The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Scepticism v. Mythology

Sceptics question everyone and everything. That's a good thing to do. Humans as a species owe a lot to the work of sceptics - who dared question the unquestionable, and led us to break not only the barriers of human knowledge, but also the chains of slavery and discrimination.

So in the months following my induction training, I spent a lot of my free time reading about the work of sceptics, rationalists and feminists. Among the many websites I frequented were,,, Professor Steven Dutch's Pseudoscience blog and the Facebook posts of Feminist India community. I also happened to read a few wonderful books such as The Philosophy of Hinduism by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All of it fascinating and eye-opening stuff.

But soon enough I noticed a common theme running in all these sources. Almost all of them had some degree of distaste for not only religion, but also serious (and unexplained) objections to Mythology and Stories.

Being an avid fan of storytelling and mythology myself, and a feminist and rationalist to boot, I was deeply concerned with this undercurrent of anti-narrativium among my fellow sceptics. And that's why I decided to write this.

Stories & Mythology - the What and the Why
Human senses are not what we would call perfect. Even beyond the physical limitations of the organs involved, human senses are highly discriminatory. For example, we possess the ability to focus on a single conversation even in the midst of a noisy crowd. Our brain naturally edits a lot of recurring sensory information - e.g. the sounds of our bones as we are walking, and fills in a lot of absent information e.g. optical illusions regarding light and shade. In addition to all this, we can be trained - consciously or unconsciously and to ignore certain stimuli or see/hear things that are not there. Simply put, human senses are not completely objective.

Human memory is also very different from say a computer hard-drive memory. Its primary function is not the recording of the facts or phenomena themselves, but our physical and emotional response to and the respective consequences of said phenomena. It is precisely because human memory is thus imperfect that newsmen use the word 'report' or 'story' as opposed to 'fact' or 'truth' to describe a news item. This is also why the scientific method relies on reproducibility of research/experiments.

Ponder on the ramifications of this for a minute. We do not see or hear objectively. When we narrate our experiences, it is always coloured by our own biases, not to mention the imperfection of our memory. The recipient of our narrative - our audience, so to speak, is also biased - and will see and hear what they like, not what we tell them. It takes several iterations (and by multiple persons) of observation, recording, and discussion to arrive at the objective truth. It is why the cornerstone of even modern Science and Engineering is the Approximation Theory.

It is this lack of objectivity that gives rise to a form of communication called 'Story'. A story is a structured description of events, real or imaginary. However it is essential to note that any story, no matter how fictional, is never a lie.

A story is an attempt to understand and depict a truth. This truth may be mundane or profound, objective or subjective, local or universal. Storytelling therefore belongs to the same class of intellectual exercises as a scientific hypothesis or a scholarly article. Needless to say, a story can have other functions also e.g. entertainment and social engineering. But without a shadow of doubt, storytelling was the first attempt at an intellectual exercise by human beings.

Just as the entire body of scientific knowledge is composed of scientific hypotheses, laws and theories and the techniques and experiments associated with them, the body of stories endemic to a particular group or culture is known as a Mythology. For example, Norse Mythology is the collection of stories endemic to people of Scandinavian origin. Again, a mythology may or may not be explicitly connected to Religion. For example a Comic Book Universe such as the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe is an example of modern, secular mythology.

'Sacred' Stories and the problems with Religious Mythology
Stories are born out of both observation and imagination. Even the most esoteric narratives, such as James Joyce's Ulysses, have a basis in reality. Modern mythologies such as the Harry Potter 'Verse are equal parts wish fulfilment and speculation about the nature of human relationships and power dynamics. Likewise, the most faithful narrations of historical events will have gaps filled in by conjecture and speculation.

Even the most die hard sceptic and rationalist will have no trouble with most such stories. They acknowledge the utility of imagination in all walks of life, and the value of allegory and applicability as form of communicating timeless ideals. What they do have trouble accepting, is the concept of 'Sacred' Stories.

A 'sacred' story is a part of the mythology (religious or secular) which is accepted as being 'canon' i.e. official and true by the fans of that mythology. e.g. In the Sherlock Holmes mythology, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are obviously canon, but the various film and TV adaptations are also considered canon. In the case of religious mythology, 'sacred' stories are usually collected into what eventually becomes the scripture.

The problems with 'sacred stories' go beyond just the obvious.

