Monday 25 July 2011

We *must* reconnect with myth, therefore step-back from current affairs


Something of general interest, perhaps, on my Notion Club Papers blog:

Summary: The core Inklings project, and my project, is the recovery of history as myth; this project extends to modern politics, to our current interpretation and understanding of what has happened, and what is happening. We *must* get away from (i.e. subordinate to secondary status) the usual secular explanation, prediction and agenda for what happened to our culture (political, economic, scientific/ technological, socio-psycho-logical etc). These must be embedded-in, over-arched by, a 'mythic' (and True) understanding. We *must* take a step back from the noise and lies of 'current affairs', alliances and interventions, to focus on the task of recovery and reconnection, and to 'work' at an altogether different level and in an altogether different mode  - different because it has altogether different objectives.



Thursday said...

The problem with Lewis' and Tolkien's project of reviving myth is that it is artificial, as artificial as its precursors in the revival of things mythological and medieval by Wagner and the Pre-Raphaelites. The main problem, as I see it, is that while science hasn't absolutely disproved the possibility of such things as spirits, it hasn't left them much of anything to do. The natural world with all its life processes, used to be something utterly mysterious. But we know too much about it now, for us to recapture that. We don't need spirits to explain anything anymore. And, whether or not they exist, without that kind of active function, they might as well be dead. To base religion on that kind of thing is to turn it into a Burne-Jones painting, a nostalgia piece, which is why I tend to regard the Tolkien/Lewis myth project as a noble failure.

It is interesting that this also helps explain why the idea of God just refuses to go away. Lower level spirits may not be needed anymore, but he is still needed to get the universe going and to keep it going. He can't be replaced.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - when you say we 'don't need spirits' - you can only mean either that is makes NO difference to subtract spirits from life (which is untrue, so presumably you don't mean that); or that the difference which it DOES make when spirits are subtracted from life is INSIGNIFICANT, trivial, nothing to worry about, something which can be adjusted-to without harm (or something of that ilk).

Well, that is precisely what I am challenging here. I am saying that subtracting spirits from life causes alienation - which I regard as the main spiritual malaise of the modern era.

Many modern (post-medieval) Christians are just about as badly alienated as are atheists; precisely because there is nothing at all between an abstract God and humans: they believe in a living God but a dead universe.

Kristor said...

It is important to remember that reality does not operate according to a least-path criterion. Reality does not obey Ockham's Razor; it does not eliminate unnecessary entities. Quite the opposite. When nature deletes an entity, it is to create room for more entities. The process of the world is a process of adding new beings, trillions of them every second.

One of the crucial habits of mind that differentiates the modern from the traditional is that the latter insists that nature abhors a vacuum – that, if there is room in the world for a sort of thing, we will find it in nature, somewhere, whether or not it is necessary to the life of any other thing; whereas modernism argues that nature loves a vacuum. But if it is true that nature loves a vacuum, then why is there anything other than vacuum?

The universe is crammed full – indeed, is wholly constituted – of beings that are not necessary, and that are not necessary to explain each other if God exists. Furthermore, there are not enough things in the universe to explain all the things in the universe. Thus if it were possible to provide a full explanation of the behavior of a given physical system, even in principle – NB that it is not – that would still not entail that there are not angels at work therein. Indeed, physical systems might behave with the regularity that makes science possible and profitable only by virtue of the constant intervention of the angels.

Are the angels needed, if God is there to do their work? No; but nor, likewise, does God need to bother with an outside world, if all He is after is to give me the impression that there is such a thing; nor does He need to bother with a real past of the Earth, in order to give us the impression that there has been one. But, nor does He need to bother with us in the first place. In the final analysis, again, no part of the created order is needed, strictly speaking. God is the only necessity; all other beings are superfluities. If God were limiting Himself to what is needed – or, needed for adequacy (of explanation, or of anything else) – then He would be the only entity in existence.

The angels are not needed to do God’s work, any more than I need my 5 year old son to help me with chopping the firewood. But helping me brings him joy; and that is good. The criterion of existence is not necessity, but goodness.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - You make me remember how important is the setting-up of a question, the assumptions behind it: when this is done incorrectly, the worst and most intractable forms of misunderstanding can ensue.

Kristor said...

If Christianity is right, physics supervenes upon angelic operations. And one of the characteristics of supervention is that the supervening system can be formally described as if it is causally closed (provided we overlook the necessity of explicating the cause of its continued existence *as an ordered system* from one moment to the next); so that its description can seem complete; which would tend to make the supervening system appear to be unsubvened. E.g., we can generate a formalisation of economics that does not refer at all to brains or matter; the system, then, looks as though nothing more is needful, in order to explain its operations. But of course in reality economics supervenes upon many, many subvening orders of being, each with its own arguments, values and operations, its own constants, regularities and invariances.

Thursday said...

Life processes, healing, weather used to be very mysterious to pre-modern people. They are a lot less mysterious now. If you want your crops to grow, you go to the scientist, if you want to get well you go to the doctor. Even if they can't help you, they can usually provide an extremely good explanation of what has happened. Spirits have become a side show, an afterthought, and, at least in some ways, rightly so. You'd be a fool not to go to rely primarily on your doctors when you're sick.

