Our human ability to model many "possible worlds" beyond what is immediately accessible to the senses creates the potential for mythical reality. Having members of the same social group hold vastly differing views on reality is frankly dangerous with a species as social and dependent upon one another as ours is. Thus, as neuro-anthropologist Charles Laughlin explains, myth, ritual, and language become completely necessary tools for a hominid brain that is capable of modelling a world vaster than what can be experienced in the present moment.
So to reiterate, ritual and culture function to stabilize and unify the community's modelling capabilities; to ensure that each members internal modelling of the environment at least (asymptotically) matches up with the broader community’s collective model of the environment. A way of asking "do you see what I see?" "Do you feel what I feel?". With a species as social and symbolic as us humans, the unifying function of myth, cosmology, language, rituals, theories, and artistic expression/experience is indeed a fundamental unifier.
The mythical object is an excellent example of what philosopher John Deely would call "a purely relational modality" that transcends the age-old nature/culture dichotomy, so prevalent in Western philosophical thought. When a myth is recognized as myth its credibility (specifically it verity) is called into question, and depending on the extent of this questioning, the myth, in semiotic terms, is no longer a myth. It becomes relegated to one side of a binary: truth or fiction, nature or culture, mind or reality, etc. What defines the myth is its ability to exist on a node on the continually emerging web of relations that make up an organism's phenomenal world, it's umwelt. For a myth to in fact be a myth, it must be thoroughly objectified within an organism’s awareness (that is, made an object of thought and cognition), and since relations are invisible it matters not that the mythical object possesses a material referent; that it be a mind-independent ‘thing’ from the "real world". In myth, there exists no distinction between mind-independent being and mind-dependent being, no distinction between an animal's umwelt, and a hypothesized idea of reality (or things as they really are).
To get a little technical: In mythical reality, there is complete complementarity of mind and world. For relations are not subjective (subjective understood in the scholastic sense of having an actual existence, independent of any particular organism perceiving it) nor necessarily intersubjective (although they can be as long as the objects involved in the relation are also existent and actual things, with a subjective physical existence), but rather, what Deely (2009) calls, suprasubjective, that is over and above any individual subjectivity.
All this means that the believer of myth does not “believe” myth, in an epistemological sense; she lives the mythical object. For the myth is the semiotic object par excellence; just has Eco says “semiosis explains itself through itself” (Eco, 1979, p.71) we can also say myth explains itself through itself. Part of what makes myth so untenable, so ‘out of line’ with much western positivist thinking is that myth, specifically the conditions that enable myth, come prior to any distinction of epistemology from ontology. And with only a cursory glance at the history of philosophical thought it is clear that the beingness of the world precedes all else.
This is, in my opinion, the great strength of indigenous scholars like Gregory Cajete and Leroy Little Bear; in reviving within academic thought recognition of the power and deep springs of knowledge residing in myth. A power just as transformative as science or philosophy -philosophy understood in the sense passed down to us from the pre-Socratics and their recognition and inquiry into mind-independent reality - in shaping our relationships to the world.
But enough theoretical talk. How about a tangible example from the recent past no less: the Fort Mcmurrey fires of May 2016.
When scholars and activists first began widely speaking of global warming and climate change in the mid 90’s there was, of course, immediate push back and dismissal. The ingrained ideology of continuous development, growth and job production was far too entrenched in our collective world-views to be challenged so directly. No doubt, there was almost immediate talk about the “climate change myth” reflecting a deep-rooted desire to sweep this crisis firmly under the phenomenal veil and banish it to the realm of fiction and speculation.
Although these days most Western politicians will at least acknowledge, however minimally, the threats of global warming, there still exists a persistent virtualness surrounding global warming. This sense of “virtuality" attached to climate change is evident in how Canadians reacted to the Fort Mac Disaster. As quintessentially apocalyptic images and symbolism flooded the news and social media --- 200 foot flames engulfing the earth, widespread panic, tanks of oil exploding --- there was quite understandably a desire amongst various peoples to link this horrible event to the increasing effects of climate change appearing globally, as well as discuss what the destruction of Fort Mac meant for Canada's future relationship with the tar sands, and the mining and selling of fossil fuels. Such attempts at dialogue were swiftly labeled vulgar and cruel. People were suffering and how could we possibly be talking about climate change and the environment at such a time? This ethical dismissal of an attempt at sustained dialogue in face of devastation was the dominant rhetoric heard from Canada's top politicians, including the premier of Alberta Rachel Knotley, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Discussing the implications of such a disaster would certainly not be perceived as crude and insensitive if the climate change crisis was truly a part of Canadian consciousness; truly objective (again in the scholastic sense) in being an object within our collective awareness or cognized environment. And thus we have evidence that climate change remains un-mythical (in the strict sense) in the hearts and minds of Canadians, that is thoroughly on one side of the semiotic tripod; either a representation without an object signified, or an object without the body of the representation. It has yet to be brought into relation with our lives, yet to be an interpretant, a purely relational modality, and thus until this “myth” is absorbed in this way, we will be forced to scuttle back and forth on this binary tightrope.
Acknowledgments: The connection between the above ideas to the media and societal responses to the Fort Mac fire was provided by Marion Benkaiouche.
Deely, J. (2009). Augustine and Poinsot: the protosemiotic development. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.
Eco, U. (1979). The role of the reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, T. A. (1994). Signs: An introduction to semiotics. Toronto. ON: University of Toronto Press.