Myths and the Creation of Meaning

September 10, 2007 at 6:48 am 13 comments

Loch Ness MonsterI listened recently to a fascinating radio broadcast where Adrian Shine was discussing how, to date, he had failed to find the mythical watery monster of Loch Ness (Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4, 18/08/08).

Two things made this conversation interesting for me and took it above the realms of the usual “the-monster-must-exist-coz-I’ve-seen-pictures” story. First, this man was no fool. He was a serious naturalist who had spent over thirty years exploring and collaborating in over 200 university projects on the loch. He writes in learned journals and can do the science.

Secondly, when asked why he hadn’t found the leviathan, he simply stated that it didn’t exist. At least, there wasn’t a shred of scientific evidence that it did. And he should know, because he has spent the best part of a working life doing the sonar, going in the submarines, looking in the mud, sampling the plankton, testing the photographs, and analysing the data.

“But what about all the people who are convinced that it does?” pleaded the interviewer. “There are over 1000 reported sightings?”

At this point Adrian argued that if put in a court of law he could present supposed evidence and that might convince some people, but there was nothing that would stand up before a much more rigorous investigation. If the data were discussed in ‘normal’ human interaction, some would say that the monster existed, but that data would not survive the greater demands of science.

His point was a simple one that any psychology student would understand: in order to get on with life we need to process vast amounts of information very quickly. In order to help us to do that we use meaning-templates so that we can make guesses about what we are seeing on the basis of very little data (we see a door-knob, for example, and assume that it is attached to a door without having to study all the data about the door.) When we face puzzlement and don’t understand what we are seeing, we instinctively look for a template that will fit, and we interpret that data in the light of that template. As human beings, we find it very difficult to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. But the interpretation that we may have hastily adopted may prove to be wrong.

The scenery of Loch Ness is such that it is a place where monsters ought to exist, even if they don’t. If you add the weight of a strong cultural myth that it does exist, and if you then are faced with phenomena that you do not have the science or experience to interpret (the lines from a loch wave, for example), you are very likely to assume that you have seen the beast.

Endless other examples of this tendency to create meaning in the face of uncertainty are provided by the conspiracy theorists. If, as human beings we find it difficult to tolerate ambiguity about what we are seeing, we are also very good at avoiding unpallitable meaning and of creating fairytale alternatives. When Diana, Princess of Wales was tragically killed in a car crash, even before any forensic investigation, many people drew on cultural myths to confidently proclaim that she had been killed by members of the British Establishment because she was pregnant and about to marry a Muslim. Somehow it seemed easier to believe a creative, complicated fantasy, rather than face the very uncomfortable apparent arbitrary randomness of life and death.

As I listened to Adrian Shine, I remembered a particular incident from my former church life (charismatic-evangelical). It involved an unremarkable case of divine guidance. (When I say ‘unremarkable’, I mean unremarkable in the context of the time. It felt like a normal, everyday event. Things like this were said or happened all of the time. It was the cultural norm. Now, of course, to me, it seems very unusual and bizarre.) As a church we were being asked to consider a reasonably large amount of expenditure. Should we, or should we not fund a fortnight’s trip abroad that our pastor was thinking of undertaking? After explaining the initial case for the trip the pastor then said he felt he should go because God had confirmed that he should.

The pastor had been driving down a small road in rural Norfolk during the previous week when God spoke to him clearly in two ways. First, he had seen a garage sign that contained a combination of letters that related to the foreign destination. Secondly, a pheasant had flown out of the hedgerow and startled him as he drove by. (I’m afraid that I cannot remember the precise importance of the pheasant now, but I know it was the clincher at the time.) These two things together confirmed that he should go. If you want to go on a trip, and you have a cultural template that says God speaks in unusual ways, you can then create your meaning from any random or natural phenomenon. I am not for a moment doubting the pastor’s sincerity or saying that he manipulated things deliberately. He subconsciously did what was natural in resolving the ambiguity.

If the creation of meaning is something that we all naturally do all the time, we surely need to make sure that we are using good templates, and that we can adjust them, or abandon them for new templates when alternative evidence is presented. The tragedy is that we seem reluctant to let go of faulty templates. I remember hearing of a man who was convinced that his internal pain was being caused by a snake inside his stomach. When presented with an x-ray showing no evidence of a snake, he just claimed that the snake was hiding. Believers in the Loch Ness Monster will not be persuaded by thorough sonar scans showing little but emptiness.

