10 February 2011

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: do we need myths? + News

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: do we need myths?

We are all victims of myths, so most probably, we do not need them. Then
how do we come to have so many myths lurking in every corner of our
lives? In the short essay I try to consider this issue.

In the meantime Alfonso is organising an exhibition of his paintings:
details below and this link is for a pdf file of the exhibition
catalogue http://tinyurl.com/alfonso-exhit

Sala La Paloma
c/ Toledo 108
Date: 15 – 25 February
Time: Monday – Friday 10:00 to 14:00 and 17:00 to 20:00

Finally, Peter is still looking for a flat mate:
Peter has asked me once again to remind you that he is looking for
someone to share his flat with in Mostoles close to public transport;
very good conditions. Central heating and central hot water. English
spoken at home if you wish. Single room still available. : tel 609257259

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.30pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
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-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
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photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
Tertulia in English with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30
to 21h, at Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal).

Do we need myths?

What stands us apart from other animals is the way we use our thinking
capacity. We use our brain, as most animals do, to plan things,
understand those around us and the environment, create strategies and of
course understand ourselves. But what distinguishes us from other
animals is the way we extrapolate what is useful for us.

For example, horses have developed powerful legs that can transport them
over long distances at a fast speed, we developed the automobile for the
same purpose. You must agree, we do things in style, maybe a bit
gimmicky, but certainly in style.

The point I wish to make is that not only can we understand the outside
world around us, but we can come up with some quite sophisticated ways
of interacting with those around us and also with what is around us. But
what underlies this success of human brains and any other animal brain
are two things: understanding and information.

We might, therefore, be inclined to assume that before we can solve a
problem we first need to understand the problem, and to understand the
problem we need all the information we can get about the issue at hand.
True as this might be, it is also a deceptive principle to accept at
face value. First, if we don't have perfect information we start
slipping away from understanding the problem correctly. Dentists are
very good at proving this point: we have a slight persistent pain in a
tooth, but it takes root canal treatment to fix the problem. This
problem in philosophy is the induction problem.

Secondly, our principle seems to imply that we are acting consciously
for both the understanding process and the information gathering
process. Today, however, we know better, the unconscious brain is no
less active and involved in the process as the conscious self. Maybe
even more so. Thus what we, in our conscious self capacity, might think
is an issue, the unconscious brain understands the problem differently.
For example, today we also know that stress plays a key role in obesity
(13.5million hits in Google for the term, obesity and stress), and we
also know from experiments that mice experience high levels of stress
when lots of them are placed in a confined space. City dwellers don't
need mice to tell them that city life is stressful. However, the common
knowledge in the street is that obesity is caused by eating fatty or
sweet foods. Yes, unhealthy foods do cause obesity, but the issue is why
do we eat such harmful foods, and why do we it so much of it any way?

Thus consciously we think we are getting obese because we are eating
fatty foods, but the reality is also that stress is also playing an
important role in shaping our waist line. Unfortunately, for modern
society we can understand the issue much better, and think we have a
more efficient solution, if we describe the problem of obesity in terms
of not eating certain foods, instead of keep away from stressful
situations. In the first case, we can just not buy the pack of doughnuts
we have in our hands, in the latter case, we just have to give up our
middle management job with Super Company Inc.

But what does all this have to do with myths? Let us take a working
definition of myths to be beliefs or a set of beliefs to be true, but in
reality are anything but true or useful. The problem with defining myths
is that we can define myths as the stories or tales we find in classical
literature, i.e. Mythology, or the common use of the word, a belief
(beliefs) held to be true but in reality are not necessarily true. For
philosophical purposes we are interested in the second meaning of myths:
the myths we find in Mythology are something different.

Of course, my definition of myth does not exclude looking at classical
mythology, but our issue is not whether myths can tell us anything, but
rather if we need myths why do we need them? Or to look at this in a
different way, what sort of creatures are myths that we cannot do without?

