10 March 2010

Science as Myth

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:10 am

“One of the principal attributes of God affirmed by Christians is that he is Creator. That conviction is foundational as we integrate our theology into our worldview. What all is entailed in viewing God as Creator? What does that affirmation imply for how we view ourselves and the world around us? These significant questions explain why discussions of science and theology so often intersect. Given the ways that both have developed in Western culture, especially in America, these questions also explain why the two often collide.”

– John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009)

Over a year ago Erdman, well aware of my persistent obsession with the Biblical creation story, alerted me to this book’s publication. I bought it awhile back, but only now am I getting around to reading it. Walton, professor of Old Testament at the evangelical Wheaton College, argues in his book that Genesis 1 describes the creation not of the material world but of its function in God’s ordained order. This interpretation fits nicely with my own non-theistic reading, so I’m intrigued. All the same, the early going reveals that I’m not going to see completely eye to eye with Walton.

Walton begins by proposing that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as texts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture, and that understanding the texts requires understanding the culture. That proposition seems fair enough, though as Walton admits it’s easier said than done. Only fragmented evidence is available to us that describes ancient cultures, and much of that evidence consists of the very texts we’re trying to understand. At the same time, we’re all part of the same species, and even ancient Hebrew is just as modern structurally as any modern language. So I’m fairly optimistic that we can understand texts produced by ancient writers. The earliest known writings were material inventories and records of local events: kinds of writing with which we’re still very familiar.

At the end of the intro Walton explains what he means by “myth”:

“The Canaanites or the Assyrians did not consider their myths to be made up works of the imagination. Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe the world works that way… By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science — our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be… For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (pp. 14-15)

I’m fine with Walton’s contention that the creation narrative probably does reflect what the writer truly believed happened. I’m not fine with his equating premodern myths with scientific explanations.

The sequence in putting forward any cosmogony, be it mythic or scientific, is roughly this: certain events happened; someone arrived at a belief regarding what happened; that person wrote it down. There is a gap to be spanned between what actually happened and what someone believes happened. Science consists of a set of systematic replicable methods for bridging this gap between event and belief. It seems to me that Walton wants not to bridge the gap between actual event and belief but to do away with it. He proposes that the shared cultural beliefs about reality are the reality for that culture. One culture says that its god created the material universe from nothing in six days; another culture, that its god gave birth to the material universe; a third, that the universe originated in a big explosion and organized itself over billions of years. Apparently Walton regards these three accounts as equally mythic and equally true for the cultures in which they arose.

This strikes me as a rather radical assertion for an evangelical to make, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. The material world is inseparable from the thoughts and words we use to talk about it; the world is what it means to us, subjectively and intersubjectively — it’s a variant on the postmodern hermeneutics of world-as-text. We discussed implications of this orientation in a recent post on Fear of Knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted on other aspects of the book I find interesting as I go along.



  1. In practice, science is just as mythological as myth. Myths were once propagated by an elite: the shamans, wizards, magicians, wise ones etc. Science is propagated by scientists who are, for all practical intents and purposes, just as much of an elite, and just as mysterious in their pronouncements.

    Perhaps you would argue that science can actually be understood by anyone if they actually wish to and are willing to put in a bit of effort. I once had a ‘reading knowledge’ of science, at least in one specialty that was close to my heart and that was just after I came out of college. In other words, I could pick up a scientific journal and mostly make sense of the contents, perhaps even to the point of deciding for myself whether the particular article was convincing enough, or whether there were holes in the argumentation/data handling. It didn’t take long though to be slowly left behind and now when I now pick up a journal it’s like trying to read Hebrew.


    Comment by sam carr — 13 March 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  2. In practice, science is just as mythological as myth.

    Rolling on the floor, laughing my fucking ass off. Might that be the same “myth” which, through unparalleled logical stringency and procedural rigour, extends to humanity an account of the world possessing a degree of explanatory purchase unimaginable to any previously existing civilization?

    I think you’ll find that the answer is “Yes”.


    Comment by Dirac — 13 March 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    • But is the AOL laughter happiness or despair? That is what I want to know.

      Is it not as in HAPPINESS OR DESPAIE = SCIENCE OR MYTH = OR MYTH OR SCIENCE. And why the fuck do you think someone will find the answer is ‘Yes’? Hecause you have? But you haven’t proved it, whether the answer is ‘yes’ or not is beside the point. If it’s so obvious, you should have just proved it right here. You didn’t, you just asid ‘I’m SMART’. But how can you be smart if you use a written-out form of ROFLMAO? That’s stupid.


