METAPHYSICS AND MYTH
A young relative of mine, having read my note on the possibility of metaphysics apparently found what I say there perplexing and wrote to me accordingly. I prepared the following as a reply, intending to email it to him, but then thought of posting it on my weblog thinking it might be of interest to other readers too.
You say you cannot understand “how creating myths would let us enjoy a rich spiritual life free of ‘superstition’.”
First let me begin with a general remark. Any statement in general, and any philosophical statement in particular, cannot be found meaningful except when taken in relation to its context. And the wider the context taken, the fuller will be the meaning arrived at.
The notion of myth in philosophical thinking and in human culture and in the spiritual life of human beings is central in my philosophy. Hence the answer I will try to give here will necessarily be partial and therefore only partially intelligible.
Let me now make another general remark. Words do not have fixed unique meanings except in artificial lingoes constructed for specific purposes. In philosophy, to express a given notion we have either to create a technical term not used in common speech or to take a word from common language and give it a special sense that has to be distinguished from the sense it has in common usage. Both alternatives have their drawbacks.
Now for my usage of the term ‘myth’. It is not only in philosophy that I find a role for myth. In science and in every walk of life, we cannot do without myth. Newton formulated the law of gravitation. That was a tremendous achievement in science. But what is gravitation? Newton himself said that he found it utterly unintelligible that one material body should act on another body at a distance. Gravitation is a myth, though a useful myth. But when we think of gravitation as a mysterious force that inheres in material bodies, that becomes a superstition. Einstein did away with the idea of gravitation and attributed the movement of bodies to a curvature in space. But does the curvature in space determine the way bodies move or does the way bodies move produce the curvature in space? We could see it either way, but in truth it is neither this nor that. There is no independently existing something called space. Space itself is a myth. But it is a myth that we cannot do without.
In the above paragraph I have ventured into the sphere of science which on principle I try to keep clear of, first because I claim no knowledge of science, and secondly because I maintain that philosophy and science are radically distinct modes of thought that should not be mixed or confused with each other. But since I have already trespassed into that area, let me just add that in mathematics there are many myths that are of the utmost importance: zero, negative numbers, irrational numbers, infinity, are all examples of such fruitful myths.
Let us move on to another area. All of our moral ideals are not things that you can find anywhere in the world outside the human mind. An honest person will readily suffer any disadvantage rather than cheat; a loyal friend will make grave sacrifices even where no law or convention requires him or her to do so; and so on. What is honesty? What is loyalty? What is justice? They are ideals but they are not facts in any acceptable sense of the word ‘fact’. A person without honesty, without loyalty, without a sense of justice, is not bound by these ideals. You can despise him or her, but you cannot prove that he or she is wrong. You may possibly show that in certain circumstances or under certain conditions the opposite qualities will not be advantageous but disadvantageous from a selfish point of view. But that is another matter. If you convince a certain person that in given circumstances it is in his or her interest to act ‘honestly’ and he or she acts accordingly, that person is not then truly honest: he or she does not have the inner glow that goes with genuine honesty. All these ideals are ideas created by the human mind. I often use the term ‘fiction’ as an alternative to the term ‘myth’. So I will readily call these ideals fictions, not however to suggest that they are false, but to emphasize that they are not facts to be ascertained by the methods of objective science, but are pure creations of the mind that give us the kind of spiritual life that gives us our true worth as human beings.
Let us move further on. Let us consider the idea of the soul. Theologians say that the soul is something put into the human being, in addition to the material constituents of the body. Scientists say that their investigations do not show any such thing in a human being and that in any case they do not need the idea of a soul in their work. I think it is the theologians’ assertion of the factual existence of the soul that gives the scientists the chance to affirm that we can do without the idea of the soul altogether. But if we say that the soul is not a fact but a pure idea that focuses our attention on our inner reality, then we can agree with the scientists that they can go on with their objective studies without making use of the idea of the soul, and we can agree with the theologians that there is a dimension of our being that is more valuable than the body. The theologians are wrong when they think that that dimension is a thing, however refined, that has or can have a separate existence. The scientists are wrong when they believe that what they observe and measure and analyze is all there is to a human being. The notion of the soul, I say, is a pure idea; when I call it a myth I want to emphasize that it is not a fact that can be verified by the methods of objective science, but at the same time I insist that it is a myth that is necessary for our appreciation of our true worth as human beings.
I have used the word ‘reality’ above. What is reality? Scientists would say that what they examine and what they ascertain in their studies is what is real. I have a special usage for the terms ‘reality’ and ‘existence’ but that is a mere matter of terminology. I would have no problem with saying that what scientists deal with is real, but when scientists assert that what they deal with as scientists is all that is real, I find that totally unacceptable. In my usage (again, it is not the usage but what is behind it that I care about) what objective science deals with exists but the ideas and ideals that are to be found nowhere but in the mind are real. So far this is merely a matter of usage; in principle there would be no harm in reversing the terms. But scientists imply, and often state explicitly, that there is nothing over and above the total things in the objective world. But for philosophy there is the idea of the All or the Whole which is other than the totality of things in the actual world. Science has no use for this idea because it does not stand for an actual thing that can be studied objectively. But this idea is the most important idea for philosophy. Philosophy was born when some creative mind put to itself a question about the All or the Whole. That is one with the problem of Ultimate Reality, which is totally outside the range of science and is the central concern of philosophy. The idea of the All, of the Whole, of Ultimate Reality, does not stand for a fact; it is a pure idea, a creation of the mind, that I call a myth. That is the core of what Aristotle called First Philosophy and what we, by an accident, have come to call metaphysics. All philosophy of any profundity does no more and can do no more than grapple with the elucidation of that myth. Since it is not a fact that may be verified or ascertained there is no true or final answer to any question raised about it. There are only various ways of trying to represent in finite and determinate formulations of thought and language what is above and beyond all finitude and all determination. Hence I call all such philosophical formulations mythical: all attempts to answer ultimate metaphysical questions are mythical. Are they therefore worthless? No, for the idea of the Whole, the idea of Ultimate Reality, is invaluable for our own wholeness, our own integrity, and we can only appropriate that idea through attempts to elucidate it. Hence the speculations of philosophers, diverse and apparently contradictory though they be, are valuable.
Here I have to apologize. You will certainly find this last paragraph more baffling than the text which you found perplexing and which I began by trying to clarify. Well, I go back to what I said at the beginning: to understand a philosophical text you have to take it in a wider context. The more you read of philosophy the more meaning you will find in what at first seemed to be without meaning.
Wishing you intellectual ventures without end!
fEBRUARY 28, 2009.