During the 1980s scientists thought fractals might solve the problem of the one and the many. Each element of a system represents the entire system. Chaos theory, a close correlate, suggested that a leaf falling onto the waters of a rushing river merges into the dynamic system of rushing water.
The river takes the leaf in a new direction, but the leaf affects the turbulence of the surface which, ultimately, changes the river’s direction.
Chaos theory, whose influence on popular culture peaked with the movie Jurassic Park, offered a rich and dynamic explanation of the natural world. Its power never lay in the ability to explain nature so much as its mythic narrative, with strange attractors and insect-like imagery.
The myth of myths
I speak of mythic narrative with no sense of irony. Scientific literature frequently denotes the reality of observation and the fallacy of myths, perpetuating an entirely new mythology:
Early man created myths to explain causes, but their wild imagery and outlandish narratives crumbled under the rise of the scientific method.
Current thinking stands myths and every day realty in opposition, which is why we equate them with lies. To the contrary, early humans never intended myths to mirror mundane reality. Myths addressed questions that plague the tribe’s social dynamic. They taught members how to interact with the natural world.
Scientific explanations ignore moral or spiritual questions, which allows them to assert their findings are objective (and therefore true). Assuming the myths of science to be literally true, however, is as dangerous as embracing the literal truth of religious creation myths. Aboriginal myths of the dreamtime were far more concerned with the relationship between people and their environment than explaining the facts of nature. The Genesis story was never about how the word came into being, but why, after the creator brought order from chaos, chaos and disorder managed to return. In short, the creation story poses an answer to the problem of evil.
Revolution drives the history of science. Theories that satisfactorily explain the universe in one century die from ridicule in the next. Nor should we doubt that scientists in the twenty-second century will find today’s scientific myths any less laughable than we find those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
As an object exercise, let’s rewrite three popular myths to see if they continue to offer enlightenment.
New Myth: The Departure from Eden
Contrary to popular belief, Genesis names the tree in the garden, “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” In Genesis’ telling, to eat from the tree would remove Adam and Eve from a state of innocence, and make them culpable for their decisions. From the moment they transgressed, childhood ended and they entered adulthood—responsible and liable for the harm they did.
In our reimagining, the Tree of Knowledge beats at Eden’s heart, inseparable and indispensable. The tree’s roots take nourishment from Eden’s soil and its falling fruit and seed decompose to restore nutrients.
The tree grew where its seeds took root; God knew better than to uproot it. The new lesson? God didn’t warn the couple to refrain from the tree in order to tempt them. God delivered a warning they’d never fully comprehend until they chose to ignore him.
Once humans gained knowledge they destroy Paradise, as they would go on to do with their communities and planet. God drove them from the garden to save it.
New Myth: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and original sin.
In our new myth, we can no more separate the capacity for sin from the knowledge of good and evil than we can separate our ability to live from the air we breathe.
When Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of knowledge, they chose a new life—one ruled by laws and statues rather than by free will and discernment. What was neither good nor evil before, suddenly became one or the other and a number of those (only) now evil fruits grew in the garden. Complicating matters, many of the garden’s fruits could be good or evil depending on the circumstances. Adam and Eve make the distinction between them only by referring to the law.
In short, God removed them from the garden to protect them from unintentionally transgressing.
Do these two new myths contradict each other? Not necessarily, but myths can present the tribe with paradox. Only when we grapple with the paradox, do we become truly enlightened. Science avoids paradox. When confronted by them, scientists seek new theories to make the paradoxes (anomalies) disappear.
The myth of rational science:
The pursuit of science gave rise to a myth of a different order: The universe is, ultimately, knowable and explainable. Scientists will account for every aspect of the universe, given enough time.
Scientists who choose to reduce the universe to rational (i.e., mathematical) behavior relay this myth as a fundamental truth. They can’t imagine the universe to be otherwise, defining objective reality in terms of negation, relying on a theory called falsifiability:
To be scientific a statement must have conditions under which it can be empirically disproved.
There can be no empirical disproof to metaphorical statements. Metaphoric statements (and, by extension, allegory, myth and religion) are scientifically meaningless.
The myth of science promoted an arrogance within the scientific community. It permitted them to pursue their research without concern for the consequences to their tribes, opposing tribes or the surrounding environment. In short, like Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, scientists bear no responsibility or liability for air pollution, genetic mutations, the destruction of entire species with pesticides and other environmental contaminants, the release of toxic gasses into human communities, land irredeemable for thousands of years due to radiation, not to mention the possibility of wholesale nuclear holocaust.
Science, they argue, is “pure,” and its lethal applications should never discourage scientists from pushing the envelope of knowledge. Since many of us fail to see the hubris, not to mention mythic underpinnings of their quest, we allow them to continue their enterprise unhindered.
Ironically, falsification blows back against scientific theory as well. Consider the theory of evolution: What possible conditions would disprove the phrase “nature selects?” Or that selection “nudges” and “guides” species? Or that genes are “selfish” and selected strands of DNA are “junk?”
Under what conditions can we disprove the proposition: “There is no God”?
Scientists fall back on the argument that these are dead metaphors, and not to be taken as literal expressions of the theory. At this point we enter a loop: Falsification excludes metaphors as “true” statements.
The inability to imagine a mysterious and irrational universe is no more more rational than the mysterious and irrational universe scientists reject.
In short, the fundamental premise of science is a myth — an attempt to give meaning to the things we experience, but not necessarily true. I’d go a step further, believers who embrace the myth of science experience the same irrational fear of the unexplainable that people who pursue mysteries of the occult and religion experience regarding the rational and explainable.
Even as I make these observations, I should remind readers that only the ignorant and the willfully ignorant would deny the fundamentally sound observations of science and the benefits scientific research provides. When I experience a headache, I reach for Tylenol before I reach for my Bible. Only when we embrace an attitude of examination and self-reflection, when we allow our minds to understand why the skeptics doubt us, can we claim our faith in religion or science is real. We might also find solace in both.
© Phillip T. Stephens
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