1.       For starters, when the people of a culture elevate a story to the status of 'sacred' they inevitably end up discounting the 'imaginary' part of the story, i.e. they start insisting that the story is 100% observation, and not the mix of observation and imagination that it actually is. This can happen with non-religious stories also - see Literary Agent Hypothesis.
2.       Sometimes even if they acknowledge that the story is not literally true, they are divided as to whether it has allegory or applicability. This makes a big difference.
a.       A story with allegory has only one correct meaning - the one intended by its author. It is meant to be prescriptive. This is problematic because such stories are frequently highly ambiguous, and it is humanly impossible for us to figure out what the author really meant - especially if the author is dead or unknown (or God forbid, God Himself).
b.      A story with applicability does not necessarily have a meaning. It is simply meant to provoke thought on a topic. (Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik calls such stories 'Reflective'). This is would be unproblematic, if people actually accepted that their 'sacred' stories were applicable and not allegorical.
3.       Also, as said before, a story is an attempt to understand and depict a truth. But is the truth behind a 'sacred' story objective or subjective? Is it specific to a time and place, or universal? Mundane or Profound? These are difficult questions.
4.       And then you have something call the Moff's Law, which may be summarized as (paraphrasing Howard Taylor):
It's not over-analysis when every stray thought about the story has to be quashed lest you realize how stupid the story is.
When applied to 'sacred' stories, Moff's Law states that the biases of the narrator of such stories are sometimes so glaringly obvious, that they cannot be overlooked while figuring out the true message of the story.

Why 'sacred' stories can't be dismissed as superstition
So I totally understand if sceptics have trouble with 'sacred' stories and especially religious ones. But the question is, are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater when we ignore or denounce these 'sacred' stories?

Most 'sacred' stories predate the invention of writing, or are primarily preserved through the oral tradition. This makes them especially prone to mutation over the generations. However, when a story is designated 'sacred', special efforts are made to preserve it in its original form, which ensures that the prescriptions and/or reflections in the story are also preserved. And sometimes these values are timeless and universal. Thus to dismiss such stories as mere fantasy could and would rob us of the wisdom of our ancients.

As Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says, "Myths are the concentrated fruit of the fears, despairs, hopes of our ancestors. When we denounce our myths we denounce our ancestors."

Another oft-ignored fact is that just like any other organization, countries and communities need a Vision, Mission and Value statement. And more often than not, 'sacred' stories provide these vision, mission and values. For example, the narrative of 'Thanksgiving' in the USA tells the story of the original passengers of the ship Mayflower and their interactions with the Native Americans. Granted, it is more of a mythical narrative than a historical one, but it nevertheless defines the values of thrift and enterprise that form the very fabric of American culture.

For those who argue that 'sacred' stories bring a lot unnecessary religious baggage, consider this, that even the most neutral of documents, e.g. the Constitution of India require a sort of religious devotion in order to function. As Indians it is our sworn duty to uphold our Constitution. That essentially makes Indian Nationalism our religion (हिंदी है हम वतन है), the Preamble our 'covenant' and the Constitution our 'sacred' story.

Indeed, for the better or the worse, humans aren't rational creatures. We never have been. As Dr Prabhakar Kamath warns in his article "A Rational Approach to the Problem of Obsessive Compulsive Religion":

While attempting to reform society, all rationalist must keep in mind the dictum that all solutions for societal problems, no matter how noble their original intents were, become problems themselves sooner or later. This is especially true in India. Don’t be surprised that someday in the future Rationalism will become a religion riddled with gods and mindless rituals! People bring into organizations their own unconscious beliefs and behaviors rooted in them and destroy the original goals of the organization.

The Solution
With the rise of highly popular secular mythologies like the various Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Manga and Comic book universes, we are able to observe at first hand the phenomena of myth-making, the behaviour of fan-bases and the effect of fan-fiction on canonical stories.

It would not be inaccurate to use this data to approximate the circumstances of the birth and evolution of the world's most ancient and enduring 'sacred' mythologies. Indeed, the most important inference that can be drawn from the observation of contemporary mythologies is that myth-making is not inherently inimical to rationality. If anything, they are complementary.

This is amply demonstrated by the fact that religious stories almost always outlive  the religions that they were born in. Nobody worships Thor or Anubis or Astarte anymore. But the stories of these old Gods still survive. They still make millions at the box office. And yet we as a generation represent the pinnacle of the triumphs of Science and Rationality.

So I say don't throw away the old stories, no matter what kind of religious/political baggage that they are encumbered with. Keep the baby and the bathwater. Keep the baby and nurture it, so it may grow and add to your wisdom. Use that bathwater to cleanse your mind of prejudices.

In writing this article, I also had a secondary motivation, viz. to codify the fundamental properties of stories and storytelling, not unlike Joseph Campbell's 10 Commandments of Reading Myth. So here's my attempt at the Fundamental laws of Storytelling:

1.       Humans are narrativistic creatures
·         We always think in stories. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.
2.       A story may be fictional but never a lie
·         It is always an attempt to understand and depict a truth. This truth may be mundane or profound, objective or subjective, local or universal.
3.       All stories are ultimately the property of their audience
·         The Author is Dead
4.       All stories are inherently mutable, and never static
·         Even if the text stays the same, because the story changes the audience, so that when they hear it again, they are not the same people who heard it the first time
5.       All stories have utility
·         either to their author, or to their audience, or both

Further reading
I strongly recommend the complete works of Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, especially the latter's Sandman comics. And no mythology aficionado worth her salt can go without reading Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik's blog For a bibliography of selected passages and articles see here.

And last but definitely not the least, read , particularly the sections about Metafiction, Laws and Formulas and Useful Notes. Warning: May Ruin Your Life!