The Crisis of Myth

Jordan Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, argues people through centuries developed stories to deal with complexity in order to make action in the big, mysterious and dangerous world tractable.  These stories were of three general types . Some simplified the known world and explained the individual's place in a complex society; others set out the relationship with the unknown, enabling us to face it without undue fear; and some provided a link between the known and the unknown.

Thus equipped man met challenge after challenge.  Stories, myth and meaning served not to provide final truth but enough truth to enable mankind to write his next chapter.  The species staggered through history like a kind of Scheherazade, making up stories that were hopefully, each a little bit truer than the last. Peterson writes:

If it is impossible to perceive the world, how do we do it? The simple answer is that we don’t. We sense it well enough so that some live long enough to reproduce. We maintain our integrity, momentarily, while the complexity of the world swirls around us  ... thus, no solution to the problem of perception is final. ... The price paid for this, however, is endless deadly failure. Most genes do not propagate themselves across the generations. The best laid plans fail, and most species go extinct.

Given that myth had played such an important role in human survival it was surprising that Western civilization decided to do without stories in the 2nd half of the 20th century.  Religion and traditional values were replaced by an ethos "broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-referentiality". The idea was the "stories" were no longer needed because the brass ring -- some called it the technological singularity -- was within reach. There was no more need for mental crutches.

That vaulting ambition seemed attainable on the face of it.  In 1999 civilization seemed at the End of History. It felt safe; 54 years had passed since the last atomic bomb had been dropped. September 11 was unimaginable. The Internet was anonymous. Technology was our friend. The world's biggest worry was the Y2K bug. Confidence was high. It was as if men had finally become gods, the masters of the known or the soon to be discovered. With humanity perched atop Olympus what further need for stories?

But in 17 years since the situation has markedly changed. Now it is clear technology is not always the benign source of controllable benefit it was once assumed to be. Confidence in political institutions is at a low because unintended consequences keep raising their head: nuclear proliferation, airplanes crashing into buildings are but a few and no one has any answers to them. Even the Washington Post reported that the greatest risks to human survival in the 21st century would come from technology itself.