Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Mythological Ramble around Astrology and Science

We make sense of the world through myths, the big stories that describe creation, the end of the world, the birth of the gods and all aspects of life. These myths are true, they are real, but they are not literal. This is Neptune’s Realm.

The Birth of Athena from Zeus' Head

That is the big difference between the modern westernised world and every society that has gone before. Our myths are cold facts that point only to themselves and permit no others. Saturn, and possibly Uranus, have abducted Neptune.

For Peter Bell, in Wordsworth’s poem, “A Primrose by the River’s brim/A yellow primrose was to him/And it was nothing more.”

But when William Blake was asked, “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” He replied, “O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Our 2 Creation Myths, the Big Bang and Evolution, have this literal quality, especially the latter. That is my main objection to the Theory of Evolution: that it is presented as a cold fact, the only possible reality. And it does not point to anything beyond itself (except perhaps to a sense of humanity as the superior species.) That on its own makes it wrong, whatever the fossil record says.

Evolution could hardly be a more important myth, for it tells us what we are. In its literal form, it says we have no soul and the world has no soul. The Creationists are literal at the other end of the spectrum, but they have a point. They feel the need for a soul, in however crude a form. So do the people who say humans were planted here by aliens. It may or may not be literally true. But it is a reinterpretation of the myth that we are descended from the gods, and I like that. It has the ring of truth to it, and I am prepared to believe it. It is a perfectly respectable myth, provided you don’t fall into the modern trap of literalism.

Mythologically, the seed of Evolution is to be found in the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, with God at the top, and working its way down through angels, people, animals, vegetables and minerals. Evolution inverts this – a common phenomenon in mythologies – and works upwards from minerals, but puts people instead of God at the top. In response to this, many of us now feel God to be immanent rather than transcendent: he has become Gaia, the World Soul, or the Goddess. Scientific materialism pays unconscious homage to this, for ‘matter’ and the Latin ‘mater’, or mother, are etymologically related.

For someone of literal bent, astrology is patently untrue. This literalism has a long history. As far back as 1623, we find the influential monk Marin Mersenne baffled by magic of any sort. “Belief in the power of magic images of the stars seems to him quite mad.” He had even then gone beyond the demonization of practices such as astrology, which implies a tacit acknowledgement of their power.

It is a death of feeling. I feel the power of astrology. I feel it like a presence, and sometimes the planets as gods turn up as presences.

Mersenne launched a 30 year crusade against magical thinking. A bit like Richard Dawkins today. You could imagine Dawkins as a member of the Spanish Inquisition: polite, charming, educated and quietly certain of his point of view as the only reality, convinced that he is actually helping heretics to avoid eternal damnation.

What people like Dawkins need is a proper philosophical training, where you come to understand that a point of view is just that, a point of view. It can always be argued either way, and in the end is only a description of reality, it is not reality itself. And we cannot get beyond our perceptions. At least, not using just the rational mind. It is a big assumption that reality is fully susceptible to rational interpretation. Ironically, it is a superstition.

We need to be able to hang loose to how we see the world, and enjoy all the creation myths, including evolution. These myths are thrown up by the imagination, by the dreamworld. We may profitably analyse and compare motifs between them, but it is hubris to denounce them, because they come from the gods, not from the human mind.

It is similarly hubris to denounce astrology, for it has imaginative power, it comes from somewhere else. To the extent you have hubris, to that extent you are in a state of suffering, you have soul loss.

My idea of a viewpoint as only a viewpoint is not the same as you find in postmodernism, where such deconstruction seems to me the next logical step in the march of scientific materialism towards nihilism. For me, a viewpoint on a metaphysical level has the power of myth behind it; its essential truth does not lie in how well it can be argued, but in its imaginative appeal. The value of reason in this context is to counter the tendency of the mind to latch onto that imaginative truth as the only truth. Once you start doing that, even the myths you live by start to lose their power; they develop a leaden, literal quality.

Blake again: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.” Science’s remit is the ‘vegetable universe!’

Science itself is a myth, a model, and it has its place. But you can’t push it too far, or it’ll break down, because it is a model, not reality itself. This is why you find weird things happening at the mega and nano ends of the spectrum. We push the idea of matter as a solid ‘thing’ that is ‘out there’ to the limit, and what do we find? Irrationality! On the nano level, we have the counter-intuitive quantum universe, where to understand it we have to sometimes let time go backwards, and accept that matter is both a wave and a particle at the same time, and that the more we know about where something is, the less we know about its speed, and vice versa. On the mega end, the only way we can understand the larger universe is by accepting that most of it is invisible, dark matter, that has a mysterious nature unlike anything we know and undetectable by any of our instruments. It’s funny!

