BBC Mythos and Logos

The BBC programme
Something Understood – Mythos and Logos
(h/t Lesley) discusses the roles of Mythos and Logos: Mark Tully explores the difference between a scientific understanding of the world and a mythological understanding; between the rational language of science and the poetic language of myth.

My view is as follows:

Mythos – Myth, fantasy, didn’t actually happen. Fine for fictional novels. Some fictional novels are intended to portrait philosophical or sociological metaphors or allegories, from which we can learn stuff, so okay on that too – but care is required not to read too much into it (as is done with the Bible).

Mythos had a greater place in the past because there was less logos. The mythos of the ancients is viewed retrospectively with rosy tint of modern theology and myth. My guess would be that if you could go back in time and offer some of the ancients a bit more of our logos so that they didn’t need so much of their mythos, then they’d bite your hand off. There’s a tendency to over glamorise the past.

There’s also two categories of mythos in the current post modern mind. I don’t know if it was present in earlier ideas, but it’s here now, and it does cause confusion. There’s (a) the mythos that is really just creative imagination, and there’s (b) the mythos that is believing fantasy to be true; and they are confused at will by theists. It goes like this: the theist makes a claim (b), and the atheists says there’s no evidence, to which the theist responds with (a), which obviously the atheist didn’t intend to dispute. Angela Tilby gives fine examples below.

But first Tully introduces words from Karen Armstrong.

Karen, “There were regarded as complementary ways…” – Not surprising. if you had little logos available, what else did you have to turn to in your uncertainty?

Karen, “myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning…” – Because they didn’t have the logos to tell them that there was no meaning, as they understood that to be, and as I think most theists still understand it to be.

Karen, “Logos…it must work efficiently in the mundane world. We use…when we have to make things happen, get something done, or to persuade other people to adopt a course of action.”

Karen, “Logos is practical, unlike myth…” – What price pragmatism? – “..to elaborate on old insights” – i.e. correct the mistakes of the myths – “…achieve a greater control over our environment…” – our only known environment.

Tully, “We may have regressed spiritually, because of our suppression of mythos.” – Note the negative defensiveness. Alternatively we may have progressed, not by suppressing, but by outgrowing mythos. Lucretius sounds as though he was onto it. Can you honestly say that the old mythos was reasoned? Wasn’t it just more of the same nonsense you might attribute to some of the crazier believers of today? Trouble is, once you mistake mythos for truth all bets are off – you are capable of believing anything; or sometimes more significantly, you can’t deny someone else’s right to believe their crazy mythos.

Tully, on Peter Gabriel, “…overcome by the power of music and ritual, the mythos” – No. Just hypnotised by it. A brain state. Many animals can be lulled into these states too. Think of it as your computer freezing up momentarily for no apparent reason – it’s doing something, it’s just not obvious to consciousness.

Angela Tilby, and Anglican Priest and theologian…

Angela, “You might think … scientific..is logos… clearly right in the way science practises itself. But it probably isn’t right in way scientists sometimes use their imagination, use their instincts, use their sense of adventure to inhabit the whole enterprise; mythos carries on even when it’s denied.” – Bollocks. This is not the same mythos at all. This is an attempt (maybe unintended) to conflate mythos as myth with straight forward human emotion, personality, involvement – all potential for scientific explanation in themselves. Scientists don’t pray for guidance in their work, unless they’re scientists who happen to be religious. They don’t look to ancient books for eternal truths, they look to older evidence and challenge it, or reproduce it, they question older truths, mythos or logos – all is up for questioning.

Has logos won? Not entirely, on two points. The first, is that if logos itself implies that mythos is nonsense as a route to truth, then there’s no room for complacency, mythos is still influencing irrationally. The second, the very nature of logos (certainly now) is that it’s an ongoing quest for truth, and so again there’s no room for complacency – there is no winning, there is only progress. Winning implies the job is done. There is no know reason to think we will ever be able to say, job done.

Angela, “Mythos does continue to hold great sway” – Only for those that believe it. There’s not inherent place for mythos. I see it as a temporary fluctuation in the evolution of one particular species – think evolutionary time scales, where will we be in 1,000 years, 10,000. There’s no reason to suppose the remaining elements of mythos, the Rollins view if you like, won’t go the same way as sacrificing to Gods. As protestant Christians, do you really see RC transubstantiation surviving as a credible truth? The resurrection?

