Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Myth and Science, Two Ways to Two Truths

"We're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone." ~ Rod Serling

African ethnographer Maya Deren's definition of myth enchanted me the first time I read it: "Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in the fiction of matter" (Divine 21). She goes on to speak of a West African elder who tells stories, "not to describe matter but to demonstrate meaning...[talking] of his past for purposes of his future...[composing] from the matter of memory at hand--from specific physical conditions" endemic to his own geography, era and race (21). This elder's culturally expressed stories arise from and gesture toward phenomena beyond the veil of empirical verification. These invisible "facts of the mind" in-form the mythical stories and fulfill a human hankering for cosmic order and meaning. Deren says, "[the human] creature contains the possibility of a mind, like a fifth limb latent in man, structured to make and manipulate meaning as the fist is structured to grasp and finger matter" (23). Deren captures the instinctive human predilection to mythologize--to speak of the, "...important aspects of reality which escape science, including those which are manifest within the perceived world.
These later [non-scientific] aspects are likely to be of fundamental importance for our primary understanding of things, just as those which are characteristic of the world of science are of fundamental importance when we seek to explain natural phenomena." (Merlou-Ponty 14)

Mythic reality points to truth beyond mere scientific rationalism and empiricism, summed up famously by Blaise Pascal: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Many mistakenly take Pascal's word "heart" to be synonymous with a vacuous emotional feeling, just as many take the word myth to be tantamount to illusional phantasmagoria, dismissing mythic truth as Scrooge tried to set aside his vision of Marley's ghost as "a bit of undigested beef". Not so fast--"heart," as used by Pascal, like Deren's myth, refers to perceptions that are every bit as real and "reasonable" in their own way as any empirical perception.

Lawrence Hatab argues that truth is plural, comprised of ordinary "empirical" truth and primordial "mythical" truth. This accords nicely with Deren's defintion, allowing for not only the scientific "facts of matter," but for the mythic "facts of the mind". Hatab, elucidating Heidegger's work on the philosophy of Being, writes, "Heidegger distinguishes between ordinary [scientific] truth and primordial [mythic] truth, or representational truth. In representational truth, a statement must correspond to a state of affairs. The 'tree stands in the field' is true if in fact the tree is in the field. All well and good. But Heidegger argues that before this correspondence takes effect, 'something' must first be presented, come to be, or show itself as a phenomenon. Indeed, a good deal must first show itself--the meaning of tree and field; their relation; the context of relations and meanings into which tree and field fit; statements; the relatedness of statements and states of affairs; a criterion of empirical verification; and primarily the meaning of Being itself. So before representational correspondence, before the operation of empirical verification, a primal presentation shows itself. Presentational truth refers to this primal showing or emergence, which Heidegger calls unconcealment...Such primordial truth is prior to what is disclosed." (Myth 5, italics mine)

So there are two truths: presentational truth, sometimes called presencing or prespatial by Heidegger, and representational truth. Innate mythic reason works through presencing, providing or gifting the prespatial canvas beneath the mythmaker's artistic brush. Myth is created from the primordial presentational "facts of the mind." In his lectures On Time and Being, Heidegger writes: "As the ground, Being brings beings to their actual presencing. The ground shows itself as presence. The present of presence consists in the fact that it brings what is present each in its own way to presence" (56). In what Heidegger refers to as "the fact that...brings what is present in its own way to presence," I think we find Pascal's "reasons of the heart" and Derens "facts of the mind" which prompts each culturally unique mythic narrative. These primordial "facts of the mind" are the pre-scientific and pre-human seeds which, when sown in the psyche, compel storytellers to open with, "Once upon a time".

This can be illustrated further by math and music. Like myth, these two phenomena are internal mental presences before they are external re-presences, prespatial presentations before spatial representations, or "facts of the mind" before they are made manifest in the "fiction of matter". Before the architect's blueprint or the musician's musical score are made manifest on paper, they exist in the realm of mind as archetypal "facts". Once on paper they become material fictions--fictions not because they are untrue, but because no single blueprint or musical score can contain all of the truth there is to know about math or music. Each fiction, or fantasy, presents a tiny fragment of mathematical and musical truth, but not the entire truth of these pre-human "facts of the mind". So it is with myth--each myth presents or manifests a fictional yet true fragment of archetypal reality. These archetypal "facts of the mind" incarnate as material manifestations--as spoken sound waves, ink on paper, theatrical dramas, or ritual objects and actions. They ex-press internal im-pressions or primal perceptions of Being.

It is crucial to remember that no myth can ever completely depict or contain the whole primal showing or emergence. Every myth borrows from the humanly constructed props endemic to a unique culture in order to stage its representational cosmology. Nor can humans fully exist without expressing and impressing these innate inklings--we require stories to communicate experiences that cannot be contained by material factoids or chemical analysis. The compulsion to discover and express imaginal beginnings, values and beings is the "fifth limb latent in man, structured to make and manipulate meaning as the fist is structured to grasp and finger matter" mentioned by Deren (Myth 21). Humans must create true fictitious responses that co-respond with and to the "ground that shows itself as presence". In this view all anthropic mythical systems are provisional fantasies, including post- modern science, as admitted by many physicists who are questioning the old Newtonian myth of pure materialism, "In breaking with Newtonian materialism we must accept that the objects of our theoretical models and the real entities of the external world bear a much more subtle relationship to each other than was assumed hitherto. Indeed, the very notion of what we mean by truth and reality must go into the melting pot...In quantum field theory, for instance, theorists often refer to abstract entities called 'virtual' particles. These ephemeral objects come into existence out of nothing, and almost immediately fade away again...So to what extent can they be said really to exist?" (The Matter Myth 18, 20)

In this new quantum mythology the old rejected religious myths are not only being revised, but invited back for a second look. Take for example the Buddhist idea of reincarnation and other ubiquitous religious accounts of post-mortem consciousness. Even the skeptic Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, wrote that arguments for reincarnation may have some support: "...there are three claims in the [paranormal] field that deserve serious study...[one being that of] young children [who] sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation." (282)

Sagan's comment also suggests that the line between empirical and mythical realities is fading. Consider the Tantric Buddhist bardo doctrine which teaches that people experience their own harmful mental projections in the intermediate states between life, death and rebirth. Some good research by neurobiologists like Dr. Andrew Newberg suggests that the human brain may have the capacity to access a level of reality beyond the empirical world—to actually enter into the archetypal realm of the mythic "facts of the mind". Brain scans of meditators reveal that all deeply mystical experiences are preceded by the diminishment of sensory stimulation. Newberg says that in deep meditation, "something" other than sensory objects is encountered. He makes it clear that neurology can neither prove nor disprove a non-material dimension, however, it is entirely possible "that the brain is truly in contact with some divine presence or fundamental level of reality" (NeuroTheology 145). Physicist Frank Tipler suggests that seminaries, and I would add mythologists, had better start studying physics as a prerequisite for doing serious theology and mythology.

Thank you Maya Deren for providing such a simple yet incredibly complex description of myth. This perspective allows for what James Hillman calls psychologizing or "seeing through," permitting us to see why humans have always been compelled to make manifest the archetypal “facts of the mind in the fiction of matter”.

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