Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bellah 2: What is a true myth?

Myths are metaphors for what we don't know. Their truth is expressive, not analytical.

Robert Bellah's wonderful book on Religion in Human Evolution has an overarching schema, which is that humans progress (or at least move over evolutionary and cultural time) from a mimetic (ritual) mode of social existence, to a mythic mode, to an abstract, theoretical mode of social development. None of these is lost, but new modes are added onto the prior ones. Thus we enact rituals in our daily lives and in our most meaningful events at the same time that we find meaning in various myths- religious, civic, professional, or familial, etc., at the same time that we in the modern age are obsessed with the analytical quest to find the optimal economic system, the most just state structure, and the most fulfilling personal life.

Being human turns into a rather confusing project, richly deserving all the perplexed attention that the arts have devoted to it.

It is one reason why telecommuting and online education are not as popular as one would have thought at the dawn of the internet age- that face-to-face ritual remains very important to most people, and while we can not always articulate what it is about physical interaction and enactments that is so important, doing without them feels quite empty to many people.

And likewise- following last week's blog on the functional continuity of religious practice in the most unlikely settings of science and atheism- with myth, which continues to shape our lives even in this secular, post-modern age. An example is American exceptionalism- the conviction that we, for some obscure reason having to do with boundless frontiers, liberal / enlightenment founders, and ethnic mixture, have some god-given right or duty to tell the rest of the world how to do things. It couldn't just be that we are more powerful than they are, due to pretty much unrepeatable cultural pathways of economic and technological development. No, we are better people, more good and moral, whom others should recognize as their natural superiors. Or something like that.

All this is buttressed by our various civic cults and stories. However vociferously those pesky lefty historians try to tear down our forebears and tell the stories of those who were oppressed, we are going to just keep on flying that flag anyhow. Even the stars and bars, if it comes right down to it, dagnabbit.

So, as Bellah maintains, myths are not about truth. They tell a story that functions in forming our various emotional and cognitive archetypes into a well-peopled narrative that says who and why we are. They metaphorically represent our position in the world:

"Chaisson would have avoided this error had he been clear about this: myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, and the myth he tells, [the modern scientific story of the cosmos with a positive inflection, which Chaisson terms a true myth], though it draws on science, is not science, and so cannot claim scientific truth. I would agree that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. They overlap with each other and with Chaisson's myth, but even in their conflicts, which are sometimes serious, they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways."

and ...
"To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need- based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play- to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal."

and ...
"The Kalapalo [natives of Brazil] use the very recurrence of mythic time as a subtle way of understanding their reality. What happened "in the beginning" can always happen. Strange behavior on the part of an individual can be likened to some action of a powerful being in a myth, and is so interpreted. An eclipse of the sun or moon recalls stories in which the sun or moon are "being killed", but also reassures in that in the stories they do not die, but return to their normal state. Basso argues that Kalapalo myth is not a kind of "charter", as Malinowski thought, that provides a model or rule to be followed. Instead myth is an account of the way things are, a reference frame for understanding the world. She points out that Westerners, even anthropologists, are used to explanations that take a didactic, logical, or evidentiary form, and so think of mythic "explanation" as irrational, failing to note the subtle and complex uses to which narrative thinking can be put. We will see that this condescending attitude toward mythic explanation is typical of the theoretic mind, which is at best incipient among the Kalapalo."

and most interesting of all ...
"If we compare [Polynesian] Tikopia beliefs as expressed in ritual and myth with those of the groups we described in Chapter 3, we will see some significant differences. Powerful beings among the Kalapolo, Australian Aborigines, and Navajo were often, though not always, alpha male figures, who could be terribly destructive when crossed, even inadvertently, but with whom people could identify if they followed the proper ritual, and through identification, their power could become, at least temporarily, benign. Some powerful beings were viewed largely as nurturant mothers, as in the case of Changing Woman, but this is hardly the norm in tribal mythology. If the myths do describe a moral order, a Law, as the Aborigines put it, it is not because powerful being are always reliable or even moral. The myths are an effort to understand the nature of reality. Their narrators must use the analogies that lie at hand, analogies from their own social experience, with all its inner tensions and inconsistencies."

So, there we are. Myth uses the metaphors and heavily social cognitive apparatus which is at hand to describe in a very impressionistic way the reality that a culture finds itself in, especially the inferred powers that lurk beneath the surface and above in the heavens. Just as contemporary folk philosophers ("truthers") see malign conspiracies behind every adverse event, our forebears rarely wavered from the conviction that "something", or more likely "someone", was behind every phenomenon, good or bad.

