Examples of 'The Infinite' in Myth and Their Effect on Conditions of Truth
November 28, 2007 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I am searching for examples of The Infinite, or the immeasurably large, in our mythologies and archetypes. I am also interested in the categories of Truth which came out of the emergence of Western, ontological thought. Does the trust in a rationally conceivable reality deny us the infinity of the mythological realm? By rooting ourselves in the present, and denying atemporal mythologies, do we also deny the infinite origins from where we came?

Mythologically rooted cultures do not usually posit a beginning of time. Humans exist as part of a holistic cycle which spans back and forward into the infinite realm of mythology. There can really be no 'truth' in this perennial world of myth, where the spiritual and 'unseen' realm is just as 'real' as our present state of being.

Western 'truth' (ontologically defined rationality) denies the holism of all things (as do the Monotheistic religions), actively attributing identity to patterns perceived in the world we can see (or to God). This taxonomy or identification of patterns creates a false belief in a fully formed reality - a 'truth'. This taxonomic understanding is to simulacrum what philosophical enquiry was to Plato's shadows in the cave. In consequence, our distinction from The Infinite, from the realm of myth, qualifies us as distinct from reality - we live the simulation, not the absolute.

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I am just going off on one here, to outline vaguely what the forms of infinity, myth and ontology have had on our development (/evolution?).

Please feel free to agree, disagree or add to my examples.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your responses.
posted by 0bvious to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
For anyone interested, a couple of examples of Infinity in myth can be found at the beginning of this blog post (written by me, May 2006)
posted by 0bvious at 9:37 AM on November 28, 2007


How are you defining "mythologically-rooted cultures?" How does this whole Adam-and-Eve, garden-with-a-snake, animals-two-by-two-onto-the-boat thing (with or without the guy-dies-equals-everyone-else-is-pure-again part) not qualify?
posted by salvia at 9:40 AM on November 28, 2007


If the story of Adam and Eve is taken as a myth, then it is valid to this question.

A myth is a story which offers up fundamental truths about being in the world. Any culture which existed which was rooted in these fundamentals counts. Modern Christianity sees Adam and Eve as either 'true' or unimportant in the general scheme of things. It is quite a recent phenomenon that mankind sees its myths as 'true'. This is the dichotomy which I'm asking about.
posted by 0bvious at 9:46 AM on November 28, 2007


Does the trust in a rationally conceivable reality deny us the infinity of the mythological realm?

I'm not sure I fully understand this (or the other) questions you're asking, but inasmuch as I do understand it, no, I don't believe it does. Just because I don't believe in a literal Adam and Eve, or Goldilocks, or Kokopelli doesn't mean that I find their stories without value. Indeed, I find myths and stories to greatly enrich my life, even while I hold to a "western" view of reality.

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot." -- Morpheus, in Sandman #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," by Neil Gaiman.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2007


For instance, the Jesus myth doesn't make much sense if it is taken as 'true'. Seeing it as a mythological scaffolding to one's existence gives the story a transcendant meaning. When Jesus said he was the son of God, he was saying we are all God. This is the mythology. See the works of Joseph Cambell for more on this...
posted by 0bvious at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2007


DevilsAdvocate, I meant exactly what you are saying. The meaning of myth is what is important, it has a fundamental truth which resonates with us. But still, in the modern world this resonation appears distinct from the rational world we posit around us. We do not live in myth anymore, whereas some would argue that myth was all that we lived in more traditional cultures.

