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Temptations of Clarity,” with Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D.”

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    Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D., joins us this week in Conversations of a Higher Order (COHO) to discuss “Temptations of Clarity”, his latest essay for JCF’s MythBlast series.

    I am off grid this week in Big Sur – so it’s up to MythBlast readers and COHO participants to carry this conversation. Please  share with Mark your thoughts, questions, and observations about this week’s essay – whether that involves the difference between theory and practice (or mathematicians and engineers), the concept of the Hero’s Journey as metaphor rather than received Truth, or whatever else his words spark in your imagination.



    Hi Stephen!

    Lucky you! :^)

    Right, this whole topic area… as you can see from my slightly more than geeky response this week… has driven me a little batty for years.  There’s even a name for a key aspect of blurred boundaries in philosophy.  It’s called “the problem of induction”… but no point in jumping the gun. :^)  I’ll look forward to comments from our COHO colleagues.

    Hope everyone is in good spirits this week!




    Is BigD Democracy a metaphor?


    Hi Rickkar1,

    That starts to get at the whole question of how we know when something is a metaphor! ;^)

    I’ll confess that this idea has been running away with me a bit — some days I feel like a dog with a bone.  I can’t put it down.

    My working definition for metaphors (and for “myths”) has been that they are “relational narratives” = and that means “stories that put us into relation with something.”

    So if that holds here, BigD democracy would be a story that puts us into relationship with something… in a sense our idea of “democracy” is itself a story that puts us into relationship with the rest of the people we live around — more academically I guess we could say something like “puts us into relationship with and provides the conceptual framework for the social context in which we find ourselves.”  Something like that?

    Could you say something more about what you mean by BigD Democracy?




    Thank you, Mark,

    by BigD i mean our institutions and all the relationships that are under authoritarian attack…

    by BigD i mean our shared values…




    Sounds right.  There are competing narratives about “America,” right?  That’d fit this I’d think.  What do you think?


    …continued … w.r.t. ‘stories…’

    great campaigns tell a story…  for example,

    threat: immigration, globalization

    opportunity: make America great again

    victim: blue collar America, workers out of work, changing standard of living

    villain: immigrants, trade deals, the establishment

    solution: drain the swamp, build a wall

    hero: Drumpf

    …and the saga continues…



    Welcome back Mark, great to talk with you again. Rickkar1 brings up an interesting aspect to what you were describing in that we all talk in metaphoric references to things because they connect what we experience and have meaning to communicate to people in a way that makes sense. We tell stories, we describe by references that use metaphors to connect the dots so to speak. Myths have to do with stories that have certain narratives. They contain content that hold groups of ideas that surround a certain point of view or that communicate something identifiable that has meaning or value. Not everything that is metaphoric is mythic or course; but we often substitute a metaphor as a quick way to establish what we are attempting to communicate without having to go to great lengths to explain it’s background of what the relationship of one thing to another is or to establish a bridge between ideas that is understandable; or at least helps to better express what we are trying to communicate.

    Robert Walters explains this very well in this short clip from some years ago and it seems to fit your idea of a narrative that uses these kinds of metaphoric devices as we communicate in our day to day lives but at the same time try and make sense of our world and our existence. It may not be exactly on point with what you are describing but immediately came to mind and seemed get at Joseph’s idea about mythical relationships in how we navigate our world.


    is it possible to inject imagination into narratives or do relational narratives always require an experiential(real) ingredient?

    Robert Juliano

    Thank you, Mark, for your essay! My thoughts:

    As a multidisciplinary scholar, one of whose fields is depth psychology (others are theoretical computer science, mathematics, electrical engineering, and complexity science), I am appreciative of the necessity of blurry lines and have reflected on some of the positives and negatives of clarity. Here, I am reminded of the Unknowable which often needs to be expressed in the form of opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes. Such, it seems, is the most effective way of communicating it, an approach which has a long distinguished history. Jung, regarding Nicholas of Cusa, wrote that he considered “antinomial thought as the highest form of reasoning.” Jung would also write that paradox “does more justice to the unknowable than clarity can do, for uniformity of meaning robs the mystery of its darkness and sets it up as something that is known. That is a usurpation, and it leads the human intellect into hybris by pretending that it, the intellect, has got hold of the transcendent mystery by a cognitive act and has “grasped” it. The paradox therefore reflects a higher level of intellect and, by not forcibly representing the unknowable as known, gives a more faithful picture of the real state of affairs.”

