What has our reliance on empiricism done to our experience of the world, our place in it, and the way we relate to each other?Science and Tech Media Democracy
The veil of Isis pertains to an image of the Egyptian mother goddess who was said, like many mother goddesses in mythological traditions, to have embodied the secrets of Nature. Her influence as an important deity in the Egyptian and Greco-Roman world spanned thousands of years from around 2000 BCE to around the 400 CE.
The origins of Isis as a veiled figure is not certain, but Plutarch made one of the earliest known references to the veil when he described a statue of Isis that was said to have existed in Egypt. The statue of a veiled Isis, so Plutarch recounted, was accompanied by the following inscription: "I am all that has been and is and shall be. No one has ever lifted my veil."
As is the case with perhaps every ancient mythological tradition, there are multiple interpretations as to what the inscription might have meant. Isis, as the embodiment of Nature’s secrets, led French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, to propose the compelling theory that the veil was intended to conceal the truth of the natural world.
During the Enlightenment in Europe, as the deity of Isis was subject to waning veneration, images began to appear of her sacred veil being lifted. One of the earliest recorded such images is that of Dutch poet and artist, Jan Luyken, in an engraving he produced in 1681. It is telling that the engraving appeared as the frontispiece to a book by Gerardus Blasius called The Anatomy of Animals. The engraving depicts a woman standing alongside Isis. The woman, adorned with a flame over her head which Hadot interprets as a symbol of our desire for knowledge, holds a magnifying glass in one hand and a scalpel in the other.
Surrounding these two figures are various animals: a lion, muzzled and tethered, a few docile-looking sheep, a domesticated rooster, and even a snake entwined around a vase that appears to look up at the culprit (she who removes the veil) somewhat accusingly. At the feet of the two women we see two perfectly awe-struck cherubs, one dissecting an animal, exploring its entrails with slightly disturbing gusto while his companion seems to take much delight in examining the innards of a mutilated carcass on a chopping board.
Here, the frontiers of science appear to triumph over a receding age of mythology. Now we have seen the face of Isis. She wears a subtle, almost indiscernible smile, yet her eyes reveal unmistakable sadness. Since those heady days, humankind has proceeded in its efforts to understand the natural world with almost blinding confidence. So blinding in fact, that our efforts seem no longer concerned with understanding the natural world, but with obliterating it instead.
Now, with a growing sense of unease, we look back at a trail of destruction and environmental degradation. Perhaps, in those giddying, early days of the Enlightenment, we were seized by an almost childlike curiosity and we barreled forth with our magnifying glasses and scalpels, heedless of the consequences.
Might we have considered our options more carefully? Hadot suggested there were at least two: the Promethean and the Orphic. The former describes humanity stealing from nature in the way that the Titans stole the fire of the gods (of which the vaccine – the stealing of genetic code to mimic our own – might be the most perfect, if unsettling example) and the latter a more symbiotic, creative, and artistic appreciation of nature. It might be argued that even our contemporary ideological preferences tend to fall on one side or the other of these ancient fault lines.
Doubtlessly the veil (and its counterpart, the mask) have played starkly different roles in many mythological traditions, yet they are united inasmuch as they both serve to conceal a plainly literal perception of our experience. The eyes do not lie, perhaps. But how do they inform what we believe? Bertrand Russel’s excellent analysis of whether the table upon which he wrote The Problems of Philosophy actually existed, demonstrates what a tricky epistemological question this is.
The mask and the veil remind us that a purely empirical appreciation of the world will always be flawed; that our inquisitiveness will only burden us with evermore complex mysteries. In other words, a theory of everything must explain nothing, which is to say that an empirical analysis of our experience will never yield a static result.
A good example of this is how our scientifically driven efforts to save humanity have become the greatest threat to humanity, now that we inhabit the earth in such unsustainable numbers and consume her resources in such unsustainable volumes. An infernally frustrating kind of irony will always haunt our finest empirical conclusions. Sometimes, so the veil and the mask inform us, it is better not to know; that we must make allowances for belief, for faith – the products of an inventive, imaginative and even dreamy mind. And even if we must know, if the desire for knowledge burns fiercely within us (which it often does), the veil and the mask remind us that with the answer to each question, we are confronted by little more than the challenge of questioning the answer. Not knowing is essential to our psychic health in the same way that the interplay between shadow and light give rise to form.
In his introduction to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, the comparative mythologist, Prof. Joseph Campbell notes, "…the mask in a primitive festival is revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents – even though everyone knows that a man made the mask and that a man is wearing it. The one wearing it, furthermore, is identified with the god during the time of the ritual of which the mask is a part. He does not merely represent the god. He is the god."