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 13 March 2010 @ 11:17 pm

      • Are you saying that Dirac should have explained to Sam why science isn’t the same as myth, rather than just dismissing Sam’s contention as duncelike prima facie? I can see that. Regarding acronyms, reading one Anodyne’s recent posts I had to google PUA and “het” and at least one other in order to understand the conversation. I’m smarter now.


        Comment by john doyle — 14 March 2010 @ 7:52 am

  3. “explanatory purchase…” as in an existentialist peering at a black box while trying simultaneously to digest the early Wittgenstein?


    Comment by sam carr — 13 March 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  4. Of course not.


    Comment by Dirac — 13 March 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    • What’s mysterious, or even mythological by now, is why he’d ask you. Why he’d ask you anything after such a stupid post you made–so seeming smart, you know.

      Plus, ‘commiserations’ are not in order. You happen to need them.


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 13 March 2010 @ 11:03 pm

  5. That hardly called for editorial action, as I do admit to being provocatively thick as often as not. So, in what functional or other way is science’s “explanatory purchase” different from that of myth?


    Comment by sam carr — 13 March 2010 @ 7:10 pm

  6. My commiserations, John.


    Comment by Dirac — 13 March 2010 @ 7:28 pm

  7. Same here, … fools seldom disagree.


    Comment by sam carr — 13 March 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  8. “Perhaps you would argue that science can actually be understood by anyone if they actually wish to and are willing to put in a bit of effort.”

    Hi Sam. Understood by anyone? Not without background in the methods. But the methods are transparent and replicable, and the consensus is based on replicable findings and techniques for evaluating those findings. The author of this book (which I’ve now finished and will report on perhaps tomorrow) acknowledges that science may well provide accurate descriptions of how the universe works, but he also believes that all material causes and effects are directed by God’s purposes. There is nothing that science can discover or refute that would influence his belief in this divine teleology underlying the material universe. It seems to me that this belief in supernature based on insight, tradition, mystical revelation, etc. which cannot be demonstrated through evidence or replicated is what characterizes distinguishes myth from science. Any knowledge procedure based on tangible evidence + reasoning about that evidence is not mythic, I’d say.

    It is true that science often sounds magical and arcane and mystifying. There is a danger that science finds itself alienated from the non-scientific populace, such that their work appears like myth-making. Popularizers and detractors alike tend to exploit the mystique, making it seem beyond comprehension for better or worse. Complexity seems to scare people off.


    Comment by john doyle — 13 March 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  9. An electronics technician can make complicated circuits work with just a mastery of Ohm’s law. Most engineers actually practice a very effective ‘seat of the pants’ approach to their work. That is the practical level at which we can see that ‘science’ works.

    Whatever happens with theories of subatomic particles, the reliability of Ohm’s law is not going to change yet theoretical science is in constant change. In my school days scientists said the universe was 6 to 7 billion years old and that became 14 billion when I started college. By the end of my college days it was 18 billion and looking back at that ‘series’ I thought it would keep receding! I sort of recall in fact that the big bang was still hanging fire with theories of open ended and cyclic universes also looking to be able to explain the available data. Now we are back apparently to a ‘much more precise’ consensus of 13.3 to 13.9 billion years and very few think to question the big bang. Does it make any difference – not to me so far.

    Data has to be understood within some theoretical framework. Kuhn didn’t just critique science’s biases but also the tendency to resist paradigm shifts. The current paradigms are the only scientifically acceptable ones and attempts to be more than a bit lateral are frowned upon as unscientific. But, will today’s dominant theory (of anything) still be acceptable in 10 or 20 years? If there are big theoretical shifts coming, today’s truths will be tomorrow’s scientific mythology. We don’t know, and so it is always a leap of faith to assert that what science teaches now is ‘true’.

    Anyone who has god arranging the minutiae of everything (however indirectly) is asking for trouble, but at least this guy is willing to let science occupy a parallel route and perhaps that’s the only way he sees to keep the mythology ‘alive’ at all!


    Comment by sam carr — 14 March 2010 @ 1:28 am

  10. Reading Kuhn it’s hard not to get the impression of dualism: on the one hand there’s the material world of empirical observation; on the other, the ideal world of theory. Kuhn observes that theory isn’t a magical window onto Truth, and that it’s influenced by politics and groupthink and tradition. But empirical observation isn’t a magical window onto material reality either: it’s confounded by limitations in human perception and bias and expectation. The scientific method is used to refine both observation and theory in such a way that biases on both perception and reason are identified and either eliminated or controlled for.

    I’m not sure it’s ever possible to observe causal forces directly without making inferences. But it is possible to observe the effects of forces on objects and draw inferences about the cause. Alternatively you could start with an understanding about causal forces and deduce your way forward to the effects that force should achieve. Either way you should eventually converge on the same answer.

