March 21st, 2011

Is Myth Dead? Part 1: What is Myth and how did we kill it? 

“Everything is flux.” Heraclitus

 It may seem that the word “myth” has lost its meaning to us as a psychological or spiritual term. No, the situation is more drastic than that. Myth has become the opposite of fact, something that is generally accepted but untrue; “it is a myth that reading by flashlight ruins your eyesight.” The popular television show on the Discovery Channel, Myth Busters, uses this definition, attempting to disprove “myths” with something vaguely resembling science. The myths of antiquity are looked upon as quaint stories, despite the fact that they have shaped our cultural history. It is neatly overlooked that myths remain at the center of the bloody stage of modern religious, national, economic or ideological dynamics, not to mention our personal and everyday lives. 

    The fact that the word “myth” has become synonymous with untruth belies an underlying shift in the Western epistemological focus over the past several thousand years. This is clearly a sweeping generalization, and in these we are also inventing a myth, but bear with me. We have become, in this juncture of time and culture, a great deal more concerned with verifiable facts and less concerned with existential experiences which have little relation to fact. This progression ties into the Enlightenment focus on rationality and the scientific method, but perhaps more pervasively, we can see this following from the needs of industrialization. 

     This shift, though not concocted as some conspiratorial scheme, does serve a purpose. As we will see, fundamental business principles rely on actions that are easy to reproduce, and which produce similar (if not identical) results with each repetition. This cultural homogeneity promotes an economy of scale that is absolutely necessary for so-called big business. Similarly, the myths of a culture must ultimately serve the best interest of industry. The evolution of such co-related myths is often symbiotic, for instance, it is through the spread of industry as the backbone of a civilization that myths which better serve it spread. These in turn effect the further growth and spread of an industrialized infrastructure. 

     Living within the confines of the reality sculpted by the history of industry, we must come to terms with it, but only once we have first explored the rough contours of myth itself. Like much of what we touch upon in this intro, I can only point out the various directions our future exploration will lead. File this away in the back of your mind. We will certainly return. 

    The expectation that myth is a failed epistemology seems to come as a by-product of the industrialist-capitalist worldview

, and provides a certain cultural insight that we will be exploring throughout this book. In its proper sense, myth has no necessary relation to fact whatsoever. Asking if a myth is factually true makes as much sense as asking if your elbow can play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the key of purple. Perhaps, myth is true insofar as it renders a psychological effect, and false insofar as it doesn’t. This is not to say that historical or empirical fact has no bearing on myth, however. Far from it. That the inner and outer life appear as mirror images of one another, separated by what appears to be a vast divide, is another issue that we must contend with. It has mythological repercussions, as do all points at which we must re-orient or interpret much of anything that does not fit a pre-established order.


    The present idea that myths are merely untrue beliefs also exists within the archaeological approach to mythology, originating in the 19th century. It has remained there, in many cases, ever since. For example, consider this quote from the introduction to the 1897 edition of Andrew Lang’s Modern Mythology

The essence of myth, as of fairy tale, we agree, is the conception of the things in the world as all alike animated, personal, capable of endless interchanges of form.  Men may become beasts; beasts may change into men; gods may appear as human or bestial; stones, plants, winds, water, may speak and act like human beings, and change shapes with them. Anthropologists demonstrate that the belief in this universal kinship, universal personality of things, which we find surviving only in the myths of civilized races, is even now to some degree part of the living creed of savages.  Civilized myths, then, they urge, are survivals from a parallel state of belief once prevalent among the ancestors of even the Aryan race.  But how did this mental condition, this early sort of false metaphysics, come into existence? (Emphasis mine.) (Modern Mythology, Lang.)

    However, an academic approach towards the study of myth generally presents a different attitude than the common idea that myths are false. A scholar of comparative mythologies attempts to maintain a so-called objectivity towards the subject. In other words, the truth or untruth of the myth is, or at any rate should be, entirely irrelevant to them. They are studying, comparing, and uncovering myths as if they are empiricalobjects. A clay pot or rug from the 4th century BCE is neither “true” nor “false,” it simply is, and from it, we may be able to ascertain things about the people who made it. 

