thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Karen’s on the case #1

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Karen Armstrong is one of my favourite non-fiction writers. Her latest book, The case for God: What religion really means1, is her riposte both to the ‘new atheism’ and the kind of conceptions of God and religion which the ‘new atheism’ feeds on. Having said that, I found little for an atheist such as myself to quibble with. Except perhaps towards the end, where I did scribble a bit in the margins.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

As I followed The case for God I kept thinking: Yes OK, but you know it cuts both ways? I am writing this partly to work out what I was thinking.

One significant theme running through the book is the contrast between mythos and logos:

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary… Logos (‘reason’) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organise their societies or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that, people turned to mythos or ‘myth’.

[L]ike logos, [mythos] helped people to live creatively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos

At the risk of oversimplification, her argument is that both modern religious literalists (including ‘fundamentalists’) and the ‘new atheists’ forget that religion, in its origins and in its essence, is mythos, not logos.

Lascaux painting

Lascaux painting

Like many of St Karen’s books, The case for God takes a broad sweep through history. We begin in the caves of Lascaux and 300+ pages later arrive at our own post-9/11 cavern of confusion. If there was a pivotal moment when the mythos of religion went pear-shaped and started masquerading as logos, it was the emergence of modern science in the 15th and 16th centuries. This early modern period introduced a scientific concept of truth, which was then inappropriately applied to religion as the march of science got more and more unstoppable. Descartes (1596-1650) for example dedicated his Meditations on First Philosophy to the Faculty of Theology in Paris with the claim:

I have always thought that two issues – namely, God and the soul – are chief among those that ought to be demonstrated with the aid of philosophy rather than theology. For although it suffices for us believers to believe by faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists, certainly no unbelievers seem capable of being persuaded of any religion or even of almost any moral virtue, until these two are first proven to them by natural reason.2

God was also essential to the system of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Because matter was inert, it could not move or change unless an outside force acted on it:

Though these bodies [ie the solar system] may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits by themselves from these laws…

[Their existence and position] could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being.3

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

Moving back to the ‘pre-modern’ context though, it is important to note that while logos needed to ‘correspond accurately to external reality’ the examples Armstrong gives present both mythos and logos as essentially practical rather than theoretical. So what is acquired is in both cases skill (knowing how) rather than facts (knowing that). This could be expressed as the difference between procedural knowledge and propositional or descriptive knowledge.

The difference matters because although knowing how may involve some knowing that, there is no necessary dependency. Two people may both know how to grow vegetables but know very different facts about plants, soil, climate and the seasons. They also may know very different numbers of facts.

Indeed, we may know how to do something on the basis of beliefs which are actually incomplete or false. For example a farmer may be successful because he always waters his crops in dry weather, but he does this because he believes the earth goddess is thirsty and repays his kindness. His farming logos has corresponded with external reality to the extent of understanding a connection between irrigation and plant growth, but not to the extent of correctly explaining the connection.

Quite by chance I have stumbled on an example combining logos (knowing how to farm) and mythos (knowing how to relate to the divine). This may be because the example is so simple and undeveloped. In more extensive examples a key difference begins to emerge between logos and mythos:

Religion [an example of mythos] is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart… It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth and falsehood, before embarking on a religious way of life. You will only discover their truth – or lack of it – if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work and discipline…

The early Daoists saw religion as a ‘knack’ acquired by constant practice…

People who acquired this knack discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was not simply an external reality ‘out there’ but was identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self. Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience.

George Steiner

George Steiner

So while logos and mythos both have roots in skill – knowing how rather than knowing thatlogos has developed into structured, rational and scientific knowledge which relies on resolved, non-contradictory discourse, while mythos became something whose very richness embraces the frontiers of meaning and transcends contradiction. She quotes George Steiner:

It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.4

Which brings us to apophasis, a key building block in the case Karen is constructing:

[M]y aim is not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend – the apophatic – that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity.

Which we’ll leave till next time…


1 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

2 René Descartes, Meditations on first philosophy: In which the existence of God and the distinction of the soul from the body are demonstrated, translated by Donald A Cress, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1993.

3 Isaac Newton, Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematical principles of natural philosophy and his system of the world, translated by Andrew Motte (1729), revised by Florian Cajori, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962.

