Our Aphroditic Cosmos: Joining Myth and Science

Speech to the 2015 Cosmology and Love Conference hosted by
the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at the
California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, California

This presentation evolved from a conversation with Brian Swimme, whom I wish to thank for inviting me to speak to you, over tea sipped on the border of Orphic lyrical Berkeley and geometrical high-rising Oakland. We were discussing our shared appreciation for storytelling’s capacity for amplifying awe and wonder when, out of nowhere, Plotinus came up.

The work of this Neoplatonic writer is grouped into nine Enneads, the third of which, called simply “On Love,” links the personal soul with the soul of the cosmos through the alluring figure of Aphrodite, known to the ancient Greeks as the sexy goddess of beauty and erotic love. The Romans knew her as Venus, the Babylonians as Inanna, the Sumerians as Ishtar. I suspect that my Irish ancestors knew her as Maeve, the Norse as Freya, the Haitians as Erzulie, and the Hindus as Lakshmi. The Evening Star belongs to her.

She also appears in the third Ennead, where Plotinus writes that the Anima Mundi, the soul of the cosmos, is Aphrodite. What could this mean to us all these centuries down the road from him? Isn’t myth archaic nonsense? Hasn’t science superseded it?

This dismissal is itself an optical illusion of Modernity superseded by the work of indigenous storytellers and a host of writers and scholars aware of the power of myth. Pointing beyond and below our current preoccupation with measurement and manipulation, they demonstrate the inner wisdom available in myth when conveyed by tellers more concerned with meaning than with explanation.

There is also myth’s unsettling ubiquity. Myth is not something we can ever outgrow: it goes on all around us, all the time. As mythologist Joseph Campbell so famously put it, “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”

It’s not just that myth is popular, as with The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time, the names of planets and constellations, the days of the week, spacecraft named Orion, Hutu, or Apollo, a statue of Apollo fished out of the sea near Gaza, or a mask of Pan excavated in Northern Israel. Mythic motifs and images, replays and plot twists show up everywhere, as when the Wall Street Bull evokes Moloch, the Assyrian bull god hungry for sacrifice victims; as when the international market draws mythic imagery like the Invisible Hand and the All-Seeing Eye; as when our mass surveillance apparatus echoes the Argus, the guardian monster covered with eyes. (In case you’re interested, it was not brave Herakles or violent Ares who took down the Argus, but clever Hermes, who tricked it into falling asleep before cutting off its head.)

The very structures of consciousness and of perception are woven with the stuff of myth, which is why it matters today that Plotinus notices how lovely Aphrodite’s perfume permeates the cosmos.

When scientists set up a perfect vacuum with all matter and energy expelled, they watch the quantum flux no experiment can get rid of because it is the background of everything. Out of that flux radiate particles and anti-particles that find each other, rush together, give up their energies to each other, and disappear back into the quantum foam. This continual quantum coupling is what we call “reality.”

Looking back, we glimpse in many mythic traditions the figure of the beautiful erotic love goddess born from sea foam, like Aphrodite rising from the waves. What discipline-spanning truth is at work here? Perhaps that the cosmos is permeated by beauty. A mythic way of holding what science tells us about universal structure is that the attraction drawing matter together, from subatomic particles to galactic groups embedded in scaffolds of dark matter and energy, is Aphroditic. The cosmos–the very word is linked to “cosmetology”–is composed of and held together by the all-pervading power of love.

Philosophers of all cultures have wrestled through time with questions about the nature and origin of beauty and love. My favorite answer was offered by a friend from long ago who seemed the very incarnation of Aphrodite’s charms. I asked her, “Why are things beautiful?” With a sexy wink she replied without hesitation, “To invite us to joyfully approach them.” Beauty as a standing invitation to get closer.

