Janus: Myth & Science

Our modernist disciplinary taxonomies are such that we rarely care to admit that myth and science are related, or that they have anything in common. Boundaries must be maintained and impurities removed, regardless of what history might show and tell us. One such history, that of the invisible, is a step in the right direction, as is this piece on the amorphous or osmotic boundaries between “drugs” and “medicine.” The author, Benjamin Breen, begins on a conflationary note:

When I began my graduate studies in history, I decided to focus on the period when magic and alchemy morphed into modern science. I was especially fascinated by John Dee, the wizardly court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Although Dee believed he could speak to angels, he was also one of the leading mathematicians and geographers of his era. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton followed in Dee’s footsteps, conducting empirical investigations of nature alongside studies of Biblical prophecy and alchemical secrets. John Maynard Keynes had it right when he observed in 1946 that Newton was not the first scientist – he was the last of the magicians. Newton’s generation especially loved to search for ‘occult virtues’ – hidden phenomena latent in nature – and they found them in psychoactive drugs, along with a mystery that is still with us today.

While we may characterize Newton as the last magician or first scientist, he seems not far removed from modern theoretical physicists. All are fellow cosmological travelers, searching for hidden phenomena in nature. The unsettling link between science and magic is of course an old theme, one that Robin Horton brilliantly sketched in “African Traditional Thought and Western Science” (1967). Just last night I was reading Paul Feyerabend’s classic Against Method (1975), in which he discusses Horton’s argument:

To show the surprising similarities of myth and science, I shall briefly discuss an interesting paper by Robin Horton, entitled “African Traditional Thought and Western Science.” Horton examines African mythology and discovers the following features: the quest for theory is a quest for unity underlying apparent complexity. The theory places things in a causal context that is wider than the causal context provided by common sense: both science and myth cap common sense with a theoretical superstructure. There are theories of different degrees of abstraction and they are used in accordance with the different requirements of explanation that arise. Theory construction consists in breaking up objects of common sense and in reuniting the elements in a different way. Theoretical models start from analogy but they gradually move away from the pattern on which the analogy was based. And so on.

These features, which emerge from case studies no less careful and detailed than those of Lakatos, refute the assumption that science and myth obey different principles of formation (Cassirer), that myth proceeds without reflection (Dardel), or speculation (Frankfort, occasionally). Nor can we accept the idea, found in Malinowski but also in classical scholars such as Harrison and Cornford, that myth has an essentially pragmatic function or is based on ritual. Myth is much closer to science than one would expect from a philosophical discussion. It is closer to science than even Horton himself is prepared to admit.

Feyerabend goes on to argue, less persuasively, that science displays all the attributes which Horton suggests do in fact separate it from myth. While this may or may not be true (it is certainly true of New Atheists, whose mythic version of “science” dialectically opposes theist myths), the structural and functional point remains: science and myth are related. They share a common historical-cognitive ancestor whose name is Janus.


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7 thoughts on “Janus: Myth & Science

  1. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    Of course, the whole discourse on the ‘scientific’ is highly mythopoeic. The stories about gloriously falsifiable hypotheses selflessly sacrificed on the altar of progress, confirmatory experiments, evidence and rationality based conversions, the magic of review, etc. They all contribute to the foundational mythology of science, whether they are true, made up or mangled.

    But I’ve recently been thinking about the role of mysticism in science. And I’m not just talking about the Cosmos-style pseudo-rationalist wonder or the breathlessness of David Attenborough. There’s mysticism at the core of science. Of course, Newton’s invisible forces come to mind or the lifegiving force of electricity employed by Dr Frankenstein. But it’s so easy to forget that so much natural language descriptions of theoretical physics is a sort of poetry about how really complicated math reflects really messy experimental data. I was reminded of this by this interview about a book describing how many theoretical physicists engaged with ESP and other mystical arts (http://newbooksinscitechsoc.com/2014/04/02/david-kaiser-how-the-hippies-saved-physics-w-w-norton-2012). And I’m always reminded of the distillery tour guide in Scotland who pointed to a big bubbling cauldron saying that a really complicated “scientific” process was going on inside.

  2. Cris Post author

    As a member of Clan Campbell and honorary Scot, I can tell you there is in fact a complicated “scientific” process that is entailed not only by the making of Scotch, but also by its consumption. What that process is, especially on a cognitive (and after two drinks, emotional) level, is one of life’s and science’s great mysteries.