    But, for a number of reasons, I want to take the side of striving for clarity and straight dividing lines in my response. I am motivated to do this because in my experience of the fields of depth psychology and comparative mythology, there is a strong tendency when confronted with (painful) contradictions to avoid taking certain themes to their logical conclusion. Instead of putting in the legwork to flush out these contradictions, one relaxes in a realm of images and myth where the contradictions lose their sharpness and where one can really say anything they want and couch it in seemingly scholarly thought and expressions. The uroboric nature of imaginal thought, one which is so very important for us, is exceedingly seductive as a way of doing this. But, it is my opinion that to give up prematurely on achieving clarity is as detrimental as holding such an achievement as the only possible goal in our striving.

    Let me begin with a topic I wrote about regarding intuition entitled Reflections on Intuition Based on the Ramanujan/Hardy Collaboration in Formal Mathematics (1914-1920). In my note on this, the field of formal mathematics was used as the context in which to explore intuition because such a rigorous context can reveal greater clarity and specificity on how intuition works and what its strengths and weaknesses are, and it can help us understand why intuition sometimes expresses “wrong” possibilities. One of the reasons I cited for these “wrong” possibilities is that often there is more leg-work [reading, proofs, derivations, reflections, debates, revisiting assumptions, etc.] which needs to be done by the conscious mind. Crucially, the quality and clarity of what the unconscious provides is fundamentally dependent on the quality of the work which is done by one’s conscious mind. Therefore, the conscious mind must be a good partner to the unconscious by doing the leg work. In return, the unconscious processes can put together, evaluate, and select from many more combinations thereby providing a better piece of the puzzle from which to develop a mathematical solution. Here, striving for clarity is an exceedingly helpful process because it significantly aids in the non-rational complementary movement of the unconscious. Short-circuiting this striving for clarity can be quite detrimental and the unconscious very well may respond in a far more muddled, enigmatic way.

    Having said this, we must know when we can no longer proceed in the manner which led us to a given point. In my note entitled The Abyss and The Alchemical Vessel, I reflect on the Biblical Book of Job (38:11) which says “You may come this far, but no farther” as a meditation on limit, coming to the edge, arriving at the logical conclusion of one’s current striving. And I began that note by considering my favorite work of Jung’s, The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man (CW 10) which he first published in 1928. I like this essay because it gives you a sense of the modern person being the culmination of all of what we thought was best in human development and human knowledge, but one who can go no further by relying solely on the approach that got them there in the first place. Such a person, holding their course to its logical conclusion, achieves (the horror of) the abyss but, in a compensatory move, the unconscious now becomes alive in that person, offering a more accurate view of his possibilities. Modern man, it seems to me, has earned this voice from the unconscious by not prematurely abandoning his path even in the presence of this uncertainty, disillusionment, skepticism, etc. For, as Jung wrote, “it is from need and distress that new forms of existence arise, and not from idealistic requirements or mere wishes”

    Another advantage of striving for clarity and straight dividing lines is the tension that this builds, the energy of which can lead to transformation. In depth psychotherapy, as well as in other fields, we see holding onto and enduring the suffering of the opposites leads to, deo concedente, the emergence of a uniting symbol, the integration of which leads to an elevated individual. Crucially, when this happens, there is still no solution to the opposites – the dividing lines remain clear and distinct. What has changed, however, is that the individual is no longer a prisoner of those opposites and can relate to them with far more of their being. Had the sharpness of the dividing lines been reduced (or saw through), no energetic tension would have been generated and no such growth would have occurred.

    My general view on the advantage of clarity and straight dividing lines is this: The real work, the deep co-creative work with the unconscious, can begin when one has done all they can with their consciousness to solve the problem (strive for clarity), hold onto and endure the opposites (straight dividing lines), etc. – in short, eliminated all of the leaks (which would short-circuit a clear response by the unconscious). As a result of this, the alchemical vessel is formed, one in which the opus can continue, consciousness and unconscious in partnership, the vessel facilitating the mixing of the two in which a solution can emerge – the abyss being the condition par excellence for its formation.



    I typically understand boundaries as moments of mediation rather than as clear demarcations… My own name “Mark” derives from Mars and Mars as god of War,  makes pretty good mythological sense as the god assigned to boundaries and lines of de-mark-ation. ;^)  But, alas, I see pretty much everything dialectically at this point in my life.

