Myths ― and the idea of them
As I argued a few weeks ago, the material world definitely exists. The material seems concrete to us, and it exists in the most agreeable sense of the word. We are all aware that there is a deeper sense to this, and that the material is simply mind-driven interpretations of reality in which objects are like-objects are grouped together, but there is some sense of uninterpreted reality. To be clear, it’s not a hallucination; there is some referent ‘out there’ which our mind interprets, but the ‘out there’ isn’t neatly grouped up, like our mental models of the world are. For example, the ‘out there’ doesn’t identify a car from its component parts, minds do that. Reality simply has the component parts ― a tyre, a steering wheel ― and then the component parts of those ― rubber, metal ― and then the component parts of that ― atoms and molecules ― and then the component parts of that ― quanta and energy. ‘Out there’ is simply quanta and energy, but our minds make pragmatic sense of that by observing at a different scale: a scale of cars and chairs.
But I also argued that this is incomplete. As much as our minds make sense of the quanta ‘out there’, they also make sense of reality in terms of not objects, but narratives. We make use of narratives ― or fictions ― to navigate through a social arena where we share space. It just so happens that since writing that, I have picked up a book that articulates the same idea very well: Sapiens by Yaval Noah Harari.
The law, all of it, is a fiction. And it is also the only realm in which Peugeot exists. The car company could have every element of itself replaced: all the machines could be vapourised, and yet Peugeot could take out a loan to replace them; all the people could be fired, and yet Peugeot would still exist to hire more; even the Board of Directors could be entirely replaced. None of the material things within Peugeot are Peugeot. Peugeot is a document; it is registered as a Limited Liability Company, and the legal documentation is the only sense in which it exists. And if it only exists on paper, it’s a fiction.
It goes on. Countries are a fiction ― borders are not a part of reality ― and yet they are the bedrock of myths of nation states and nationalism, allowing for governments, constitutions and war.
These fictions are how we organise ourselves and, Harari argues, are the niche we occupy which allowed us to outcompete strong (and perhaps even smarter) species out there. Where a Neanderthal, one-on-one or even ten-on-ten, could probably have ripped a Sapiens apart, 500-on-500, Sapiens could arrange myths of strategy and commonality ― and that organisation allows Sapiens to defeat Neanderthals.
Different types of myths
You may remember from my previous post that I didn’t use the word ‘myth’. Instead, I referred to models and concepts falling on a spectrum from the material, and requiring rational and evidential arguments in their defence, to the useful fictions, requiring ethical and moral defences. The above graph captures that from left to right: as well as increasing in conceptual distance from ‘Uninterpreted reality’, the different themes also blend from requiring evidential defences to needing ethical ones. But, I shall keep the word ‘myth’ both to be consistent with Harari and because it is provocative.
For the sake of this post, I will also coin some new terms. (I have no doubt that actual philosophers have discussed this idea and so synonymous terms from better philosophers exist, but I can’t find them.) Uninterpreted reality, Object myths, Behaviour myths, Value myths and Abject myths. I haven’t included myths in the graph. They are things like Little Red Riding Hood which, although may once have served a social use as a warning, has no apparent value attachment or pragmatism (any more).
Object myths are objects. They are an incredibly pragmatic model of reality and readily form part of our defensible and shared reality. They are the material world we navigate. By contrast, Uninterpreted reality is the quanta that all material things could eventually be reduced to. There are no “whole things”, there is no reason in reality to view a car as a car instead of as its components, or those components as their own components, and so on in free fall. It is unsatisfying. Pragmatic reality is satisfying, and relies on little myths of the “wholes”, entire cars grouped together by pragmatic boundaries.
Behaviour myths are then the things that emerge from induction about objects and “wholes”; the fact that objects have certain behaviour in certain conditions. It is these myths that permit induction.
So far, this is all far left of the graph and still mostly talked about in terms of physical evidence. And yet, on the right of the graph is the value myths. No particular value myth is useful, except that it fulfils the role of being a value myth. Having a value myth, defended in ethical and moral principles (which are, themselves, myths) is important in navigating and understanding behaviours in social, legal, economical and political space. But no particular value myth is important. (That is not to say that one cannot be better defended in narrative terms ― being a complete narrative ― or in ethical principles ― achieving more wellbeing.)
There is an element of pulled-up-by-your-own-boot-straps in all of this. Value myths are defended by ethical principles, ethics itself being a value myth. Ethics can be reduced to behaviour and preferences of people, but behaviour is a myth and people ― in this model ― are classed as objects, which are also myths. And yet, the mind creates all of them quite readily. And so, vulnerability to reductive explanation is important in understanding the difference between a defensible myth and nonsense.
Value myths can afford to be entirely different. They are not built by pragmatic groupings in reality. Instead, they are created out of imagination as better or worse ideas to organise around. Human Rights; Parliamentary Sovereignty; The Constitution; a Nation State. These have their own pragmatism, as they can organise and motivate people, even allow people to perceive value. This increased our competitive edge throughout our evolutionary history, and may be a good candidate for the evolutionary pressure that lead to abstract thought and complex language.
Value myths work by appealing to general psychological truths, they are organising and motivating because they are satisfying. Value myths become more problematic when they try to nestle in unfounded claims at the other end of the spectrum; objects and behaviours. No individual value myth is important; the Nation State myth could be replaced by a Common Goal myth to much the same end. The the end needs some value myth.
Abject myths, then, are the ones that no longer resonate with psychological truths. Goldilocks may once have been a value myth about the importance of moderation (or it may not), where each character was an obvious metaphor in some sense. But, we tell ourselves better myths about moderation now (moral and ethical myths) they are not nestled in unfounded claims about objects i.e. talking bears. And so, what may once have been a value myth has become an abject myth.
Myths of better value
The most efficient value myths, I argue, are self-contained at the fiction end (right hand side) of the spectrum. These are the myths of hierarchy ― like the power of ‘Sovereignty of the people’ over the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, as was the change in mythology in France in 1789 (and not the one nestled inside an assertion on the left of the spectrum is the myth that lost out) ― or legal myths ― like Human Rights, which are nestled in a defensible claim about behaviour and so become satisfying and thus powerful.
These myths about value gain a lot of strength in not being by decree. Because the myths are not attributed to assertions about reality (e.g. God) they don’t undergo the same kind of analysis. When a value myth is anchored in an unfounded assertion about reality, then honest assessment runs the risk of the value being thrown out with the claim about reality. Religious debaters often proclaim this worry, thinking that all of morality is decreed by God and thus if we throw out that Object myth, for having no evidenced defense, then we may throw out the value myths with it. However, the good morals have better myths. Behavioural myths about humans are founded and better ground ethical messages on how to navigate social space than any religious proclamation on the same thing.
Floating a value myth, either unanchored or only anchored in observable elements of reality, allow that myth to rise and fall by merit, in the economy of ideas. The best value myths are propped up by a relationship to the right hand of the spectrum, and therefore compelling evidence. The second best myths are anchored in nothing but their own merit and consequences, where the bad ones simply fall out of favour or never take off in the first place. The worst value myths are anchored in unfounded assertions about the left hand side of the spectrum, and thus are vulnerable to being thrown out with the left-hand-side assertion.