In an aphroditic cosmos appreciated as such, myth and science stand together, not bicker as supposed opposites. Just look at our creation story. What is the Big Bang but a scientifically supported replay of the Cosmic Egg motif found in the lore of ancient Egypt and China? It looks like that story could be up for change. In M Theory’s image of vast interdimensional membranes touching to spark the birth of our daughter universe we glimpse another common motif, that of the fertile Cosmic Parents.

This year, for the first time ever, scientists photographed a photon in motion as both particle and wave. A rainbow spectrum of colors washes across the scene like a ripping fabric. Have we glimpsed the magic voyager’s cloak of Hermes, the swift god of transformation never quite where you expect him to be, as impossible to pin down as quicksilver, an Uncertainty Principle in winged sandals? In many mythologies Love and Beauty animate and hold the cosmos, but Trickster creates it.

Even our most abstract scientific theories exude mythic motifs: not only Trickster at play in words like “charm” and “quark,” but his evil associate Procrustes. No friend of play, the infamous innkeeper forced the legs of his guests to fit his infamous bed. If your legs were too long for it, he cut them until they fit; if too short, he stretched them out. The Procrustean Bed reappears in every attempt to explain something complex by reducing that complexity to one of its components, a move William James referred to as the “nothing but.” When science loses its flexible inventiveness, declares some topics off limits to investigation, and sells its awe for the illusion of precision, the innkeeper’s shadow hangs over it, waiting to stretch and chop.

In technology, the offspring of science, mythic themes abound. Through Buddhist lore hangs the wondrous Net of the lighting god Indra: a sparkling cosmic web made of nodes that each reflect the presence of all the others. Indra could be a most expansive god, but also a most narcissistic one, as told in the story of how he forced the architect of the gods to expand the palace built to reflect Indra’s glory. At a tech conference I playfully suggested that, given how so many of us make use of social media, perhaps we should rename our network of self-reflecting nodes the Indranet.

Narcissus would have loved selfies. Selfie sticks would save him the trouble of finding a pond to use as a mirror to admire himself in.

That smartphone in your pocket rivals Merlin’s magic wand. With it you can change your appearance (at least online), cast spells that alter consciousness, gain access to hidden knowledge, even prophecy changes in the weather. Now you can link it to the portable scrying pool of your tablet or the iWatch talisman you wear on your wrist. People stand in line all night not just for updated devices, but for magical objects and superpowers.

Here we see some of the shadow cast by myth disregarded, a shadow that darkens in proportion to our unconsciousness of the power of myth. As depth psychology teaches, what we repress we strengthen but also warp. Societies like ours that disparage myth leave a void of story and meaning that quickly fills with gadgets and shiny isms as imagineers and gene splicers program our stories for us. As the Disney employee handbook put it, “We hope you enjoy thinking our way.” Not myth but blindness to myth handed an entire nation devoted to mechanized rationality into the gesticulating arms of the screaming Führer.

Behind both Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Oppenheimer stood the resurrected energies of fire-stealing Prometheus, unrecognized until too late because mythic perspectives barred at the front door of the laboratory return through the rear, but in monstrous form. When Oppenheimer watched the first atomic detonation, he thought of a nightmarish image out of Hindu myth: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The response of fellow physicist Kenneth Bainbridge was more prosaic if equally late, the nuclear genie having escaped from the lamp: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Uranium, named after the explosive sky god; plutonium, as in Pluto of the Underworld: even the names are mythic.

Myth itself teaches us to keep our eyes on it, for, like Proteus, unless grasped firmly it will shapeshift away to cause trouble beyond our reach. By contrast, when greeted with what the ancient Greeks called xenia, “hospitality,” it offers gifts that can unlock the very secrets of being.

Turnabout is fair play. What has science to say about telling tales, not only of myths but of fairy tales, legends, anecdotes, and other sorts of story?

Quite a lot, actually. Storytelling is far and away the most effective method for leaving people with information they remember. It is also a more effective motivator than floods of data or abstract numbers. Much more of the brain is engaged in listening to a story than in hearing any recital of facts and figures. When a storyteller relates disgust, the anterior insulae of the listeners light up with disgust as well. People who read and watch a lot of fiction perform better on social skills and learning retention tests than people who stick to nonfiction.

