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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Creation Myth

James Chastek has an interesting comment entitled Note on “science destroys creation myths”, where he riffs on a comment by someone named Mike Williamson, whose c.v. is otherwise unspecified:
Religion has really become a bad joke. Physics destroys creation myths. Biology destroys creation myths. Geology destroys creation myths. Either Creation is a tale told to Bronze Age peasants as a way to explain a universe they couldn’t grasp, or this God person is running a serious long con.
Now this is the usual boilerplate of the science-worshiper who mistakes crowing invective for reasoned discourse.  A series of strident assertions does not even pause to wonder if the stories might not have been told to Iron Age peasants, let alone what metallurgy has to do with anything.  But Mr. Chastek observes something more interesting:

But is this the problem, sc. myth itself? Are we no longer able to take intellectual satisfaction in myth, which makes us think that to see something as mythical is the same as to say it has nothing to offer our intellect, i.e. it is not true? Is “science” the only thing that is allowed to satisfy the intellect now and give us an account of the way the world is? Quite the opposite seems to be the case – far from wanting to do away with myth it seems we’re more interested in advancing a scientific mythology. Science in the popular imagination is idealized (science cannot explain everything or solve all our problems now, but just give it time!); and only its successes are seen as integral to it (i.e. vaccinations, space travel, and computers are seen as the direct and proper work of science while Hiroshima, Tuskegee, Mustard gas, scientific eugenics and sterilization programs, Josef Mengele, climate change, industrial pollution, etc. are never seen as the necessary products of “science”). IOW, this is obviously not a scientific view of science but one that makes it into an exalted, inerrant  messiah that will set everything right if we only give it our total devotion.  Ultimately, it’s not that we want to destroy creation myths with science but that we want to replace an ancient creation myth with a modern one.
 That phrase -- not a scientific view of science -- is especially apt, as it captures the essentially salvific nature of the whole enterprise.  (As well as its inner contradiction.)  If we throw in the Singularity and transhumanism (putting on a new, incorruptible body) the suite is near complete.  The whole is a timely reminder that myth is what we make it. 

Chastek also notes that "We don’t need sciences to know that myths are, well, myths."  Now, while some equate "myth" with "untrue," it is actually an organizing narrative that a society uses to explain itself to itself.  It doesn't need to be factual to be true.  "But to wonder if a myth is also a scientific truth is a reasonable thing to wonder and to hold as a hypothesis, and the worst that can happen is that our hypothesis fails and we are left with the same myth we started with."  This echoes something that Augustine wrote a millennium and a half ago:

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. 
In other words the mythic account is figurative for sure and might also be factual.  If it turns out not, Augustine wrote, no big deal.  


5 comments:

  1. Of course, CS Lewis got there first: http://fpb.livejournal.com/297710.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. """"" A series of strident assertions does not even pause to wonder if the stories might not have been told to Iron Age peasants, let alone what metallurgy has to do with anything"""" TheOFloinn

    ROFLMAO - love it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's evidently assumed that science is essential while myth, in the sense of the stories that explain how things are and why we do anything, is optional. Fans of Science! don't even recognize that they need a why, in the same way that dim bulbs argue that of course the Universe can arise spontaneously out of nothing, because such spontaneous generation is allowed for by the laws of physics. They tilt their heads like the RCA dog at the suggestion that the rules of physics are not nothing.

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  4. We've got competing definitions of the word "myth" here. Lots of folks aren't familiar with the literary use of the term; they only know the "Mythbusters" use of the term, I.e., a story people tell that isn't true. Heck, growing up in the 60's I was taught that a legend is a story that has a basis in fact, and a myth is a story that doesn't. If that's your understanding, a "creation myth" is false on the face of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This may help:
      http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2012/10/struth.html

      Delete

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