Sometimes the templates can have a strong emotional attachment. They may have comforted us for years and we are extremely reluctant to part with them. We created the meaning to meet particular needs, and that meaning may have served us well for a time. The new car may be more efficient and dynamic and functional, but we like the feel and the smell of the old machine that saw us through many a difficult trip. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who observed that although God was dead, people still found it difficult to leave the Temple.

Sometimes attachment to particular templates is culturally enforced by more than emotion and tradition. People still face persecution and death if they dare to challenge existing interpretation and come up with other meaning. I personally have friends who are still facing the pain and financial consequences of leaving one branch of their faith (Plymouth Bretheren) and joining another (Baptist). Because of that change the mortgage on their house was withdrawn by the first church, and their parents now regard them as dead and refuse to have any contact with them. And of course, throughout history and even today members of various religions still kill those who recant their faith or who dare to convert to another.

Regardless of external pressure to hold on to inadequate and wrong templates, my experience is that there is often strong internal pressure to do so, and this is often more than emotional attachment. I have written elsewhere about my own exchange of templates. However, one reason it took so long for me is that you can feel very foolish having held onto something that you now regard as at best ‘inadequate’, and at worst ‘bonkers’, for such a significant length of time. Having invested so much energy and money in a particular template, it isn’t always easy to swallow pride and admit to what you now regard as colossal mistakes.

As we naturally rush to create meaning, let’s remember that uncertainty can sometimes not only be good, but best. And if we cling tightly to interpretations, let’s make sure that we are willing to re-examine them or change them when presented with new evidence. Remember, despite over 1000 people claiming to have seen her (or him), Nessie is a myth – probably.

- A Thinking Man

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. karen  |  September 10, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Excellent entry, ATM! Really smart and well-presented.

    One of several turning points in my journey away from blind faith was reading Michael Shermer on “one-in-a-million” coincidences (in an area with the population of Southern California, these happen at least 16 times daily!) and confirmation bias (we unconsciously look for “signs” that confirm what we want to believe; we remember “hits” and forget “misses”).

    However, one reason it took so long for me is that you can feel very foolish having held onto something that you now regard as at best ‘inadequate’, and at worst ‘bonkers’, for such a significant length of time. Having invested so much energy and money in a particular template, it isn’t always easy to swallow pride and admit to what you now regard as colossal mistakes.

    Yes, I see this all the time. There is a strong reluctance to part with cherished beliefs and it’s very understandable. For many people, their faith is precious, and they believe they cannot live without it. This is why, I believe, we see so many people question fundamentalism when it becomes untenable intellectually, but slide into more liberal religious beliefs where they feel more comfortable.

    Atheism, agnosticism may not be for everyone, particularly in a culture as drenched in religion as is ours, but I think it is important for everyone to at least be open to questioning and reevaluating their faith.

  • 2. athinkingman  |  September 10, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    “This is why, I believe, we see so many people question fundamentalism when it becomes untenable intellectually, but slide into more liberal religious beliefs where they feel more comfortable.”

    Interesting point Karen. I think you are right. However, for me that was never an option, though one or two people have suggested it to me since. I personally think that there are just as many intellectual problems in being a liberal as there are in being a fundamentalist. But I am sure you are right about the appeal that that escape route has for some.

  • 3. karen  |  September 10, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    However, for me that was never an option, though one or two people have suggested it to me since. I personally think that there are just as many intellectual problems in being a liberal as there are in being a fundamentalist.

    See, I had the exact same reaction you did. I tried attending a couple of churches in liberal denominations and the services just totally fell flat for me.

    Maybe I was “poisoned” by so many years in conservative evangelical churches, or maybe by that point my skeptics sense and my critical thinking skills were on overdrive. :-)

    At any rate, there was no appeal for me in liberal Christianity and I had just as many intellectual questions and concerns about it as I had about fundamentalism. So, no go.

    Then also, I didn’t feel particularly “bad” without god. As time went on, I felt better and better, in fact! I don’t know whether that’s something of a personality trait (it might very well be) or whether it’s a learned response, but I found I didn’t “need” god in my life to feel fulfilled and happy. Although a lot of other people obviously do feel that need very strongly (hmmm… I think I feel a post coming on!)

  • 4. ESVA  |  September 10, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Excellent post.