Believing Jesus really did turn water into wine, and really was born of a Virgin actually denies the message of the myth.
posted by 0bvious at 9:53 AM on November 28, 2007


I don't know if we're totally denied the infinite in western mythology and conceptual thought. The one counter-example that immediately jumps to mind is the fiction work of Borges. Specifically, I'm thinking of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The City of the Immortals, The Library of Babel, The Aleph, Funes the Memorious, and quite a few others. Obviously, I can't actually speak from experience about infinity, but those stories almost make the infinite feel tangible, but beyond all comprehension at the same time.
posted by LionIndex at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2007


I think I'm beginning to get what you're saying--tell me if this is right. It's not that people in a given ancient culture believed in the literal truth of a given myth--it's that imposing the dichotomy "believe it literally true" or "not believe it literally true" is itself a product of our modern view of truth, and that a person in that ancient culture would not have thought about whether the myth was literally true, or if they did would not have cared about whether it was or not. Or, to put it another way, factual statements would not have been divided only into "truth" or "falsehood" as we see them today; rather there is "truth," "falsehood," and "myth" which falls into neither of the first two categories. Is that fair?

(Even if I'm accurately representing what you're saying, I'm not sure I have an answer to your questions. Perhaps it's too hard for me to see outside of my modern view of truth. But interesting to try to think about, all the same.)

As for the infinite, or at least imcomprehensibly large, I think modern cosmology does that (both in terms of time and of space) as least as well as any ancient mythology. The mind boggles at trying to comprehend the age or the size of the universe, and the fact that we can assign a number to it makes it no more comprehensible on a visceral level. The one difference is that modern cosmology seems to emphasize man's utter insignificance in this vastness, while the infinite of ancient mythologies seems to say that while the universe is vast, man has a significant place in it. An important difference? Probably, but I'm not sure in what way. I think it is not a coincidence that Lovecraftian-style horrors, which emphasize the insignificance of humanity in the face of vastly more powerful beings, has only become popular in the past century or so, coinciding with modern cosmology; earlier horrors may have wanted to do terrible things to humans, but at least they acknowledged and valued humans. Not so anymore.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2007


I don't think you understand orthodox Christian theology in its developed Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) forms.

God is atemporal in this (these) belief system(s).

Why does an unseen realm require relativism? Christians traditionally believe in various spirit creatures w/o denying the existence of truth.

The patristic idea of the various senses of scripture directly contradicts what you say about the Gospel accounts as a dichotomy of true(myth) and true(historical).

If you read Aquinas (or presumably Aristotle) rather than Plato, I think you'll get a more integrated view of the "western" idea of the created world.

Even if we assume what you say is true, you seem to have introduced a kind of openended relativism that allows me to posit as my myth anything I please, including the existence of independently existing truth, where all you can do is appeal to the contradiction inherent in that, but I that would be a reductio of your system.
posted by Jahaza at 10:42 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hmm, so, I know I'm addressing a small subset of what you're working on here, but it seems like, if you will consider the Christianity mythologies, then doesn't it suggest that the mythological realm is not always infinite, at least not temporally? If what you're interested in is infinity, that seems to exist in some mythologies and be strongly constrained by others. It seems like (in the few that I know well), almost every worldview (based on whatever mythology they have) is more expansive in some ways and more constrained in others, when compared to my own.

Personally, modern physics gives me a greater sense of the infinite than any mythology ever did (though I have always lived in a world with a true/false dichotomy).
posted by salvia at 11:05 AM on November 28, 2007


Great responses...

I don't think that modern science does truly posit infinity. We use the word, granted, but if you examine modern debates in theoretical physics you tend to find all research moves towards an idealised 'Theory of Everything'. Science believes it can pin down the 'infinity' it posits with a final theorum. Reality is surrounded by the mathematics of any such attempt. No other formulation of reality I know claims so absolutely that it con provide all the answers (without positing 'the God of the gaps' science defaults to the 'science will one day answer this'. Don't get me wrong, I am an a-theistic materialist, but absolute I am not).

The God of Monotheism is also expressed as infinite, yet is understood as being somehow separate from humanity, separate from the Devil, etc (any infinite God would contain all other things). In turn, he created a universe, giving it a beginning, forging a finite entity. Hinduism or Buddhism - older than Monotheistic faiths, but hardly representative of traditional belief systems - place humanity in an ever revolving wheel of time. There is no beginning, no ultimate being and even in Hinduism each higher God seems to be living in the belly button of another God, ad infinitum. Any myth with a beginning - and indeed, an end if we follow the Christian mythology to its conclusion - defies infinity.