     The idea that myths are false seems distinct from this, though as it turns out, there may be a connection. Jaan Puhvel gives us a brief history of the word “myth” in the introduction to Comparative Mythology,  

There are many notions that the ancient Greeks not only defined but named forevermore, such as “hybris,” [sic] “irony,” and “tragedy.” Another such is “myth.” No modern language has a substitute — the word comes with the concept. … In Homer and the tragedians it can also mean “tale, story, narrative,” without reference to truth content. But starting with prose writers such as Herodotus, the word muthos [sic] takes non a polarized image of “fictive narrative,” “tall tale,” “legend.” As such it contrasts with logos, another term for “word,” which came to denote “true story” to Herodotus; the father of history had no compunction about terming his own hodgepodge of legendary “Logoi” and reserving the term muthos for things that not even he could believe. From Plato onward a technical sense of “myth” begins to emerge in muthos, while logos takes on ever more rational, philosophical, and even transcendental overtones. … It is in retrospect ironic that modern usage has managed to defeat such exalted semantic monopolies and revert at least to the pre-Platonic colloquialism of the ancients. “It’s a myth” means to the average American that there is not a shred of truth in it. 

    This distinction between mythos and logos isn’t necessarily a clear one. In this distinction, we come to the issue which is probably paramount in many of our minds: the imagined division between myth and science. Though this may come as a surprise to some, science is also a mythology in a general sense. This is not a new observation, so rather than belabor the point, I’ll refer to one poignant instance out of many. Mauthner’s Critique of Languagedeals with this topic in no uncertain terms, 

Mauthner’s Critique thus appeared to have dire consequences for science. … Mauthner considered hypotheses to be good guesses — successful “shots in the dark,” so to say. The foundation of all science is exceptionally good inductions; the so-called laws of nature are nothing more than historical generalizations, and Mauthner spared no effort to explain the historical origin of the notion that physical laws are inexorable.

 (Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Janik and Toulman.)

    Mauthner clearly has certain concepts about the nature of myth that we are availing ourselves of, as his work was a product of his time as much as this is a product of ours. However, the point is nevertheless valid in regard to the deification of axioms and principles in science. 

    Compare that with the following, 

Any study of myth that does not recognize myth’s potential to be alive and existentially powerful, even in modern life, has missed something. Myths are not truth in any scientific sense — nor are they true philosophically, theologically, metaphysically or ontologically. Myth’s power arises from its ability to articulate the existential need for identity. (Hindu Mythology, Williams). 

    George Williams point is well taken, especially in regard to an understanding of the  vitality and primacy of myth. But it also overlooks an underlying complexity, that the models and stories rendered by science, theology, and so on are all essentially mythological, even if they aren’t accepted as myths in the traditional sense.

Science must begin with myth. As Karl Popper writes, 

Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them. (The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Popper.)

    This is where most concepts about the nature of myth immediately run aground, as science attempts to deal with the empirical world (far-flung theoretical physics notwithstanding), and the real function of myth is to be found in the more artistic, or at least more subjective, intersections between self, culture, and world. Their intended functions differ.

3 The continuation of this quote is worth including, “…He considers that the term “law of nature” is a metaphor left over from the bygone days of mythological explanation, when Nature was personified in the endeavor to comprehend it. He traces the origins of the notion back to Plato and Aristotle, and particularly to Lucretius, who first used the phrase explicitly. In the Middle Ages, the notion became incorporated into theology as the “natural law” of God. With Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura it became secularized, along with much else that had earlier belonged exclusively to the sphere of theology. Thus did the myth of the “laws of nature” pass down to the present time; the phrase began as a metaphor and later became reified and universally adopted by scientists.”

4 Also see pg. 60-64 of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy Of Symbolic Forms Vol 2 for some very relevant ideas on the relationship between mythic and scientific thought.