Angela, “We delight in story telling, in narrative…” – Yes. That’s how we came to grow into our language, to be able to make connections with each other, reporting non-local non-current events, transmitting knowledge – all when logos was particularly scarce that it was indistinguishable from myth.

We know soaps and novels are fiction, but yes, we can relate to stories that they tell. We do not really think that Gail McIntyre actually spent time in prison, but some of us do really think Jesus arose from the dead. The problem isn’t the stories, the fantasies, the myths, it’s believing they are true – and the more literally we take them, the more danger they pose as falsehoods.

Angela, “Mythos doesn’t die just because logos is in the ascendancy…” – Conflating mythos (believing fantasy to be truth) with fantasy again. This really is a mistake the Mythos crowd make. They see both the pleasure and the practical value in telling stories, using them as metaphor and allegory – this is fine. But they lump that in with truth claims about ridiculous fantasy.

We put too much emphasis on logos, underestimating mythos?

Angela, “I think there is an imbalance … live in a world of pure fact … if you do that you end up in a very impoverished way.” – Again, the mistaken conflation of wrong headed fantasy as truth, with the very commendable use of story telling, emotional involvement, and all the other fluffy stuff that scientists are equally (more so says Feynman) capable of appreciating – not impoverished at all.

Angela, “Truth doesn’t contradict truth…” – Another problem. The issue, from the logos point of view is that it’s difficult to be sure when we have got at the truth, particularly any ultimate truth. Science refuses to make that claim. It’s only theism and other mythos adherents and pos modernist woolly thinkers that use this move. In essence it relies on ‘stories’ (the mythos kind not the soap opera kind) to entitle people to their own versions of the truth, as they see fit. It demands respect among the mythos crowd for each other’s myths, and prevents any serious questioning from the sceptical logos community – or at least the mythos crowd think it should…. Angela, “I think that’s absolutely true” – which becomes true since all truth claims (stories) are true, by the mythos principle. Bollocks of course.

Angela, “As a person I believe [1] thoroughly in the scientific method and in evolution. I want to use antibiotic drugs, I’m interested in space exploration; [2] I’m interested in the strangeness of new physics. At the same time [3] I want to respond to the world as God’s good creation and to live in it a creative and ethical life that has meaning and fulfilment beyond myself and physical death.” – The mythos team think [3] is made compatible with [1], but they really mean there’s no conflict between [3] and [2] – and many theists are comfortable with science processes. But [1], if followed to where it leads, through whatever evidence there is – and [1] relies on evidence – then they are not compatible: there’s nothing that leads a rational scientific mind to [3].

Angela, “It isn’t a problem to live with those two truths.” – I agree. It’s not a problem to live with the truth that London is in France, as long as you don’t try to visit London. You can even visit France, without visiting London, and still believe that false truth, while believing the truth that you are in France. And so it is possible, that if you don’t think clearly enough about what you’re, well, thinking about, you can make incompatible beliefs co-exist in your head quite comfortable – even though some of them are myths (the fantasy kind).

Angela, “I don’t think they contradict each other.” – Set theory: A and B are independent sets. 1) x is a member of A; 2) x is a member of A and B. Statements (1) and (2) don’t contradict each other, but (2) happens to be false. Again, woolly thinking. Contradiction isn’t the issue. Mythos being the route to truth is the issue.

Angela, “I won’t choose. They’re both valid ways of being a human being.” – I agree. Logos is a valid way of being a rational human being; mythos is a way of being an irrational human being. Don’t get me wrong. In backing logos I’m not saying we must always be perfect rational human beings – the whole point of my argument is that we can’t be, and that recognising this helps us to realise that mythos is one of our more dramatic failures – particularly in the hands of fundamentalists.

Angela, “I think I would be less human if I wasn’t trying to hold the two together.” – Well, such low self-esteem seems to be one of the attributes of the religious. They seem to need the God mythos to validate their lives. Note the inherent insult to non-believers – we’re less human. That’s a clear message that’s been spelled out to the irreligious for centuries – sinners destined for hell – and it’s no less clear simply because it’s disguised in woolly post modern terms. Thankfully we’ve got broad shoulders – or maybe it’s just that we know there’s no weight, no mass, no substance to this nonsense, so it doesn’t bother us. But there are times when it matters.

