Thursday 21 September 2023

The Myths Roll In

After a grey and very wet day yesterday, we've been treated to a pleasantly sunny morning here in our bit of Derbyshire. Not that highly variable UK weather is surprising, but it set this chap wondering about surprises.

We navigate through life by avoiding surprises, it’s how our brains function via the least energy principle. We could also add that our technical culture has been extraordinarily good at removing surprises thrown at us by the natural world. As we once knew, it has done this by seeking out better and better objective explanations.

Our explanations of everything from evolution to thunderstorms, from the chemistry of copper to solar eclipses, from antibiotics to aircraft design have suppressed a vast array of surprises. We have, or did have until recently, an astoundingly successful knowledge culture built on the search for objectively better explanations.

Yet it seems clear enough that there has been a turning point in this knowledge culture. We appear to have passed a point where the utility of technical explanations reached a peak, opening an ancient door to myths as easier explanations. Not that the door was ever closed, but new myths have begun to supplant better explanations of reality. There are some simple and obvious reasons why this might have occurred.

Myths facilitate mass assimilation where technical explanations do not. Myths provide simpler and more widely accessible ways to guard against surprises, just as belief in witchcraft did. Burn the witch and if that doesn’t work there must be another one lurking somewhere.

As our knowledge culture declines, myths are supplanting objectively sound technical explanations. Especially apparent in areas of uncertainty where there are vast amounts of money to be made and international political games have become playable.

For example, one of the most striking aspects of the modern world is that some words and phrases are myths masquerading as technical terms. The “climate emergency” is one such term. In almost all contexts it is a myth which purports to explain unusual weather events.

The human point to be made is that the climate emergency myth is much simpler than any technical, scientific, statistical or historical analysis of unusual weather. The simplicity of the myth is its power over people. It may be used, and is used by the media to explain any unusual weather event whatsoever.

Linked myths circulate around sustainability, clean energy, carbon footprints and so on, but there are other myths purporting to be explanations. Myths about diversity, multicultural myths, gender myths, myths about male and female roles, about the importance of the family.

Some myths are more powerful than others because in certain obvious cases the technical explanation is as old as humanity. Gender myths for example are weaker than ancient knowledge of human biology.

A knowledge culture decline seems to be real, driven by money, politics and mass media habitually avoiding technical explanations. Smoothing the way is the simplicity of myths as explanations. We evolved to accept simplicity before complexity and many people never move on from the simple to the nuanced and complex.

Knowledge culture decline won’t go into reverse simply because myths are myths. Only when they fail in ways which are too simple to ignore, only then are they likely to be discarded. It’s how our brains work.


Macheath said...

Perhaps it’s an inevitable consequence of technological civilisations; as you say, the need for simple explanations is hard-wired in most humans and, sooner or later, there’s a always going to be a mass rush to jump onto an ideological bandwagon rather than explore the increasingly documented complexities of the real world.

Perhaps, in the distant future, a counterpart of Edward Gibbon will write the definitive guide to the decline from Enlightenment into the new Dark Ages; meanwhile, the writings of Marcus Aurelius and his views on the need for Stoicism are becoming more relevant with every passing year.

A K Haart said...

Macheath - "Perhaps it’s an inevitable consequence of technological civilisations"

That occurred to me too, because it's an interesting angle on the idea of technologically superior aliens. Maybe it isn't possible to advance much further than we are now because over-simple ideas act as an inevitable drag on the progress of any intelligent being.

Sam Vega said...

Today, we tend to see the old myths - about Osiris, Zeus, Odin, and the Happy Hunting Grounds - as interesting stories designed to help primitive people to come to terms with their life and its exigencies. But it's possible that these were the best that those peoples had by way of explanation. It's only when they were superseded by superior explanatory frameworks that they were seen as fiction, fit only for emphasising moral truths.

One day, people will try to decode what the Climate Emergency was all about. "No, of course not, we couldn't really affect the climate! It's just a poetic way of showing how things hot up if you make mistakes!" And "When the men started losing manual work, penises and vaginas started leaving people and appearing on others they knew!"