    But I completely agree with what you’ve said here about the need for clarity — without it we don’t get digital watches or computers or science!  What worries me, and increasingly, is the crack cocaine of Certainty (with it’s partner, Necessity) that infects both academic writing, but also (increasingly) society as a whole.  That kind of certainty is at odds even with how we come to know about the world and ourselves.   My context here is a chapter in AJ Ayer’s little Molotov cocktail “Language, Truth, and Logic” called “the Problem of Induction.”  The problem is that induction always provides, at best, probabilities, right?  The truth of any inductive statement depends on the data available to support it.  Now, this is how science works — and one of the reasons why it’s self-correcting over time.  What happens, of course, is that at some point the inductively confirmed truths become set in stone and are then used, deductively, to predict outcomes.  Now, since the originals are themselves probabilistic, any deductions that follow from them also end up as contingent — but they aren’t always treated that way.  What can happen is that the deduction that got you there is taken as imparting certainty and necessity to the end result — and that’s where crazy begins, whether in religion or politics.

    Anyway, that’s the background radiation to my initial comments.

    When it comes to mathematics then I’ve also come around to a contrarian position. :^)  There’s a tendency, culturally and intellectually, to grant mathematics (applied deductively) the status of Platonic Forms, and to assume that the universe as we perceive it (& known inductively)  is a mere approximation of those principles.  I think this is precisely  backwards.  I think mathematics is the approximation and that the universe, which can only be known in terms of probabilities, is the reality mathematics attempts to clarify.

    As long as math keeps this in mind, no problems.  When mathematics is granted god-status however, you start to produce quantum flapdoodle.

    I think this analysis applies perfectly to your description of alchemy here… the boundary layer between conscious and unconscious is never fixed and never clear — except when poor-old-consciousness remains fixated in order to avoid further growth… or the pain that can accompany listening to ones unconscious. :^)  I’m reminded of Jung’s comment to the effect that it is the function of organized formal religion to prevent people from having religious experiences. ;^)  Those formalized structures depend entirely on the (false) orthodoxy of fixed and clear distinctions.

    Grin, anyway, that’s where my mind usually wanders off too when I think about this stuff!

    Thank you so much for your comments here!!


    Robert Juliano

    Mark – thank you for this! My response:

    I also see boundaries, as illusory as they are, in the context of meditation, but especially meditations which unfold over long periods of time (e.g., centuries). As with any boundary, its degree of clarity can be purposive (beyond the practicality of watchmaking) and in serving as such, has its benefits and its detriments. Clear demarcations can be exceedingly helpful, especially in generating energy based on the tension which can result. As much suffering as the (artificial) split between psyche and matter beginning in the late 17th century caused, it led to immense development in certain areas and, perhaps more importantly, it led to a certain liberation (e.g., the liberation or emancipation from the perceptible, the tangible, the visibly limitable). And in preparation for writing a series of notes on my review of and response to James Hillman’s paper The Measure of Events: Proclus’ Proposition 117 in the View of an Archetypal Psychology, I worked with two and a half millennia of the history of mathematics and science and found evidence that the unconscious itself appeared to be supportive of and energizing the split in favor of abstraction and the striving for the infinite. Crucially, there was a very real readiness for Descartes’ position (as opposed, for example, to Leibniz’ position). However, as I hinted at in my previous response, we are reaching its limits, the exhaustion of its possibilities, resulting in The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man.

    In my note The Abyss and The Alchemical Vessel, I explore our coming to the abyss in terms of five specific examples of limits:

    • A. Decidability in mathematics
    • B. Computability in computer science
    • C. Complementarity in quantum physics
    • D. Non-locality in quantum physics
    • E. Quantum entanglement

    Let me focus on decidability, which is the application of a given mathematical system to determine if a statement made in the language of that system is true or false in a finite number of steps, one critical mathematical system we’re all familiar with being the axiomatic-deductive system. Kurt Gödel proved, in 1931, that there are statements which can be formed in such a system of a certain power (e.g., the power of Peano’s axioms), assuming the system is consistent (the axioms lead to no contradictions), which can neither be proven true nor proven false in a finite number of steps (i.e., those statements are undecidable). In working with this result as a meditation, what becomes clearer is the fact that mathematical systems are, in fact, provisional (e.g., one can make a stronger mathematical system by adding as an axiom the undecidable statement of the previous mathematical system, or one can change from an axiomatic-deductive mathematical system to something different). In other words, such can weaken the view that mathematics has “God status.”

