lot about how the world works but nothing about what it is; poetic reasoning tells us a lot about what the world is but nothing about how it works. One mode of reasoning seeks to describe the world sans observation while the other mode seeks to describe observation sans world.
But what’s the matter with that? Just sew the two together et voila mon ami, you have a complete picture, non? Plus, from a pragmatic standpoint, these two modes do work together reasonably well, enabling us to enjoy generally satisfying lives. And many 20th and 21st century philosophers argue that this is all we can ever hope to attain anyway. So what’s the problem?
Are we satisfied with this? Are we content to see the world through two perpendicularly oriented filters? This is how it looks when the filters are horizontally aligned; this when they are vertical. Or do we still yearn for something more? Now at last we can turn to the subject of our essay, mythic language or mythology.
Like science, mythology seeks to model how the world works. But unlike systematic reasoning, mythic reasoning does not analyze the world into sub-systems and it never performs an experiment, formal or otherwise. Mythology is vitally concerned with the ‘whole’ but almost not at all with its functional ‘parts’.
Like poetry, mythic language allows us to talk about the world as a whole. But unlike poetic reasoning, mythology does not slice the world into frames; it confronts the world altogether all at once. It is vitally concerned with the ‘entirety’ but almost not at all with any particular here or now.
Unlike both science and poetry, myth is not at all concerned with the observer-observed dichotomy. In fact, it denies it outright! It sees the observer-observed and the observing-observer and the process of observation itself as mere moments in a single ontological process.
The systematic-poetic duality suggests that the only possible model of reality is a complementary one. Mythology rejects this assumption and seeks to provide a single vision of the whole. But such a vision comes at a price: it tells us precisely nothing about the world at the level of its functional sub-systems…or at the level of individual experience. It tells us everything that science and poetry don’t tell us but nothing that they do tell us.
We may wish to expand our earlier paraphrase of Heisenberg: The more we know about the world as a whole, the less we know about any of its parts or moments; and the more we know about any of its parts or moments, the less we know about the whole.
The great strength of science and poetry is their shared focus on minute detail. As a result, these modes of reasoning are able to provide us with extremely fine-grained maps of reality. Mythology, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in those ‘grains’ per se; it is only interested in the universal patterns they contain and form.
Of course, ‘pattern’ is the currency of all modes of human reasoning. Systematic reasoning searches for behavioral patterns and discovers those patterns amid myriad data points. Poetic reasoning searches for empirical and emotional patterns and finds those patterns in the details of human experience. But mythic reasoning searches for universal patterns, patterns that hold at all times and in all places and on every scale, patterns that apply uniformly across all categories of experience.
The patterns of systematic reasoning tend to be expressed in the language of logic and exposition. The patterns of poetic reasoning tend to be expressed in lyrical or descriptive language. But the patterns of mythic reasoning tend to be expressed in the language of narrative.
Narrative is the form of speech we use to describe events. The nearly universal preference for the narrative form in mythology tells us something very important about the world: it is an event! The mythic totality is an event made up of myriad other events. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking (completely out of context): It’s events, all the way down!
This is precisely the ontological vision of British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality). ‘Actual entities’ are the only pre-eminently real constituents of his cosmos; ‘actual entities’ are events and the totality is itself an ‘actual entity’, which Whitehead calls ‘God’.
Narrative allows elements to be linked together to create patterns that extend, like events, across space and time. In that sense mythic language is better aligned with everyday experience than the slightly stilted languages of science and poetry. Just as systematic reasoning begins with hypothesis and poetic reasoning begins with image, mythic reasoning begins with story.
Mythology also tends to rely heavily on personal images. Perhaps the best metaphor for the ‘whole’ is the ‘person’. A ‘person’ somehow merges a myriad of apparently contradictory influences into a single organism. As such, person is the perfect metaphor for universe.
If ‘person’ is a metaphor for universe, then ‘knot’ is a metaphor for person. Like a knot, a person interrupts the linear flow of events and influences (e.g. string) and re-shapes them into a semi-transcendent unity. In this way, the mythological person is a bit like one of Leibniz’ monads. It transcends the world as it reflects the world.
The mythological person is also a bit like Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ (Ubermensch). Gods, demi-gods or mere heroes, the characters of mythology offer alternative models of the world by the way they live in that world. As such, mythology is a forerunner of certain modern philosophical movements such as Marxism and Existentialism. For example, Karl Marx wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it.” (Theses on Feuerbach)
Mythic reasoning is the dialectical adjustment of patterns created to patterns observed until a sufficient degree of resonance is achieved. That resonance is the truth value of the mythic model. In a successful myth, narrative combines elements, real and/or imaginary, into a pattern that makes us shout out, “Eureka! That’s exactly how the world is!”
The validity of systematic reason is grounded in observation and scientific method supported by the structures of math and logic. The validity of poetic reason rests on its appeal to immediate, concrete human experience. But the validity (truth) of mythic reason depends purely on aesthetic criteria, on the internal beauty of the model. (In another essay in the collection, Beauty and Truth, we explore in more detail the connection between the two.)
Does any of this actually make sense? Are so-called ‘myths’ meaningful? Do they have the potential to contain truth value? Or are they just products of overactive human imaginations?
In today’s intellectual environment, mythology’s claim to validity is controversial at best, ridiculous at worst. Four major challenges confront it:
(1) There is no such thing as ‘totality’.
(2) It is impossible to make true, meaningful statements about the ‘totality’.
(3) There are no patterns that apply to all events, everywhere and at all times.
(4) There is no truth apart from the perspective of a unique, individual observer and mythic reasoning denies or ignores the existence of such an observer.
On the surface, these challenges seem overwhelming; but we will examine each one in turn. And when we are done, we will not only see these challenges refuted; we will see that these challenges actually support the validity of mythic reasoning.