Our psyche appreciates these very motifs in the same way to this very day. If we watch a movie with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, as in The Iron Lady, we do not complain that the same woman is also playing Violet Weston in August: Osage County. We play along. We make believe. Not to derogate from Meryl Streep’s singular talent, it is our willingness to sit in the dark for just an hour or two and believe in characters that are, by any literal measure, false that makes us return to the cinema again and again.
When speaking of actors "playing" a character, we might be well reminded to consider that the ancient symbol of the acting profession is that of two masks, one representing Thalia, the muse of tragedy and the other representing Melpomene, the muse of comedy.
An even more piquant example might be our willingness to believe in the value of money or the attributes of wealth. The pursuit of wealth consumes a great deal of our energy and yet might this simply mean that we are hard-wired to appreciate mythological belief, whether we like it or not?
Money, in and of itself, has no intrinsic value. It is a medium underpinned by little more than the belief that it might be exchanged for something of value. Yet, for many of us, money itself has become synonymous with wealth. Even the traditional hallmarks of wealth, metals and precious stones, still sought after by so many, have their origins in equally irrational yet powerful mythological beliefs.
Metals in ancient mythological tales were attributes of the gods. In China, iron was known to arouse the spirits of the dragon, and the dragon in return was said to dispense pearls in its more beneficent moods. Gold, in Hindu mythology, was a symbol of the sun gods and silver of the moon gods. These metals in Ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, European, and Asian mythology were given value because they were a means of appeasing or antagonizing ancient deities. They were also, until the very recent past, the substance by which the value of modern currencies were determined.
In the present age of fiat currency – where there is no underlying stock of valuable metal – the value of money is controlled by how much central banks are prepared to put on the table and those controls, in turn, are influenced by how much we are willing to produce in exchange for notes and coins, rich with mythological symbolism. In other words, the traditional attributes of wealth, including money, are based on little more than belief. It’s a game where money supply expands and contracts for the purpose of maintaining price stability. If a central bank decided not to play "banker," or price stability was not the object of the game, then money would be worth something else entirely (or nothing at all!). It’s a game, and we all happily play along.
Campbell picks up on the theme of "play." After acknowledging the "opaque weight of the world," he writes:
"From the position of secular man (homo sapiens) … we are to enter the play sphere of the festival, acquiescing in a game of belief, where fun, joy, and rapture rule in ascending series. The laws of life in time and space – economics, politics and even morality – will thereupon dissolve. Whereafter, re-created by that return to paradise before the Fall, before the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, true and false, belief and disbelief, we are to carry the point of view and spirit of man the player (homo ludens) back into life; as in the play of children, where, undaunted by the actualities of life’s meager possibilities, the spontaneous impulse of the spirit to identify itself with something other than itself for the sheer delight of play, transubstantiates the world – in which, actually, after all, things are not quite as real or permanent, terrible, important or logical as they seem." (Italics added)
How might a spirit identify itself with something other than itself? Such a possibility defies rationality. It propels the scientists among us into the realm of quantum physics and perhaps explains why we have replaced the word "God" with the words "Big Bang" – the latter a distinctly inelegant, almost comical description.
Our scientific insights are not to be derided, however. Our intellectual curiosity is an essential and ineradicable part of the human experience. Clinton Davisson and Lester Gerner at Bell Laboratories in the United States, published their paper on the spontaneous movement of electrons in 1927, revealing the subsequent possibilities of electrons being in two places at once and so upending the Newtonian laws of physics. We can only imagine the delight, the wonder – even expressions of awe – on their faces upon making such a groundbreaking discovery.
Niels Bohr described the emergence of quantum physics by noting, "Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it."
Stephen Hawking even insisted that a scientific model is a good model if it is, among other things, "elegant." Early quantum physicists were accused of engaging in ‘Knabenphysik’ or ‘boy physics’ given that they were, with the exception of Max Born who was in his mid-forties, mostly young men in their twenties.
Apart from the indubitable claim that quantum physics had pushed the frontiers of empirical knowledge further than ever before, what these observations reveal to us is that scientists of such excellence were driven ever further in their search for "elegance" by spontaneous, even boyish delight (or "shock" as Bohr described it). To put it another way, were these the "spiritual impulses" to which Campbell was alluding? Does this mean that no matter how far we push the boundaries of empirical knowledge, something unfathomable prompts us to do so? Does empirical knowledge serve ultimately to restore mythical belief?