Angela uses Bach as an example of mythos and logos coming together. She points out the rigour in the maths and the precision behind his work, “…and yet he produces this astonishingly heart rending music.” – Conflating mythos with music now? The creativity of human beings is a distinct imaginative skill, facet, characteristic, whatever you want to call it. There’s no logical attachment of imagination to believing fantasy is truth.

Angela, “..[Bach] goes right to the soul and speaks of realities far greater than that of the scale itself.” – Well, no. It says nothing at all about other realities, greater or otherwise. What music does do is resonate. It may do this literally and physically, in that it does cause resonant conditions within the brain, particularly if it’s loud enough to feel more physically through the body rather than just through the ears. It can also do it psychologically, in that it invokes emotions, sometimes associated with events and experiences, or even with fantasies. This latter is less well understood, and requires much more from brain science disciplines to understand more fully – but that current gap in our knowledge is not one for a God of the gaps, or in this case a mythos of the gaps, to fill in. Of course that’s the tradition our ancient much-mythos less-logos has left us with, so it’s understandable some are easily persuaded of this.

Angela, “…[Bach’s music] says something about how Western civilisation can bring these two things [logos mythos] together” – Only because Angela wants it to, and because she categorises creativity and human physio-psychological responses to that creativity as an element of mythos. Now if she wants to do that, if that’s how she wants to define mythos, great. Except that then causes confusion in debates about theism and mythos, about the mythos of Genesis, and so on. Not very helpful.

I find it curious that the mythos team seem to think that if they can only give us on the logos team good examples then we’ll get it. They read us poetry, excerpts from the Bible, sayings of wise some wise sage, or maybe play us some music – as Tully does here with Bach. we get it. We are moved by the music and the poetry too. What we also get is that what the mythos team lump together with their fantasies we see as something distinct. No amount of reading poetry and playing music is going to make us magically lose the logical difference.

So, there are four distinct topics recognised so far here: logos, creative-mythos, fantasy-story-mythos, and fantasy-truth-mythos.

Logos is compatible with creative-mythos. We recognise the blend of art and science in many of our most creative polymaths. We can also accommodate fantasy-story-mythos, using the vehicle of story telling, narrative, to show us allegorically the many twists and turns of human nature. the Bible is often quoted in this respect, and it does have some good human stories that strike a chord. Shakespeare does it better for me personally, and often with a damn site more humour – always a bonus.

What isn’t compatible with logos, and what goes against the grain of any sort of rationality that we humans are capable of, and what flies in the face of science’s greatest efforts to understand this world, this universe, ourselves, is the make-believe of fantasy-truth-mythos. There is no evidence for a God, no matter how much some people would like him to be there – wishful thinking does not make it true. The miraculous appearance of Adam, and the use of his rib, transubstantiation, resurrection – all fantasy by all rational standards.


Tully on Kant: Reason has it’s limitations and philosophers can be too dependent on it. Quite. So, why does Kant reason, quite reasonably, that we can’t go beyond what we can know, and then go on to describe in some detail things that are beyond his reasoning capacity?

Listen to this Philosophy Bites. Kant is okay, up to the point where he recognises the limitations of our perceptions. In Kant’s terms we can never take the spectacles off – okay. We have to put to one side all metaphysical question that are beyond us – including any deity. We can ask the questions – that isn’t the problem. But we can’t know what is out there. We can speculate. We are at liberty to have faith, but you can’t have knowledge of whether that’s true or not. This is the atheist logos position and offers nothing to the mythos.

In supposing noumena exists Kant goes too far – beyond our fallible human capabilities.

Kant is motivated to maintain faith. And he’s prepared to give up all his hard work in order to sustain this. Like many philosophers, he can’t stop himself going beyond his own claims.

8 thoughts on “BBC Mythos and Logos

  1. I enjoyed this, thanks – especially your definitions of different types of mythos and which ones you accept and don't. I think I sometimes get the impression that you don't enjoy any mythos at all.