    It’s interesting to note that when we talk about science, mysticism, and myths, our focal object tends toward theoretical physics. This is of course the world of the strange, surreal, counter-intuitive, and cosmic. The issues and implications are so big, or small as the case may be, that they invariably spill over and out into fields far beyond science proper.

    To a lesser but significant extent, psychology and cognitive “science” suffer from similar problems. The former tends to over-infer and over-generalize from limited findings, whereas the latter uses all the tools, trappings, and idioms of science to address issues of brain-mind in ways that look, sound, and feel “scientific” but which are often speculative, metaphorical, and metaphysical.

    While thinking and talking about these matters, I think it important to remember that “science” is not monolithic. There are lots of sciences and lots of ways to do the sciences. It’s really the essentializers, totalizers, systematizers, and dictators of science who arouse my suspicion and ire. I know many scientists and none of them are this way (i.e., they are humble, not prone to speculation, aware of gaps, comfortable with the unknown, and cognizant of theoretical problems), but many high-profile ones and Third Culture popularizers are the opposite.

    Having said that, I think the sciences writ large do in fact produce knowledge which is not just contingent, discursive, mythical, and/or metaphorical. The sciences are not, in other words, just another “discourse.” A great deal of science corresponds to something which is not mythical but is “real.” It is at the (a) ultimate foundations, (b) humanistic fringes, and (c) cosmic frontiers of science that the speculation and mystical really gets going. These three areas attract us (or at least me) because they are damned fun to think about, and because there are so many unanswered questions. These three areas also happen to overlap in substantial ways with the contours of myth.

    Because my background and training is in biological anthropology, I am often around paleo-anthropologists and paleo-primatologists who constantly impress me with their professionalism, expertise, knowledge, and modesty. With few exceptions, these scientists ask testable questions, gather good or “real” data, and generate excellent work that incrementally adds to our knowledge. They are not, in other words, mythmakers.

    Archaeologists, who I am also often around, are much the same. They present an interesting case because many of them do not consider themselves to be “scientists” and do not call themselves “scientists.” Yet they sure do quite a lot of science and use the sciences for their research. Because of this, they have had to think long and hard about the ways in which scientific data translates into human behavior and thinking. This may explain why archaeologists theorize and write so well at the intersection of science and humanity.

  3. jayarava

    I’ve found this series of essays on the unseen/seen very interesting and useful. The distinction is beginning to creep into my own thinking and writing.

    However revisiting Philip Ball’s Nautilus essay again today as a result of reading this blog, I realised that I don’t entirely agree with him. One example which I’ve been considering quite a lot is Galileo’s use of the telescope. What the telescope did was make visible that which had been invisible (to the naked eye). And the discoveries made in 1610 cracked the crystal spheres thought to make up the heavens. And I see this episode as paradigmatic of what natural philosophers and scientists have done in the intervening four centuries. Lest we forget it was observation through telescopes which drew us towards a big bang style creation.

    Similarly although we can say that Newton was interested in objects and light, he was just as interested in the invisible forces that set objects in motion. His really lasting work was on the interaction of unseen forces on seen objects. So he was very much the Shaman. But to characterise him as mainly interested in the seen would be a distortion.

    I think Ball’s claim that Maxwell was “the” watershed is overstated. Why not for instance the discovery of the invisible substance oxygen in 1772? It seems to me that investigating the unseen is what scientists have been doing all along. In doing this they gradually encroached on the realm in which priests made truth claims. And these truth claims were gradually shown to be wrong (in every case I can think of).

    > The sciences are not, in other words, just another “discourse.”

    I’m so glad you said this. I think many of the discourse enthusiasts would do well to work through the basic experiments that Newton did on masses and the way they move and see if they could find a better explanation. I’ve done those experiments and the conclusions really are compelling and as far as I can see they are independent of “discourse”. F = ma is true whatever narrative you want to wrap it in.

  4. Dominik Lukes

    Cris, your point about the variability of science is an excellent one. However, there is also variability of religion. Let’s remember that asking testable questions is not an invention of modern science. The scholastics were doing the same things. They simply had different axiomatics. The Azande do not turn to magic as a first recourse bur rather when all other explanations fail. Even (at least some) modern-day exorcists will ask questions of fraud, and psychological disturbance before committing to demons.

    The problem with starting out with assuming that religion and myth are dealing with things that are “not real” is that you commit to a conceptualization that depends on a very unreliable notion of “reality”.

