Suggest Jesus was just another human and you horrify orthodox Christians – suggest Galileo wasn’t heroic, and you horrify orthodox Positivists. How do disputes over historical facts possess this power to induce horror?
The inability to bear contradictory conceptions is called cognitive dissonance by psychologists. Recently, we have made watching other people endure dissonance into entertainment – amateur ‘singers’ who become enraged when their lack of talent becomes exposed, or low-income lovers reacting violently when a lying partner is revealed. The experience is disorientating, and can invoke rage in certain cases, yet we all experience minor dissonance on a daily basis in pursuit of a consistent sense of self: the story we tell about ourselves has to be maintained against the ambiguities of life. We expect to encounter a single consistent story about the world – history – and when this is threatened by rival accounts, dissonance occurs.
In Chaos Ethics, I use the term moral horror to describe cognitive dissonance in the context of ethics – the unsettling or fury-inducing response to incompatible ethical conceptions. Moral horror can be seen in the context of abortion, gay marriage, and many more cases of contemporary political disagreement. My additional claim in this piece is that because we possess moral values concerning truth, clashes over historical questions also evoke moral horror, and this is the reason that contrary historical claims can bring about dissonance. When positivists express outrage at the idea of creationism, for instance, it is because this suggestion transgresses their deeply held moral values concerning truth (see The Mythology of Evolution for this discussion). What on the face of it seems to be a factual dispute becomes a moral conflict: ‘you should not believe this (because it is not true)’.
We need moral horror – it is not something we should wish to eliminate. It is one of the few things that will motivate us to take action against that which we judge as morally wrong. But there is also severe danger any time cognitive dissonance is involved, because we are at the greatest risk of acting unreasonably whenever it affects us (just recall the poor victims of those ‘shocking’ day time talk shows). In the grip of moral horror, we are certain we are right, and cannot – quite literally – imagine how the other view of the world that horrifies us could be in any way reasonable. At most, we can tolerate the other perspective, which is a polite way of saying that we look down on these foolish others and patiently endure their being so obviously wrong. A key part of my purpose in exploring moral horror in Chaos Ethics is precisely to move past this intolerant tolerance, and to achieve this requires a deeper understanding of the role of imagination in morality – and history.
To unravel the moral horror of clashing histories we need to appreciate that our access to the world is mediated by certain imaginative patterns. Joseph Campbell referred to the mythic systems that are tied to lived practices as ‘living mythologies’ and it is the nature of such things that they are indeed lived. Often, this entails a relationship between the practitioners’ ethics and the stories of their mythos (i.e. a specific cultural vantage point, see the chapter on ethics in Imaginary Games for more on this). We cannot, as Jean-François Lyotard and others have suggested, break out of seeing the world through these ‘grand narratives’ – judging them as if we could get completely outside is simply, as Charles Taylor observed, yet another mythic point of view (what might be called the postmodern or relativist mythology). No, I’m afraid we all must imagine in specific ways if we are to imagine anything at all (whether fact or fiction), but as both Campbell and Raimon Pannikar drew attention to, we all have great difficulty in understanding our own mythologies as anything other than truth – and this is the root of the problem to be explored here, because it is this that sets up inevitable cognitive dissonance.
For the purpose of explaining the phenomena under consideration, let us treat any mythos as comprised of two elements – mythos stories that are recognised as stories by those who share them, and mythos histories that are taken as factual. Mythos stories have as their focus their moral content – Jesus’ parables are a great example, or Homer’s Odyssey as a guide to how a Greek warrior must be tempered before he can become a good husband. Conversely, mythos histories are read as informing chronology rather than morality, a key archetype being Jewish genealogies in the Torah (“Abraham begat Isaac” and so forth) that organize the passage of time. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions are sometimes taken as having ‘invented history’ in the way it is often understood – perceiving time as both passing and consecutive, and also as heading somewhere (see, for instance, Jacob Neusner’s The Christian and Judaic Invention of History). Homer and (later) Herodotus developed a concept of recording the past narratively, but it is only after Christianity brought Jewish practices to Rome that the mythic dimensions of histories became fully-fledged.
Now the problematic part of mythos histories is that the transition from ‘story’ to ‘history’ implies a move from an infinite space of possibility to a finite space of definite facts. There can be (it is assumed) only one history, or rather there can be only one true history. In those traditions partly descended from Plato’s Greek philosophy (especially Christianity and its offshoot atheisms) this is an especially likely habit, but via the sciences (which grow out of Christianity and Islam, and hence Platonic thought) the trend is now everywhere. What is more, wherever the prevailing assumption is to demand a single true history, there is a temptation for people to treat mythos stories as mythos histories. For example, orthodox Christian sects may recognize parables as ‘just stories’ but the Garden of Eden will be taken as history. This is by no means a given, of course – the majority of Christian groups draw their lines here very differently – but the point remains that the presumed line between fact and fiction becomes blurred within an individual’s mythos.