Astrology is the same: at the mega end, the universe is so big, with so many different objects, that it would be very hard to develop a system of correspondences based on a living relationship with these bodies. Even in ancient times, you couldn’t use every single visible star. On the micro end, if you have a tiny, insignificant event, like the dog walking in the door and out again and you looked for it in the stars, it would be a form of madness. You can’t have that sort of astrological micromanagement. Astrology works somewhere in the middle, and there it is powerful. And it’s probably the same for Science. They are both models that have a function, but models break down if you push them to extremes.

Many of the ideas above come from a book I’m reading, the best I’ve read for a while. It’s called 'The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: a History of the Imagination’ by Patrick Harpur.

I’ll finish with a quote from it, which refers to the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who analysed myths from around the world. Myths, it seems, are the best way into the human soul, they kind of ARE it.

“So, at the close of his Mythologiques, after he has structurally related hundreds of myths to each other, Levi-Strauss cannot say with any certainty what Imagination is doing. It is generating myths which apparently go on embodying and striving to resolve contradictions, until all the permutations are exhausted – but to no purpose, it seems, beyond the process itself.

The labyrinthine shape-changing of myths mirrors the pathways of soul which ‘seems more interested in the movement of its ideas than in the resolution of problems. Therefore no classical psychological problem can ever be solved…’ It is as if we recognise the contradictions of our human existence and are intensely preoccupied with them. We are self-transcending, paradoxical beings – both part of Nature, for example, and yet outside of it. We use abstractions to express our contradictions where traditional cultures use concrete images. 

The problems of mind/matter or consciousness/unconscious about which we philosophise are only re-statements of the problems of this world/Otherworld or Skyworld/Underworld about which we mythologise. However, in neither case can the problems be solved because they are not problems, they are mysteries. Myths tell us to live without resolutions in a state of creative tension within our two-foldness.

Myths do not, so to speak, get us anywhere. While there are myths about progress, myths do not themselves progress. Indeed, Levi-Strauss even saw literal scientific ‘progress’ as, in reality, a system of myths which ‘will never consist in anything other than proceeding towards re-groupings, in the midst of a totality that is closed and complementary with itself.’ In fact, ‘… mythological thought is not pre-scientific; it should rather be seen as an anticipation of the future state of science…’

Finally, and incidentally, if there is one classificatory pair, one contradiction, which acts as a kind of rubric for all the others (says Levi-Strauss), it is heaven(sky)/earth. It is their primordial separation which brought on all our woe; and it is their impossible, longed-for reunion wherein all our happiness lies.”

Astrology, of course, is based around this most primordial of myths. When astrology really works, when we feel its power, it is at a moment of symbolic correspondence between events on earth and events in the sky. Astrology gives us par excellence that “impossible, longed-for reunion wherein all our happiness lies.”

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Morvah said...

Thank you D, what a fabulous treat in my mailbox this morning.

Magic Dragon said...

Brilliant. A real joy to read. Wish I had written the post, but then, I might not have made such a good job at it!

diastella said...

That was wonderful, thank you - especially for saying what you did about Dawkins as he has bothered me for some time.
The other night there was a discussion and me and this guy had a scuffle over the word 'ego'. He has a pile up in Aries and was saying ego is bad - which I found curious - and me, on the other side, was trying to verbalise why ego is good. My Indian friend who speaks a language as old as Sanskrit stopped us and told how the sanskrit word AHAM is I/ME/SELF - it is the cosmic soul desiring to manifest as the individual soul. Then there is AHAMKARAM that achieves the I ness through being busy and doing and forgets its divineness through too much focus on the intellect. This was amazing for me as we were having this conflict due to our language being unable to allow us to express fully our inner meaning.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, you nailed Richard Dawkins... I'm convinced he was a jesuit priest in a past life, his missionary zeal to convert non believers to his own belief in atheism is supremely religious!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Your clearsightedness is inspiring. The classic conundrum...fact or fiction is exposed as a furphy. Viva Imagination! It seems there must be an etymological link between imagination and magic. Science tends to devalue these two by clinging to facts and proofs, evidence. Professor Julius Sumner Miller used to ask "Why is it so?" on his TV science show so many years ago. "I don't know" was never formulated as an accepted answer. As one who has for so many years doggedly pursued "The Answer", the resolution of Mystery, I am delightfully dismayed to confess I have only recently realised, as you have so fluently pointed out, that Mystery (like myth) does not require an answer. Myth and Mystery unite us, reveal to us that surface differences are not definitive. "There is more twixt Heaven & Earth than meets the eye..." Thank you again...what a great read and I must get that book.