Anyway, there doesn't seem to be any way to return the spirits to any central role, once their functions have been taken over. Modern man may be alienated, but that does not mean there is any way of going back.

Thursday said...


What you have said is all well and good in the realm of pure theory. But if the psychological and social functions that used to be assigned to the spirit world have been taken over by other things, then the spirit world is going to remain marginal.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - To take a different tack on this question - a non-philosophical tack: when you make statements about what 'will' happen, what do you mean?

Does this refer to your own attitude, or are you making a prediction that Western society will not be undergoing any fundamental changes in (say) your lifetime, or in the next generation, or what?

Because my prediction - as stated throughout this blog - is that forces such as (what might be termed) demographic changes in population size and structure will certainly and unavoidably and with very high predictability make *everything* change radically; over a timescale of the next generation but (for people in Europe, at least) perhaps over the next few year, or maybe (unlikely but possible) the next few months (if the extent of weakness is recognized).

On top of this is bureaucracy as a phenomenon; which now frames reality.

On top of this is the mass media, which frames reality.

On top of this is the decline in functionality, in capability (e.g. science and technology, the economy).

Summary: The extent to which we are 'not even trying' to perform the basic necessities of civilization is what makes us helpless, indeed active agents of these changes.

I believe that Western society is weak, extraordinarily weak, extraordinarily vulnerable - the worst and most dangerous aspect of which is our inability to recognize this very obvious, in your face, vulnerability (especially the frequent recourse to the excuse that we *could* do X, if we really *had to*, but that (being such sublimely moral people) we choose not to).

I mean the easy obvious things we are recurrently (and predictably) failing to do hence de facto *cannot* do.

You can generate your own examples: an obious one concerns the maintenance and restoration of civil order, upon which everything else depends.

Bruce Charlton said...


Thursday wrote, “Anyway, there doesn't seem to be any way to return the spirits to any central role, once their functions have been taken over.”

I’m not so sure. The abandonment of the idea of spirits was not logically forced, but was rather a change in intellectual fashion, like the change from the presumption that Nature abhors a vacuum to the presumption that it loves a vacuum. Materialism has been fashionable for about 150 years now. But that doesn’t mean materialism is the terminus ad quem of all inquiry. As the rise of materialism itself demonstrates, even the most entrenched intellectual fashions, with a great deal of inertia behind them, can change – particularly so, when it becomes popularly understood that a heretofore fashionable doctrine has been shown to be – as materialism is – incoherent and self-refuting, so that its abandonment is logically forced. Once make it known that the idea of spirits is not inherently silly and the minds that have generated the most advances in human understanding – the more open, questing minds of the younger thinkers among us – will begin to consider it seriously. They will then find that there is no contradiction between the Standard Model of the world presented to us by modern science and the traditional conception that the world is animated; indeed, they will find that the explanatory power of the Standard Model is itself simply inexplicable unless the world is animated.

If your scientific understanding is to make any sense at all, it must be based upon some metaphysics or other, at least implicitly. Unfortunately for materialism, a metaphysics that treats actual things as all dead just cannot make sense of the living scientist himself, or his act of knowing. It must, rather, insist that the scientist doesn’t really “know” anything, because his conscious experience, as (at most) epiphenomenal, is not fully real, so that the Standard Model has no real cognitive valence – i.e., it doesn’t really exist. Materialism says that materialism doesn’t really exist so as to have truth value – materialism says, i.e., that materialism is a silly idea, is mere nonsense, “not even wrong” (this seems so straightforwardly obvious; how do the “Brights” miss it?). By contrast, a metaphysics that allows room for spirits, that thinks that natural things can be animate, or just are animate, is the only sort that can admit the real existence and knowledge of the scientist himself.


Bruce Charlton said...


Unschooled traditional people may indeed have thought that spirits play a functional role – a sort of “gods of the Gaps” notion, with nature cooking along mostly on inertia, but suffering an occasional intervention from the gods, an extra push in this or that direction such as might be administered by the wind. But this idea is as incoherent as a monotheist God of the Gaps, and thoughtful traditional people have not therefore believed it. Inquiry may be undertaken only under the presumption that what exists is intelligible. But notice that, like pregnancy, intelligibility is digital: if the object of inquiry is only partly intelligible, it isn’t intelligible at all. For, there is no way to understand something fully – i.e., there is no way to understand it at all, no way to have a conception of it that is quite fully true – unless it is fully understandable, at least in principle. So, there cannot be logical gaps anywhere in reality – and, ipso facto, no ontological gaps either, thanks be to God; no great rifts of non-being everywhere one looked, such as would happen if there were indeed logical gaps. This is all just a way of saying that the world must be coherent, in order to be a world. Everything must completely agree with every other thing, so that they all fit together properly and seamlessly.

This concept of the seamless coherence, agreement and harmony among all things is at the heart of traditional animist metaphysics.

Alright: if nature is wholly intelligible, as we must perforce presume, then we are driven to the conclusion that, if He exists, God is involved in nature (whether directly, or through the intermediation of angels, or both) pervasively, without leaving any gaps. We are, that is, driven to the conclusion that God – and the angels, if there be any – provide the infrastructure of visible, tangible reality.