Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Myths to live by: a case study of communication difficulties

When I make time to go to discussion groups, even if the topic interests me, I often come away disappointed. It's happened at science fiction conventions, and at Center For Inquiry gatherings too. And I think I'm starting to see what it is.

At the Center For Inquiry Austin we had a discussion "Myths we live by". I thought it would be interesting to hear what kinds of myths freethinkers will admit to living by. But the dicsussion did not progress very far, because we could not agree on a definition of myth, despite spending the whole time trying to define it. That's not nearly as interesting as examining which myths we are susceptible to. But perhaps we could have gotten to that point, if most of us had studied this subject academically.

When a group of well-meaning dilettantes discuss topics of philosophy, sociology, society, economics, religion and such, many times the discussion goes nowhere, because it takes too long just to define the terms. This last gathering was an example of that. What exactly did we mean by "myths"? We can't meaningfully discuss "myths we live by", if we go by the strictly anthropological definition of the word. We don't believe that thunder is Sky God driving his chariot across the sky, or that a mountain range is actually a dead giant, or that a god impregnated a human woman who then gave birth to the ancestor of our clan. We only believe scientific explanations of the world. So what kinds of stories are we talking about when we are talking about myths?

Myths We Live By discussion group

Counterclockwise from the left: Patrick, Shuping, Bobbie, Stephen, Joe, Kevin, James Dee. Click on the image for a bigger version in my photo gallery.

A myth is not just any tale, but one that attempts to explain the world, and to give an individual an understanding of his/her place in it. So urban legends, Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy are not myths in that sense. Creationism -- a belief that the world was made by a creator -- might fit the bill, but that's not a myth we, CFI'ers, live by. Our myths would have to be stories that do not contradict scientific worldview, but are not verified empirically. Add to it a requirement that such a story should be able to speak to its believer on a personal level, to imbue his/her life with meaning, and it becomes clear that this concept is rather elusive. Consider also that some people think myths are by definition false (making the subject of this discussion a contradiction in terms), and it becomes clear why it was so hard for us to agree what we are talking about. This was one of rare cases when I wished that my higher education had been in the field of semiotics and literary theory, as opposed to mathematics, computer science and engineering. :-) Perhaps then I would have had a vocabulary to define what we were talking about.

To keep us from casting about futilely for a definition we could all agree on, Joe, the moderator of the discussion, asked everyone to give their definition of myth, and examples of myths they considered worthy of examination.

Joe writes definitions and examples of myths on the whiteboard

Joe Lapp writes people's supplied definitions and examples of myths on the whiteboard. Click on the image for a bigger version in my photo gallery.

The best definition was given by James Dee, a retired classics professor (surely the greatest expert on the subject matter among us). He says myths are storylines we cast ourselves in. They are structures in which we view such aspects of reality as gender and class (among others).

Myself, I consider modern day myths to be all kinds of widespread cultural beliefs, especially those that are too complex to be deemed unequivocally true or false; or those that are often evaluated emotionally, rather than by rational analysis. Examples of such myths are "working mothers are bad for kids", "women are inherently worse than men at math", "gay couples can't raise children as well as a mother-father couple", "markets regulate themselves and state should stay out"; these are all myths I personally don't believe, but despite a large amount of research to invalidate them, they are still deeply entrenched in the society.

Some CFI'ers, on the other hand, submitted examples of other modern day axioms, the truthfulness of which is even harder to determine, since empirical study of them is often impossible. Regardless, many of us believe them because they are comforting. Examples of them are "technology can find a solution to every problem", "faster-than-light travel is possible", or even "Universe is knowable". The concept of "I", of self, may also be considered a myth. Brain injury or illness can cause one's notion of self to fragment so much, it makes you wonder if "there is no there there". For example, a person might recognize only half of his/her body, and not even see the other half.

To deepen our confusion about what exactly falls into the category of myth, somebody said models for perceiving reality -- e.g. optimism or cynicism -- may also be considered myths. When asked to clarify, this person offered such examples as law of attraction, or positive thinking. "Work hard, make your best effort, and everything will work out" -- that's a myth. "You make your own reality", and other cherished slogans of positive thinking, are myths.

We could have had an interesting discussion about some of those myths, but by the time we got around to them, an hour and a half had passed. It was mostly spent, if not to say wasted, on dismissing "myths" like Santa Claus or creationism.

I've seen other discussions derailed by similar confusion of terms. This often happens at science fiction conventions. I remember a panel on religion in fantasy and science fiction at ArmadilloCon, a local SF convention. (Every ArmadilloCon has at least one such panel, and I stopped going to them soon after I noticed how unproductive such discussions are, but before I could fathom why that is.) A panelist asked the audience how many of them believed in science, and how many believed in magic. The panelist must have thought these two things are juxtaposable. To me, that's category confusion. Science is a method of gaining knowledge about the world. Magic is a way to circumvent natural laws. So really, they are in different categories. It can't be one versus another. A certain rocket-scientist-turned-science-fiction-writer, who was sitting in the audience at that time, pointed it out. The discussion might have gone differently if the panelist had asked how many of us believed that the world is governed only by laws of nature (a.k.a. scientific worldview), and how many believed that laws of nature can be arbitrarily circumvented (a.k.a. magical worldview). But those kinds of precise questions are never asked. Instead, people are left to interpret the questions as they like, and they go in circles, violently agreeing with each other without realizing it, or talking at cross purposes.

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