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Reply To: A Myth for Engineering

#73450

An intriguing, essential question – though it does strike me that mythologizing is always going on under the surface, whether we know it or not – and the mythic imagination has not treated engineering, technology, or science very well: from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to films like 2001 Space Odyssey, Star Wars, War Games, and more, technology often plays the villain. One could perhaps point to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as deifying engineering and technology – or rather, the human engineers and industrialists driving those technological innovations – but this worldview strikes me as falling short of the mark..

I would trace that dynamic back to Descartes. The cartesian worldview, in which empirical science is grounded, has effectively desacralized Nature; the natural world becomes inanimate matter to do with as we will (leading some of Descartes’ disciples to even declare animals are automata that may cry out but feel no pain, thus justifying lab animal experiments absent guilt). That worldview holds as long as we divorce and isolate ourselves from nature (which can happen in the asphalt and concrete, steel and glass cities engineering and technology have made possible), but ultimately is at odds with our actual experience of nature – which may explain why in modern fiction science and technology are so often cast as the villain.

A living myth mirrors nature, whether on the level of the aborigines of Australia or Pueblo tribes of the American southwest, whose myths revolve around the local landscape, or in the complex, exquisite imagery of Kegon Buddhism which imagines the universe

 

as a net of gems, each gem reflecting perfectly all the others. It is also called the Doctrine of Mutual Arising … Everything creates everything else. The doctrine works, furthermore, on all levels.” (Campbell, from the appendix in Sake and Satori).

 

Particle physicists, from Neils Bohr to David Bohm, have borrowed this imagery to portray the relationships and interactions of matter at the quantum level – relationships and interactions which give rise to the physical universe we perceive … which suggests a shift is underway as the revolution in particle physics pulls us beyond the old Newtonian/Cartesian worldview.

In particular, advances within the field of physics and biology, the development of depth and transpersonal psychologies, and the emergence of consciousness research (cognitive science and artificial intelligence) and information technologies – particularly the internet – provide a medium through which the collective imagination recasts the universe and our role in it. The same archetypal energies and forces of nature personified in gods, demons, and myth remain in play, but the dynamics are depicted in terms and imagery more befitting Star Trek than Homer’s Odyssey or the Bhagavad-Gita.

Each of these elements, however depersonalized, contains echoes of earlier myths – the same patterns, the same motifs – “…in new relationships indeed, but ever the same motifs” (Campbell). Science, psychology, and information technology are providing new myths to replace the old – but we read them as fact alone, taking no account of how they act on the imagination.

Discoveries this past century in the field of quantum physics, particularly regarding the relationship of matter to energy and the central role of perceiver/observer in determining what is observed (Heisenberg, 1934), serve as metaphors as elegant as the Buddhist image of the spontaneous mutual arising of all things. Physicicst David Bohm’s theory of an implicate order underlying/enfolded into the explicate order of the phenomenal universe suggests the metaphysics of an invisible world behind the visible, fundamental to the mystical traditions of every faith.

Bohm’s holographic model of the universe, Karl Pribram’s exploration of the holographic nature of memory and the brain, and Stanislav Grof’s observations regarding the holographic structure of the human psyche, conjure a realization similar to the alchemical dictum so succinctly inscribed on the legendary Emerald Tablet – “As above, so below; as below, so above.” Any fragment of a holographic image contains within it an image of the whole – which can’t help but bring to mind once more the Buddhist metaphor of the Net of Gems.

The nonlinear dynamics of chaos theory and fractal science – which find exquisite beauty and complex order hidden within chaotic systems – impact fields ranging from meteorology to marketing. Is it a surprise that most ancient myths begin with order emerging out of chaos – from the face of God moving across the void (tehom) in Genesis or the Babylonian Marduk fashioning the world from the vanquished corpse of Tiamat, dragon goddess of chaos, to Chaos as origin of Eros, first of the gods, in Ovid’s Metamorphosis?

And then, there’s the internet, which also displays holographic properties – again bringing to mind the Net of Gems. Consciousness researchers see in the internet a model of the way the brain has developed: links “spontaneously” established between disparate groups of cells, creating neural networks that perform specific functions (for example, clusters of cells throughout the brain related to hearing or to memory hook up and establish a network, in the same way those reading these words are linked by an interest in the ideas of Joseph Campbell, and how we relate those ideas to our individual lives and to society as a whole). The internet can also be perceived as a manifestation of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the realm of consciousness, envisioned as a slender skin that floats upon the biosphere.

These are but bits and pieces – fragments of a yet unrecognized myth?

I’m not sure we’re at the stage yet where we can stitch together all those bits and fragments into one whole that everyone will recognize – but something sure seems to be stirring beneath the surface.