    I spent more than a decade sliding from evangelical Christianity to liberal Christianity to a de facto Deism and finally to atheism. That final step was the toughest one because I eventually had to admit that my “rock solid” worldview was based on quicksand. I think Karen nailed me with her idea about people sliding into liberalism because that’s a lot more comfortable than tossing out the entire Christian framework. It’s only comfortable, however, if one is willing to keep up with the mental gymnastics required to hold on to any theistic faith. Now that I’ve let go of the faith, I’m enjoying a totally new, invigorating intellectual and moral journey.

  • 5. Brad  |  September 10, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    ATM,

    A very interesting article. I particularly like the parallel examples between Loch Ness and faith in general.

    I guess my question has to do with an unspoken premise: that emotional attachment is necessarily a bad thing. The heart divorced from reason is dangerous and unstable at best, but the mind divorced from emotional attachment is.. well… cold and robotic.

    Neither should be held alone. I don’t know that it is even possible, as both thinking and feeling beings, to hold to one exclusively. Adrian Shine, while embarking on a quest for objective truth, had to have been QUITE emotionally attached to his pursuit! Otherwise, there would have been no reason to continue for so many years. The most driven and critical scientist is driven by love of their field, or the thrill of discovering new things (or maybe they just really love lab coats…).

    The question doesn’t seem to be an issue of whether or not one is emotionally attached, but what we are emotionally attached to. If that is the case, what is the standard for judging the “worthiness” of what we are attached to? Does one evaluate that scientifically/rationally/objectively? Is that even possible?

  • 6. athinkingman  |  September 10, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Brad, I agree that emotional attachment isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but only unfortunate when it is the sole basis for attachment, and even holding on to that attachment when all the evidence is to the contrary.

    nd I think that most of us don’t initially make attachments to a faith on the basis of science/reason alone. We are humans and respond because having faith meets some needs. When de-converting after a long time, I suspect that most of us are making a more conscious and objective decision. But there again, emotion must be involved and it may be impossible to make a totally objective decision. Perhaps we can aim to make a decision to de-convert, hoping to be nearer to the objective end of the continuum than to the subjective one.

    Emotion may be an important glue in holding us to a faith and in motivating us, but arguably reason and science should be the major basis for selecting a philosophy for life (?and eternity).

  • 7. Brad  |  September 10, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    “but only unfortunate when it is the sole basis for attachment, and even holding on to that attachment when all the evidence is to the contrary.”

    I think that it is REALLY important in discussion of this topic to really define “evidence.” If balanced emotional attachment can be a good thing, then it must also qualify as “evidence.”

    Now, if someone’s grandparent dies, and their body lies in the casket, no amount of “feeling that they are alive” will change the reality of their death. Thus a “balanced” emotional attachment is necessary.

    “But there again, emotion must be involved and it may be impossible to make a totally objective decision.”

    We are subjective creatures. We have no choice but to view the world with the lens that we have been given. Impersonal objective perception is not only impossible, but I would contend, undesirable. I am not anti-science by any stretch, nor do I overemphasize the emotional (indeed, I feel I lack heart-felt attachment sometimes), yet there must be a balance struck. A degree of objectivity is absolutely important, but it can never be divorced from an appreciation for experience and emotion.

    “Emotion may be an important glue in holding us to a faith and in motivating us, but arguably reason and science should be the major basis for selecting a philosophy for life (?and eternity).”

    And that is the basic premise that I would contend with. Does your objective knowledge of your wife’s DNA, anatomy, or neurological function help you understand who she is? Or, if you aren’t married, carry the example to any of your other relationships. Augustine said, “I believe in order to know.” There is much knowledge that requires a certain amount of risk and relationship to attain. While truth is certainly objective, we cannot engage it apart from our subjective perception (while understanding the characteristics of that subjectivity).

    In the same way, the truth of your wife (or other relationship) is objective: she exists in a specific way apart from your subjective perception and is not altered by it. However, to understand her fully, you absolutely must engage her subjectively. Again, both subjective and objective knowledge are incomplete by themselves, but each will help and grow your understanding of the other.

  • 8. athinkingman  |  September 10, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Perhaps the issue lies in the difference between your wife and a philosophy for life? You assess them in different ways?

