Tag: epistemology

Oldest-known image of a dragon

Myth, Science and Unicorn Mind

In the first chapter of Before Philosophy, Henri and Henriette Frankfort pointed out that the language of myth, which they called “speculative thought,” isn’t so common these days, because science.

In our own time speculative thought finds its scope more severely limited than it has been at any other period. For we possess in science another instrument for the interpretation of experience, one that has achieved marvels and retains its full fascination.

As a result:

We do not allow speculative thought, under any circumstances, to encroach upon the sacred precincts of science. It must not trespass on the realm of verifiable fact; and it must never pretend to a dignity higher than that of working hypotheses, even in the fields in which it is permitted some scope.

Science is cool and I like it a lot. But it’s also sort of monopolized the search for truth, and that’s a problem.

For the ancients, science was no obstacle, because they hadn’t invented it yet. So “speculation found unlimited possibilities for development; it was not restricted by a scientific (that is, a disciplined) search for truth,” the Frankforts said.

Well so what?

If after reading that, you’re thinking “speculation” sounds pretty useless and science is an obvious improvement, take a pause. Any paradigm looks dumb when viewed from the comfort of some other paradigm. After all, you’re judging it by rules it never set out to follow.

Let’s explore a different way to see it. Let’s look at how the author and Archdruid John Michael Greer described the lifecycle of human civilizations. (This is going to come full-circle in about two shakes.)

In Greer’s view, the story of a civilization plays out in three broad phases:

  1. Unicorn time reminds me of what the Frankforts are talking about: a world teeming with elusive, emotionally-charged images of truth, which don’t all fit together, yet compel you deeply: hints of something real but inexpressible.
  2. Phoenix time is defined by the effort to tie up all those loose ends and reconcile the contradictions into a rich, coherent tapestry, where concrete images and abstract ideas interpenetrate in “an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering.”
  3. Dragon time is when truth is guarded and catalogued in a detailed but rigid system that leaves no room for fresh visions, if they contradict what it’s already confirmed. It’s a time when abstract concepts “dominate human consciousness and suppress magic — for a time.”

Here’s Greer again:

Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking.

Which is exactly the Frankforts’ point.

Dragons are a drag for the other magical beasts

We live in Dragon time. I should probably say upfront that there’s nothing wrong with dragons.

In fact, if you’re creative, you probably experience all three phases whenever you’re making a new piece of work. The expansive phase, when inspiration flows freely and new ideas spring up, impalpable and fleeting. The working phase, when you’re bending those ideas toward one another, trying to make sense out of the living brew. The polishing phase, when you’re cementing what you’ve created into a finished piece and doing your best not to kill the original spark in so doing.

Where art is concerned, each phase is useful and necessary. I expect the same goes for civilizations. For worldviews though, I prefer the Unicorn. Maybe a Unicorn that’s moving toward a Phoenix. Or a Phoenix that’s in love with a Unicorn.

In any case, when the Dragon voice of modern empiricism laughs at speculative thought, looks down on ancient and tribal worldviews, and claims exclusive access to truth and knowledge, I find it constraining, dulling. When the Frankforts describe the primitive worldview of the ancient Egyptians, I feel I’ve come home.

I see value in speculative thought. Not in place of science, but alongside it, concurrently and without conflict.

As I said at the outset, science is cool. It’s invaluable. I love how clean and incontrovertibly-elucidating it has the potential to be. But when its fundamentalist disciples — those who treat it like the only thing of value, hammering it into the shape of some weird religion — use science to dismiss and ridicule the speculative thought of primitive mind, I find that just a bit outrageous.

There is extraordinary value to be found in these other paradigms. Bottom line, Dragons are not the only magical beast in the forest.

Mammatus Clouds in Tulsa

Not a Fib

“The divine name that is explicitly associated with [the Abrahamic covenant] is êl šadday,” said The Oxford Study Bible. “Its sign is the circumcision” (page 154).

Doesn’t El Shaddai mean God with Breasts? According to Harriet Lutzky it does. She’s the assistant psych professor at John Jay University who linked the word Shaddai to the Hebrew word šad.

EL. "God, deity" (Northwest Semitic languages, êl).
SHADDAI. "Breasty, with breasts" (Hebrew, šadday from šad "breast").