    E.g., one mythic Galileo drops two objects of different weights from the Tower of Pisa, watches to see which one get there first, then tries to induce from the observed results what would have caused them. A second mythic Galileo starts with two alternative theories — speed of fall is proportional to weight of object versus speed of fall is indifferent to weight of object — and conducts a demonstration to see which one fits the results better. Presumably both Galileos would eventually meet in the middle, arriving at the same conclusion. There’s a continual iteration between observation and inference in an attempt to understand what’s actually happening out there in the world, independent of what you or I see or think. What distinguished Galileo from Aristotle is that Galileo would actually perform the experiments, whereas Aristotle wouldn’t. Aristotle presumably knew from first principles that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones; he didn’t need to confirm or falsify that knowledge. If there was a discrepancy between the idea and the observation, then there must have been something wrong with the observation, or even with the objects being observed.

    Myth, like “pure” thought, is unaffected by evidence. If there is a conflict one never doubts the mythic/ideal truth; one doubts either the evidence or the interpretations of the evidence. This is eventually where Walton gets in his book: God created the universe AND God revealed his truths in the Bible. Both of these a-prioris transcend materiality and are accepted as matters of faith. Consequently there’s no reason to regard modern scientific evidence as having any effect whatever on one’s faith. Empirical science just identifies the designs and techniques and consequences by which God acted on his intentions; science cannot speak to whether there’s a conscious planning Agent who makes all this material cause-and-effect happen in order to achieve his goals.


    Comment by john doyle — 14 March 2010 @ 7:11 am

    • I don’t on the whole disagree. Still, that wasn’t my point and I allowed myself to digress off of your points too by drifting into a critique of science.

      Myths are cultural things. They are part of the collective subconscious. One doesn’t indeed question them, for the ‘faith’ in the accepted myths is not based on rationality. Certainly, myths are not irrational either. At important points they must square with the reality that is around us. The data doesn’t change, and it has to be accommodated. An eclipse could be seen as the moon god attacking and attempting to devour the sun god and then ultimately failing. The fact of the phenomenon of an eclipse does require a pragmatic explanation.

      What I do wonder is whether the science ‘myth’ has not in fact become just such a part of our collective unconscious. We do not question that Science may not be where its at. Dirac’s delirious response is rather typical. We so strongly believe that the scientific method, over time, will lead us closer to ‘the truth’. Not many of us who have this belief can pretend to understand what scientists are up to. Neither do we really understand anything much about how the method works. So, I conclude that Science has become and functions effectively as our culturally dominant myth.

      Creation myths do have to be especially good and flexible enough to convincingly explain the actual nature of ‘everything’. My guess is that ancient creation myths that have survived into the modern age are therefore few and far between. Certainly in Hinduism, the mythical tales of our origins are taken with a very conscious pinch of salt and are never interpreted ‘literally’.


      Comment by sam carr — 15 March 2010 @ 10:52 am

      • I can believe that two people conversing in Arabic understand one another even if I don’t understand them. This is because I accept that there is a systematic and replicable method of interpreting what’s being said, even if I’m totally incompetent in using that method. I think the same could be said for science: my belief in the findings and inferences is predicated on a systematic and replicable method, even if I’m not adept at using the method.

        Now consider Genesis 1. Is a revelation recorded thousands of years ago by an unknown author subject to systematic replication? No. Do we have at our disposal any contemporary means of verifying or falsifying the content of that revelation? One might have thought science would be that means, but it seems not. If science conflicts with the revelation and we believe that the science is sound, the response of the person of faith is to say not that the revelation was false but that our interpretation of it was false. There seems to be no way to subject the revelation itself to any sort of truth test.

        Walton in effect acknowledges this in his book. He says that empirical science cannot explore metaphysical truths about God.

        “By restricting itself to those things that are demonstrable, and more importantly, those things that are falsifiable, science is removed from the realm of divine activity.”

        Apparently, then, divine activity is not demonstrable, nor is alleged divine activity falsifiable. I suspect he’s right about that. But then he goes on to say that the believer’s faith gives access to knowledge of divine activity. According to his distinctions, this faith-based metaphysical knowledge of God is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable. I’d say that makes it mythic.

        You say that traditional mythical origin tales aren’t taken literally. Science’s findings are taken literally. So there’s another distinction.

        I agree, Sam, that many people do trust science on a mythic basis, as if it were inaccessible to demonstration or falsification. I think some also reject it on the same score: it’s inaccessible, I can’t understand it, it must be magical thinking. Either approach is dangerous, and reveals a dangerous gap between expert scientific practice and the general public that keeps widening.