This phenomena is not constrained to religious traditions, as is usually assumed, but happens just as readily within non-religious contexts. For example, for many positivists Galileo is presented as having defended a suppressed yet true description of the arrangement of the planets (heliocentrism) against the erroneous dogma of the church. However, the records of the same event offer multiple alternative accounts - including that the clergy at the time were the sober scientists in this affair and that Galileo's techniques were not sufficient to prove what he had nonetheless correctly intuited. Similarly, the usual positivistic mythos history requires Galileo as a valiant hero maintaining the truth against the errors of the church – but this account is somewhat undermined by the cynic’s observation that Galileo’s offending manuscript brought trouble for him primarily by portraying his then-ally, Pope Urban VIII, as a simpleton. Woe betide anyone who suggests to an orthodox positivist that Galileo’s downfall was his own arrogance!
We can see in this example why a mythos history is more than just a neutral chronicle of events, and why it is sometimes difficult to separate ‘story’ from ‘history’. To hail Galileo as a scientific ‘martyr’ requires a mythos history that presents him as heroically resisting religious oppression, and bringing forth the world-changing power of empirical observation that is the ‘sacred’ value of positivistic non-religion. This particular episode comes across radically differently from the viewpoint of (for instance) the Chinese, who were never so invested in any specific cosmological arrangement, and who readily adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmos when exposed to it by the Jesuits – and without the significant seismic upheavals attributed to Galileo’s ‘heroism’. This is directly contrary to what is claimed by, say, Luciano Floridi, whose mythos history (presented at a TEDx talk in Oxford) essentially requires Galileo, along with Darwin and Freud, to acquire the grand status of epoch-making scientific iconoclasts fighting religion (a mythos Bertrand Russell helped lay the groundwork for). It is not that this role does not match ‘the facts’ in each case, but rather that the account of these individuals purely as revolutionary is radically incomplete – as would be the case for any history presented solely from a single point-of-view. As the philosophers of the twentieth century never tired of emphasizing, all history is mythic history.
Rather than taking this situation to mark the ‘end of history’, I want to offer a slightly different approach. In Chaos Ethics, I draw against William James and (later, and independently) Michael Moorcock’s image of a multiverse, rather than a universe. This is not the multiverse of quantum physics, however (although Moorcock also helped inspire that), but rather the idea that beings and things experience their own separate worlds, and that none of these worlds can claim to be ‘the true world’ when taken alone. Thus while in an (imagined) universe there is only one true version of events, in an (also imagined) multiverse the facts depend upon the world you are in: it is false in most Christian worlds that ‘Jesus was an ordinary human’, but this is true in any positivist worlds. Crucially, no world-independent account is available in a multiverse, even though there is substantial agreement (at least between humans) about all manner of things. All facts always depend upon the world they are perceived from, but these diverse worlds are congruent in the majority of cases for any given species or entity provided the necessary translations can be performed accurately. Where they diverge, however, is precisely at the fault lines between contrary mythos histories – and these thus become a locus for unresolved cognitive dissonance.
This multiversal perspective is not something that can be expected to attain widespread acceptance since it requires a strong imagination to envisage. But it may only take a sufficient volume of intellectuals to adopt it (or something like it) to radically enhance our diplomatic power, and thus our capacity for effective, peaceful action on a whole host of pressing issues. Orthodox theists and positivists are unlikely to be able to talk to each other effectively – but their moderate colleagues could cross this bridge, and securing that dialogue would go a long way towards motivating substantial moral action in the developed world. By substituting a mythos superset for a singular and exclusive mythos history, the possibility of harnessing moral horror as a transformative influence can begin to seriously emerge. This is a powerful option since, as mentioned previously, it is moral horror that helps motivate reform on ethical matters – but only when it is properly aligned. Up until now, the potentialities of the multiverse have been used mostly for ‘spin’ – to obfuscate and deceive by using the gap between events and the mythic histories that record them solely for partisan gain. We can only speculate at what might be achieved if we began to use it instead as a tool for peace.
For more on moral horror, intolerant tolerance, and how to be a traveller in an ethical multiverse, check out my latest book Chaos Ethics.