Myth describes our psychological contents far more than it does the external world. It is like hearing a 3-year old describe some complex topic like where babies come from, or what the sun is. You will learn far more about the child than about what is being described. Which is not to say their description is not "true", but that depends on what truth you are looking for.


  • Pagan ritualist photoblog.
  • Hell tourism.
  • Reinhart and Rogoff- not only theoretically wrong, but using bad data.
  • The long term unemployed are hosed. But who cares?
  • The regulators could hardly care less about foreclosure fraud.
  • Our unfair tax system and faith in democracy- Stiglitz.
  • Brains at work.. criticizing the brain initiative.
  • E-readers- not so great, yet.
  • When to cancel debts, and whose debts to cancel.
  • Economic quote of the week: Krugman on the fatally and lazily misleading language of editorialists and pundits, with regard to government debt and the R&R scandal.
"Yet the VSPs not only grabbed hold of the alleged result, they wrote again and again as if this highly disputed claim was a known fact. Thus just a few months ago the Washington Post, attacking those who wanted to reduce the focus on deficits, wrote,
'If [debt projections are] even slightly off, debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth.'
 
Not “some economists”, let alone “some economists who have been sharply criticized by other economists with equally good credentials”, but “economists”. 
This is deciding what you want to believe, finding someone who tells you what you want to hear, and pretending that there are no other voices. It’s deeply irresponsible — and you can’t blame Reinhart-Rogoff for that mistake."

12 comments:

  1. Hi Burk,

    How do you square this:

    “And likewise- following last week's blog on the functional continuity of religious practice in the most unlikely settings of science and atheism- with myth, which continues to shape our lives even in this secular, post-modern age.”

    And this:

    “So, there we are. Myth uses the metaphors and heavily social cognitive apparatus which is at hand to describe in a very impressionistic way the reality that a culture finds itself in…”

    “Myth describes our psychological contents far more than it does the external world…”

    Or is it that you think your particular myth/narrative of philosophical naturalism is somehow immune (or not a myth/narrative) and you have some direct corresponding connection to the truth of reality untouched, like the rest of us, from any particular myth/narrative?

    By the way, Bellah is saying much of what I’ve been saying for some time now, just from a sociological perspective. We are all religious. We are all believers. Oh, and it is also nice to see you finally give the nod to the post-modern.

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  2. Darrell-

    Yes, that is an interesting question. There is a distinction between analytical truth and myth. We have a naturally metaphorical language, and a culture soaked in myth, ritual, and related religious themes, secular as well as "religious".

    So when we talk of vague categories like terrorism, we are invoking large constellations of preconceptions and archetypes that work at a psychological level. I am fascinated by that and learn more about it all the time.

    But that all does not bar the possibility of truly analytical truths from being found and appreciated. Even though science itself moves forward on a conveyor belt of the myth of cultural progress, and some kind of Star Trek-y faith in the peace and prosperity to be found when we just understand enough about our world, it does find honest-to-goodness truths that are universal, even transcendent.

    Such truths are not found by other traditions like theism. The proofs of Anselm are examples of the kind of "knowledge" bandied about at the pinacles of theology, which despite their valiant attempt, are not universal or transcendent truths, but really quite bounded by their mythical context, and which fall apart outside that context.

    I guess the bottom line is that while philosophical naturalism certainly functions as a sociological myth in many ways, (in its motivational capacity), it is also an accurate read of reality, fosters further fruitful investigations, and is, basically, analytically true. It is like stating that the Copernican model of the heavens is a myth. Yes, it can inspire, but that doesn't make it untrue. Each myth needs to bear analytical scrutiny on its own (if we even care). With the most powerful myths, we generally don't care about their analytical truth.. it is beside the point.

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  3. Burk,

    “I guess the bottom line is that while philosophical naturalism certainly functions as a sociological myth in many ways, (in its motivational capacity), it is also an accurate read of reality, fosters further fruitful investigations, and is, basically, analytically true.”

    What you are speaking of is methodological naturalism, which Christians have no objection to and support completely.

    However, what you hold to, philosophical naturalism or ontological naturalism is mythic and a faith.

    That is the difference. Therefore, if you are being fair, this would also apply to you:

    “Myth describes our psychological contents far more than it does the external world. It is like hearing a 3-year old describe some complex topic like where babies come from, or what the sun is. You will learn far more about the child than about what is being described. Which is not to say their description is not "true", but that depends on what truth you are looking for.”

    Regardless, it is good to see you talk about transcendental truths and postmodernism in not entirely pejorative terms.

    Cheers.

