Modern Mythology

When Noam Chomsky formulated his linguistic theory in the mid-1950s and the decade that followed, he caused quite an upheaval. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his ideas, Chomsky maintained that language is at least partially inborn and “that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences.” The main point of his argument was that since languages are recursive and human thinking is too, grammar is an inborn feature, an inherent function of brain and not a learned behavior.

Despite the initial resistance of scientific community to even consider his insights, he quickly became not only the leading figure of linguistics, but his ideas about syntactic and grammatical structures also became instrumental (and successfully applied) in understanding and development of programming languages. Thus Chomsky rose to fame and position of intellectual authority, offering his opinions, whose validity I won’t address here, on many subjects, politics included.

However, in 2005, Daniel Everett published an article in Current Anthropology entitled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” where he concluded, after decades of field work and research, that since Pirahã language does not feature recursion even though Pirahã are capable of recursive thinking, recursion in languages is not universal and thus cannot be used as an indicator of their inborn nature. In other words, Everett demonstrated that Pirahã falsify substantial parts of Chomsky’s theory.

The reaction didn’t take long to arrive and all hell broke loose. Although Everett allegedly discussed his ideas with Chomsky as early as 1984, from 2004 up to basically today the dispute rages on. And it got pretty nasty not only because Everett undermined the work of all academics who build their research on Chomsky and have vested interest in the matter (because grants, reputation, and what not), but also because he apparently endangered Chomsky’s social position of intellectual authority. At least that’s what Chomsky’s reactions would imply in terms of how he perceives the whole affair. To get the gist of the nature and scope of the entire conflict see Everett’s blog article from 2016.

Clearly, academia is not above clinging to falsehood, and politicking or power struggles are nothing foreign to it. But let me tell a slightly different story.

As it happens, we usually don’t have exact records of how a particular religion was born. This is, however, not the case with the religion of Urantia, which chronicles its beginnings with astounding accuracy. According to its official site, Urantia Foundation, a non-profit US-based group, was set up on January 11, 1950, only nine days after informal Urantia Brotherhood, “a voluntary and fraternal organization of Urantia believers,” was established. The goal of both was to promote beliefs as recorded in what was to be known as The Urantia Book, first published on October 12, 1955 by Urantia Foundation.

The authorship of the book is officially attributed to a “group of celestial entities” channeled through an anonymous medium, and the book describes itself as the final revelation for planet Earth, which is in the book called “Urantia.” The hefty tome, comprised of impressive more than two thousand pages, then contains everything from a slightly modernized (or rather “scientized”) Christian beliefs to crazy accounts of history and bizarre cosmology that would put a lot of fiction writers to shame. But it also contains a rather substantial portion of scientific information which, allegedly, has to be yet discovered.

That was probably why Martin Gardner put the book under scrutiny. Thankfully, I must say, because what he found was more than interesting.

In addition to the fact that literary analysis showed that the authorship of the book points to several different authors, which could be nevertheless glossed over because as the book claims it was written by a group of celestial entities, Gardner identified the “scientific revelations”, which the book claimed were novel and only to be discovered, to be simply the scientific consensus of 1930s. That is, the accepted scientific knowledge in roughly around the time the book was, even according to its publishers, composed. Case closed.

But if that was not enough, another facet, one that points to the fact that the book is just an elaborate human fabrication with religious motives instead of genuine revelation, is that the alleged “spiritual truths” contained within it can be falsified, that is, seen as patently false, by even a novice mystic, one who only started to wet their toes in the topic. But since that is subject to subject, let’s leave it at that.

And here are some other interesting facts: the book is since 2001 in US public domain, but only because Urantia Foundation lost all legal cases in order to keep the copyright (well, that’s what you get when you claim that your book was written by ghosts); logo of Urantia Foundation (three blue concentric circles) is a registered trademark (jeez, even Catholic church is not so dumb as to put the circled R on a stylized fish or cross); there is a rather extensive set of guidelines in what way you are permitted to use the logo and the word “Urantia”. If you ask me, that’s a lot of legal stuff for someone claiming to be interested solely in the spreading of an important “revelation.”

One would expect that the wise extraterrestrial celestial sages would definitely know better. In any case, and as is obvious, Urantia Foundation is simply yet another religious scam, whose motivations are not that relevant to the actual effects it has — by their fruits you shall know them, as they say.

Now, you may rightfully ask what those two stories have in common.

In one word, dogma. Specifically in the sense of an unquestionable tenet, and particularly, if said tenet is incorrect. The first example shows how a dogma is born out of myth due to human fear, the other one then shows how a dogma is constructed from scratch by obfuscating various myths out of sheer human greed.

You will probably argue that the first example has nothing to do with myths, after all, it’s about science. But although our use of the word “myth” has connotations of fantastic, more often than not fabricated stories with (pseudo-)religious undertones, the actual meaning of the word “myth”, which comes from Greek word “mûthos”, is simply “word, humor, companion, speech, account, rumor, fable”. Myth, or narrative (a word I hate with passion due to its misuse today), is then simply a description, literal or metaphorical account of facts but also speculations.

It follows that our most up-to-date myth is science and philosophy as respective descriptive and speculative accounts of empirical reality. Exactly as tales from the days of yore (“traditional myths”) are descriptions of, and speculations about, our experiences reflecting the level of understanding specific to a particular place and era.

As is obvious, the problems arise when myths don’t evolve in lockstep with observation, understanding, and lived experience. If you live as a bushman in Australia, it’s beneficial to know the “sacred songlines” that run through the bush, and it’s crucial that you can recognize the landmarks mentioned in creation myth through pareidolia. On the other hand, if you are trying to land on the Moon, it’s quite essential that you are literate and that you are familiar with scientific understanding of universe.

It goes without saying that even if you first learned the myth and only later observed the facts for yourself, the myths were weaved from observations of facts by people who either updated an already existing myth or had no myth at their disposal to begin with and created the myth from scratch.

So the problem with all myths is twofold — first, they may be speculative, and second, they may be dogmatic. And that’s quite a conundrum, because as symbolic species we are bound to weave myths whether we like it or not. Hence, I cannot end this piece in any other way as with what I already said in previous article — experience, check myths that can be verified (not the ones that require you to take some points for granted), and use myths that simply provide how-to. Then you can weave any myth you see fit.

In the end you will have a myth that is valid and true (even if incomplete), and you will be able to distinguish the same qualities in all other myths (thus be able to fill in the blanks in the myth you weave), because only myths that don’t contradict each other are obviously true. And frankly, myths with such qualities, if they are not simply retellings of the same, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

After all, there is only one reality.

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