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More Than Allegory
On Religious Myth, Truth and Belief
By Bernardo Kastrup
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Bernardo Kastrup
All rights reserved.
The role and importance of myth
A myth is a story in terms of which one can relate to oneself and the world. The myth of the Holy Trinity, for instance, provides context to the lives of millions of Christians: God, as the Father, explains and justifies the creation of the world. As the Holy Spirit, He maintains the world's significance on an on-going basis by infusing it with an invisible divine essence. The myth also provides perspective: God, this time as the Son, offers a concrete example of how to live life in accordance with His grand plan and achieve salvation. The divinity's entrance into its own creation in forms both ethereal (the Holy Spirit) and concrete (the Son) provides a bridge between ordinary life and a transcendent order (the Father). This brings meaning into the world of many Christians, preventing ordinary life from being experienced as aimless and futile.
Myth has historically provided context and perspective to our presence in the world and has enriched the lives of human beings since the dawn of our species. In a culture obsessed with literal truth and pragmatism, such as our own, the impoverishment of myth is increasingly — if only instinctively — felt. Never before in history has a civilization been so desperately devoid of context and perspective. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where should we go? What's the point of it all? We feel lost because we are unable to take seriously the maps that could give us directions. We can no longer take myths seriously because, after all, they are only myths.
Historically speaking, the contemporary attitude toward myth is an aberration. The skewed assumptions that sustain this aberration and the reasons why they are mistaken will be addressed in the next chapters. For now, though, let us briefly review the role and importance of myth.
Myth and consensus reality
We can roughly divide the chain of subjective experiences we call life into two realms: an outer realm of perceptions and an inner realm of emotions and thoughts. Indeed, while identifying with our emotions and thoughts, we usually don't identify with experiences mediated by our five senses. In other words, we tend to think that our perceptions — despite still being subjective experiences — are outside us, while our emotions and thoughts are part of us. For reasons that will become apparent later, I will refer to the contents of perception — that is, everything we see, hear, smell, taste and feel through the skin — as images and interactions. For instance, a lion and a wildebeest are images, while a lion eating a wildebeest is an interaction between images. A rock and a hill are images, while a rock rolling down a hill is an interaction between images. And so on.
The sole facts of the outer realm are images and their respective interactions in space and time. Everything else arises in the inner realm through an act of interpretation. After all, in and by themselves the images and interactions express no meaning or emotion. They are simply the movement of pixels in the canvas of a world outside the ego — outside the control of our volition — which evokes thoughts and feelings within us.
Let us belabor this a bit. What I am saying is that the potentials for emotion and meaning remain unexpressed in the outer realm, which our culture has come to call consensus reality. It is a domain of pure form. It's not sad or happy, pointless or purposeful, boring or exciting. In and by itself, consensus reality doesn't express any conclusion, emotional or intellectual. All we can consider to be its facts are the images and interactions themselves, not our interpretations of them. The horror or the natural beauty one sees in a wildebeest being devoured alive by a lion are evoked, by interpretation, entirely within one's inner realm. Then they are projected outward onto the world. 'We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ... We interpret what we see ... We live entirely ... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience,' observed Joan Didion.
The outer realm is shared across individuals. After all, we all seem to live in the same world. We all know what lions, wildebeests, rocks and hills are. We go to theaters, museums and parks to share perceptual experiences with others. But the meaning and emotion evoked by these perceptual experiences aren't necessarily shared: they arise in our private inner realm alone. Two people observing the exact same outer events may conclude different things from, and react emotionally in different ways to, the images. As such, meaning and emotion aren't part of the consensus. To convey meaning or emotion to another individual, we even have to first translate them into consensus images — such as gestures, facial expressions, spoken or written words, etc. — in the hope that these images will then evoke the same meaning and emotion in the inner realm of another. Meaning and emotion cannot be directly shared the way the images of consensus reality are.
In summary: none of what we call consensus reality, or the 'real world out there,' expresses meaning or emotion directly. Only in our inner realm do meaning and emotion arise. This may sound like a nod to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who considered the world senseless, as all meaning is admittedly projected onto it by us. But it is not what I mean to imply. The world is only senseless if one sees the outer realm as fundamentally separate from the inner realm, which is by no means an established fact. Indeed, insofar as we can know, outer and inner realms are simply different modalities of subjective experience. As discussed in my earlier books Why Materialism Is Baloney and Brief Peeks Beyond, they are two facets of the same coin. Whether meaning is anchored in the outer or inner realm is thus irrelevant: the world is meaningful in both cases for these realms are, at bottom, expressions of one and the same reality.
