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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, December 18, 2006

mythology and catastrophe

The mythological education continues. That is how I think of my recurring passes through Joseph Campbell's books, in particular The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his Masks of God tetralogy, the second part of which, Oriental Mythology, I am now keying from over my morning coffees, down here in the dark of my office.

How do we make sense of our experience? Myth addresses that question. A successful mythology not only answers it, but in doing so frees emotional energies within us, spurring us and enabling us to take action, to live. A living mythology generates enthusiasm and a zest for living; our actions have purpose and that purpose brings us joy.

Mythologies have a shelf-life. They grow stale; they outlive their usefulness; they become inapplicable as circumstances change. Usually, before that happens, a successful mythology becomes codified, solidified, theologized--made logical and consistent so as to resist change. No doubt this happens because of changes in the world.

I suspect that that the process is much as described by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's thesis is that science--any science--does not proceed, as textbooks would have us believe, by more or less steady incremental progress. Instead, it proceeds by lurches--what he calls "paradigm shifts" (yes, Kuhn was the inventor of that term, as far as I know, back in 1962). In the early days of a science, phenomena are observed and collected more or less pell-mell, without any unifying idea of how they might be connected. At some point, someone comes up with an idea of how the phenomena might indeed be connected--a principle that would explain all the various phenomena observed. An example would be when the observation of the movements of planets in the sky was first explained as being a result of their revolving around the Earth.

This unifying explanatory model--in this case, of "planets are bodies that revolve on their own paths around the Earth"--is what Kuhn calls a paradigm. It accounts for all of the phenomena observed so far, and suggests avenues for further investigation, to test its predictive power. As new observations are made, they are checked against the paradigm. If they support it, the paradigm is strengthened. If they seem to contradict it, then the paradigm is, if possible and if otherwise working well, adjusted to accommodate the new data.

In the case of the planets, they were thought to revolve around the Earth in circular orbits. Eventually observations became precise enough that it became clear that these orbits could not be circular. But because no other shape for them could be imagined, scientists found ways to keep circularity in the system by adding epicycles--points on the planet's circular orbits around which the planets had their actual own circular orbits. The orbits were circles on circles. In this way the basic paradigm, that planets revolve around the Earth, was preserved by being adjusted.

Eventually, in every science, contradictory data pile up to the point where the paradigm can no longer be adjusted to fit them. At that point the science enters a crisis. The scientists no longer have a working model of the world. It is a time of chaos and strife. New ideas emerge--new potential paradigms. These are fought by the scientific (and social) establishment, which usually tries to shore up the existing paradigm. But once a new paradigm seems able to account for the inconsistent data, as well as the old data, it starts drawing the allegiance of the more open-minded scientists, which generally means the young ones.

The geocentric model of celestial mechanics was held in place until the time of Copernicus, who, along with scientists like Kepler, supplied the rationale for switching to a heliocentric model: the paradigm that the Earth and the other planets actually revolve around the sun. The new paradigm becomes established, and the basis of future research. But the change was not smooth and incremental; it was catastrophic--that is Kuhn's point.

Is not a mythology a paradigm in the same sense? Or maybe a scientific paradigm is just a special case of a mythological paradigm. Mythologies are invented, as Campbell says, by poets, by artists. They begin in the imagination, and, given powerful form, spark the imaginations of others. They "make sense" of life just as scientific paradigms "make sense" of observational data. They become the basis not of further research, but of societies, civilizations, religions, and people's lives. People "buy in" to the paradigm, and tend to see confirmation of it everywhere: God is good; or the five castes are an immutable part of the cosmic plan. The paradigm resists change, and those who try to change it are resisted (or burnt at the stake).

But change it must. In the words of Khalil Gibran, "time flows not backward, nor tarries with yesterday". Explanations thought to have been valid for all time turn out to be applicable to a single era only--maybe a very short one, and only if you're willing to suspend a lot of disbelief. Many, indeed, from a later standpoint, appear to be simply junk.

Thus "living faiths" might be better described as "dying faiths". In general, the time of their vigor is long past. In particular, those built around tribal gods--such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are doomed. Or anyway: either they are, or we are.

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