  2. Ron I like your distinction between logos, fantasy-truth mythos, fantasy-story mythos and creative mythos. I think this is a really irritating programme because it muddles these four things. I am particularly irritated by Angela Tilbury’s leap between fantasy-truth/story mythos and creative mythos. Though perhaps the producers (keen as they seem to be on playing fairly random snippets of music) have selected her comments on Bach (is he really more mathematical than any other musician just because he’s keen on fugues, etc?) to justify their inclusion of music in the programme.What I also find irritating is the lumping together of different forms of knowledge and different types of science under ‘logos’. As if Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, all use the same ‘scientific methods’ (which everyone loves as if they are just one sort of thing but never seem very clear about what they are precisely. As if these ‘sciences’ are all quite distinct in their methods from Politics, (Economics?) and of course Theology. As if rationality and empiricism are essentially the same thing and that both are the sole province of logos rather mythos. (To my mind the best of theology is perfectly rational once you accept some basic axioms. And to my mind Sociology, Anthropology and much of Psychology are hardly ‘science’ at all and have more in common with theology (fantasy-story mythos) than say Chemistry. The scientist as imaginative, intuitive, adventurous and therefore using mythos whilst denying it. Oh please Angela! And have you not read John 1: 1? Shouldn’t this slightly inhibit you from bandying around the term ‘logos’ in such a cavalier way?But back to fantasy-truth mythos and fantasy-story mythos. Thank you very much for helping me see this distinction more clearly. (Though I clearly I am not particularly keen on the precise terminology: can’t I have something less perjorative than ‘fantasy’.).I think I must reluctantly agree that some of Genesis is fantasy-story mythos. I’ll give you the rib. But I do think some of Genesis is fantasy-truth mythos: as I have previously explained (clearly not to your satisfaction): the tree of knowledge of good and bad (etc.). And of course there is some fantasy-truth mythos even in Shakespeare.)

  3. Hi Mike,I agree with your 3rd para "As if Mathematics.."But it seems that I've not been clear enough myself:creative-mythos – being creative, using human imagination, which may be an interplay between concious, subconcious, emotion, etc., all natural causes. No implication of any outside source other than natural inspiration, which is the accumulation and assimilation of experience, however subconscious.fantasy-truth-mythos (read as fantasy-understood-as-truth-mythos) – believing fantasy to be true when there is no evidence.fantasy-story-mythos (read as fantasy-understood-as-story-mythos) – explaining an event, a human experience, in a fictional story – e.g. soaps, and some parts (non-fantasy-truth-mythos parts) of the Bible. With soaps, we know it's finction. But for the Bible, there's so much tradition and history and faith, that both fantasy-truth-mythos and fantasy-story-mythos are often accepted as fact, by the more fundamentalist theists; and fantasy-truth-mythos thought of as fantasy-story-mythos, and fantasy-story-mythos as closer to fact than is reasonable, by less fundamental theists. The use of 'fantasy' wasn't meant as being any more perjorative than it implies in the context. Fantasy is fine, and may be an essential part of our make-up; so I'm not intending any pejorative meaning in the use of the word. So, I'm not being perjorative in fantasy-story-mythos. However, I am when it comes to believing fantasy is truth, as, to me, that seems a little unwise. The use of 'fantasy' simply means 'made-up' in this context. It may have been 'made-up' using the process of creativity, which the mythos team seem inclined to see as creative-mythos – i.e. it's all mythos to them, and hence the difficulty of seeing the distinctions, and the difficulty of seeing a problem with fantasy-truth-mythos. In the mythos team there's an over-reliance of mythos at the expense of logos when it comes to establishing factual truth, but fine at using mythos in applying their trade in some situations – e.g. pastoral care, where at moments of dispare the factual truth isn't always what is wanted. I would say however, that if logos played a greater role in the development of our minds there'd be less need for fantasy-truth-mythos. Fantasy-story-mythos is often just what is required – I'm sure many of us acquire greater insight into human nature by wqtching Shakespeare, or Coronation Street.Yes, there are overlaps – we're humans that use rationality, empiricism, fantasy, creativity. It's what we do with them that counts. So 'science' isn't staking sole claim to rationality and empiricism, but does claim to be makiing the best use of these – by the rigour of science when it counts. Science also uses creativity (creativity-mythos, but I'm unhappy with the 'mythos' postscript, 'creativity' says enough and avoids the link to mysticism). Theology uses rationality, but in the opinion of atheist-sceince, with too much affirmation and not enough scepticism, which is why there are so many theisms and so much variation within each religion. If you don't apply the scientific method thoroughy all sorts of nonsesn can get through.

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