For the rest of us – namely, those of us who are not quantum physicists – what has our reliance on empiricism done to our experience of the world, our place in it, and the way we relate to each other? What has happened to our world of "make believe?" Why has one of our oldest mythological indulgences, the money game, abandoned the "play sphere" and become so grim? We no longer seem to play it for the "sheer delight of play." Instead, we have fixed it with a scorecard, a balance sheet of winners and losers.
We no longer play for the sake of playing or for the sake of invoking a belief in a mythical Universe. We play to win. Why does the scientist of today no longer resemble the awe-struck infant cherubs portrayed in Luyken’s engraving or the awe-struck quantum physicists described by Niels Bohr? Perhaps it is because they are stricken by a sense of urgency instead of curiosity. Perhaps we demand of the scientist a theory of everything, a rational, final, and ultimately perfect explanation of the world we experience.
"Science," Carl Jung warned us, "must serve; it errs when it usurps the throne." Have we allowed it to usurp that throne? Apart from our resilient interest in the arts, which for most of us, is most frequently satiated by the TV, tablet, or smartphone, what has happened to our appreciation of the imponderable? Do we appreciate it at all, or do we simply dismiss it? Do we simply renounce what is unproven? And why are we still encouraged by therapists to find our inner child? Why have we lost it?
Our almost disturbing infatuation with Facebook might give us a clue. It should be noted that Facebook is not to be unfairly singled out, but it is the stunning suggestiveness of its name that puts it at the forefront of scrutiny. In fairness to Mark Zuckerberg, any reference to Facebook in this essay should be more broadly construed as a reference to “digital media” in general. Furthermore, digital media has a long history and it is merely the known apex of the long uphill endeavor of humankind to record and perceive our experience through static imagery, rules, and calculations.
And it is the images that are important here. Human beings carry around with them devices that are capable of capturing digitized imagery of nearly everything they see. With every new release or new upgrade, the makers of these devices are nearly apoplectic with excitement when they tell us how many more pixels the device can store. The greater the pixels, the better the device. Many will discard on old device in favor of a new one simply because the new one can store more pixels. The clarity and precision by which we might record our lives (including our faces) leaves little to the imagination. The images are stored in miniscule components so that they may be accessed again and again, always the same, never to fade or decay (apart, it might be noted with relief, for the mysterious glitches that seem to confound the best minds in the tech industry).
We scroll and scroll, seeing more and more images in the same exacting detail, our lives recorded with such literal precision – ever closer to the prospect of perfection – there is no longer any room for make believe; very little for our minds to do, ensnared as they are by the static pixelated imagery of a virtual world.
The mask has been stripped away; the images expose an increasingly flawless representation of our experience and it is precisely in this flawlessness that the flaw lies. Here we are confronted by the stubborn ironies that eternally hover over our conscious experience.
In the same way that the mythical and empirical embrace each other, indeed, they tend to produce each other, the increasingly "real" imagery surrounding us, is the very basis upon which we create a "virtual" world. It might be said that our consciousness is the gateway to the paradoxical. If we deny this, if we insist that the truth is static, that perfection is indeed within our grasp, we might as well declare war on Nature and the nature of being. Indeed, isn’t that what we’ve done?
As Laurens van der Post put it in his biography of Carl Jung: "awareness of the mystery of things… is also a vital part of knowledge." Sometimes we need to restore the veil so that Isis’ claim: I am all that has been and is and shall be, might be honored.
If we appreciate that the mysteries of the Universe, of time and space, are properly represented by the unseen face of a mother goddess, might the story of human progress be characterized by a little less conceit? Might we behave a little better?
Einstein famously claimed that his most notable attribute was his imagination (and he had the hair to prove it). The imagination describes access to an imaginary world. It was a world that the mask (or the veil) encouraged us to enter. Imagine then that the arrival of a virus in our midst, named for the distinctive crown it wears, is here to remind us that we took an incalculable risk in lifting the veil of Isis. Were we blinded in some way by our desire for knowledge? Did we appreciate, or have we ever appreciated, that in lifting the veil we would set in motion an inescapable tussle between a real and imaginary world? Did we deign to pick a side?
For now, as we race to find yet another vaccine, with our institutional constructs at breaking point, our livelihoods and even our lives threatened, we are reminded that it is a virus, not science, that inhabits the throne. In many ways, it is a stunning revelation. Do we rush to dethrone it, assail it as if seized by a fit of jealous rage? Or do we, with a degree of stoicism, embrace it as if seized by a fit of humility?
And to return to our legacy of environmental degradation, our distinctive lack of humility, imagine if we had honored Hadot’s Orphic tradition in our appreciation of Nature – our cooperative and artistic appreciation – a little more than the Promethean tradition – our theft from Nature?
Imagine if, at the end of our present ordeal, we still had a choice?
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