Two Englishmen and a mountain.
Two Englishmen stand in the highlands of Fiji, gazing up at a hill high above the village they are staying in. As there is not a lot else to do, they decide that it makes a great goal and head off. Of course they do not know much about the land beyond what they can see, so they head off in a straight line. Dropping into valleys and struggling up to peaks they make some progress, but after several hours the peak still lies in the distance, and they return home. The next day, fed up with goals they simply head out for a walk. Ambling along the watershed ridge, as they have had enough of steep hills, but like the view they find themselves at the top of a distant peak. Looking back they realise they are standing at the top of the peak they has set out for the day before.
This story is true, but to me it has also become a personal myth. Like all good myths it gives a space to take in ideas, give them a good shake to see what falls out:
- The myth of modernism: The straight path to the mountain is always the best.
- The myth of post-modernism: All paths to the mountain are the same.
My intention in calling both things myths, is not to dismiss them, but to start to think of them as fundamental ideas. To me the story of the mountain trumps both these positions. Yet what I really want to start with another myth entirely:
- We all have mythologies.
This myth can be easily shown to be true, simply by a clever definition of mythology, so instead let me discuss my own. It comes from many places, some of the most significant influences include:
- Terry Pratchett
- Douglas Adams
- Icelandic Sagas
- The Malvern Hills
These things give a great deal of framework to my life, colouring my reactions in ways that I cannot predict. When presented with something new they will effect how I behave for good or bad. They help me work on when I need to use a direct approach, and how to meander when it might not work. To use a computer analogy they are the fundamentals of my code. To keep that story going, I therefore think that it is important to think them through and debug them, hopefully before those bugs come out in a crisis. They are, in many ways, my religion.
It has become quite common for people to see the immense harm and trouble that religion has caused throughout the world and see the solution as being no religion. Yet I do not think we can get away that easily. Even in mathematics we have to take the set of axioms we use on faith, we cannot show that they cannot admit a contradiction. We have to be careful where our ideas come from. My friend Vinay Gupta recently said on twitter:
The problem that we have in the west is that we thought the cure for Bad Religion was No Religion and it’s left a generation lost.
I agree. The solution to the problems of both bad and no religion that I have tried to develop is to identify and analyse my religion, trying to take responsibility for it and live by it.
This post started life in a discussion with Bembo Davies (from whom I stole the point about taking ideas into myth and metaphor and shaking them), Michal Woźniak and others on the role of totems in the future at the Edgeryders conference. At the time I talked about mythological maps to our emotions. As you can see my thinking has developed from being told maps to the need to develop our own. Many of the ideas have been made clearer in my own head by conversations with Vinay Gupta, as well as a study of his twitter stream.
Interesting post…may I refer you to Alain de Boton’s TED talk re ‘Atheism 2.0’….you should find a lot of resonance there….
I like that talk a lot, though it feels too centralising. In particular the idea of making a cathedral. I am all for cathedrals to something other than the major religions, the Natural History museum is a wonderful example. Yet something just to a new atheist religion is to close to trying to establish a new institution, competing with rather than subverting the major religions.
May I be so bold as to suggest that you have ‘got the wrong end of the stick’, IMO, from his talk. It is not about founding a ‘new secular’ ‘religion…it is only about using the tools of religion to strengthen the culture surrounding secularism…yes, he finishes by talking about the power of organised religion but he does not say that secularism should be a religion…he only says that secularism can and should use the tools that religions have perfected over millennia.
I mention this in an ‘Edgeryders’ context because my principle concern is that in the upheaval that is shortly to come there will be a backlash against science and rationality by the fearful and the ignorant and ‘Science/secularism/knowledge’ will need all of its wits and strengths to prevail.
So, I would like to start practicing these lessons and techniques as soon as possible..
Listening to him again I have to admit you are right. Though I think some of his other writing on the subject is more direct. If anything I have been guilty of the problem, not uncommon in religions, of focusing on what I disagree with, and emphasising those minor differences.
As for your later point, I agree entirely and worry that mathematics whose inspiration and beauty have been long hidden and which can often seem less directly valuable to material life is particularly at risk.
I think anything that uncovers truth and exposes the lies the powerful want to tell will be endangered….but, yes, Math as the ‘Queen of Science’ will be in particular danger….
Apologies for being assertive re the video…but it will be very important to get the intention and first steps of any such effort right so that it does not provoke unneccessary attacks…
No need to apologise. You helped improve my intuition.
That was my intention but I have been known to do so in an irritating fashion….was trying to be polite about it… ;-)….