4 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

22 August 2009 at 9:37 pm

11 Responses

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  1. We have just returned from a weekend in London, and your comment in response to mine stimulates too many ideas for me to get around in the rest of this short day. Your thinking is just different enough and just similar enough to be quite exciting.
    I will return later but for now I will limit myself to two thoughts. The first is in relation to your comment to Steve saying that both Nazism and Stalinism were flavours of mythos. Nazism more so than Stalinism, which, based on Marxist communism, I think presented itself as based on logos. Although when it was useful, Stalin made liberal use of mythos, apparently evoking many church-related symbols to energize the population during WWII.

    I agree that the saving grace of logos is that, theoretically at least, it is subject to unrelenting verification. But a study of the history if science suggests that shifting a scientific paradigm sometimes takes centuries. Are you familiar with Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It’s an old book, now, but if you aren’t familiar with the jist, it is well worth reading. And as a psychologist, I am as interested in the rigidity and absolute faith in the rightness of their position that appears among some scientific thinkers as it does among religious thinkers.

    I am increasingly fascinated by the differences I am beginning to see among non-believers depending on the world from which they have travelled to arrive there. As someone who finds science – its method and its findings – wonderful almost beyond words, it didn’t occur to me until recently that the structure of my thought and the questions with which I wrestle are nonetheless products of my earlier beliefs. It is astonishing for me to read your description of yourself and wonder what it is like to really be content with what you describe as “a gappy ontology.”

    I mean, there are many people who are satisfied with incomplete ontologies because they do not have the ability or background to be dissatisfied. But that is not the case with you, or with several other highly educated people whom I know. I think we ex-Catholics are still Aristotelians at heart. We might have even gone so far as to have rejected dualism, but we still look for that larger Picture of Everything.

    I’m going to stop for now. I do want to discuss further, though, the question of reductionism and consciousness. I’ve read your comments on Ward’s position and agree wholeheartedly that “Why there might be a God” is hardly convincing. But on a purely natural level, I think there is a bigger problem with consciousness than you do. I do not see any reason to say that it is not potentially a scientific problem. But I don’t think it is even potentially solvable by any of our current theories.

    More later I hope this week. In the meantime, mega-thank you’s for your end of this discussion.

    Terry Sissons

    6 September 2009 at 4:56 pm

    • Thanks again Terry. Interim response:

      Yes absolutely – I have a battered copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions dating from the late 60s. Read it a few times back then but haven’t for many years. As far as I know its main thesis is as sound now as it was then, and generally speaking everything I think or say on the subject of ‘scientific knowledge’ should be taken with a pinch of Kuhnian salt. I don’t think SSR undermines scientific knowledge, but it was & still is a profound challenge to naïve assumptions about what ‘scientific truth’ really is.

      Longer response later I hope.

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      12 September 2009 at 11:10 am

      • Oh what joy! someone who has read and understands scientific paradigms. I never thought SSR undermined scientific knowledge, but it does suggest that scientific “facts” are not absolute (unlike tenets of faith, which are). I told my students for years that if you want absolute certainty, don’t become a scientist. Even Newton’s theory of gravity is not exactly what we thought for centuries that it was.

        I’m now shuffling down to our discussion about reductionism. x

        Terry Sissons

        13 September 2009 at 5:06 pm

  2. For a long time, the distinction between logos & mythos solved a myriad of semi-theological questions for me. As they seem to for Armstrong (perhaps not a coincidence given some of the striking similarities of our backgrounds).
    But now, although the logos/mythos distinction seems valid and although I think modern thinkers have often totally misinterpreted mythos as logos, simply distinguishing between the two leaves a plethora of metaphysical questions that bother me a lot.

    Principally, I have been exploring whether I find reductionism an adequate metaphysical alternative to Platonic dualism which is now totally unacceptable to me.
    As a result, I have begun to wonder if there are not several definitions of reductionism that I have conflated. What I have always meant by reductionism is the view that all reality can be explained as the result of the mechanical interactions of matter which itself is inert. (This definition creates as many problems for me as it solves, however, and I have always rejected it.)
    But my reading now seems to suggest that for some people, reductionism means that all reality can be explained by natural laws, natural forces, and that adding a supernatural force is not necessary. In this sense I am a totally signed-up reductionist.