        Comment by john doyle — 15 March 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  11. “Are you saying that Dirac should have explained to Sam why science isn’t the same as myth, rather than just dismissing Sam’s contention as duncelike prima facie? I can see that.”

    Yes. That’s all I’m saying. I’m sorry I sounded so pissed, but this smug attitude does find its way in here ‘under different names’, and there are often commiserations expressed rather than apologies. The commiserations are especially unsavoury after the bearer of smugness has been ‘forgiven’, although that was nice of Sam; I learned the hard way about ‘forgiving too quickly and unreservedly’. Although, of course, sometimes, some of these introductory ‘superior science clubbisms’ are followed by various other determinations, as to how there are actually ‘amateur philosophers’ or even, god forbid, ‘dillettantes’, on the premises, as if only those in the highest stratosphere had any right to even ask one of the questions which can never be answered. Of course, here we find that one ‘will find that the answer is yes’, because isn’t it just so obvious? i mean, about the science? and about the atheism? And doesn’t Badiou talk about the atheism? And some years ago Robin Mackay and John Effay wrote up a lot of stuff about the ‘stupidity of Christianity’ which drew immediate attention from all the theologians of the Midwest. These led to that ‘absolute importance of atheism’, fears that if certain responsibilities were not taken, then ‘spinoza had died in vain’. This attitude is that of the graduate student, for the most part, although sometimes the word ‘sophomoric’ comes to mind.

    Whatever may piss me off about you, John, I do have to say one thing: You are not predictable. That’s one of Anodyne’s intellectual secrets, too, she’s just not going to be told how to think.

    I had to look up PUA too, I had no idea the PUA’s were these sales-pitch guys who were having trouble getting laid, and were figuring out little ‘methods’, almost like tricking the girl into bed. The videos of this Mystery were indeed an eye-opener to…very little…


    Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 14 March 2010 @ 9:45 am

  12. It’s interesting how “myth” means different things to different people and in different eras. Here’s William Foxwell Albright, the father of Biblical archaeology, in his 1968 book Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan:

    “Since no religion can exist without the use of concrete language and symbolism to express the ineffable, it is, of course, impossible to eliminate all ‘myth’ in the post-Platonic sense without destroying the best of our religious heritage. When I use the term ‘demythologizing’ I am using it in the sense of eliminating specifically polytheistic elements in the narratives of Genesis as well as poetic survivals or pagan borrowings in Old Testament literature… It may confidently be stated that there is no true mythology anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. What we have consists of vestiges — what may be called the ‘debris’ of a past religious culture.” (p. 184-185)

    In other words, Judeo-Christian monotheism is by definition non-mythological. Any pagan traditions and texts adapted by Biblical writers have been demythologized to the extent that they have been ‘cleaned up’ to fit Jewish monotheistic theology.


    Comment by john doyle — 17 March 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  13. So, for Albright, anything polytheistic is mythical but true monotheism can’t be mythical because it is, by definition, true… I hadn’t run into that tautological nonsense in quite a while. Shows how far I’ve drifted from ‘the truth’.


    Comment by sam carr — 18 March 2010 @ 6:23 am

  14. “I’m not fine with his equating premodern myths with scientific explanations.”

    “Myth” versus “science”

    One of the criticisms of religion (rightly, in my opinion) is that religious belief systems were/are often (if not always) used to support a power structure. For the ancient Hebrews, there was the Levitical Priesthood. Scholars can read through the Torah and discern which writings seem to support a structure of power with the Priests at the center. The universal, Catholic church of the medieval era similarly intertwined belief systems with political power structures.

    It seems a fairly human thing to do: intertwine power and knowledge. This is Michel Foucault’s project, to a large extent. How do we interpret the relationship of knowledge and power? For Foucault they are connected such that he prefers one term: knowledge-power.

    Think about our own educational system. To become a doctor in the U.S., to become certified in the medical field, you need to ascend to certain scientific facts and ways of interpreting the data. If a patient exhibits certain symptoms, then it would be scientifically irresponsible not to make a particular diagnosis and recommend certain courses of action and medications. Speaking of medications….there is the massive prescription drug industry that also ends up having a say in what counts as medical/scientific knowledge, which contributes to who gets the money and who has the power….

    I think you touched on some of the ways in which science encounters bias in your “Fear of Knowledge” post. But if knowledge and power are as intimately related as Foucault suggests, then I can’t see how science can take a more privileged or objective position over myth. Additionally, myth seems to be a more imaginative approach to issues of meaning and ethics. Science for example gave us sophisticated technology for killing each other. But myth seems to have the power to arouse our sense of compassion and ethical concern for each other.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Anyway, I’ll look forward to more on your Walton reading. I’m glad you picked up the book. It is unique because it is an evangelical who takes a similar approach to you, though certainly with different presuppositions in place.


