Myths and the Creation of Meaning
I 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