    But the implications for these two definitions are hugely different. As I see it, the first leaves too much of reality without even a hint of an explanation, especially consciousness as it seems to exist in all life forms. The second, however, having gotten rid of dualism, has no metaphysic to replace it.
    I’d be immensely interested to know the definition of reductionism (one of the above or possibly yet another alternative) which you favour. And of course why.
    Particularly since reductionism seems to be one of the critical issues on which I’m not sure we agree. So what is it exactly about which we disagree?

    Terry Sissons

    3 September 2009 at 5:13 pm

    • Thanks again for another meaty comment. Makes all this blogging business worth while.

      And as usual I go along with a lot of what you say.

      As far as reductionism is concerned, I don’t know if I’d actually call myself a ‘reductionist’. I think it’s more that when I see counter-arguments dismissing a particular position as ‘reductionism’ I find myself wondering what exactly it is about reductionism that people are pointing to as bad or self-evidently wrong.

      There is probably an official definition of ‘reductionism’ – maybe more than one. When I use the word I usually mean ‘reducing one thing to another thing’ – ie in a very general sense. The ‘things’ are typically explanations, so reductionism would tend to be explaining something in terms of another explanation. And for me the criteria of success would not need to be that the explanans and explanandum are inter-translateable – ie that they literally mean the same – but that the explanandum would be a sufficient condition of the explanans. So for example my example of a reductionist explanation of a flame in Serious about delusion #5.

      I’m probably being simplistic, but I’m not sure I see much difference between your two possible definitions of reductionism. It’s not that I actually think for example that ‘all reality can be explained as the result of the mechanical interactions of matter which itself is inert’, or that ‘all reality can be explained by natural laws, natural forces, and that adding a supernatural force is not necessary’. It’s more that both seem reasonable hypotheses to adopt, and on balance preferable to an alternative hypothesis holding for example that consciousness or life has or is something radically different from what is in principle capable of scientific explanation.

      The reason I see little difference between the two definitions could be that I probably think one can think that ‘all reality can be explained as the result of the mechanical interactions of matter which itself is inert’ without having much of a clue about what ‘matter’ actually is – in which case ‘mechanical interactions of matter’ and ‘natural laws, natural forces’ could boil down to the same thing.

      It’s also possible that I’m content with a fairly frugal & ‘gappy’ ontology, especially if the alternative is to hypostasise something for which there is insufficient evidence – eg God; or mind as an irreducible component of reality. That probably means I’m happy to leave consciousness unexplained until a scientific explanation comes along – which may possibly never happen. And I’m not bothered if nothing fills the gap left by dualism.

      It’s possible that our only real point of difference (perhaps not even disagreement) is one you have already referred to – we possibly start from different points. I have entertained the concept that supernatural entities might exist, but have never actually believed it. I literally do not know what it is like to believe in something like a God, in any significant sense of ‘believe’. Life and reality for me have no God-shaped hole, and never have had. I think I’d almost go so far as to say they have no certainty-shaped hole either.

      On some sort of cerebral or abstract level I buy into Karen Armstrong’s talk of mythos v logos. And I’m prepared to accept it’s probably historically sound. But I’m less convinced that religious mythos is a good thing. Threading through The case for God seems to be an assumption that religious mythos provides something supremely valuable that cannot be achieved any other way. But the price and the risk seem too high to me.

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      3 September 2009 at 11:13 pm

      • Reductionism these days seems to have become identified with “godless,” and the original controversy which has taken place within science itself has largely been lost. As a graduate student in psychology I was originally introduced to the debate as it took place between the behaviorists and Gestalt psychologists. Essentially, the behaviorists argued that psychology should use physics as a template for developing a truly scientific psychological theory. By this they meant that we needed to identify the basic elements which constitute behavior and the rules by which they are associated. The elements for them are the rules of conditioning, and Pavlov’s salivating dog was a pure instance of its application. (I personally shared the opinion that the Behaviorist view of physics pre-dated the 20th century with quantum physics, the uncertainty principle, and relativity, but that is somewhat tangential to the discussion of reductionism.)

        The Gestalt psychologists argued with Aristotle that “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” Their argument is that the way elements are organized can fundamentally change the nature of the object. Their classic example was the $70 worth of chemicals of which the human body is made. How those chemicals are organized is the reason why the collection of jars in the chem lab is radically different from you or me. Durkeim made a similar argument in sociology, saying that society and culture are something more than the sum total of individual views and values.

