Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Viewpoints 11: mythologies, theories and postmodernism

Joseph Campbell, late 1970
photo and caption: Joan Halifax
Mankind's scientific honeymoon is over. The relationship had started in the seventeenth century with Sir Isaac Newton. Nowadays, we would call such a husband "old fashioned" if we are to be kind: he had his rules for the marriage and was a stickler that they should be followed with the surety of mathematics. No aspect of life was exempt.

Science's public bride came from a very different background: a religious/mythological environment which had become fascinated with life's mysteries nearly two hundred years earlier. This new science fascinated her and many of her contemporaries who had starting expressing this interest with alchemy which they saw as a bridge between psyche and matter, or Mythos and Logos, if you prefer. Of course, some of them were on the fringe and were preoccupied with changing lead into gold and were completely oblivious to metaphor.

A good friend of the bride was Friedrich Nietzsche who, with his background in mythology took an Apollonian/Dionysian viewpoint of the human condition and pronounced God dead. This must have been a shock to those who had already parted company with metaphor and did not know that God was even sick.

However Newton, too, was having problems. Some of his friends thought he had became far too materialistic and conservative, even with energy. The pendulum started to swing in the opposite direction and the psyche was reintroduced to science as "the observer", but it soon became apparent that Psyche was doing a little more than just observing. Psyche had a fondness for light and whenever she went out to get some she would take one of two baskets to the shop and she would always buy all of the light they had. One of her baskets held only photons and the other basket held only light waves, but whichever basket she would choose, that would always be the form of light that the shop had in stock that day.

Happily, the couple decided to take some counselling, and chose two to represent them: the groom chose Wolfgang Pauli and the bride chose C.G. Jung. Although this therapy worked very well for the couple, most of their friends were still conflicted: it had, after all, been a very long spat and the battle lines had been well drawn.

The postmodern viewpoint reveals "grand narratives" in scientific and historical exposition that are best understood as working in the same way as mythologies and that are thoroughly specific to what Jung called the "collective consciousness" and other philosophers called "Zeitgeist". While both include the psyche as the important factor,their views are still different. Theories, too, can be "grand narratives". Currently, the ancient Celts are being filtered through considerations of power and display, and their tribal societies are seen more as an expression of power than the mutually advantageous society it had evolved to be where great projects such as hill forts required willing cooperation, and that cooperation was the glue that held the society together.

In recent years, quantum physics has seen relevance in eastern mysticism. Mythology (and metaphor) was very much brought back to the public mind by Joseph Campbell whose foundation is still very active. Tomorrow, dealing with "the new, revised mythologies".

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