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  4. Darrell-

    No, actually I was talking about ontological naturalism. Which at base posits that what is evident about reality is what is really there, for all practical and probably theoretical purposes. Specifically, the mind is entirely a product of the physical brain as we know it. And more critically, it posits that no doctrines of supernaturalism of whatever kind have ever been supported by good evidence, and thus are not worth taking seriously.

    This is all evidence based, at the same time that it may (or may not) function as a sociological myth for some people. It does involve some amount of prognostication or extrapolation, not being as humble as agnosticism. But having faith in the continuing of current trends (as one does in the sun coming up tomorrow) is infinitely more reasonable than having the contrary faith in millennial events, miracles, death-that-is-not-death, second comings, etc. As mentioned, each story deserves dissection on its own merits. Making rhetorical points with blanket statements and misusing terms is not very helpful.

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  5. Burk,

    Then I don't think you undertand the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism or you are just begging the question.

    Methodological naturalism is evidenced based, which Christians (including the thousands of scientists who are not atheists) support completely. Ontological naturalism is a philosophical statement that the physical is all there is--all that exists. Here is an example:

    "I'll explain what I mean. Generally speaking, there are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach that science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such.

    A certain methodological naturalism is commonsensical. It wouldn't be very helpful when making a cup of tea if, when the kettle boiled, we became overly entranced by the mystical wonder of the emission of steam, thinking it was the communication of the spirits of our ancestors. Science must preclude this, and thus it seeks to explain phenomena in purely natural terms. This is eminently sensible - we may expect the farmer to pray to his maker, asking for a good harvest, but we don't then expect the farmer to put his feet up and leave God to get on with ploughing the fields.

    Ontological naturalism goes further. While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion of what exists, ontological naturalism is less modest. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural, but that the natural is all there is - indeed, all there ever could be." (Cunningham)

    Bellah would consider ontological naturalism a mythic narrative--a story. Thus his critique of the new atheists. So you seem to be saying just that everyone else's story is what a 3-year-old might say, but not your own.

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  6. Darrell-

    I know what you mean, but there is quite a bit less distinction than you seem to think. Less even then in the fact-value distinction!

    If you are a scientist, (or even not, really), you really don't care whether an hypothesis deals in the divine or not, a priori. If the hypothesis helps answer the question about reality, then it is fair game. If gods were part of reality and responsible for phenomena, then scientists and other investigators of any kind would have to deal with it and enter it into their equations, etc. Our remit as people studying reality is universal, and encompasses whatever is in it.

    The reason why divine hypotheses are "bracketed" as you put it is that they are phenomenally unproductive and a waste of time.

    As for ontological naturalism, this just packs up these trends into a suppostion that, thousands of years into our complex cultural investigations into reality, it really looks as if the whole supernatural class of hypotheses have been a collossal waste of time, empty of any (non-psychological meaning) and thus not likely to reflect reality in any way. Both lines of thought come from the same place, and the ontological form just casts it in a slightly more normative, predictive, inductive way.

    Is it true? I think we can confidently say that in analytic terms it beats the pants off of any other myth out there. But it does partake of the inductive principle, and in the spirit of science generally is open to change.

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  7. Burk,

    The difference between the two is night and day, a universe apart. My goodness. That isn’t just my assessment—I think any philosopher would tell you this including the philosophical naturalist. It is one thing to say how steam is produced—it is entirely something else to say that the material is all that exists. And that same process you describe of “packing in trends” has led the vast majority of people and a significant number of scientists and other professionals to hold that the material is not all there is. That process works both ways. Perhaps in biology most scientists are atheists, but that is hardly true in other areas of science.

    And the whole idea that a divine hypothesis is unproductive or a waste of time has nothing to do with you are suggesting. It was the Judeo-Christian narrative that led to the bracketing! While the pagan world imagined spirits behind everything, it was the Christian narrative that led us to separate God from creation, so it could be studied as this thing on it's own so to speak.

    I go back to my point that I believe Bellah would categorize ontological naturalism as mythic, a narrative, a metaphysics, a story.

    You can defend it all you want. Please do. But don’t tell us it is the same as methodological naturalism or that it is some direct corresponding reading of the physical universe. And if you are going to cast aspersion on other narratives, don’t do it because they are narratives, because so is yours. It will always fall under the same critique if that’s all it is. You must find other reasons for believing one is superior to another, without simply begging the question.

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  8. Darrell-

    Well, I may well be introducing a new thought here. Shocking, I know, but let me explain. The bracketing you spoke of happened for a reason- it was not just a construct pulled out of the air, but came about because scientists couldn't wait around for miracles to occur. In fact, they didn't really see a role for miracles or other supernatural theories at all in what they were studying. So theologians and other religious theorists progressively backed off from their scientific claims, to the point that they are now extremely, crampingly, "bracketed".

