The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

Symbolic Understanding

It’s what makes us human

The New Mindscape #8–3.

Symbolism of fire in an image of an angel. Photo credit: Bikansky via

Symbolic understanding involves the use of stories (narratives) that use symbols to connect the elements of the world. The sociologist Robert Bellah defines a symbol as follows: “It is always possible that an object, person or event in the world of daily life may have a meaning in another reality that transcends the world of working. If so we call it a symbol.” Mythology is the best example of symbolic understanding. This modality can be illustrated by films. Each film is full of symbols and follows a mythological structure.

One of the defining aspects of being a human being is the fact that we can use language and symbols. We talked earlier about imagining: we imagine other worlds and create other worlds through our imagination. The key instruments of our imagination are symbols. We are capable of imagining without symbols; but with symbols, we can put many objects of consciousness together to create an entirely imaginary world. This is a faculty that seems unique to human beings.

Language, symbols and the capacity of imagination are indeed distinctive human characteristics. During the biological evolution of the human species, from the earliest hominids to the modern homo sapiens, humans acquired new capacities and elements of culture — bipedalism, tool-making, language, and symbolic thinking and communication. Evidence of burying the dead, as well as cave art, are signs of the most unique aspect of human culture — using symbols to imagine an afterlife and other realms of reality.

Only humans are known to use symbols. Symbols enable the imagination, by using the object of consciousness of what is visible or perceptible in the material world (such as “fire”) to imagine invisible realities (such as divine power expressed through symbols of fire).

Ritual and mythology combine these elements at a high level of intensity, using dense symbols and narratives, within cosmologies that extend the immediate experience of the world to invisible realms and connections. Ritual and mythology are also central to the formation of social units, the construction of individual and group identities, and the working out of tensions and dilemmas.

If culture is what distinguishes humans from animals, and culture is characterized by the use of symbols, then religion, which is the most highly symbolic form of culture, is one of the most unique and distinguishing features of humans.

Other animal species may have what you could call an “economy” — a system by which collective material needs are provided for (think of ant colonies or of the sexual division of labour that exists in many species); and many species have a “political” system or dominance hierarchy; or even crude “tools” (such as chimpanzees using twigs to catch termites). But none has anything resembling symbolic systems or religion.

What is a symbol? First, a symbol is a stable image or word that we can affix to objects of consciousness. Various visions and feelings constantly come and go in our minds, but by linking them to specific words or images, we stabilise them. I feel a certain heat with my body, and see certain colours and movements with my eyes, and I associate these perceptions with the sound “fire” or the pictogram 火. Now my specific perceptions, have been attached, through the word “fire”, to a general concept. This links my perceptions to all past and future instances of “fire”; to past memories of fire; and also to many other things that are not immediately identical: for example, the word ‘fire’ is a conventionally accepted sign for a material fire. Meanwhile, it is also a symbol for notions such as light, warmth, truth, love, hell, etc.. A symbol is a sign the meaning of which is extended to something other than what it immediately refers to.

In Chinese cosmology, “fire” is associated with heat, the heart, daytime, summer, yang, masculinity, south, and so on. The word “fire” also evokes its symbolic opposite, which is “water”, which itself is associated in Chinese cosmology with cold, the kidney, night-time, winter, yin, femininity, north, and so on. Through chains of associations and opposites, symbols connect the thing we perceive with other things in our mindscape. This process creates an entire symbolic system that is the basis of a mental operating system, creating an entire world full of meanings.

Theyyam fire dancer in India. Photo credit: Anandu Radhakrishnan, via

What is critical to the production of meaning is not that words or symbols are assigned to things we perceive, but rather the connections and associations between symbols. A word, in and of itself, is simply an arbitrary sound. What is the connection between the sound “table” and the object it refers to? There is none at all. What the word “table” does is connect what we see with a whole range of ideas: the notion that if it’s a table, it’s not a “chair” but there are probably “chairs” nearby; that it’s probably used for “eating”, “writing” or “working” and not for “sitting” or “standing” on; and so on. One symbol evokes a whole range of associated ideas. It is the associations between the symbols that connect everything in a deep and powerful way. This is how symbols shape our mindscape, shape how we relate to the world, and shape how we create the world.


