Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Some random hypotheses and tests - testing the waters

1. Myths about the cosmic order are instinctive and reflect the geographic milieu, serve the economic and technical demands of the age and legitimate the the social order - community norms, mores, ethic and hierarchy. These instincts are experienced as compelling numinous images or symbols or enacted as rituals. They are either an emergent communal expression or left to shamans, chiefs or kings, or religious leaders to articulate and disseminate. In modern times, culturally significant artists may take the role of shamans. The myths change with historically significant changes in technology and trade.

TEST If this is true, disruptions in the mythic consciousness would cause psychological disturbances because the capacity for mythic instinct has ceased to be rooted in a social economy - powerful but pointless or counterproductive numinous symbols and rituals. This would imply that when there is any geographic or technical upheaval (positive or negative) that uproots people from their traditional (social and economic) ways and narratives, there will be increases in psychological malaise or social or cultural pathologies (e.g., fanaticism or collective cultural dispiritedness).

Also, if true, themes experienced in dreams of psychologically healthy people or explored in literature would symbolize key socio-cultural trends or turning points where adaptations were needed. Who has the interpretive key would, however, be a difficult question to answer. (Think of Ondaatje's English Patient as a story about the need for changes in the narrative around national (tribal) identities at a time of massive technical change, when production is becoming global, not local, and it makes sense. As you can tell, I consider the EP as a culturally significant work.)

2. Embedded in our myths is a vestigial primate-ness and an alpha-male motif.

TEST Ethological studies of hominid communication suggests hierarchy predominates in the "vocabulary" of our cousins (see Kenneally, The First Word). Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion, explains the transformation of mythic consciousness over pre-history and history (Religion in Human Evolution). A study might focus on the parallels between hominid communication and human language, (e.g., consider the unquestioning subscription to the narrative of the "divine right of kings" and similar scripts, which is just not explainable by any individual's will to power, Ian Morris.)  This might go some way to explaining modern gender imbalance (now eroding, thanks to mass clothing production, vacs and dishwashers, finally - quite a lag, though - right, Betty?)

3. Attempts at the scientific rendition of mythic terms should be abandoned (are you listening, Rupert Sheldrake?). However, the phenomena that such terms wrongly label may have yet some scientific explanation. For example, phenomena labelled "psychic" may indicate something very different from witchy receptivity to mysterious "energies".  Lacking appropriate explanatory models, these phenomena are packaged in pseudo-scientific terms and are thus rapidly dismissed by the majority of self-respecting scientifically literate folks.  I'm sure nevertheless there are many (if not all) people who experience correctly knowing or understanding something without being able to explain exactly how they do. Not all of these people would say they were "psychic".  Imprecise forebodings and mysterious anticipations may be no more paranormal than bird navigation, snakes detecting earthquakes or the suddenly conscious conclusions drawn by our unconscious processes of assimilating vast amounts of past and present perceptual cues.

Once the epithet, "psychic" is dispensed with, scientifically inclined people should have little trouble finding evidence of people who have drawn correct conclusions on the basis of unconsciously gathering and assimilating information. (My suspicion would be that the instincts mentioned in 1 inflect this process and, when it goes awry, the person suffers from a psychological malaise. On the other hand,  when the narrative sustaining the social order is no longer credible, a collective reaction formation (a.k.a. fanaticism) or a dispirited culture will be the result.)

4. In the same vein as 3, consider ghosts. Instead of thinking of a ghostly experience as evidence of displaced spirits, maybe time is multidimensional and can be layered. Vivid experiences that people mistakenly explain as ghosts may be hints of something occuring in a prior layer of time, a temporal echo. (Pure speculation, admittedly - spectral speculation.)

TEST "Ghost sightings" would be more likely when spatial arrangements have changed very little over the years/centuries; e.g., a "sighting" of a ghost (a temporal echo) on a stairway or coming through a door would be unlikely in a modern building because a modern and ancient building on the same property would not likely have had architectural features occupying the same space.

None of these tests would prove anything conclusively, of course. The two themes I have covered are human instinct and scientific reification. The latter covers all 4, the former, the first 3. I'm interested in having these themes pursued in more depth.


  1. This is a great hypothesis. The only question I would pose is your proposition that they 'serve the economic and technical demands of the age and legitimate the the social order - community norms, mores, ethic and hierarchy'. While I think this is often true I think they can also serve the needs to bring to more conscious awareness the potential emergent challenges to established orders as well.

    Jung has a book "Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky" that I'm sure would also provide some support for this.

    You will likely find more supporting evidence and inspiration in Peggy Reeves Sanday's book "Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality"

    Essentially she explores the relationship between environmental context, origin myth and cultural relationships between the sexes - such that beneficent environments tend to produce origin myths highlighting female or couple creators and have cultures with relatively egalitarian relations between the sexes. Whereas the more hostile environments (including peoples who have had to migrate) tend to have origin myths of male creators and more inegalitarian relations between sexes.

    Here's some of the blurb:
    a ground-breaking examination of power and dominance in male-female relationships. How does the culturally approved interaction between the sexes originate? Why are women viewed as a necessary part of political, economic, and religious affairs in some societies but not in others? Why do some societies clothe sacred symbols of creative power in the guise of one sex and not of the other? Professor Sanday offers solutions to these cultural puzzles by using cross-cultural research on over 150 tribal societies. She systematically establishes the full range of variation in male and female power roles and then suggests a theoretical framework for explaining this variation. Rejecting the argument of universal female subordination, Professor Sanday argues that male dominance is not inherent in human relations but is a solution to various kinds of cultural strain. Those who are thought to embody, be in touch with, or control the creative forces of nature are perceived as powerful. In isolating the behavioural and symbolic mechanisms which institute male dominance, professor Sanday shows that a people's secular power roles are partly derived from ancient concepts of power, as exemplified by their origin myths. Power and dominance are further determined by a people's adaptation to their environment, social conflict, and emotional stress. This is illustrated through case studies of the effects of European colonialism, migration, and food stress, and supported by numerous statistical associations between sexual inequity and various cultural stresses.

    1. Perhaps it would be better to say that mythologies as instinct "serve the economic and technical demands of the age..." more or less well, on the following continuum: regressive, stagnant, conservative, progressive, challenging/visionary. Anything that further gives rise to greater consciousness has probably progressed from myth to philosophy, but on the other hand, humans can institutionalize and tribalize around any mythic or philosophical theme, no matter how forward-looking it may be. Context plays a big part in locating a theme on the continuum. I'll check out Jung, but confess I want to distance myself from his more metaphysical musings.

      With respect to Sanday, I wonder if the same principles apply to matriarchal bonobos and patriarchal chimps? Or whether Sanday's motivation for "not inherent in" has more to do with preventing amoral arguments implied by the more pernicious socio-biological theories where "inherent" unjustifiedly signifies a limit to the potential for change.