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"Science and Myth"

In MYTH AND MORTALITY I tell the story of how my parents died. My father's death was very upsetting, because he didn't believe what he thought he believed and had taught us all. "His mythology let him down," I say at one point near the end.

Then in a chapter entitled, "We Need a Mythology," I state:
"Humans can arrive at a belief-system by carefully examining their received tradition, then thoughtfully pondering their experiences with the hard knocks of life. It requires paying attention to one's own life, examining it with painstakingly careful reasoning. Or humans can end up with a belief-system by default, not having bothered to think about it very much. Either way, that which guides and motivates our attitudes and our actions is a mythology."

Philosophy, theology, miracle-stories, metaphors - they surround us all the time. We can think and analyze and remember and decide, working out a personal mythology, or we can let the default myths from childhood and from the wider culture remain in charge. But we can't avoid myth, one way or the other.

Then I state:
"It may help to know that even Science, with all its rigid rationalism, can also be called a mythology in the sense used here. Scientists have to use mythological language, after all, to be able to talk about dim beginnings, unimaginable times and distances, and purposes."

Those two sentences caused a reaction. Was I saying that science was "just another mythology"?

Here is my reply to that question:

"Science and Myth"

Science has been very helpful in analyzing the myths that humans insist on using. Because of the painstakingly careful findings of science, we can safely state that myths ought not to be taken literally. They are not true in that sense. Heaven above and hell beneath and earth in the middle where we are - it isn't so. A Maker who formed animals and humans out of clay and animated them and put them in a garden in Mesopotamia - it didn't happen. A man lynched by crucifixion who came to life after being dead three days - that didn't happen either. But - that last story could have a figurative meaning. Some one who is emotionally dead could be revived and feel as though he had risen from the dead, and the story could have some kind of meaning for that person. The myth could be true, without being fact.

Myth is thought of as simply false, by many people, especially those who find themselves at last undeceived. There is no Santa Claus. Science helped them figure it out, and now they are suspicious of myth. "Myth" means "lie." But it's not quite that simple.

Even science uses myth and metaphor, when it tries to describe some aspects of reality. The descriptions of the age of the universe sound almost Hindu, and the numbers verge on the incomprehensible, for most people. Fourteen billion years? And the earth wasn't revolving around the sun all that time, was it? What is a year?

Distances are so vast, the language becomes mythological. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, for years, in all directions from the source [!][?] - for millions of years...

Purpose, try as scientists might, cannot be kept out of the attempts to describe the life process. "Get rid of waste..." "Pass on genes..." "Irish elk antlers hampering survival..." These are metaphors, and science can't avoid using them.

All this is not to say that science is "just another myth." Science is constantly trying to describe reality correctly, and constantly correcting itself as more data is comprehended. But the whole enterprise could be called a mythology - a very good one, which corresponds to reality better than any other.

Humans insist on meaning. Two books from the 1960's help: THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION, by Aldous Huxley, and THE JOYOUS COSMOLOGY, by Alan Watts. These books state that we humans look at the world through a net, imposing a grid on all that reality. Certain drugs, and some advanced meditation techniques, tear the grid away, leaving the observer terrified, at least at first.

Jorge Luis Borges' story, "El Aleph," tells of a fellow who stared at a certain brick in the wall. The brick was the origin of all things, El Aleph. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the occult meaning of the letter is "everything that came before the beginning." The man saw everything at once, no net, no grid.

Science has some marvelous grids. They do not seem to be just "made up," but correspond to reality, built up over decades of strict observation. The periodic table of the elements is an astounding one. The elements of which the universe is composed can be arranged in a table, according to the number of protons in the nucleus of each atom, and much chemical behavior can be correctly predicted on the basis of the positions of the elements in the table. It is amazing that humans figured this out! But, since I don't think "myth" means "lie," or "literal untruth," but rather simply "story," "story, that is, that helps me comprehend the world," I make a leap and call this net that science has made and is constantly fine-tuning another mythology.

The heart of the matter isn't that myth is false. It is that myth is the explanatory net of values and connections which enables one to make sense of the world.

Einstein, or somebody, said that the most astonishing thing about the universe is its comprehensibility. Science is working on enlarging that part of reality which we understand. The task is far from finished. Dark matter makes up 80% of reality, and we have no idea what it is! The Hubble telescope is finding things we do not comprehend, and seems to be peering back in time. Yet see the metaphors which get pulled in irresistibly. "Horse Head Nebula." It isn't a horse's head! Even "nebula" itself is a metaphor - they are not clouds; they are stars! This is science, using myth.

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Copyright © 2007 Harry Willson

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