    On the other hand, as a person who has worked with Number theory, both in mathematics proper and in depth psychology, it is very difficult to see the rules followed by the Natural numbers as not being pre-existent. I am appreciative of, for example, cognitive science’s approach (e.g., the book Where Mathematics Comes From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being by George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez) to showing how mathematics was created, but I am simply left unconvinced, especially given the rather startling results in Number theory which don’t seem to be addressed in such works. But, while it is amazing that different cultures across vast distances of time and geography arrived at the same mathematical laws for certain areas, I am also very open to the crucial differences in how each culture sees and employs mathematics, one new discipline for this being ethnomathematics. Furthermore, I am open to those who view infinite mathematical objects as being problematic and sticking to only that part of mathematics which can be constructed. Such heightens the consciousness of the benefits and detriments of seeing mathematics as eternal in the Platonic sense. But, from a depth psychology perspective, it is understandable how Jung, his closest collaborator Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz, and physics Nobel laureate Dr. Wolfgang Pauli, came to see the Natural numbers as (psychoid) archetypes of order, the simplest of the archetypes. One advantage to seeing them this way is that it offers a neutral language which could facilitate a deeper collaboration between depth psychology and the hard sciences.

    You wrote “Now, since the originals are themselves probabilistic, any deductions that follow from them also end up as contingent — but they aren’t always treated that way.” I agree with this. However, I want to espouse some of the benefits of certainty. I have found that, while contingency is good, it can be exceedingly difficult to navigate in this way (this is shared with the difference in living between objective truths and truths realized individually). My concern is that too much emphasis on contingency can sometimes depotentiate moving forward; de-energize the entire process, especially during stressful periods of doubt and frustration. Certainty, though illusory and though it can be problematic, in its best moments, can energize the movement beyond seemingly impenetrable hurdles.

    Finally, let us consider another benefit of fixed and clear distinctions – safety. You brought up Jung’s statement of organized religion being a defense against religious experience. Crucially, sometimes this is absolutely necessary! Real religious experience can be absolutely horrifying and can completely overcome and shatter the individual. This possibility is why Jung was quite careful as to whom he recommended the path of individuation. For those who were not psychologically mature, he would recommend they stay with their organized religion (he would also recommend this for those whose religion served as a proper container of their psychological needs). Only those who were psychologically mature and could endure such powerful religious experiences would he recommend individuation. Just think of the Swiss Saint Niklaus von Flüe popularly known as Brother Klaus. He was a family man until, as Jung wrote, he “saw the head of a human figure with a terrifying face, full of wrath and threats.” As a result of that single experience, Brother Klaus spent many years of the most strenuous spiritual effort in a monastery working through this experience. Jung himself, after his break with Freud in 1913, went through an exceedingly dangerous spiritual emergency which required him to spend the rest of his life working through (“to give birth to the old in a new time”). Precious few can do this kind of work, and sometimes when such experiences are thrust upon a person, a (temporary) defense can be certainty, at least about certain things, which allows the safer channeling of the immense energies involved in those experiences.


    Speaking of clarity, that reminds me of mirrors. Didn’t you write a myth blast on Reflections once Mark?
    A mirror is interesting because in all appearance it is clear (if it’s kept clean heh heh) and real.
    The mirror is physically real.
    (normal mirror not magicians’ mirror)

    What the mirror reflects is ALSO real
    (You or anyone else who looks in the mirror.) The room it reflects is real.

    Except not everything the Mirror shows is exactly True. It shows you but now your right arm is your left arm, your right eye is your left eye…and so forth. The objects in the room behind you are reversed as well even if they are real.
    So even though a mirror can seem clear even in its clearness the boundaries are blurred. Same for reflection in anything…water still or rippling.
    In another reflection though I could be wrong and should immediately empty water from the cup…

    it sometimes seems that humans approach opposites by how far apart they are and look in fascination or apprehension at the farthest ends possible (which leaves the feeling of a vacuum in between)

    But isn’t there always some medium in between even if it’s just air? or colors in the middle of the prism? Does everyone and thing perpetually live at the farthest ends? And nothing and no one ever falls or lives in the middle?

    In-between is interesting as well because that reminds me of traditions of early and other cultures from equinoxes and solstices and eclipses

    Dawn and Dusk…

    Yet I know there is a contradiction here because of boundaries which can blur at the edges.
    The only reason for the middle to blur suggests a crack but I’m back to feeling like I’m in the mirror looking out rather than being outside of the mirror looking-in. So I better climb out before any mythic metaphors come to mesmerize!

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