“There is no such thing as totality.”
The world is constantly and indefinitely evolving while the events that make up the world are, ultimately, decided matters of fact. Therefore, if we say that events exist, we cannot say that a totality of events exists.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the part and the whole must be ontologically identical. In fact, the whole may in perpetual flux while the part may be fully determined; that does not mean that both cannot exist. In fact, in my opinion it is the position of the Pre-Socratics that there cannot be a ‘world’ unless both exist!
This argument is sometimes framed in terms of the Russell Paradox. Without going into detail, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, proved that there is no such thing as a ‘set of all sets’. True enough! But he also went on to say that there can be a ‘class of all sets’.
There are two problems with this argument. First and most obviously, events are not sets. In fact an event is quite different, logically and ontologically, from a set. Second, and more importantly, sets and classes can and do exist side-by-side. A class does not need to function in exactly the same way that a set functions in order for it to exist. Likewise the totality does not need to function in exactly the same way as its constituents in order for it to exist.
In fact, totality has to differ in certain fundamental ways from its constituent events. While Whitehead (above) believed that totality (God) is an event comprising all events, he certainly did not deny an ontological distinction between God and ‘creature’. Whitehead’s theology can be described as panentheism, but not as pantheism. In fact, ‘the God event’ in Whitehead’s system exhibits a number of unique characteristics, none of which however make it any less an event than the events it totalizes.
“It is impossible to make true, meaningful statements about the totality.”
Kurt Gödel showed that there are true statements that can be made about any non-trivial formal system that cannot be proven from the axioms of those systems. Fair enough. But as we discussed earlier in this essay, that does not mean that such (unproven) statements are any less meaningful…or true. In fact, we might say that Gödel (and Penrose, above) are relying on the validity of mythic reasoning when they conclude that propositions which are unprovable according to systematic methods are nonetheless certain.
“There are no patterns that apply to all events on all scales, everywhere and at all times.”
Propositions that deny the existence of something can only be refuted by producing just such an existent. Most of us believe that unicorns do not exist; but if we saw one (and properly studied it), we’d agree that we were wrong.
Now in the case of mythology, this is a bit tricky because mythology is the catalogue of universal patterns; so demonstrating the existence of such patterns is exactly what mythology does. If a mythology has successfully isolated a pattern that does apply to all events, everywhere and at all times, then this objection has been dispatched. So the real question here is, “Does mythology work?”
In fact mythology does work! People do say, “Eureka!” (Well, actually they don’t, but you get the point). Mythology works, and if it works, then by definition we must conclude that it can work.
Of course, this argument does in some sense beg the question. Mythology’s supporters, almost by definition, will contend that mythic reasoning has successfully identified universal patterns, thereby demonstrating their existence. Mythology’s detractors, just as dogmatically, will contend that no such identification or demonstration has been made.
How can we cut through this Gordian Knot? By defining more closely the standard that we are required to meet! To be successful, a mythology does not have to ‘work’ for all people at all times; the propositions of science and poetry certainly don’t! But a mythology does need to work for enough people over enough space and time to make a difference, to contribute concretely to human intellectual history. Clearly, mythology passes that test with flying colors.
When most of us think of mythology we think of the works of Hesiod, Homer, Ovid and perhaps Snorri Sturluson. From our modern vantage, it is hard to see how these myths ever really ‘worked’. But if we someone brings up Tolkien, perhaps we feel we’re getting a little bit warmer.
But it is important to understand that mythic language includes, but is definitely not limited to, what passes for Mythology in a high school literature class. Writing primarily described as historical, philosophical or theological can (and usually does) contain mythic elements; so do novels, epic poems, etc…
In fact, arguably the greatest work of mythic reasoning in human history is a so-called ‘novel’ written less than 100 years ago. Of course, I am speaking of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce tells the stories of a handful of characters (in every sense of that word) on a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin. But in the actions and relations of those characters, Joyce outlines patterns that extend to every place and time and hold true on every scale. It is impossible to read this book and not shout, “Eureka!”
Another example of a modern myth, this one even closer to home, is the Beatles’ 1968 movie, Yellow Submarine. It incorporates nearly all the elements (art, science, sociology) of contemporary Western culture into a single, overarching narrative. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine situates a normal day in the everyday world (this time Liverpool 1967 rather than Dublin 1904) in a much wider context, a universal and eternal context to be exact.
Like the early Greek philosopher, Parmenides, Joyce and the Beatles view reality under two aspects: the deceivingly mundane aspect of everyday life, Doxa, and the universal, eternal aspect of Aletheia. If Odyssey is the ‘myth of the age’ c. 500 BC, Ulysses is the ‘myth of the age’ c. 1900 CE and Yellow submarine c. 2000 CE.
But we can also approach the matter of demonstration from an entirely different angle, from outside the realm of mythology entirely. The validity of mythic reasoning rests squarely on the assumption that it is possible to discover patterns that apply to all phenomena at all scales of experience. It is a bold claim…but it’s a claim that is not unique! We’ve heard it before. Can anyone say, “Fractal?”
“There is no truth apart from the perspective of the unique, individual observer and mythic reasoning does not allow for such an observer.”
This is certainly the most challenging of the objections. Mythology seeks to boldly go where no mode of reasoning has gone before. It seeks to identify what is true of every event, everywhere and at all times, without regard to the perspective of the observer. That such an ‘Enterprise’ is possible, or even meaningful, is hotly contested in contemporary intellectual circles.
It is fashionable today to deny the very concept of ‘objective truth’; all truth is now defined in terms of the individual observer. Quantum mechanics, post modernism and moral relativism all agree that truth cannot be decoupled from the experimental, sociological or situational perspective of that observer.