Even the dreaming that takes up a third of a human lifetime organizes itself around stories and their symbols. Antonio Damasio, V. S. Ramachandran, and other neuroscientists describe consciousness itself as cut from the cloth of image, with logic a much later developmental acquisition. There’s good reason, then, that Jung put the psyche on an imaginal foundation, and that Freud referred to fantasy as primary process, with reality-testing coming second.

If scientific research confirms the reach and efficacy of story, and if all our scientific constructs show mythic underpinnings, how did myth and science come to be divorced? Ursula K. LeGuin describes as “puritanical” the American distrust of fantasy, but the origins of what I refer to as fantastophobia reach much farther back into world history. We could point to the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, for example, and, before them, to the dualisms of institutionalized religion.

But there’s an even larger picture available: the spectacle of a periodic dying off of the gods and their lore. As the collective consciousness of any society moves forward through time, stories and rituals and images of the divine wear out. When they do, a voice calls out, “The great god Pan is dead!” as Plutarch records; and when Julian the Apostate seeks to re-paganize Rome by visiting Delphi, the priestess tells him that Apollo has fled and taken the oracles with him. “God is dead,” proclaimed Nietzsche, who added what is seldom quoted: “….and we have killed him.”

For a time the altars remain in ruins as the cycle rolls forward, as they have in the West for the past four hundred years. Not a long time, historically speaking. As Pan rises again in Israel, as the Goddess movement continues, as mythically themed movies break records, and a company with an Edenic Apple logo rises to the very top of the tech industry, do we discern the end of an apparently godless phase as the gods seek to return to the world once again, as they always have before? How might we welcome them?

One thing is certain: for many of us the old images and rituals no longer work, if they ever did. Instead, “The most that we can do,” wrote Jung, “is dream the myth onward by giving it a modern dress.” Taking his cue from the Gnostics, those past masters of updating myth by reinterpreting it in depth, Jung used one of their words, “archetype,” to refer to the gods not as superhuman people hiding behind clouds and inside volcanoes, but as psychical entities born in fantasy. By deliteralizing the gods into their constitutive metaphors, Jung gave us direct access to them through the medium of psychological experience.

As the era of the Big Machine worldview of Modernity runs out of steam and draws to a close, perhaps we might take another step and boldly look for mythic structures not just within ourselves, as Jung did, but also around us, including in what science continues to reveal about who and where we are. For example, Jung often used the spiral archetype as an emblem of individuation, the evolution of consciousness. But spirals twirl all around us: swirls of water, spiraling plant shoots, the majesty of rotating spiral galaxies. In their luminous dance we see the stately cycles of story, myth, and archetype inviting a closer look.

There has been much talk of reenchanting the world and the cosmos, but the enchantment never left them: it is we who stopped appreciating their attractive beauty by refusing to go on being seduced. We forgot that orbital cameras snapping photographs of our still-beautiful planet wave like Gaia’s hand mirrors. We forgot what William Blake tried to tell us when he wrote, “We are put on earth for a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.”

In spite of all it has given us, Modernity has waged a relentless war on the very basis of enchantment: the imagination. Imagination is dangerous to societies eaten out by rigid overregulation because it turns a bright light on the overregulators. After a while people oppressed from above by the machinery of inequality forget even how to dream. No wonder things seem dead. As LeGuin wrote in her essay “Escape Routes,”

When an insurance broker tells you that SF [science fiction] doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit an ideological canon and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer was given by Tolkien, author, critic and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.

Instead of asking how to reenchant things, then, perhaps we can ask: What sorts of up-to-date altars of appreciation would be favored by divine presences returning this time as the immanent powers of animate matter, Earth, and cosmos?

In every appreciative telling of cosmic tales, in every greening of a desolate landscape, in the hummingbird’s hum and the sparkle of sea foam, smiling Aphrodite rises again.
Chalquist.com