Problems for Posting on Saint John’s Day (just because that is what today is in the liturgical calendar): When Is Myth Actually Analogy Right from the Start?
I actually have a couple of notes on topics relating to myth, one of them written two or three days ago, but since I have learned that stringing together such topics in what I consider sequential order only confuses everyone, I am striving, for once, to keep it all apart. Here is number one. Number two may continue to be delayed.
David Brooks’ annual Sidney Awards for remarkable essays of 2013 (published in his column in the December 27, 2013 New York Times) includes a summary of opposing essays in The New Republic by Stephen Pinker and Leon Wieseltier regarding what Brooks describes as “the proper role of science in modern thought.” [Brooks seems to be rehabilitating “modern” as a synonym for “contemporary,” incidentally.]
Brooks summarizes Pinker as saying that science “has demonstrated that ‘the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans and societies—are factually mistaken.’” He quotes Pinker directly about science’s alternative view of things: “’The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for ourselves, our species and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces.’”
Wieseltier retorts that (I continue to quote Brooks’ summation) “few believers take Scripture literally. They interpret. Meanwhile, science simply can’t explain many of the most important things. Imagine a scientific explanation of a beautiful painting, based, say, on a chemical analysis of the paint. ‘Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.’ The scientists deny the differences between the realms of human existence and simplify reality by imposing their methods even where they can’t apply.”
Reading this, I recalled my late mentor Thomas O’Dea’s description of a debate between Wilfrid Cantwell Smith and Morton Smith in which W.C. Smith asserted that the scholar of religion had to be a believer because only a believer can know what the interior condition of belief is, while M. Smith asserted that on the contrary, the scholar had to be an atheist because otherwise he (this was a long time ago; he meant “he”) would believe that angels really appeared to the British doughboys in World War I. [This was a slightly distorted shorthand allusion to the incident in which a piece of fiction by Arthur Machen became the basis for the popular legend of the Angels of Mons.] O’Dea said that if the two had been his students, he would have interrupted and explained some basic things to them; but since they were two of the most respected men in their academic discipline, he couldn’t.
Likewise with Pinker and Wieseltier. Part of the problem is that the English language doesn’t do a good job of using the word “science”; French and German have no such difficulty when it comes to asserting the continuity between the physical sciences and the human sciences...even though it is now necessary to assert more decisively than ever before that there is a continuity, and not some kind of fundamental break where the qualities of the human species are under discussion.
That beautiful painting of which Wieseltier makes so much? Well, my growing pile of important, but not yet read, books now includes some newly published volumes in which the biological and mathematical foundations of beauty are discussed alongside the physical conditions necessary for such activities as painting to arise in the first place. Let there be no pigments, however, and human beings will scratch their pictures into sand or rock. And although chimpanzees have been known to develop passionate attachments to non-functional objects for reasons that resemble aesthetic pleasure, we can’t really reduce the problem of “beauty” to the pre-linguistic emotional responses for which we can pretend to map the neural circuitry. (Many neuroscientists other than Pinker are careful to discuss the problem of deciding what those neural maps are really showing us about the mental territory.)
Wieseltier is right to imply that Pinker’s map of the neural circuitry is more akin to the chemical analysis of the paint on the canvas than of the conditions under which the artist painted the picture and the conditions under which the audience for the painting responds to it now, or has responded to it in the past. But audience response, and the origins of particular moments of creativity, and the particular weighting of historical forces versus psychological peculiarities and inbuilt biological limits and possibilities, are all topics that remain under vigorous debate in the “human sciences.”
The inability to prove which factor ought to be considered dominant is increasingly thought to be evidence that none of them are dominant except in the most transient fashion. There are, to take the most trivial approach to the problem, cases in which a literally starving painter makes a huge body of work without concern for whether anyone else will ever see it, and cases in which the primary motivation of the painter is to make as much money as possible, or to be regarded with the highest possible esteem by society; but given the right circumstances, the resulting paintings by the two artists might look very similar to one another. Why that might be so would involve a discussion of many historical variables regarding, among other things, the implicit or explicit rules for making “art.” And that would lead us down several other increasingly tortuous trails of inquiry and vehement debate among investigators of the human condition.