There is a Chinese and Japanese word, 'Mu', which fills in the space between Truth and Falsehood. The English language has no such linguistic reference, and so cannot comprehend the referent we need it to point to. We misunderstand the world through our ontology. We forgot that Myth is Mu.
posted by 0bvious at 11:44 AM on November 28, 2007


Try David Foster Wallace's Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Do not read if allergic to transfinite mathematics.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:01 PM on November 28, 2007


Does the trust in a rationally conceivable reality deny us the infinity of the mythological realm?

This begs the question that there is such a thing as a mythological realm. I think you'd have to define that term first before you can proceed very far. There are, of course, various discourses of mythology.

By rooting ourselves in the present, and denying atemporal mythologies, do we also deny the infinite origins from where we came?

This assumes that we "root ourselves in the present" and that we have "infinite origins." We have no choice but live in the present. But, being human, we can take an interest in the past and look to the future. Life would be a pretty sterile exercise without both.

As for "infinite origins." I'm siding with science here, I think, but doesn't time itself start with the universe? With the big bang? Someone who understand physics, feel free to qualify that. So, I'd say, living in the present isn't any sort of denial. It's your only option.

Mythologically rooted cultures do not usually posit a beginning of time.

I don't think that's self-evident. Christianity is certainly a mythology and it posits a beginning (depending upon how you read John 1:1). Then again, the conception of god in the bible is generally as an entity that has always existed and always will.

This taxonomy or identification of patterns creates a false belief in a fully formed reality - a 'truth'.

Maybe more simplistic version of positivism do, but rationality and science, I find, are a good deal more subtle, focussing on the realm of things we can know and remaining silent or guardedly speculative on those that we can't (yet). See the later Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Rorty, etc.
posted by wheat at 1:48 PM on November 28, 2007


Its worth mentioning that the idea that only western thought is skeptical is just plain wrong. Traditionally "mythical" cultures are quite rational and skeptical. They may suspend this for the spiritual beliefs of choice, just like modern people do, but the idea of only modern westerners understaning truth as being objective shows a lack of understanding of past "mythical" cultures.

I think youre forcing a duality that's not there for the sake of conversation.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:10 PM on November 28, 2007


You need to read Martin Heidegger, specifically what he says about truth (truth as the unveiling of Being), and his critique of metaphysics.


For instance, the Jesus myth doesn't make much sense if it is taken as 'true'. Seeing it as a mythological scaffolding to one's existence gives the story a transcendant meaning. When Jesus said he was the son of God, he was saying we are all God.


This is true only if you haven't actually read a single one of the Gospels.
posted by nasreddin at 2:17 PM on November 28, 2007


0bvious: Western 'truth' (ontologically defined rationality) denies the holism of all things (as do the Monotheistic religions), actively attributing identity to patterns perceived in the world we can see (or to God). This taxonomy or identification of patterns creates a false belief in a fully formed reality - a 'truth'. This taxonomic understanding is to simulacrum what philosophical enquiry was to Plato's shadows in the cave. In consequence, our distinction from The Infinite, from the realm of myth, qualifies us as distinct from reality - we live the simulation, not the absolute.

You just said something huge. I don't believe it's true. My hesitation to say it's flat-out false is, I think, only prompted by the extreme vagueness of your statement here. For example: what makes you say that "Western 'Truth'... denies the holism of all things" ? That is, first of all, an extremely ambitious statement, one which requires an intimate knowledge of the works of hundreds, if not thousands, of the thinkers of a part of the world that you call "the west."

As a side-note, I don't even think that such a designation is really valid; what exactly do you mean by "the west?" "The east" has been influencing "the west" for so many years, and is so varied and multifarious, that it's silly to treat the world as though it could conceivably be split into two mutually exclusive chunks. In terms of what you're saying here: there are "eastern philosophies" which are highly dogmatic and "truth-designating:" Confucianism, Advaida-Vedanta, many strains of Buddhism... the list goes on. And there are "western philosophies" which are less "truth-designating" than most "eastern philosophies." In short, you're not really talking about anything when you talk about "western philosophy" and "eastern philosophy" besides your own orientation toward the strange and exotic. The distinction between East and West is bullshit, frankly, especially when used to discredit thousands of years of thought without reference or consideration of them. And that's what you're doing.

