Myth as Meth

by rsbakker

What is the lesson that Tolkien teaches us with Middle-earth? The grand moral, I think, is that the illusion of a world can be so easily cued. Tolkien reveals that meaning is cheap, easy to conjure, easy to believe, so long as we sit in our assigned seats. This is the way, at least, I thematically approach my own world-building. Like a form of cave-painting.

The idea here is to look at culture as a meaning machine, where ‘meaning’ is understood not as content, but in a post-intentional sense: various static and dynamic systems cuing various ‘folk’ forms of human cognition. Think of the wonder of the ‘artists’ in Chauvet, the amazement of discovering how to cue the cognition of worlds upon walls using only charcoal. Imagine that first hand, that first brain, tracking that reflex within itself, simply drawing a blacked finger down the wall.

chauvet horses

Traditional accounts, of course, would emphasize the symbolic or representational significance of events such as Chauvet, thereby dragging the question of the genesis of human culture into the realm of endless philosophical disputation. On a post-intentional view, however, what Chauvet vividly demonstrates is how human cognition can be easily triggered out of school. Human cognition is so heuristic, in fact, that it has little difficulty simulating those cues once they have been discovered. Since human cognition also turns out to be wildly opportunistic, the endless socio-practical gerrymandering characterizing culture was all but inevitable. Where traditional views of the ‘human revolution’ focus on utterly mysterious modes of symbolic transmission and elaboration, the present account focuses on the processes of cue isolation and cognitive adaptation. What are isolated are material/behavioural means of simulating cues belonging to ancestral forms of cognition. What is adapted is the cognitive system so cued: the cave paintings at Chauvet amount to a socio-cognitive adaptation of visual cognition, a way to use visual cognitive cues ‘out of school’ to attenuate behaviour. Though meaning, understood intentionally, remains an important explanandum in this approach, ‘meaning’ understood post-intentionally simply refers to the isolation and adaptation of cue-based cognitive systems to achieve some systematic behavioural effect. The basic processes involved are no more mysterious than those underwriting camouflage in nature.*

A post-intentional theory of meaning focuses on the continuity of semantic practices and nature, and views any theoretical perspective entailing the discontinuity of those practices and nature as spurious artifacts of the application of heuristic modes of cognition to theoretical issues. A post-intentional theory of meaning, in other worlds, views culture as a natural phenomenon, and not some arcane artifact of something empirically inexplicable. Signification is wholly material on this account, with all the messiness that comes with it.

Cognitive systems optimize effectiveness by reaching out only as far into nature as they need to. If they can solve distal systems via proximal signals possessing reliable systematic relationships to those systems, they will do so. Humans, like all other species possessing nervous systems, are shallow information consumers in what might be called deep information environments.

Given the limits of human cognition, our ancestors could report whatever they wanted about the greater world (their deep information environments), so long as those reports came cheap and/or discharged some kind of implicit function. They enjoyed what might be called, deep discursive impunity.


Consider anthropomorphism, the reflexive application of radically heuristic socio-cognitive capacities dedicated to solving our fellow humans to nonhuman species and nature more generally. When we run afoul anthropomorphism we ‘misattribute’ folk posits adapted to human problem-solving to nonhuman processes. As misapplications, anthropomorphisms tell us nothing about the systems they take as their putative targets. One does not solve a drought by making offerings to gods of rain. This is what makes anthropomorphic worldviews ‘fantastic’: the fact that they tell us very little, if anything, about the very nature they purport to describe and explain.

Now this, on the face of things, should prove maladaptive, since it amounts to squandering tremendous resources and behaviour effecting solutions to problems that do not exist. But of course, as is the case with so much human behaviour, it likely possesses ulterior functions serving the interests of individuals in ways utterly inaccessible to those individuals, at least in ancestral contexts.

The cognitive sophistication required to solve those deep information environments effectively rendered them inscrutable, impenetrable black-boxes, short the development of science. What we painted across the sides those boxes, then, could only be fixed by our basic cognitive capacities and by whatever ulterior function they happened to discharge. Given the limits of human cognition, our ancestors could report whatever they wanted about the greater world (their deep information environments), so long as those reports came cheap and/or discharged some kind of implicit function. They enjoyed what might be called, deep discursive impunity. All they would need is a capacity to identify cues belonging to social cognition in the natural world—to see, for instance, retribution, in the random walk of weather—and the ulterior exploitation of anthropomorphism could get underway.

