The mythology of science

“Science, like painting… has a higher aesthetic. Science can be poetry. Science can be spiritual, even religious in a non-supernatural sense of the word.” (Richard Dawkins).

I believe that science is built upon a particular mythology. What I mean is that science as a culturally flourishing phenomenon is propagated by the telling of particular stories; that those stories embody particular values and goals; and those values and goals are ones that are inherently religious, they are values and goals that were previously articulated by religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Thus, the key clash between Christianity and science is not that between a lower and a higher order of intellectual evolution, but between rival mythologies.

One of my principal sources for this belief is a book by the philosopher Mary Midgley, “Science as Salvation: a modern myth and its meaning” (Routledge, 1992), which is excellent and warmly recommended. She writes (p13) “We understand today that it is a bad idea to exterminate the natural fauna of the human gut. But trying to exterminate the natural fauna and flora of the human imagination is perhaps no more sensible. We have a choice of what myths, what visions we will use to help us understand the physical world. We do not have a choice of understanding it without using any myths or visions at all. Again, we have a real choice between becoming aware of these myths and ignoring them. If we ignore them, we travel blindly inside myths and visions which are largely provided by other people. This makes it much harder to know where we are going.”

So what I would like to do here is try and articulate what I see as the ‘foundation myth’ (or meta-narrative) of science. I see this foundation as something which provides both the motivation force for particular scientists (especially the cultural apologists like Dawkins) and also as responsible for the more general acceptance of science within Modern culture.

Once upon a time our ancestors lived in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Their lives were afflicted by all sorts of horrors – disease was rampant, borne on the backs of dirt and dust, and life was nasty, brutish and short. The Church oppressed free thinking, and forced people – at the point of torture – to accept the rulings of priests and popes, whose authority was arbitrary and archaic, and whose superstitions led to countless wars. Slowly, a few brave men resisted this oppression; they thought for themselves, they demanded evidence and clear reasons. The Church acted against them – they oppressed them with censure, they silenced them and imprisoned them, in some cases they even burned them alive. Yet the truth could not be hidden for ever. After a long period of particularly bloody warfare, when Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other for decades, leaving nearly a third of the population of Germany dead behind them, our ancestors set up a new way of life. This new way of life was born in England at the end of the seventeenth century, in a Glorious Revolution. The authority of religious figures was reduced, and free thought was encouraged. Two men in particular allowed a new world to come into being. John Locke showed how we could be governed by Reason, both in the political realm without, and our own moral life within. No opinion should be held that could not be demonstrated without sufficient Reason, and in all things Reason should be our guide. Isaac Newton solved the major problems of astronomy and physics, and demonstrated how the world operated according to clear mathematical rules. This Glorious Revolution allowed humanity to progress out from under the cruel yoke of religious tyranny and bigotry. Since that time, we have become Enlightened and, although not all our problems have been solved, we have made tremendous Progress. The methods of Reason, of Empirical Investigation and Science, have been demonstrated to have tremendous power, and we can have confidence that all the difficulties that we face can be met by their continued diligent application. We have made tremendous strides in medicine, so that diseases and pestilence are kept in check. We have improved the fertility of the land so that now there is plenty to eat. We have voyaged from the face of the earth and stood upon the moon, looking down upon the planet of our birth. We have made such Progress, but the struggle with the old ways continues. Around the globe we still see the effect of the old superstitious ways of thinking. In Northern Ireland, in Kashmir, in the Middle East, we still see people who are dominated by religious understandings. It is only through Enlightenment that there is hope for peace. For it is not only in the practical and physical realms that the methods of Science can aid us. As Science progresses, we need to rely less and less upon the traditions of the past, for we can rely upon a sure foundation for knowledge, and have confidence in its prodigality for our future. Most importantly, now that we have Science, we no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? Science can provide us with the answers, and only Science can offer us the prospect of a better life.

What I would want to emphasise in this story is the ‘drama of salvation’, ie that ‘once we were in darkness, but now we have seen a great light’, and that ‘the light shines in the world and the darkness does not overcome it’. In other words, although the setting of the story is different, the power of the story is deeply dependent upon a religious (Christian) sensibility, ie we needed to be saved, and it is Science that has saved us, and it is by holding fast to Science that we can retain salvation. The distinctive difference between this narrative and the prior Christian narrative is primarily in the virtues that allow for participation in salvation. Instead of corporate (social) values like loyalty, obedience, self-sacrifice etc, now the virtues that are emphasised are independence, autonomy and moral courage.

My point is not to say that there is no truth in this scientific mythology (somewhat the contrary), only to point out that it exists, and that it needs to be evaluated and assessed. I think that it is largely unconscious (the extent to which it is unconscious can be gauged by how far you think the story is “the truth”), and, for better or worse, I think it needs to be brought out into the open.

“People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them – that does not occur to them.” (Wittgenstein, 1939)

One thought on “The mythology of science

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