To continue, I should say that every culture I know of has a concept of "truth." It is very, very difficult to distinguish between one person's view of "truth" and another, but my observation is that the east and west are so diverse that it's meaningless to try to find a difference between them on the subject of "truth."

One direction you might be going in is the direction of what some people refer to as "the discovery of Nature"-- that is, the origin of the Greek concept of phusis, the idea that there is a static, unchanging thing which is in some way the stuff of the world. I should point out that nature is not truth, except perhaps to some enlightenment figures. It might cover what you're talking about. The word was first used in that meaning in Homer's Odyssey, which is a myth, but lead, in large part, to Greek philosophy. (That's one hole taht can be knocking in the idea that myth and rationality are opposed.) Unfortunately, nature has many parallel concepts in certain Indian sects under the name 'prakriti,' so even 'nature' can't be claimed as a specifically western thing. This is pointed out in a tremendous article by James Carey entitled "The Discovery Of Nature" that I might be able to dredge up if you like.

For instance, the Jesus myth doesn't make much sense if it is taken as 'true'. Seeing it as a mythological scaffolding to one's existence gives the story a transcendant meaning. When Jesus said he was the son of God, he was saying we are all God. This is the mythology. See the works of Joseph Cambell for more on this...

This is important: the so-called 'Jesus Myth' doesn't make any sense if it's not true. The point of the story-- that an absolute God emanates and permeates every iota of existence, entering into it and becoming finite, thus elevating that existence to infinity, has meaning only insofar as that absolute God really does permeate existence by becoming a being. 'The infinite wholly entered into finitude, but only metaphorically' is a meaningless and silly statement. See the writings of the early Church Fathers and the works in the Philokalia for more on this. Joseph Campbell isn't an authority on much of anything, and certainly not on Christianity.
posted by koeselitz at 4:03 PM on November 28, 2007


"(That's one hole that can be knocked..." shee, long day at work.
posted by koeselitz at 4:05 PM on November 28, 2007


0bvious: The English language has no such linguistic reference, and so cannot comprehend the referent we need it to point to.

That's really only a half-truth.
posted by koeselitz at 4:07 PM on November 28, 2007


do we also deny the infinite origins from where we came?

Why do you think "we" share an "infinite" origin? Your question is not an open question, it is a framing that eliminates entire sets of possible answers.

an absolute God emanates and permeates every iota of existence, entering into it and becoming finite, thus elevating that existence to infinity, has meaning only insofar as that absolute God really does permeate existence by becoming a being.

The Indo-European idea of a Godhead as a set of all-pervading, self-recursive and spatially distributed set of emanations seems to have arisen with the Zoroastrian idea of holy spirit(s), seems to have been refined by Artistotle and the neo-Platonists, then been transmitted into modern times by transmission and mutation through the more Gnostic/Manichaeistic Christian sects and the Islamic essentialism philosophies of Ibn Sina and similar. It is, of course, basically a borrowing from the historically older, karmic religions further east.
posted by meehawl at 8:06 PM on November 28, 2007


FYI, the big Greek cheese in this emanationist thing was Plotinus.
posted by meehawl at 8:14 PM on November 28, 2007


Hey, I was surprised to find that the Roman Catholics have done a reasonably complete, if skewed, workup of emanationism and neoPlatonism, even noting their important to Islamic and Jewish mysticism.
posted by meehawl at 8:23 PM on November 28, 2007


Of course, eastern traditions of Christianity remain more comfortable to this day with emanationist-influenced myths such as Origen's apokatastasis, or the eventual reunion of the universal emanations that create our reality with the Godhead.
posted by meehawl at 9:42 PM on November 28, 2007


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