All this said, my argument holds whether one adopts Sartre's view or my own: the images and interactions of consensus reality evoke meaning and emotion in our inner realm. As such, these outer images work as keys to unlock our affective and intellectual potentials. Without them, our capacity for feeling and thinking wouldn't actualize. Just try to imagine how you could possibly feel romantic love or ponder about the nature of existence without consensus images, such as other sentient beings and the universe they occupy. You will quickly realize that you can't.
And here is the key point: our mind needs a code to translate consensus images into thoughts and feelings. Without it, there would be no bridge or commerce between outer and inner realms. The inputs of this translation code are the images and interactions of consensus reality, as perceived by our five senses. Its outputs are the corresponding thoughts and feelings evoked within. Now, because our self-reflective mind operates according to linguistic patterns (an assertion I will substantiate in Chapter 3), the translation code takes the form of a mental narrative we tell ourselves; a story that implies particular correspondences between outer images and inner feelings and ideas. The translation code is thus a myth.
Indeed, the English word 'myth' derives from the Ancient Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: something said in words, like a story, speech or report. That we think of reality according to myths is even suggested by the Common Slavic derivative of the original Greek: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (mysl'), which means 'thought' or 'idea.' Therefore, the word 'myth' originally meant a story that evokes thought; not necessarily an untrue story, as it is often understood today. Throughout this book, I use the word 'myth' in this broader, original sense: myth is a story that implies a certain way of interpreting consensus reality so to derive meaning and affective charge from its images and interactions. As such, it can take many forms: fables, religions and folklore, but also formal philosophical systems and scientific theories. Clearly, a myth can be true or false without ceasing to be a myth.
Myth is the code that each one of us constantly uses, whether we are aware of it or not, to interpret life in the world. For instance, the ancient myth of astrology links daily events to celestial rhythms and cycles meant to explain the ups and downs of life. Myth is the very thing that allows the events of consensus reality to mean anything to us. A hard-earned promotion at work only means a life well lived if one has adopted the myth that status, power and wealth accumulation are the purpose of life. If none of these things were assumed to be important, what could a promotion mean? Myth is also the very thing that allows the events of life to impact us emotionally. The death of a loved one is only a permanent loss under the myth of materialism. Our disgust toward acts of wickedness is entirely dependent on our respective myths of morality. And so on. Notice that I am not passing judgment on these myths. I am simply stating that they are a necessary condition for the images of the world to convey any meaning to us, intellectual or emotional. Without these myths, consensus images and their respective interactions would be just dancing pixels.
Without a code for interpreting the consensus images all around us, life in the world would evoke no thought, no emotion, no conclusion. It would consist of pure and neutral observation, without commentary.
A vacuum of myth?
It is nearly impossible to live life without a myth. A continuous and relentless effort at interpreting consensus reality is part-and-parcel of the human condition. And this on-going interpretation, as we've seen above, entails the code we call myth. It is already a huge challenge for most people to become lucid of the myth underlying the somewhat instinctive way in which they relate to the world. So to deliberately do away with all interpretations, and all codes, is at best a very tough call indeed.
Myth is disguised in subtle forms. Take, for instance, the notion that consensus reality exists outside mind: it's an inference, an interpretation of perceptions, since the perceptions themselves are always in mind. Or take today's materialist neo-Darwinian cosmology: its story suggests that the whole universe is a kind of machine and that its entire dynamics, including life, are driven by a combination of blind chance and some mechanical laws. One might think that such a cosmology dispenses with myth altogether, but nothing is farther from the truth. To say that nature is a mechanical apparatus without purpose or intentionality is itself an interpretation; a myth. The absence of myth would require a complete lack of interpretation or judgment of consensus reality. In the absence of myth, no analogies would be made between the cosmos and machines, and no judgments would be passed regarding whether existence has a purpose or not. One would simply witness images and notice the patterns and regularities of their interactions without commentary or conclusions.
A deprived myth is not the same as an absence of myth. A deprived myth is one that favors narrow and lame interpretations of consensus reality, interpretations that do not resonate with one's deepest intuitions. A deprived myth makes life in the world seem futile and claustrophobic. But it is a myth nonetheless, because it entails an interpretation. Today, we don't live in a mythless society. Our condition is much more tragic: we live in a society dominated by increasingly deprived myths.
The dominance of deprived myths is insidious and has severe consequences as far as one's psychic health and relationship with truth is concerned. Yet, these consequences are usually overlooked in the first half of life, because deprived myths have a strong distractive power in that period. Young adults, in a natural attempt to self-affirm, are often distracted by the deprived myths of consumption, power and status. Many manage to continue distracting themselves almost all their lives and, in that sense, we live in an adolescent society. But once these deprived myths are seen for what they are, one needs a richer myth that does justice to the scope of life and imbues it with timeless meaning. Let us elaborate on these ideas a bit more.