    Comment by Erdman — 19 March 2010 @ 10:43 am

  15. Hey Erdman. I’d say that ignorance tends to support power more effectively than does knowledge. E.g. the Genesis 2-3 story contends that woman was created from man in order to be man’s helper, and that woman succumbed to temptation before man so that man needs to keep woman under control. This story certainly has been used to justify patriarchic misogyny in Judeo-Christian cultures. Should we regard Genesis 2-3 as knowledge about the origins of this sort of oppressively hierarchical social order, or as a mythic justification that stands in the way of gaining knowledge? Similarly on killing each other: the Old Testament contends that the Israelites were justified in perpetrating genocide on the Canaanites because God told them to. Is this knowledge, or its mythic inversion?

    Certainly having knowledge about other people gives one power over them: that’s largely what Foucault was on about. And certainly scientific knowledge often has pragmatic implications for powerful technology. Much of this power has been good for human quality of life, I expect you’d agree. Mythic “knowledge” generates no such pragmatic power over the natural world. As you say, medical knowledge gives doctors power over disease. Does the mythic faith healer have similar power? Is that power based on knowledge would you say, or on ignorance?


    Comment by john doyle — 19 March 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  16. Maybe let’s approach this subject from a different angle: fiction writing.

    Novels do not assume the importance of historical fact, at least not as far as their own story is concerned. They stick to their narrative, and within the world they have created there are often moments of mythic truth. The myths of fiction inspire us, for good or ill.

    The power of story, it seems, does not really depend on its historical fact. Some people believe that a factual narrative is more compelling than a nonfactual narrative. I think they simply misunderstand themselves. The power of myth is when we engage the story, when something within us can enter into that world. Whether or not that world corresponds with past historical fact is not significant to the power of story. It may be significant in other ways, but there is an inspiration to be found in stories that stands as a phenomenon in its own right.

    Would you agree?

    That’s kind of what I was saying in response to your comment. I was saying that we should be cautious in elevation “science” and “fact” over and above myth, because it seems that myth has a certain capacity for inspiration that science and fact does not.

    Certainly, myth can be used to justify abuses of power. But I think the same is true of science.


    Comment by Erdman — 2 April 2010 @ 7:35 am

  17. Okay, so both myth and science can be abused by those who would wield power; perhaps they can both be inspirational as well. Are myth and science therefore indistinguishable? Walton implies as much in the excerpt I quoted: science is our modern myth because we believe that it’s true. Ancient narratives and empirical science are conflated, both reduced to matters of belief.

    Fiction may inspire for good or ill, but as you say the reader is not expected to harbor the expectation that the fictional events are factual. So what sort of truth does a work of fiction convey? It has to do with interpretation and meaning, wouldn’t you say? So now we might be inclined to conflate science and fiction in the sense that both are matters of interpretation and meaning rather than discovery. It’s as if facts about the real world are either beyond our reach or relatively unimportant.


    Comment by john doyle — 2 April 2010 @ 8:57 am

  18. HHHhhhhmmmm….I do see fiction as having to do with interpretation and meaning….but more than that it seems to be creativity and imagination. Great fiction writing takes us out of ourselves and makes us imagine something different. If it is a profound moment of realization, then we might not ever return to ourselves again! At least, not as precisely the same person. That might be the effect that 1984 might have on someone who has never really pondered wide-scale abuse of political power or the concept of totalitarianism.

    But I think science, too, can stir the imagination. That was certainly Einstein’s view. Further, he believed that imagination was a critical part of scientific inquiry: to conceive of different ways that world might be working.

    It does seem that for science, “facts” really are more important….even if ultimately facts can be disputed or debunked.


    Comment by Erdman — 2 April 2010 @ 9:24 am

  19. I agree about creativity and imagination, Erdman. I was responding to the issue of “mythic truth” which you brought up in your prior comment. I can see the aesthetic merit of a work of the imagination, but what is its truth value? Let’s say that an ancient myth is like fiction in the sense that it’s a work of imagination that fuels the imagination of the reader. What sort of truth should be ascribed to such a myth? I’m wondering if you’re regarding imagination and inspiration as kinds of truth procedures, or that a created work of the imagination is a truth in and of itself.


    Comment by john doyle — 2 April 2010 @ 9:58 am

  20. I think i would say both. That imagination and inspiration are truth procedures, but that the resulting creative work can also be a truthful


    Comment by Erdman — 3 April 2010 @ 8:05 am

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