Mere myth, literalism, and truth

Is it literally true that the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead? Rose where – towards the atmosphere?

What does it even mean to claim that these sorts of things are literally true – is it rather that the question is misguided?

I think: the way that these things are comprehended must in some sense be symbolic …

Yet, that sounds like it is presuming a non-symbolic way of knowing which is standard. Do we have a dominant and non-symbolic, ‘literal’ way of knowing against which this can be contrasted? Note that scientific representations are necessarily representations, or symbols. In this sense, scientific models aren’t literally true. Yet, of course, they are literally true. It is literally true that the cat is composed of molecules. But both ‘cat’ and ‘molecule’ are symbols, an interface for dealing with reality.

I’m not sure what work the word ‘literal’ is doing in many cases. Consider: a) Is it true that the cat is made of molecules? b) Is it literally true that the cat is made of molecules? Is there a difference? Not usually: when we say that the cat is made of molecules, we usually mean that it is literally made of molecules.

What is the word ‘literal’ adding in some cases? It seems that the word ‘literal’ now often operates as something that could be paraphrased as: is this claim something that, when understood by interpreting the words in a conventional scientific sense, is true? For example, if the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead, we are to understand this in terms of the physical models of the universe that we have developed through science. The person must be made of something which has a corresponding representation in physical science (molecules, electrons, and so on), and the word ‘rose’ must map on to some other corresponding representation in physical science, such that we can say that something ‘literally’ moved somewhere.

Yet, I doubt very much that most people intend this, when they say that the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead. Therefore, the phrase isn’t intended to be ‘literally’ true. Yet it isn’t intended to be ‘mere’ myth or metaphor – it is meant to be true. In what sense?

It is meant to be true in terms of a complex set of interlocking models and representations which have developed over thousands of years (probably longer than that), and broadly belong to the domain of ‘religion’, among other things. Most contemporary, secular intellectuals are not very familiar with these models. They think, rather, that to be true is to be ‘literally’ true. Since these claims don’t seem to be literally true, they are nonsense. The third option is that they are mere myths (symbolic for something that is literally true). Yet, most intellectuals don’t consider that they could be ‘mythical truth’ – something just as true as (or more so than) literal truth, yet employing a different set of representations or models.

(This is not to argue for a separation of mythical truth and literal truth. They must, somewhere, impinge and inter-map. The question is just where exactly this is to happen, and how to move from one set of representations to another.)

This is just to say that understanding certain things ‘mythically’ may be to create a better, stronger, more robust, and so on, relationship with certain kinds of truths, where these truths aren’t second-hand for ‘literal’ truths (although the opposite may be so in some cases).

So why do people often consider this movement to myth to be a retreat from truth? Probably because they are under the impression that people understood these things to be literally true in the past, but, in the face of disconfirmation through science, that people no longer consider them to be literally true. The problem with this theory is that, to a significant extent, there was no such thing as what is contemporarily understood as literal truth in much of the past, because the contemporary sense of ‘literal’ requires the various scientific representations that have been built up over the last several hundred years. Since these did not exist in the past, people couldn’t have understood these claims in a ‘literal’ way. Now that I think about this, it seems obvious.

Yet, there is something more to say about this. As peoples’ understandings of various words started to change to what we now call a ‘literal’ sense (a physical, scientific sense), they probably did start to carry that in all sorts of directions. Then, as science continued to develop, it became clear that these things weren’t the case in a ‘literal’ sense. So then they either had to disown the claims or say that they were “mere myth.” Yet, as we’ve seen, this is rather merely to internalize an epistemic error (the error of thinking that these stories, as originally told, were intended ‘literally’ in the contemporary sense, when they couldn’t have been, as the contemporary models that undergird what the word ‘literally’ now means didn’t exist).

Also see here.

One thought on “Mere myth, literalism, and truth

  1. Bruce Charlton

    “(This is not to argue for a separation of mythical truth and literal truth. They must, somewhere, impinge and inter-map. The question is just where exactly this is to happen, and how to move from one set of representations to another.)

    “The answer, as you later say, is that once mythical and literal systems have been separated (indeed there are numerous literal systems – science and within science, law, each different bureaucracy then cannot be any mapping or moving between them.

    The reason is that each has a different ‘evaluation process’ – different selective evidence base, a different language, a different purpose, a different logic – therefore there cannot be equivalences between the two systems.

    So although in Christianity the resurrection is – in a sense – ‘both’ literally and symbolically true, that ‘both’ can be misleading. Something is first just ‘true’, then afterwards truth has been divided-up into different types/ definitions of truth, but the process of division is destructive and irrevocable.

    There is a common sense analogy in the fact that you cannot cut something into pieces, then put it back together again as it had been before. The same holds for Truth, Beauty, and Virtue – indeed the same hold for The Good of which TB&V are attempted segments.

    Undivided reality cannot, therefore, be re-constructed from where we are now.

    What can be done, sometimes, is to re-cover the undivided reality.

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