  • 9. ESVA  |  September 10, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    I think many of us here agree that most people deconvert from various theisms primarily for rational reasons. And I agree that reason is a far better foundation for a philosophy or worldview than either faith or emotion. Nevertheless, I think that well-reasoned thought has an esthetic quality. In other words, I don’t believe rationalism has to be cold and robotic; it can be, and at its best, is, esthetically pleasing.

    For one thing, exquisitely constructed arguments are often identified by their resemblance to appropriate “forms.” They don’t always adhere strictly to the “model” forms we learned in logic courses, just as Beethoven’s symphonies sometimes expanded upon the bare-bones structures of sonata-allegro forms. Nevertheless, the underlying the structures of both Beethoven’s symphonies and clear logical arguments can be detected and examined. These structures have aesthetic qualities. They are carefully constructed rather than random.

    For another thing, Occam’s Razor applies to art, music, etc., just as much as it does to logic. A great jazz artist, Charles Mingus, said (I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close): Anyone can make the simple complex; the trick is to make the complex simple.

    In closing, I will say that, even though my deconversion was a rational decision (I wasn’t angry at anyone in the church, I wasn’t undergoing any kind of personal or spiritual crisis, etc.), it was, when I finally arrived at that point, accompanied by a strong emotion of relief. Moreover, this relief came after a period of grieving as I underwent the inner self-examination process that accompanied my rational evaluation of various arguments, apologetics, etc. In short, even though my decision to deconvert was rational, it was not coldly so.

  • 10. Brad  |  September 11, 2007 at 11:36 am

    ATM,

    “Perhaps the issue lies in the difference between your wife and a philosophy for life? You assess them in different ways?”

    Where is the separation you propose? If philosophy of life is derived from truth (reality, identity, who my wife is, etc.), I’m not sure I see how the two can be assessed differently. What is the standard for assessing philosophy of life if not truth?

    The relational aspects of my knowledge of who my wife is cannot be quantified in the same way that science is primarily concerned with (objectivity). While science is a wonderful epistemological tool, it is only part of the picture. I would even go so far as to say that it is a solid foundation, but without building on it, it is just a concrete slab.

    ESVA,
    “I think many of us here agree that most people deconvert from various theisms primarily for rational reasons. ”

    And I would have to agree that this is by far the most common reason! I agree whole heartedly. This is greatly due to a negligence of communicating biblical truth to INCLUDE rationalism along with other aspects of faith instead of the ONLY or PRIMARY aspect of faith.

    For example, as the enlightenment gained steam, pastors and theologians adapted by communicating their message as objective truth. Well, the bible communicates objective truth, but very much through a subjective lens. The results of this have been an overemphasized literal translation (creation account in Genesis, for example) and direct comparison to scientific truth. The bible, however, was never meant to be a legal brief or scientific analysis. It is not lesser than science, it is a wholly different animal (“comparing apples to oranges”).

    That said, neither is “wrong.” We can trust the observable evidence in the world around us, and we can trust the narrative of scripture.

    “In short, even though my decision to deconvert was rational, it was not coldly so.”

    ESVA, the last thing I want to be heard saying is that the decisions of those who deconvert are not rational, or that they are cold or robotic. I greatly appreciate the struggle and long road traveled to reach where you are. I sincerely apologize if that was how I came off, it truly was not my intention. I certainly see that your rational decision was not divorced from your heart, indeed I imagine it was greatly MOTIVATED by it. Without knowing the specifics of your journey, I suspect it had something to do with a tradition you were taught that emphasized the objectiveness of scripture itself (which is only partly true), and when it stood against the rational scientific, it did not line up. I would contend that this is not because scripture/Christianity is not “true,” only that how you were told it communicates truth is not true.

    Dr. Jack Collins (BS and MS, MIT) wrote an excellent book, “Science and Faith: Friends or Foes” addressing (among others) this topic. I highly recommend it, as it is far more effective in explaining this than I.

  • 11. superhappyjen  |  September 11, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Of course there’s a the Loch Ness Monster. This will all become clear to everyone shortly after World War III, when the Vulcans land on Earth and use their advanced sensors to scan the lake.

  • 12. Lost in Translation, Part 2 « Confessions of a Seminarian  |  September 17, 2007 at 11:54 am

    [...] this medium would be perfect. Thankfully, it is FAR more than that! One example of this is a recent article written by our friends at De-Conversion. It compared belief in God to belief in the Loch Ness [...]

  • 13. Anonymous  |  March 15, 2008 at 2:25 pm

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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