The impetus of human life
Renowned psychologist James Hillman, in his 'acorn theory,' suggested that each person has a call: an often-obfuscated but passionate idea of what her life is meant to be, just like an acorn holds within itself a blueprint of the oak it's meant to become. A life lived so as to bring that idea into reality — thus turning the acorn into the oak — is a life of purpose and timeless meaning. As such, 'the call offers transcendence, becoming as necessary to a person's life on Earth as performance to [Judy] Garland, battle to [George] Patton, painting to [Pablo] Picasso.' It is this transcendence that imbues life with the eternal significance of destiny fulfillment, as opposed to the evanescence of a mere chain of chance events. 'To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend ... we need meaning ... we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. ... And we need freedom ... to get beyond ourselves ... to rise above our immediate surroundings,' observed Oliver Sacks.
The whole impetus of life is to transcend: to get beyond the separateness, insignificance and transience of the ordinary human condition through association with something timeless and boundless.
Notice that true transcendence should not be confused with mere fame and influence: while it's true that Garland's performances enchanted millions, Patton's victories changed the course of history and Picasso's influence on the arts cannot be overestimated, are their fame and influence truly timeless and boundless? Our planet is like a spec of dust floating in the vastness of space. Are Garland, Patton and Picasso of any significance anywhere beyond this tiny spec? The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Will Earthlings even remember them a mere million years from now? How could mere fame and influence possibly embody the eternal significance of destiny fulfillment? Garland, Patton and Picasso transcended not because of their celebrity — transcendence is far subtler than that — but because, by 'following their bliss,' they embodied 'a flowering of existence in a very creative and new way.' I am going to elaborate more on this subtle notion of transcendence later.
Our innate drive to transcend is a natural and legitimate response to the existential despair that characterizes the ordinary human condition, as powerfully described by the existentialist philosophers. Deep inside, we feel small and powerless before the immensity and impersonal character of a seemingly absurd world. We know that 'everything changes and nothing remains still,' so none of what we find important can last. Investing our identity in a fragile body confined in both space and time, we — uniquely among animals — also know that our own death is inevitable. Every thought, feeling, choice and action of our lives will — or so we fear — eventually be reduced to irrelevance. Aren't they all then, at bottom, already irrelevant? Aren't our lives meaningless, our suffering pointless and our dreams frivolous? These questions are the source of our existential despair. 'If you have lived in despair, then, regardless of whatever else you won or lost, everything is lost for you, eternity does not acknowledge you, it never knew you,' wrote Kierkegaard. Our despair propels our soul — our deepest drives and intuitions — toward some form of transcendence. We long for a more-than-merely-human condition; a form of immortality and boundlessness that would allow us to observe the drama of our ephemeral lives from 'above,' as opposed to being engulfed and drowned by it.
But can we, in subtle and indirect ways as the case may be, somehow achieve a form of immortality or boundlessness? Is the drive to transcend grounded on valid intuitions or is it mere wish fulfillment? The predominant intellectual answer in our culture today is that transcendence is fundamentally impossible, for there is nothing to a human being but his biological body. This, in itself, is a myth; an interpretation of images. And although this myth is disputed on very solid logical and empirical grounds, the main counterforce to it seems to be the experiential one: throughout history, countless people have had transcendent — spiritual, mystical — experiences. They have felt and cognized directly that our true identities extend far beyond our bodies and that our lives in this world are pregnant with meaning. One can make a very strong case for the validity of these transcendent experiences. The question of validity, however, isn't the problem.
Excerpted from More Than Allegory by Bernardo Kastrup. Copyright © 2015 Bernardo Kastrup. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsOther books by Bernardo Kastrup,
Introduction by Jeffrey Kripal: Reading Inside God's Brain,
PART I: Myth,
Chapter 1: The role and importance of myth,
Chapter 2: The rich colors of mythical life,
Chapter 3: The truth of religious myths,
Chapter 4: Myth and no-myth,
PART II: Truth,
Chapter 5: The quest for truth,
Chapter 6: Deconstructing truth,
Chapter 7: Truth, myth and world,
PART III: Belief,
Chapter 8: Ticket off-world,
Chapter 9: Meeting the Other,
Chapter 10: The origin of life, the universe and everything,
Chapter 11: Happy hour in the Dome,
Chapter 12: Another facet of the truth,
Epilogue: The Legacy of a Truth-Seeker,