Myth, Metaphor, and the Evolution of Self-Awareness

Myth, Metaphor, and the Evolution of Self-Awareness

Terry Marks-Tarlow
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/ijsss.2014010104
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Classic myths survive generation after generation, because they teach people how to perceive and respond to the surrounding world. Myths supply a set of embodied metaphors to live by. This paper examines the relationship between myth, metaphor, and self-awareness. The myth of Oedipus is revisited using lenses of interpersonal neurobiology and second-order cybernetics, where observers become self-referentially entangled with the observed. Whereas Freud interpreted the Oedipus story literally, this paper examines the myth self-referentially. By looking inward rather than outward, early relational trauma plus implicit learning provide clues to life's external riddles and uncertainties. Wisdom gleaned from this ancient myth lines up with contemporary computational studies, when the capacity for self-reference is interpreted as a Universal Turing Machine with full memory—both implicit and explicit—for its own past. A cybernetic perspective dovetails with research on the neurobiology of memory and cognitive studies from developmental psychology. The same mental skills required for self-reference and metaphorical thinking within individuals signal internal complexity and mature cognition collectively necessary to enter the modern arena of self-reflective consciousness.
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Newtonian physics implied the universe was a vast machine—the quantum model showed there is no machine, but a mysterious entanglement with the observer. The area of preparation must now include the participant observer. Newtonian physics suggested an end to free will and creativity—the quantum model put the observer back into the universe as a participant/creator. (William Brandon Shanley)

During ancient times, myths were passed on as stories told from generation to generation. Yet, for most of contemporary Western society, it is not ancient tales but instead modern science and math predominantly guide the way. Ancient tales—of Greek heroes and Gods, of Buddha, Arjuna, and the Ramayana—are still around, but have fallen largely into collective shadows. Especially in written form, the classics easily lose their luster compared with the bright icons and shiny features of computers, ipads, tablets, and other digital devices.

Our collective excitement is drawn toward science partly because of its concrete power to transform information, communication, and the general quality of life. Science and especially physics comprise our culture’s contemporary creation mythology (Marks-Tarlow, 2003). Whereas the 19th century Newtonian model of physics separated observers cleanly from the realm of the observed, 20th and 21st century models offer inner and outer worlds more fully and reflexively blended (see Orsucci & Sala, 2008; 2012). In gaming technologies, virtual avatars take the place of real bodies, while in medical research, thoughts drive prosthetic limbs (Peck, 2012).

Of all forms of contemporary science, inner and outer worlds appear blend in fantastic, even surreal ways, within quantum physics. Quantum entanglement, nonlocality, and the uncertainty paradox are just a few ideas that shake our sense of ordinary reality to the core. This is the stuff of modern fairytales, a good example of which is the book, Alice and the Quantum Cat (Shanley, 2011). Written in the tradition of Martin Gardner (1999), author of The Annotated Alice, Shanley introduces his book as “A Twenty-First Century Myth.” Its chapters are written by physicists, e.g., Amit Goswami (e.g., 1995) and Fred Alan Wolf (e.g., 1995), and chaos and complexity theorists, e.g., John Briggs and David Peat (e.g., 2000), who regularly popularize physics in service of new ways to think, see, and be in the world. The book’s main character, the Quantum Cat, is a blend of the Cheshire Cat, whose smile appears out of nowhere, and Schrödinger’s Cat, who embodies the quantum paradox of existing and not existing simultaneously. With Alice as his sidekick, the Quantum Cat battles a sterile, Newtonian, mechanistic world, where observers and observed are so antiseptically separated as to threaten their very aliveness:

In Newton’s world, ambiguity was the enemy—mechanism stresses the absolute, the unchanging and the certain—things are ‘either/or,’ ‘good/bad.’ In the quantum world reality is ‘both/and’—a coexistence of mutually contradictory possibilities, all equally true, each one a potentially possible constituent of reality. Acausal, non-local synchronicities can give rise to events that seem to ‘pop-up’ out of thin air. There are no isolated, separate, closed systems in Nature. In this universe of wholeness, everything affects everything else, from the most fundamental particles to faraway galaxies at the edge of the universe.

The central theme of Shanley’s quantum tales is the Observer Effect, through which the awareness of observers forms deep, invisible foundations for material existence. With observers and observed intertwined to the point of full interpenetration, this world view implies a radically relational perspective. Here it becomes absurd to try to parse out isolated elements, people, or traditional concepts of cause and effect. Much akin to the worldviews revealed by Maya’s veil within Hinduism or the Indra’s net within Buddhism, the appearance of observers as separated from observed is mere illusion, born of evolutionary needs for survival. And so mythology of contemporary science dovetails with ancient mystical and spiritual traditions the world over (Marks-Tarlow, 2003; 2008).

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