Science as a Myth of Our Time

It has been a long time since I posted anything… clearly I have been busy. This is just a flying post, with a long quotation from Michael Shermer, which expresses something quite simple but profound.

“In fact, science is a type of myth if we think of myths as stories about ourselves and our origins (and not in the pejorative sense of myths as things “untrue”). Many gain considerable emotional, even “spiritual,” satisfaction from reading scientific articles and books by geologists about the creation of the Earth, by palaeontologists about the evolution of life, by paleoanthropologists about human origins, by archaeologists about the genesis of civilisation, by historians about the development of culture, and especially by cosmologists about the origins of the universe. Tens of millions of people watch Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos series with rapt attention. In 1997 the PBS series Stephen Hawking’s Universe gripped viewers every Monday night. Books on evolution by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, and Edward O. Wilson are eagerly sought by readers and often find themselves on bestseller lists. Why? Because at these boundaries of scientific knowledge the lines between science, myth, and religion begin to blur as we ask ultimate questions about ourselves, our origins, and our place in the cosmos.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 29.

I think I have mentioned this before, but the way in which many people gobble up books on evolution, cognitive science, cosmology etc does seem to suggest an overriding underlying human need for narrative.  This narrative might have been provided in the past by religion, but now more and more are turning to other forms of narrative. This is not to say that religion is ‘right’… just that it might fulfill a fundamental human function which can be replaced with other narratives…

Worth a think, eh?



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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “Science as a Myth of Our Time”

  1. Michael Hampson says :

    The new atheist says, “science true, religion false”; the anti-atheist responder says, “science and religion do not deal with the same subject matter”, but the problem is, they do: both deal with absolutely everything, or they are not doing their job. So the next anti-atheist response is, “they take completely different approaches, for good reasons: fact versus poetry,” but I finally realised that even this is not true. The reality – though science hates to admit it – is that science and religion are engaged in exactly the same project in exactly the same way. Science and religion both use narrative and metaphor to describe and explain the undescribable, the inexplicable and the unknown. This is the text I came up with in the end:

    Western culture has come to imagine that science deals in facts. In reality, only a tiny proportion of science deals in facts, and these supposed facts are ultimately tautologies: the puzzles and games of pure mathematics, or theoretical physics, which work on the basis ‘if this is true, this follows’. They are versions of philosophical logic: the ‘if’ defines their necessary disconnection from the real world.

    The rest of science attempts to describe the real world using a whole range of models and metaphors. Some of these models are robust and dependable, useful both inside the laboratory and out, providing working explanations for how things come to be as they are, and correctly predicting what will happen next. Others remain speculative and controversial, at the cutting edge of scientific investigation and debate. Scientific consensus is at its strongest where a single model or metaphor not only accounts consistently for a wide range of observations, but also connects seamlessly to models in use in other disciplines, as physics now connects to chemistry, and chemistry to biology. Beyond biology lie neurology, psychology and sociology, where rival models are in use and consensus is less common. At the opposite end of the scale, the cutting edge in physics also sees rival models in use. Light is described sometimes as a wave, and sometimes as a particle: in a camera, light behaves like a wave as it is focussed by the lens, and like a particle as it hits the film. This is science struggling with inadequate metaphors to describe a reality which is neither a wave nor a particle, but the unique mystery of light.

    We are engaged in the same process when we attempt to speak of G_d: applying inadequate models and metaphors to describe a unique mystery.

    An earlier part of the text defines the word “God” as the ground of all being and the sum of all our ideals, drawing this definition fairly directly from both the Old Testament and the Catholic Catechism.

    The passage above is from a section called The Science of God, which leads into a discussion of the Trinity, concluding: The Trinity is a flexible working model or metaphor for God. It is the current state of the science of God.

  2. Michael Hampson says :

    A poetry programme on Radio 4 this week included this beautiful piece from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker (emphasis added).

    It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air. There is no consistent air movement, and the seeds are drifting outwards in all directions from the tree. Up and down the canal, as far as my binoculars can reach, the water is white with floating cottony flecks, and we can be sure that they have carpeted the ground to much the same radius in other directions too. The cotton wool is mostly made of celluslose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA, the genetic information. The DNA contents must be a small proportion of the total, so why did I say that it was raining DNA rather than cellulose? The answer is that it is the DNA that matters. The celluslose fluff, although more bulky, is just a parachute, to be discarded. The whole performance, cotton wool, catkins, tree and all, is in aid of one thing and one thing only, the spreading of DNA around the countryside. Not just any DNA, but DNA whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. Those fluffy specks are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves. They are there because their ancestors succeeded in doing the same. It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.

    As I heard it read, I baulked at the assertion that “the whole performance … is in aid of one thing and one thing only”. Why assert that the purpose is the spread of the DNA? Is the purpose not the production of beautiful trees? Or the growing of roots or catkins? Why define one part of the cycle as the purpose of the whole? Dawkins has slipped into an entirely arbitrary assertion without even realising it. He has gone from describing what is there to talking in terms of an unseen motivation. He is quite unaware of having done it; quite unaware of having falsified his own bold conclusion that this is not a metaphor. A metaphor is exactly what it is.

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