        In this sense, Dawkins is not, I think, a reductionist. (Nor, as you argue in one of your other posts, is he a fundamentalist.) He does argue with his whole being for natural explanations and empirical verifications and he personally does not believe in god. But he talks at one point about the difference between an individual cell and the whole organism and does not suggest that the whole is merely a collection of cells. The way they are organized is a critical biological question which distinguishes species.

        As for logos and mythos, I think the danger is that we have misunderstood mythos. We don’t want to throw out poetry or symbolism or folklore. We just don’t want to give them the character of certainty we give to logos or scientific fact without being equally willing to submit them to empirical verification. If believers insist on claiming that the world was made in seven days about 4,000 years ago, fine. Scientists have come up with ideas that have sounded equally ridiculous. But scientists have to produce some kind of evidence or their theories are dismissed.

        Well, on this latter subject I need not get exercised. I know I’m preaching to the converted.

        Thank you – once again – for such a rewarding dialogue.

        Terry Sissons

        13 September 2009 at 5:37 pm

        • And thank you again!

          Yes indeed. It’s not the certainty of science but its rigour which I think gives it its special ‘status’. In a way ironically (but in a most straightforward & obvious way as well) the ‘certainty’ is more about where we think eg a scientific theory sits on a ‘certainty scale’ than about the theory itself. It’s not ‘certain’ just because it’s science. But at least we have some idea of the pedigree of a bit of scientific theory – so when we say it’s true we have some idea what we’re committing ourselves to.

          Richard and Karen are both extremely knowledgeable, talented and rewarding writers and thinkers. On a superficial level they might appear poles apart. But I don’t think one needs to dig very far before realising they would probably ultimately disagree on very little. Richard’s characterisation of the ‘God Hypothesis’ is (to my mind) quite deliberate and careful. I don’t think he’s saying or assuming the only possible way to ‘believe in God’ is to think of God as an existent supernatural being who created the universe etc. I think what he’s saying is that some believers do think of God that way, and if they do they are deluded.

          Not sure Karen would use the same words or want to volunteer the same opinion, but if she was put on the spot she may well agree. I thinks she’s saying something like: if your belief in God is a logos-type belief rather than a mythos-type belief then you are deluded, because that’s not what religious belief is, in origin & in essence. She wouldn’t put it so crudely though.

          On reductionism, three images:

          (i) A random assortment of the exact amounts of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus etc which are to be found in a human being.

          (ii) An organised assembly of those same quantities of the same elements, but chemically combined and mechanically constructed so the end result is something which actually does something – in the way that eg a car actually travels whereas a random assortment of the exact same quantities of iron, aluminium, carbon, hydrogen etc is not a car and does not behave like a car.

          (iii) A human being.

          A way of illustrating that the whole is or may be different from the sum of its parts could be to say that (i) and (ii) are not the same. The structure of (ii) matters in a way that the structure of (i) doesn’t.

          But (ii) doesn’t have to be a created object. Changing the elements & quantities fairly radically you could have a kind of (ii) which was a volcano, whereas the equivalent (i) was just a pile of minerals which didn’t erupt.

          Returning to the original human example though: (i), (ii) & (iii) are identical in terms of chemical composition – or rather in terms of the actual elements & quantities of those elements.

          The question for me is whether (iii) is ultimately just a type of (ii). The difference between (i) & (ii) is that (ii) has some organisation & structure so that it holds together and does something. There could be several other (maybe an indefinite number of) organisations of the same materials – elementally identical, but different in structure & function.

          It’s not obvious to me that (iii) is not a kind of (ii). It’s not obvious to me that we have any real justification for thinking that the gap between (iii) and any other (ii) is radically different from the gap between one kind of (ii) and another kind of (ii). I suspect that the only real difference is that we ourselves are (iii), and not any other kind of (ii) – which is why we might think there is a radical gap between (iii) and any kind of (ii).


          Thanks again, Chris.

