Language, myth, and magic

Human consciousness is closely entwined with language. We live not so much in reality as in stories we tell about reality. We are constantly talking to ourselves as well as to each other. The common tale binds us, and where stories diverge there is dissension. We construct a civilized urban world, a material environment deliberately apart from the wild, which was first imagined with the help of language. We distinguish ourselves from mere beasts by naming them, and by transforming natural animal activities into their human versions, deliberately reinvented. Culture, in the broadest sense, sets us apart, which we may suppose is its ultimate purpose. We are the creature that attempts to define itself from scratch. And definition is an act of grammatical language.

Of course, this human enterprise of self-creation is circumscribed by the fact that there is nowhere physical for us to live but in the natural universe. Our artificial environments and synthetic products are ultimately made of ingredients we rearrange but do not create. The natural world is where we always find ourselves, wherever the expanding horizon of civilization and artifact happens to end. It has always been so, even when that horizon extended no further than the light of the campfire. Even then, the human world was characterized by the transformation of perception as much as by the transformation of materials. It was forged by imagination and thought, the story told. The original artifact, the prototype of all culture, was language. In the beginning was the word.

I marvel at the ingenuity of the human imagination—not the things that make practical sense, like houses, agriculture, and cooking—but the things that make little sense to a rational mind, like gods and magic. Yet, religion and magical thinking of some sort have characterized human culture far more and far longer than what our secular culture now defines as rationality. The ancient Greeks we admire as rational seekers of order seemed to actually believe in their pantheon of absurdly human-like and disorderly gods. The early scientists were Creationists. There are scientists today who believe in the Trinity and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. My point here is not to disparage religion as superstition, but to wonder how superstition is possible at all. I believe it comes back to language, which confers the power to define things into being—as we imagine and wish them—coupled with the desire to do so, which seems to reflect a fundamental human need.

The term for that power is fiat. It means: let it be so (or, as Captain Picard would say, “make it so!”) This is the basic inner act of intentionality, whereby something is declared into at least mental existence. That could be the divine decree, “Let there be light!” Or the royal decree, “Off with her head!” The magician’s “Abracadabra!” Or the mathematician’s: “Let x stand for…” All these have in common the capacity to create a world, whether that is the natural world spoken into existence by God, the political realm established by a monarch or constitutional assembly, the abstract world invented by a geometer, the magician’s sleight of hand, or the author’s fictional world. Everything material first existed in imagination. It came into being simply by fiat, by supposing or positing it to be so in the mind’s eye or ear.

While we cannot create physical reality from scratch, we do create an inner world apart from physical reality—a parallel reality, if you like. Aware of our awareness, we distinguish subjective experience from objective reality, grasping that the former (the contents of consciousness) is our sole access to the latter. But the question is subtler still, because even such notions as physical reality or consciousness are but elements of a modern story that includes the dichotomy of subject and object. We now see ourselves as having partial creative responsibility for this inner show of “experience,” a responsibility we co-share with the external causal world. Fiat is the exercise of that agency. We imagine this must have always been the case, even before humans consciously knew it to be so.

That self-knowing makes a difference. If people have always created an inner world, but didn’t realize what they were doing, they would have mistaken the inner world for the outer one, the story for reality. In fact, this is the natural condition, for good reason. As biological organisms, we could not have survived if we did take experience at face value and seriously. The senses reveal to us a real world of consequence outside the skin, not a movie inside the head. The idea that there is such a movie is rather modern, and even today it serves us well most of the time to believe the illusion presented on the screen of consciousness, though technically we may know better. Fiat is the power to create that show, quite apart from whether or how well it represents objective reality.

Fiat is the very basis of consciousness. Like gods or monarchs, we simply declare the inner show into existence, moment by moment. That is not, however, an arbitrary act of imagination, but more like news reporting with editorial—a creative interpretation of the facts. The “show” is continually updated and guided by input from the senses. We could not exist if experience did not accord with reality enough to permit survival. That does not mean it is a literal picture of the world. It is more like reading tea leaves in a way that happens to work. The patterns one discerns auger for actions that permit existence, or at least they don’t immediately contradict it. (While crossing the street, it pays to see that looming shape as a rapidly approaching bus!) Therein lies the meaning of what naturally appears to us as real. Realness refers to our dependency on a world we did not choose—a dependency against which we also rebel, having imagined a freedom beyond all dependency.

The upshot is that we do have relative freedom over the experience we create, within the limits imposed by reality—that is, by the need to survive. It is quite possible to live in an utter fantasy so long as it doesn’t kill you. In fact, some illusions favor survival better than the literal truth does. Nature permits a latitude of fancy in how we perceive, while the longing for freedom motivates us to be fanciful. I believe this accounts for the prevalence of magical thinking throughout human existence, including the persistence of religion. It accounts also for the ongoing importance of storytelling, in literature and film as well as the media, and even in the narratives of science. In effect, we like to thumb our noses at reality, while cautious not to go too far. Magic, myth, imagination, and religion can be indulged to the extent they do not cancel our existence. (The same may be said for science, a modern story.) We like to test the limits. The lurking problem is that we can never be sure how far is too far until too late.

Outrageous beliefs are possible because a story can easily be preferred to reality. A story can make sense, be consistent, clear, predictable. Reality, on the other hand, is fundamentally inscrutable, ambiguous, confusing, elusive. Reality only makes sense to the degree it can be assimilated to a story. In the end, that is what we experience: sensory input assimilated to a story that is supposed to make sense of it, and upon which an output can be based that helps us live. Connecting the senses to the muscles (including the tongue) is the story-telling brain.

Like news reporting, what we experience must bear at least a grain of truth, but can never be the literal or whole truth. The margin in between permits and invokes the brain’s surprisingly vast artistic license. If that was all there is to it, we could simply class religion, magic, and myth as forms of human creativity, along with science, art, cinema and the novel. But there is the added dimension of belief. Reality implies the need to take something seriously and even literally—to believe it so—precisely because it makes a real difference to someone’s well-being. Fiction you can take or leave as optional, as entertainment. Reality you cannot.

Every human being goes through a developmental stage where the two are not so clearly distinguished. Play and make-believe happen in the ambiguous zone between reality and imagination. It no doubt serves a purpose to explore the interface between them. This prepares the adult to know the difference between seriousness and play—to be able to choose reality over fantasy. However, the very ambiguity of that zone makes it challenging to know the difference. At the same time, it is easy to misplace the emotional commitment to reality—which we call belief—that consists in taking something seriously, as having consequence. The paradox of belief is that it credits reality where it chooses, and often inappropriately. While it might seem perverse to believe a falsehood, human freedom lies precisely in the ability to do so. After all, a principal use of language has always been deception. So, why not self-deception?