Chapter 2 in the series Myths and Dragons
We might look at myth with curiosity and respect, but dismiss the collected masterpieces of our ancestors as “superstitious proto-theories, lacking the rigor of experimental thought”(*). But we should still ask: how could vast empires and civilizations develop, flourish and survive for hundreds of years if they were based on nonsense? And maybe just as important, why do ideologies that grew out of the empirical process seem to fall apart in mere decades?
The codified scientific process of isolate, observe, test and verify has been incredibly effective at telling us what is. But with that objective power there has been a sacrifice. It can’t tell us anything about how to value things unless we insert and address subjectivity and bias.
In the excitement to describe what is, ideologies left little room for how to deal with things that didn’t fit. The usual response is either ignorance (capitalism will ignore environmental effects until they are put into some scarcity/opportunity/profit model) or eradication (Communism created a totalitarian state killing millions to demonstrate just how right it was) or argumentation (contain the vexing problem in the frame of an argument, a competition instead of a consolidation or development).
Why not address the thing that does not fit? Why not learn from it, rather than let it consume and destroy you?
Mythological consciousness recognized long ago a very important lesson ( a lesson some empirical disciplines have learned very well, actually) – the very thing that doesn’t fit your thinking is the very thing to pay attention to the most. It could hold both your doom and your paradise.
In a sense, human beings have two systems for emotional and behavioral regulation. When we are in familiar territory (and can predict what will happen if we do something), what kicks into gear is the regulatory system that seems linked to positive feelings, initiation of activity, and attention to finer details. But how do we know what to do when in unfamiliar territory? What kicks into gear then is the regulatory system that seems linked to negative feelings, restriction of behavior, and attention to more general patterns. In a loose way, this can be linked to the left and right sides of the brain.
It’s kind of like having two operating systems that boot up depending on the environment and situation.
The left seems to work best when what is and what to do are not pressing questions. Whatever has already been practiced, successful, and relatively positive (or at least productive), allows the left operating system to run smoothly.
The right can be booted up very quickly, almost instinctually, when a stimulus demands our attention. When something unexpected comes up, we tend to go through a pattern:
1. Stop whatever it is we’re doing.
2. Pay attention to the unexpected
3. Cautiously begin creative exploratory behavior
This dual-boot operating system of the brain has given us enormous advantages. Without it, we would likely not survive too well in a world made of unfamiliar situations. But it has created some interesting quirks in terms of how we sense things and categorize things.
Categorization is an essential part of how we think. But when we do categorize, we draw lines or cut the world into specific objects that are not necessarily separate things. They are not objects-into-themselves. For example, we can look at a single human being as what is contained by the skin. We can look at the human being as a collection of molecules too numerous to count, giving off and taking in material almost constantly. We might give a child a name when it is born. However, by the time the child has grown a few years, it may have a completely different body, different health and consciousness (we would hope), and a different behavior pattern (again, we hope). The child might even have a nickname, a different identity. The integrity of what we think is a singular child under that category of a given name depends a lot on things within and without its material make-up.
Thinking is more than perception at certain resolutions or recognizing relationships between things. Thinking also has to do with specifying value, or specifying significance. And so when we categorize something as a single thing, we are not merely examining the thing’s material. It’s grouped as a singular thing according to its significance, and according to what implications it has to behavior.
When we face the unknown, or when we don’t know what to do, two emotional states tend to emerge. If the strange thing contains a recognizable pattern, or essentially can be managed, the usual response is hope. If the strange thing makes no sense to us, or creates a serious impasse, the usual response is anxiety.
With hope, we tend to continue or draw closer. With anxiety, we tend to stop or draw away. If we didn’t categorize in terms of significance, then we likely would not survive. And just as important, if we only responded to the unknown with only one emotional state, we likely couldn’t survive or flourish.
If objects had specific meanings or objective value, we wouldn’t have to think. The world, filled with complexity, dangers and environmental pressures, would have likely taken care of it. But if things have opposite, competing and maybe even plural meanings, we have to think and categorize and decide on significance and act.
What can almost always be trusted to make us act? Our emotions and our decisions around what things are significant.
The mythological mind may not have been able to articulate much of this, especially in today’s vocabulary or today’s supposed objectivity. But through the misty years of supposed ignorance, the mythological mind did recognize the importance of these parts of our mental make-up. It perceived the unknown to be a thing of both threat and promise. It understood the importance of adopting a proper attitude when faced with the unknown. It understood that the unknown could be more important than every material thing or ideological belief you cling to so tightly. And it knew that once an object was categorized, it became inseparable from its significance.
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* From J. Peterson. Maps of Meaning. (Actually, many of the points in this post come from this source. The two images are based on figures from the book)