          Chris Lawrence

          13 September 2009 at 10:34 pm

          • I never thought of comparing Dawkins & Armstrong, but I agree with you on both their counts. Dawkins is quite careful in his definition of the “god” he rejects, and I have heard him in an interview say that he is quite prepared to accept that one may reach an experience of the transcendent in the scientific pursuit. Something with which I agree fervently. Only music compares for me as a means of experiencing something beyond that which I can reach on a fully analytical rational level.

            Re reductionism: yes, cars and humans are both examples of the whole being different than the sum of its parts, and an illustration of why absolute reductionism just doesn’t provide a sufficient base for understanding the universe.

            The difference between cars and humans may be the nub of the problem where we keep hitting a snag. But I’m not sure it’s all that great. The difference between cars and humans, of course, is that one is living – living things exhibit independent intentions and are able to replicate themselves.

            So I suspect the issue is the question of life – what it constitutes, and how it started. I think this is a question which is subject to scientific analysis. But we don’t have an answer yet. Even if we can produce life in a laboratory – something which may be only months away – it still does not answer the question of how this extra dimension emerges out of a chemical composition. That it does is self-evident, but how this extra dimension is related to its foundation is not clear. I said once before that I thought it was similar to the problem science had until Einstein about the relationship between energy and matter.

            I think the problem emerges with all forms of life, but it is manifestly evident in relation to human consciousness which we each experience. It’s the classic mind-body problem of philosophy.

            Which is not to say that I think our inability to explain the relationship between consciousness and our bodies is evidence that God must have created life. As you suggest “god could have…” is hardly a strong argument and I dismiss it as irrelevant.

            But I do think that scientists are deluding themselves if they think the problem is solved. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Or maybe it can’t be. But until we have some kind of solid scientific theory based on the evidence, I think the only honest thing is accept that there appears to be a fundamental difference between a car and even a single-cell bacteria that we do not yet fully understand.

            What do you think?

            Thank you again. I do enjoy hearing your thoughts and batting back my own. Terry

            Terry Sissons

            16 September 2009 at 3:54 pm

            • Well, I think I have to say I agree 100% on every point!

              On: But I do think that scientists are deluding themselves if they think the problem is solved:

              I remember reading Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained & being very impressed & persuaded. But I also thought the title a bit cheeky. He certainly didn’t ‘explain consciousness’, but he did (I thought) present an interesting approach to what an explanation might be like. He didn’t succeed in ‘reducing’ consciousness. But it was good to read a serious discussion which wasn’t premised on the assumption that consciousness was ‘irreducible’.

              (It’s also a while since I’ve read it & my memory may be faulty…)

              Thanks again, Chris.

              Chris Lawrence

              16 September 2009 at 8:47 pm

  3. Mythos and Logos also interact, they are not separate, pure and self contained. Logos has a history. It has grown. Mythos remains what it always was, I think. So, in addition to the question of wanting to know how mythos helps us with what logos doesn’t, we also need to consider whether the practical value of logos supercedes or absorbs the value of mythos in today’s world for today’s people. That is, even if mythos remains vital, its relative activity is much smaller for our experience and our understanding of mystery in light what logos does.


    23 August 2009 at 12:42 pm

    • Hallo Steve!

      And thanks. Yes indeed. That’s another part of my ‘yes but’ to Karen Armstrong’s book.

      Mythos is privileged in that it doesn’t have to conform to the truth conditions of logos but that privilege comes at a price.

      It’s a good book & there’s a lot to think about there. But her historical examples of real working mythos all involve a level of political or at least community organisation – eg the Eleusinian Mysteries or of course the Catholic Church.

      If everyone’s mythos was different this would not be because one is true & all the others are false. (To think otherwise is, in her terms, to see mythos falsely as logos.) But if everyone’s mythos was different I’m not sure it would work practically as mythos & provide the value – even the sheer ethical or psychological value – she implies it has had and still could have.

      If everyone’s logos was different though this would be because across at least some of its collective extent, some people’s logos was true and other people’s logos was false.

      Logos has therefore the privilege of being able to be true, and the burden of having to be true. Mythos on the other hand has the privilege of not having to be true, but the burden of having to prove it is not only relevant and valuable but also safe to commit to.

      It may be that we cannot live by logos alone but need some sort of mythos whether we like it or not. But we shouldn’t forget that Nazism and Stalinism were also flavours of mythos.

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      23 August 2009 at 1:34 pm

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