Thursday, October 24, 2013

Myths with pretensions

I commented recently – in the context of a post about myths relating to race and (Jewish) identity – that one of the things I like about science is its myth-destroying power.

And science (broadly construed to take in the historical sciences) certainly does have that power. But it is – I readily admit – a strangely disturbing power. It goes against the grain of human psychology and culture which is irredeemably myth-ridden.

So when I said I 'like' that aspect of science, I was oversimplifying – leaving out the sense of ambivalence.

Let me give an illustration based on the final couple of years of my religious phase which relates not just to myths but to metaphysicalized myths – myths, if you like, with pretensions.

Two kinds of thinker appealed to me, but each in a different way.

On the one hand were those who distilled the essence (as they saw it) of the Christian myth and offered a deeply satisfying (for those who could accept it) way of relating to the challenges of life which incorporated a very deep, intuitive but historically-validated understanding of human psychology. For me, these thinkers were largely those in the Protestant (and particularly the Reformed) tradition who embraced Paul's emphasis on the absolute power of God. My favourite was Karl Barth.

But I was also attracted to a completely different kind of scholar – more scientifically- and historically-oriented – who offered none of that psychological comfort, but who offered another kind of liberation entirely. Rudolf Bultmann spoke of demythologizing the faith, but what he was doing was simply reinterpreting the old myths. More convincing were those who didn't talk about faith at all but who sought merely to elucidate the historical background of the New Testament. And the more I understood that background, the less plausible the Christian interpretations (and myths) came to seem.

But when one gets rid of one myth another will often arise to take its place. Social and political myths, for example, often take the place of religious ones.

Our brains have a special affinity for simple narratives which is explicable no doubt – at least in part – in terms of the need to generate the sense of a coherent, continuing self. We also have a strong tendency (which manifests itself in the grammars of natural languages) towards animism – seeing even inanimate nature as exhibiting human-like intentions and purposes. And though we have come to accept science's non-teleological explanations, many still shy away from these as ultimate explanations. For example, there is resistance to the view that randomness is, as modern physics suggests, a fundamental characteristic of reality.

In a sense, science is – and always will be – an unnatural activity, and the scientific worldview is a peculiarly unsatisfying one. Those of us who are committed to a scientific view of the world will always be, I fear, to some extent at war with our own natures.

I have also been thinking about mathematical Platonism again recently. Though such a view is essentially a timeless one (and so renounces narratives in the normal sense), it may still be seen to incorporate elements of myth (and teleology) as well as metaphysics. How else would it manage to exert such a strong emotional attraction (as it clearly does for many)?

The question of the plausibility of mathematical Platonism (or realism) is so important because it impinges on broader questions, such as the viability of an empiricist worldview. In fact, mathematical realism can be seen – and is seen by many – as posing major challenges not only for empiricism but also for physicalism.

And, as my instincts are (for want of a less abstract way of characterizing them) deeply empiricist and physicalist, I need to settle on a particular view of mathematics and see if, or to what extent, I will be forced to modify the basic way I see the world.

I am quite resigned to the fact that I will never entirely escape mythical thinking, but my goal is – if possible – to rid myself completely of the grand, intellectualized and metaphysicalized kind of myth and settle instead for the humble and commonplace variety.

Like the perennially-appealing prospect, mooted in a famous section of Homer's Odyssey and revived in the 18th and 19th centuries, of retiring to an exotic island paradise and drifting extremely slowly into a peaceful and uncomplicated old age.


  1. Here's a story I heard from Ninian Smart.

    Smart was once a visiting professor at the University of Tubingen. There, as elsewhere, professors of theology were followed around by a bunch of enthusiastic students, described by Smart as "a flotilla of sycophants".

    In retaliation, one of Smart's students, an Australian, put it about that Smart was a deep thinker worthy of student appreciation. This had the desired effect -- he got his own flock.

    I'm not sure whether Barth and Bultmann had such flotillas! They sure were influential in their time. My PhD supervisor, Selwyn Grave, was a mountain climber in his youth, and named a New Zealand mountain he first climbed "Mt Barth", which I think he regretted in later life.

    The story is told here:

    Smart has a Wikipedia entry that ends in this way:

    Towards the end of his life, Smart described himself as a "Buddhist-Episcopalian", saying, "No religion, it seems to me, contains the whole truth. I think it's mad to think that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and civilizations. If you accept that other religions have something to offer and you learn from them, that is what you become: a Buddhist-Episcopalian or a Hindu-Muslim or whatever."

    1. I didn't know about Selwyn Grave's background as a mountaineering cleric. I heard him lecture but didn't have any significant interactions with him. He seemed impressive but very self-effacing.

      Smart's type of approach (eclectic? syncretistic?) never really appealed to me, I must say. The assumption seems to be that there is some general truth (or set of religious truths?) underlying religious traditions.

  2. I have always found Buddhism the most puzzling of religions, so for that reason alone I can't imagine how it could be conjoined to any other system of thought.