Let's look at some modern myths to have a feeling of what we are talking
about: if you work hard you will succeed and become wealthy (or words to
that effect), all men are rapists and all women are only interested in
money, and my favourite, a home is an investment. I am particularly
interested in the home investment myth because I was there when it
really blossomed and so many years later it is creating havoc with the
lives of people.

What all these myths have in common, like most myths, is that they are
very easy to understand; I might have never owned a house nor had
investments, but in our modern society these words are recognised by
every one in the same way that hamburger and chips are recognised by

And I would argue that this is true for two reasons, first we use common
day language to describe these myths and secondly there are cases that
prove the myth: many people do work hard and make it big, some men are
rapists, some women do like money, and some houses are a good investment.

The difference between myths and scientific type beliefs is this. Once
we have enough instances of an event we create the myth these individual
data bits and convert them into a general linguistic form with a meaning
that holds true under all circumstances. In fact it is this
universalisability character of myths that makes them so powerful.
However, scientific or even philosophical, observations are always
subject to confirmation (or falsified).

The language structure of a myth leads to universal confirmation - a
house is an investment, - whilst scientific observations would use a
probabilistic language and not universal language - some houses are an
investment. What the first statement is telling you is that if you have
a house, you have an investment, but the second statement is telling you
absolutely nothing since you don't know what you have until you try and
sell the property.

An other feature of these modern myths is that they fit quite nicely
with the modern concept of the sound bite. What this means in real terms
is that we remember the concept of investment, and then the good side of
investment, and basically forget the other things involved in owning a
property. In our city dwelling life we are constantly receiving huge
amounts of information which needs to be processed immediately by our
brain. And process I really mean evaluate or interpret information. Thus
information that can be processed quickly has a certain natural bias in
its favour.

Take the traffic sign "Stop." This bit of information is much quicker to
process than the description "start driving your car slowly, when you
approach the end of the road your car should not have any forward
momentum left. Now from your ........and so on and so forth." As social
animals with a family stricture the concept of "home" and even "house"
is hard wired and the modern word investment is equally well know in our
society. Compare this with, risk management theory, Return on
Investments, net and gross yield from a fixed asset, inflation growth
rate, depression and appreciation of assets and so on.

You will remember that earlier I said that to understand an issue
correctly we need perfect information to understand it correctly, and
that sort of information is not really coming our way any time soon for
any situation. Of course, the rational thing to do under these
circumstances is to keep investigation the problem and adjust the
solution according to new discoveries.

Unfortunately, only scientists with endless grants, and philosophers
with enough money to survive, can afford to live with a half baked
solution. Most of us need a fully baked solution for most problems in
our life: do I buy the house or not, do I take the job or not, do I date
this man, does she really love me, that sort of thing. And thanks to the
versatility of our brain we have found a reliable working solution, or
rather some brains have found a solution for their problem. And we call
this solution a "myth." We need a house to live in, but don't know what
to do, and the banker needs the sale and commission as soon as possible.
The myth, that a house is an investment, solves two problems at the same

From myths we get the perfect information our brain tells us we need to
solve certain problems especially socially related issues: a house and
not some houses – this grammatical structure implies that even the house
we will buy is an investment. And the banker get to turn on our
emotional switch with the right warm feeling they need to close a sale:
investment - we cannot make money useless we invest and crime and the
lottery are not real options. And the word investment is sufficiently
technical to dazzle the modern brain.

So, do we need myths? What we know for sure is that we need perfect
information to make rational evaluations of a problem, we also know that
such information does not exists. We also know that the brain is
excellent at solving problems in the short term, even if the solution
does not stand the test of time. An over the counter analgesic might
solve a toothache, but rationing our sugar intake and visiting the
dentist every six months requires a herculean effort: we find sugar in
most of our processed foods and dentist fees are not exactly cheap.

What we need for sure is stable and reliable information, which leads me
to conclude that we need myths as much as the Trojans needed a horse.



from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: do we need myths? +

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