Symbols separate, as well as connect, things. Let’s take the ideas of “good” and “bad” as an example. Through different symbols, we tend to put everything in the world into the categories of either good or bad. As we advance in our lives, there are things we consider to bring us happiness, security and life. We call them “good”, we tend to be attracted to it, and we identify with it. We perceive other things to bring pain, danger and death. We call them “bad” or “evil”; we tend to fear it and to be repulsed by it. From various practical notions about what we should do and avoid in our lives, a symbolic system emerges around the notions of “good” and “evil”, which are elevated into all-encompassing moral, spiritual and philosophical categories. How do we resolve the relationship between these categories?

Through most of human history and cultures, these questions have not been primarily resolved by philosophers, but through mythology. Symbols are crafted into stories that tell us who we are, where we came from, where we are going, who and what exists in the cosmos, and how problems, conflicts and contradictions can be worked out. Such stories are myths. Myths are central to each culture in the world, including our own.

Michelangelo’s painting The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1509–10, The Cistine Chapel, the Vatican, Rome) From Wikimedia Commons.

In the story of the Garden of Eden, the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were living blissfully in the Garden. God told them not to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But the serpent tempted Eve, who then tempted Adam, and they both ate an apple from the Tree. They fell into sin, and God ejected them from the Garden of Eden.

There are many binary oppositions and symbolic tensions in this story. The first obvious opposition in the story is man and woman, i.e., Adam and Eve. How are Adam and Eve as man and woman portrayed in this story? A common interpretation is that because it was Eve who tempted Adam to eat the apple, the woman is the source of sin. So woman is symbolically associated with sin. But there is also an association between the woman and power, because she is so powerful that she could entice Adam. She is in possession of a dangerous power, with which she can seduce the power of man. The apple is on the tree of divine knowledge — the knowledge of God. There is supposed to be a boundary — man should not eat the apple on the tree. There was a boundary that man transgressed. What is the boundary between human beings and God? What will happen if human beings act try to take the place of God? Hence, the story symbolises tensions between good and evil, between men and women, and also between God and humanity.

Another binary opposition we find in the story is between nature and culture. In the story about the Garden of Eden, our primordial innocence — a state before we had culture and knowledge — is lost. As soon as we acquired culture and started “carving up” the world based on our knowledge, we fell into sin and suffering. As I mentioned in the previous reading, the film Avatar revolves around the same theme.

Another, spiritual interpretation of the story, offered by Abdu’l Baha, is that Adam and Eve symbolise the two aspects of the human being: Adam symbolises our higher nature, the divine spirit of man, while Eve symbolises our lower nature — our body and our ego. The tree represents the knowledge of the material world, which can be used for good or for evil. Indeed, while the garden of Eden represents the divine world of pure spirit and goodness, the material world combines both light and dark, good and evil. And the serpent represents attachment to material desires. Thus, according to this interpretation, our lower nature (Eve) was tempted into attachment to the material world and its pleasures, and corrupted our pure spirit (Adam). Thus the human being (Adam and Eve) fell out of the state of nearness to God (the Garden of Eden) and has been living in sin, struggling with his attachment to material desires.

The Temptation of Eve, by William Blake

As we can see, there are many possible symbolic interpretations of stories. Symbols have no fixed and closed meanings; thus there is no limit to the possible interpretations of stories and myths. If such stories are taken literally, they are absurd; but taken symbolically, they open the imagination to endless possibilities. Mythology uses symbols to work through the conflicts between the binary oppositions at the root of our basic ontologies or “mental operating systems”. The story of Adam and Eve and other myths are certainly very ancient. But they are not obsolete. We still now live in a very mythological world. Through films, mythology is constantly being produced in our society. While tribes-people would recount myths while sitting around the fire at night, we follow myths by going to the cinema. Or we perform myths through our political life.


This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.



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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.