    It didn't have to be that way. If these same scientists were living in the time of Moses or Jesus, and saw people raised from the dead, loaves multiplying, staffs turn into snakes, etc., they would happily have factored "acts of god" into the equation. A kind of personal, narrative, and bizarre entropy, perhaps.

    This inductive trend leads directly to both the practical rule of thumb you cite as methodological naturalism, and to the more philosophical hypothesis of ontological naturalism. The principle of uniformitarianism, where physical "laws" are assumed to be stable through time, thus allowing us to make conjectures about geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology, etc. is another expression of the same, well, empirical, observation -> inductive hypothesis. One that has been very productive and re-proved, over and over, even in historical research.

    The same evidence of modern miracles would defeat both ontological as well as methodological naturalism. They are thus essentially the same. The fact that some scientists manage to hew to methodological naturalism in their labs, yet believe in other things in their religious lives, is a testament to psychological compartmentalization, not to logical consistency. A barrier that breaks down all the time, such as in the case of Dr. Behe. It is quite difficult for an active thinking person to sustain. Thus my perplexity at Francis Collins, though somehow he seems to work it out.

    "But don’t tell us it is the same as methodological naturalism or that it is some direct corresponding reading of the physical universe."

    That is exactly what I am saying.. they are logically the same, and just because something functions as a sociological / motivational myth (with added narrative or psychological content, like wonder at the deep past time, etc.) doesn't mean it can not be true as well. And as noted above, I regard it not as a "faith", but as an hypothesis- the leading hypothesis.

    Nor does it mean that all other myths are analytically true in the same way. They are not. So I don't cast aspersions on other narratives simply because they are narratives, (in fact, I respect their artistry in many points), but rather because they are false, in the analytical sense.

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  10. Burk,

    "That is exactly what I am saying.. they are logically the same, and just because something functions as a sociological / motivational myth (with added narrative or psychological content, like wonder at the deep past time, etc.) doesn't mean it can not be true as well."

    But this is exactly what the Christian says. Having no problem with methodological naturalism, the fact that the narrative functions as you note doesn't mean it is not true. However, the Christian notes the difference in that the results of methodological naturalism are interpreted through this very narrative. In other words, we know it is an interpretation and there are other plausible ones as well. You are claiming an exclusive privileging through a claimed exact and direct reading of nature. It is the same way fundamentalists read the Bible. Literally and woodenly.

    But do you believe Bella is accurate regarding the quote you cite?

    "Chaisson would have avoided this error had he been clear about this: myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, and the myth he tells, [the modern scientific story of the cosmos with a positive inflection, which Chaisson terms a true myth], though it draws on science, is not science, and so cannot claim scientific truth."

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  11. Darrell-

    Whether there are other "plausible" interpretations of the fruits of methodological naturalism is very much at issue. We have already seen how one such fruit, evolutionary theory, can not be taken and reinterpreted as theists (ID/creationists) would like to.

    Our whole discussion revolves around the plausability of god narratives in light of current knowledge. Sure, many people, even eminent ones, find various routes of rationalization. But that doesn't guarantee they are making sense. Our propensity for motivated thinking is very strong.

    As I have mentioned many times, a very abstract deism is by no means logically barred at this time, but all sorts of theism more directly impinging on nature do seem to be barred.

    As for Bellah, he is completely right .. the myth part of the story stands as a motivational, existentially situating story, and is mythically true only insofar as it successfully motivates us, say, to save the biosphere from climate heating, or gives us a sense of participation in a grander process of life. It can be as analytically true as we like- its mythical truth is judged separately. As he says, it is not science, other than of a psychological, anthropological sort, completely separate from its analytic content.

    You imply that I am drawing on the analytical truth of the scientifically derived story to say that it is mythically successful or true. But I don't think that is the case. It mythical effectiveness is still very much in doubt.

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  12. Burk,

    "Sure, many people, even eminent ones, find various routes of rationalization. But that doesn't guarantee they are making sense. Our propensity for motivated thinking is very strong."

    And this is true of your atheism, right?

    "You imply that I am drawing on the analytical truth of the scientifically derived story to say that it is mythically successful or true. But I don't think that is the case. It mythical effectiveness is still very much in doubt."

    But the story is not scientifically derived. That is his whole point. And I'm not saying that you think it is mythically successful. What you are saying is that the myth and the bare facts are the same. They are not. They are an interpretation of the bare facts, just like the Christian's.


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