Scientists teach their intellectual children at a early age to be wary of the wily Personification. Should Personification appear — in any of its several guises of animism, anthropomorphism, and projection — it should be treated as an evil, to be avoided or stamped out. The Particular is also not to be trusted. It can mislead. Those in the charge of nomothetic science quickly learn to banish The Particular by immediately labeling it, then ignoring it. These anathematizing labels include: merely anecdotal, a single case, an n of one, a single data point, an uncontrolled observation, a single instance, an exception, a suggestive indication, an interesting possibility to be followed up by more careful study. (Braud, The Ley and the Labyrinth) This is the clearest distinction one can draw between what has been misapprehended as the opposing spheres of the scientific and the mythological viewpoints. I say “misapprehended” because, of course, science is a mythologizing process along with being a method, and myth is derived from experience — psychological if not physical — in a way which makes the modeling processes used in science useful for analyzing it, as well. Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms explores this distinction clearly, but did not seek to find their unity, how they apply one to the other. Theoretical physics has implications not just in terms of cosmology but also mythology. It may be beyond the scope of science-as-method to derive a meaning from the big bang theory, for instance. Science does not, as it has been pointed out to me, concern itself directly with “why?” However, a scientific theory still has a cultural effect and value, and it will generate myths, especially if the theory permeates the culture thoroughly enough. Relativity had a dramatic effect on the art that followed it, for instance. If it is scientifically postulated that the universe is structured a certain way — or that for instance every star will eventually burn out — it’ll have implications and effects that go far beyond the strict scope of the scientific method. Science models, myth generates narrative. The method of science is not inherently mythic, but when the results of that method enter our world, when we interpret it, when we frame it and build beliefs from it, this matter becomes confused. We try to remove the scientist from science, and say that, should we still see the fingerprints of the scientist in their work, then they have done us all a disservice. Is there science without scientists? Of course not. Science, derived from and used to represent nature, is, yet again, a form of mythology. But there’s still an important distinction to be made between a model which can be tested, and a narrative, which cannot. So, upon first glance, the distinction is one of iteration and function. The scientific method depends on the ability to repeat an experiment. It leaves room for improvement in the demand for repetition. Experiences which seem mythical are by their very nature entirely unique. They cannot be reproduced or repeated, or at least, if they can be, it doesn’t add or subtract from their value as a myth. You cannot ask that lightning to strike the same place twice. (Though of course there’s no reason to assume that it can’t.) Some of the functional axioms of the mythology of science — especially that of pure physics — make it quite dissimilar from other forms of mythology. Mathematics and formal logic are able to unearth fact and truth axiomatically, without an actor, and serve as the requisite tools for a mythology unlike any previously known to Western Civilization.5 It is a myth so uniquely suited to modeling the empirical world, and of removing and reducing the consciousness of the minds in which it occurs to nothing, that we have almost completely lost sight that it is still a mythology at work. This is where we can begin to see the import and significance of muthos shrinking in regard to logos. On the other hand, we mustn’t forget the representation inherent in all models posited by science, or of the removal of the subject so as to derive any clearer view of a world, which of course requires a mind to call it into existence. “The world is my representation” is, like the axioms of Euclid, a proposition which everyone must recognize as true as soon as he understands it, although it is not a proposition that everyone understands as soon as he hears it. To have brought this proposition to consciousness and to have connected it with the problem of the relation of the ideal to the real, in other words, of the world in the head to the world outside of the head, constitutes, together with the problem of moral freedom, the distinctive character of the moderns. (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Part I) Of course, there is no singular “myth of science” but in fact countless scientific myths supported on the back of a few basic axioms and suppositions, and many of them are anything if not aware of — or at least burdened by — the lurking shadow of the subject, of the hall of mirrors or infinite regress posed by consciousness and its own self awareness. This point is more important to make in regard to concepts of “science” held by the general public, rather than most professional scientists, who regard “science” as nothing more than an iterative method for testing and refining theories. However, it has nevertheless been made apparent that science is presently facing its own post-modern crisis. This crisis is well summed up by Hawking and Mlodinow in the September issue of Scientific American, These examples bring us to a conclusion that provides an important framework with which to interpret modern science. In our view, there is no picture — or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we adopt a view that we call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. (“The Elusive Theory of Everything”)

5 Though let’s not suppose that there is one universal set of axioms that can be applied to all of mathematics — see Godel’s incompleteness theorum.

 Even if Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is frequently misunderstood as a thought experiment, it poses the useful insight that experiments cannot be conducted free of bias and perception. Theories of cognitive science that don’t presuppose a static, underlying strata of materialistic or positivist myth are all burdened with similar levels of uncertainty. Only in those corners of belief where a claim has already been staked can certainty of any kind be defined. It is, in other words, tautological.

    This, too, further muddles the unity and distinction between mythology and science, and narrative and model. Referring back to Barthes’ essay “Myth Today” once again, he says “…myth in fact belongs to the province of general sciences.” Can we safely say myth and science are one and the same? No. But can we untangle them and say they are entirely separate, as some would have us do (possibly misleadingly) with painting and mathematics? Again, the answer is no.  

    However, these quandaries don’t seem to permeate deep enough to cleanse the modern psyche of the certainty of an intrinsic materialism. In a culture fixated on the external world it is no wonder that myth became misconstrued with untruth. We will begin the exploration of these intersections, and the problems that will undoubtedly arise from our approach, throughout the Immanence of Myth.  

James Curcio

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

Between Space - artwork by P. Emerson Williams

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