THE BLOG
12/01/2013 02:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2014

Merry Christmas! "Welcome to Las Vegas! A Faith-Based community!"

The cartoon -- "Welcome to Las Vegas! A faith-based community!" - expresses the fact that we all live in some sort of "faith" community. But I'm using the word "faith" in a very broad non-religious sense - to indicate the picture we have of life and the world it represents that we take for granted. We all have a movie going on inside our heads, which is so real that we forget that it's a movie. It's not that we're passive moviegoers. We interact with it. It can change yet we're not in control of it. And there are many movie genres. One clue about the movie in your head can come from asking yourself "Am I an Arcadian or a Utopian?" Are you an Arcadian - looking to an idealized past (wishing you were 30 again and Eisenhower was president) or are you a Utopian - looking to an idealized future, where the internet makes us all friends in one happy global family - all of us making money and buying stuff?

This is a good time of year to think about the movies going on inside our heads, those stories we tell each other when we're afraid of the dark. In fact, this time of year is like one big movie festival. There's the Christmas movie, the Hanukkah movie, the Winter Solstice movie, the Kwanza movie, and the New Atheists' Movie. Evidently in Times Square there's a new Atheist ad -- "Keep the Merry!" and "Dump the Myth!" But if the cartoon is onto something, you can't get rid of myth. You can't dump the movie. You can edit it, exchange it, but you can't dump it. We're all caught up in some faith-based community making assumptions about life, about what's real and what isn't. We're all movie-makers, interpreters, re-presenting the world. The landscape of the past changes all the time. That's why historians will never be out of work. The movies are being re-worked all the time.

Think about the battling mythologies going on in Congress at the moment! Our politics is a cacophonous mêlêe of conflicting movie plots. Does America have a "manifest destiny"? Are we truly "exceptional" and, if so, what way? The movie studios of Congress are busy churning out movies about health car, foreign policy, entitlement reform, the role of government.

Politics, cosmology, culture - all provide the story-line and dialogue for our movie. The cultural movie we're all in tends to assume a mechanistic view of the universe. We tend to take it for granted that truth becomes something proved by argument. What current thinking about the relationship between the brain and the mind has brought to the fore is the importance of another, ultimately more powerful revealer of truth, metaphor.

Joseph Campbell several decades ago outlined the four-fold function of myth. Myths connect they dots. They are the movies in our heads that connect us to the universe, to the earth, to each other, and to our deepest self. They are the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. This doesn't mean that all myths have equal value. Some of them are horrendous but some myth or other is unavoidable. How do we sort out the good from the bad?

Which brings me back to the movie inside our head and how what we pay attention to enacts our relationship with the world. "The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to . . . Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world . . . And yet nothing is objectively has changed." Take for example the way we might talk of a mountain. "A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to a prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another a dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There no 'real' mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain."

Nicholas Humphrey in Soul Dust asserts that the movie in our head is necessary but an illusion. May be we need a grandiose view of our own nature to survive? The movie is necessary illusion - if so, evolution has done its work - a trick played by the "illusionist" in our genes to make us better at surviving. All we can do is go to the movies!

The intellectual challenge is expressed by Jared Lanier from Silicon Valley. In his book You Are Not A Gadget, he makes the simple point that information under-represents reality. We live in a data junk yard and we need a new kind of "faith-based" community, which knows it's in the movie business, and in a never-ending conversation, helps us enlarge our horizons, discern the facts and connect the dots. We need both science and art: both, at their best, increase our tolerance for ambiguity and our appreciation of wonder. They also rescue religion from literalism and fundamentalism.

Scientist Timothy McDermott makes it personal when he writes, "I had an aunt called Nellie who lived with my family from the age of thirty, when she was almost totally disabled by a stroke, to her death at the age of eighty-nine. No picture of the universe is adequate, theistic or atheistic, which doesn't give Nellie her place at its significant centre." And Michel de Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, wrote of his speaking with Brazilian Indians in Rouen. He was struck how they spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their 'other halves' starved on their doorstep. The movie going on in our head matters. And just realizing that we're all in the movie business might help us move through life not only with humility and humor but also with compassion. And even if you're not sure about the science of the right and left brain, then play with the metaphor! Merry Christmas!

Alan Jones