So it is silly to say that “science imposes its methods where they don’t belong.” The problem is that most English-speaking “scientists” don’t understand what science is, and why the so-called hard and soft sciences can’t be separated from one another or ranked by degree to which they offer provisional explanations of the world.
And those “provisional explanations of the world” are surely what religious believers ought to assert that the forces of transcendence were offering to those to whom they originally spoke. This might be considered “interpreting” rather than “taking literally,” but this is only because well-informed believers know we can’t take anything literally. Everything is a relative statement based on historical forces and psychological and linguistic limits, whether the statement is made by a literal-minded believer in absolutized notion of “science” or by a priest, a prophet, or a poet.
Everything has to be explained in terms that fit the prior assumptions of an audience, and that means working by means of analogy most of the time, or by “approaching the unknown in terms of what is called ‘known’ by the audience.” So much of what we call myth might, for believers, be considered shaping the information into forms the audience of the time would consider meaningful.
Edward Frenkel’s hybrid book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality begins with a biographical description of how his life as a Jew excluded from certain career paths in the Soviet Union led him to become a major explorer of the farther reaches of contemporary mathematical theory, then embarks on a chapter by chapter attempt to make intelligible for the ordinary reader “a grand unified theory of mathematics,” the Langlands program that the New York Times reviewer of Frenkel’s book [I apologize for not citing more profound sources; the NYT is the easiest resource for quick reference] describes as proposing that “the hard questions in number theory can be answered by employing the methods of a seemingly unconnected field called harmonic analysis.”
Let’s imagine Frenkel suddenly becomes a time traveler intent on explaining his knowledge not to English-speaking readers with a little bit of recollection of elementary mathematics, but to various communities in the ancient world. He could probably get a long, long way with Archimedes or Pythagoras; even if they began to dispute some of his more arcane premises in terms of their own worldview, they might well understand what he was talking about and even debate the adequacy of the logical analysis underlying his higher mathematical constructions.
If Frenkel were plopped down in the middle of one of those imagined ancient communities in which there were no names for numbers higher than, say, seven, he would have to start at a rather more elementary level, and even the group’s best intellectuals might have trouble learning how the abstract concept of number might relate to descriptions of shape, and so on. There would be many stories to tell and analogies to make that would gradually lead this fictional group’s thinkers past the point at which discrete objects turn into a blurry pile, and on to notions that would allow them to connect realms of their world they had never previously conceptualized as in any way related to one another.
Any number of believers I have encountered, though usually ones not shaped by university educations about the nature of myth, have suggested to me that the inbreaking reality known as God would not get very far trying to make a bunch of nomadic herders understand the nature of quantum reality. When you know the whole story and they don’t, no surprise that all that gets transmitted is, “I am the LORD. My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts.”
This implies a belief in ongoing revelation that is not accepted by any of the orthodox religions assaulted by Pinker, but it suggests that an ongoing current of heresy has long addressed the problem of supplanted cosmologies and found no difficulty in supposing that transcendent forces have been trying to have a conversation with humanity ever since the species acquired the capacity for language, and that the conversation is evolving along with the species.
It’s an interesting subtopic in the history of religions, and as such is as open to scientific inquiry (in the sense of the “soft” sciences of psychology, history, anthropology of all societies, et cetera) as any other, without accepting or denying the premises from which such believers start. It presents a view of religion less as merely symbolic representations of an unknowable dimension of reality, and more as a combination of simplified explanations and outright failures of hearing as in the “blessed are the cheesemakers” burlesque of the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s legendary Life of Brian.
We can track such hybrid hypotheses and explore their past sociological consequences without offering an opinion as to their ultimate truth value beyond their observable effects, or we can construct our own provisional hypotheses as to what might have been “really” going on, but regardless of how we approach the problem, it’s further empirical evidence that when it comes to the human condition, Pinker and Wieseltier don’t understand the half of it, any more than the one Smith and the other Smith did. (Huston Smith would have been an interesting third interlocutor in the discussion that O’Dea described nearly half a century ago, but he presumably wasn’t there.)