Given the ancestral inaccessibility of deep information, and given the evolutionary advantages of social coordination and cohesion, particularly in the context of violent intergroup competition, it becomes easy to see how the quasi-cognition of an otherwise impenetrable nature could become a resource. When veridicality has no impact one way or another, social and individual facilitation alone determines the selection of the mechanisms responsible. When anything can be believed, to revert to folk idioms, then only those beliefs that deliver matter. This, then, explains why different folk accounts of the greater world possess deep structural similarities despite their wild diversity. Their reliance on socio-cognitive systems assures deep commonalities in form, as do the common ulterior functions provided. The insolubility of the systems targeted, on the other hand, assures any answer meeting the above constraints will be as effective as any other.

Given the evolutionary provenance of this situation, we are now in a position to see how accurate deep information can be seen as a form of cognitive pollution, something alien that disrupts and degrades ancestrally stable, shallow information ecologies. Strangely enough, what allowed our ancestors to report the nature of nature was the out-and-out inscrutability of nature, the absence of any (deep) information to the contrary—and the discursive impunity this provides. Anthropomorphic quasi-cognition requires deep information neglect. The greater our scientifically mediated sensitivity to deep information becomes, the less tenable anthropomorphic quasi-cognition becomes, the more fantastic folk worlds become. The worlds arising out of our evolutionary heritage find themselves relegated to fairy tales.

Fantasy worlds, then, can be seen as an ontological analogue to the cave paintings at Chauvet. They cue ancestral modes of cognition, simulating the kinds of worlds our ancestors reflexively reported, folk worlds rife with those posits they used to successfully solve one another in a wide variety of practical contexts, meaningful worlds possessing the kinds of anthropomorphic ontologies we find in myths and religions.

With the collapse of the cognitive ecology that made these worlds possible, comes the ineffectiveness of the tools our ancestors used to navigate them. We now find ourselves in deep information worlds, environments not only rife with information our ancestors had neglected, but also crammed with environments engineered to manipulate shallow information cues. We now find ourselves in a world overrun with crash spaces, regions where our ancestral tools consistently fail, and cheat spaces, regions where they are exploited for commercial gain.

This is a rather remarkable fact, even if it becomes entirely obvious upon reflection. Humans possess ideal cognitive ecologies, solve spaces, environments rewarding their capacities, just as humans possess crash spaces, environments punishing their capacities. This is the sense in which fantasy worlds can be seen as a compensatory mechanism, a kind of cognitive eco-preserve, a way to inhabit more effortless shallow information worlds, pseudo-solution spaces, hypothetical environments serving up largely unambiguous cues to generally reliable cognitive capacities. And like biological eco-preserves, perhaps they serve an important function. As we saw with anthropomorphism above, pseudo-solution spaces can be solvers (as opposed to crashers) in their own respect—culture is nothing if not a testimony to this.

Fantasy is zombie scripture, the place where our ancient assumptions lurch in the semblance of life. The fantasy writer is the voodoo magician, imbuing dead meaning with fictional presence.


But fantasy worlds are also the playground of blind brains. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn how to cue different cognitive capacities out of school—how to cheat ourselves for good or ill. Our shallow information nature is presently the focus of a vast, industrial research program, one gradually providing the information, techniques, and technology required to utterly pre-empt our ancestral ecologies, which is to say, to perfectly simulate ‘reality.’ The reprieve from the cognitive pollution of actual environments itself potentially amounts to more cognitive pollution. We are, in some respect at least, a migratory species, one prone to gravitate toward greener pastures. Is the migration between realities any less inevitable than the migration across lands?

Via the direct and indirect deformation of existing socio-cognitive ecologies, deep information both drives the demand for and enables the high-dimensional cuing of fantastic cognition. In our day and age, a hunger for meaning is at once a predisposition to seek the fantastic. We should expect that hunger to explode with the pace of technological change. For all the Big Data ballyhoo, it pays to remember that we are bound up in an auto-adaptive macro-social system that is premised upon solving us, mastering our cognitive reflexes in ways invisible or that please. We are presently living through the age where it succeeds.

Fantasy is zombie scripture, the place where our ancient assumptions lurch in the semblance of life. The fantasy writer is the voodoo magician, imbuing dead meaning with fictional presence. This resurrection can either facilitate our relation to the actual world, or it can pre-empt it. Science and technology are the problem here. The mastery of deep information environments enables ever greater degrees of shallow information capture. As our zombie natures are better understood, the more effectively our reward systems are tuned, the deeper our descent into this or that variety of fantasy becomes. This is the dystopic image of Akratic society, a civilization ever more divided between deep and shallow information consumers, between those managing the mechanisms, and those captured in some kind of semantic cheat space.