Strange that God would give Abraham this explicitly feminine name to call her, then ask him to respond with the explicitly masculine sign of circumcision. Maybe not so strange. It’s a reasonable exchange, a sexual one: she promises he’ll have her breast to nourish him; he dedicates his penis to her.

Anyway, I find this article — “Torah and Covenant” by Richard Elliot Friedman — pretty fascinating. It explores how the three principal covenants of the Hebrew Bible are written in the standard legal form of the day.

In itself, that’s no news to me. Having grown up in church, I’ve heard, I don’t know how many preachers talk about this. Still it lands differently when the actual legal contracts of the day are named and described, set in parallel to the familiar biblical text.

As I read, the thought that I can’t shake is this

They keep talking about the agreement being forged between the deity and his recipients, and I just keep wondering, how?

I mean, when these legal agreements entered the story of human history — when they happened (which they did: at some point in time, something took place and these agreements were made) — what did that look like? Despite my effort to resist making religion handmaiden to science, I can’t help but ask, did someone just make these stories up? Or did a flaming torch actually proceed between the opened halves of the sacrificial animal?

What did Abraham see?

The Abrahamic covenant is the one I keep coming back to. It’s easier for me to imagine a flaming mountain (the Israelite covenant) or a comprehensive deluge (the Noachic) actually happening. But Abraham was one man, not a nation assembled at the foot of Sinai, not a family struggling to survive a disaster. He was an individual who went outside to talk to God with no natural chaos or social pressure to cloud the moment, and he came back with a contract.

Unless that’s just the story that got told about him. Just the same, where did that story originate? These people didn’t write novels. They weren’t ones to base the integrity of their societal structure upon known fictions. I wish I could look back in time.

But that’s empiricism in me speaking, asking if God is real, if myth is fact, if any of this is history. I sense that the question itself is off. I know I’m dissatisfied with the answer, “No, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay and it doesn’t diminish the importance of the fib.” Because even though that answer attempts to respect the story while disbelieving it at the same time, it still reduces it to a fib.

It’s awfully difficult for us this day and age to swallow the notion that it’s not a fib, that it happened in real life just as the book says. That would require believing that way back when, God interacted with humanity in a way he’s since given up.

I actually like the idea that God isn’t the same person today as she was before. That God is learning and growing. That her psyche is linked to ours, that we’re how she experiences the world. That this is, in fact, why she created existence in the first place, and that our perceptions — of sunlight, stress, subway systems, grief, pancake syrup and all the rest — are thus personally invaluable to the divine.

If, over the millennia, God has been changing, causing his relationship to humanity to evolve as well, I guess it’s possible to say he once had the habit of turning into torches. Still, it’s hard to swallow. As ideas go, it’s a bit of a chicken bone in the gullet.

Again, I think the question is mistaken, but I’m not sure why

It’s not just that I don’t like the only possible answer, right? I’m not intellectually dishonest, am I? Maybe the question is mistaken for the same reason it’s not wise to intellectualize a koan: you can do it, but it misses the point (Zen Ghosts, afterward).

I believe that the stories are real, and that you have to take them on their own terms. You have to suspend judgment and forego the question of fact altogether. I know no better way to participate respectfully with these stories or to place myself in a dialogue with them that opens the door to the great good they can bring.

It’s not fib. It’s story — and in my view, story is an inestimably sacred thing. To ask its credentials all the time is to miss the opportunity to fall in love. It’s like correcting someone’s grammar when they’re giving you directions to the post office, or interrupting someone’s confession to inform them they have a crumb on their lip.

That’s the best I can do for now.

The Oxford may be able to do me one better

“By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in process of making those contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. … Law, theology and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal” (Oxford, pages 160-161).

Maybe that’s why the previous question misses the point. This account is a merging of disciplines: it’s history, but more than history; law, but more than law; theology, but more than that too. In being all three at once, it’s also none of them in isolation, so the standards we associate with each discipline end up being somewhat irrelevant.

Or is that just an interesting justification?

I don’t think so. I think it’s an attempt to reconcile our current epistemology with their ancient one. Something’s always lost in translation. But there is something in their way of knowing that’s worth retrieving, though it can’t be done unless we brave the murkiness of the cognitive dissonance that exists between us.