    You then have to commit to a dualist statement like this: “the sciences writ large do in fact produce knowledge which is not just contingent, discursive, mythical, and/or metaphorical”. But there are vast amounts of evidence that science write large is all of those things. Just saying something like this is a mythopoeic act placing science in a particular ontological order. But saying that science is all those things does not need to undermine the knowledge it produces. It just puts it among the things people do with their minds, bodies and societies.

    Let’s take all your points

    1. Contingent: Scientific knowledge is contingent by its own definition. If it is valid scientific knowledge (according to the identity myth), it needs to be testable. And in that case it is only as good as the results of the next experiment. Of course, in reality, most scientific knowledge is not really testable. That is why it is relatively stable in its discursive form…
    2. Discursive: Of course science is just another discourse. If you want to talk about it, discourse is an inevitability. You can only learn it through discourse, make sense of its advances through discourse, and apply it through discourse. Experiments are deeply discursive. Positing its special discursive status or even a status outside any discourse is what makes it mythopoeic.
    3. Mythic: Sure, science describes things that are real (with loads of exceptions). But myth is not about non-reality. It is about order, explaining how the world is and how it should be. There is no need for science to engage in cosmogony, origins of species, geological history, etc. Those things are only of interest to science and its “consumers” for the sake of establishing and maintaining order and, not least, justifying its mandate of heavens.
    4. Metaphorical: This only makes sense if you define metaphors as the opposite of literal descriptions. But that’s a false dichotomy. As I’ve shown, you need the same kind of cognition to understand sentences like “Jim is my copilot” and “God is my copilot”. You need metaphorical thinking to understand the results of science and very often you need metaphors to achieve those results. Let’s look at “natural selection”, “natural laws”, or even models of the structure of the atom. I wrote about this at length in http://metaphorhacker.net/2014/03/what-is-not-a-metaphor-modelling-the-world-through-language-thought-science-or-action.

    You mention archaeology, a field with which I am very familiar. But that field is all of these things while at the same time looking at real phenomena and doing good interpretive work about them. That does not stop them from drawing huge metaphorical conclusions, doing it often unconsciously in the service of a mythopoeic ideology (talking about origins of nations, human nature, social development, etc.), engaging in elaborate discursive practices reflecting broader societal values (just see how the treatment of dug up remains has changed over the decades), and all of its conclusions are contingent on the next highrise going up somewhere in China and stumbling on something hitherto unimagined. None of these things make archaeology any less useful, interesting or even less “scientific”. But they are there and they make it a human endeavor subject to human limitations.

  5. Cris Post author

    Of course there is variability in “religion,” which is why I usually scare-quote the term and have written many posts over the years examining “religion” as a category and construct. My efforts in that regard have always been anti-essentialist. The same salubrious considerations should guide us when talking about “science.”

    As for whether asking testable questions is an invention of “science,” I don’t see how this genetic question (or the answer in this case) bears on the issue of contemporary usages, functions, or outcomes. This aside, scientific methods require more than the asking of testable questions — there are various procedures for the testing itself, nearly all of which revolve around empirical findings. It is the empirical aspect of the sciences which set them apart from mere discourse.

    When it comes to the sciences, I’m a pragmatist and persuaded by what they have produced. The proof, it metaphorically seems to me, is in the material and technological pudding. Basic and applied chemistry, physics, and biology are the same wherever you go and whatever language you speak. Engineering sciences are cross-cultural and universal.

    This is because these are sciences trafficking in the “real,” which for purposes of this conversation we will treat as having material or physical manifestations. This is not of course the full extent of “reality” or life, but it is something that we know exists — its objects can be touched, seen, sensed, measured, and manipulated. I’m not fool enough to adopt a naive empirical view of “reality” and don’t have a definition for it. But I do think it a good idea to adopt an empiricist position as a starting and constraining point for one’s conception of “reality.”

    I’m often amused by those who claim that the sciences are just another discourse, or mostly word play, yet whose entire lives are dominated by the (actual and not just metaphorical) fruits of the sciences. Aside from my scientist friends, I also have several post-modernist and post-structural friends who variously claim that science, including medicine, is just another discourse and has no special purchase on life or “reality.” These are the same people who get in their cars to drive home, live in electrified homes (often powered by nuclear plants), use computers, are treated by doctors in hospitals, fly around the world, and whose entire lives are enmeshed in scientific products. The irony seems lost on them.

    While the sciences are of course contingent, discursive, mythic, and metaphorical, they display these characteristics only because they are human products and human endeavors. And while I think it is interesting and potentially enlightening to evaluate and critique the sciences using tools of contingency, discourse, myth, and metaphor, doing this does not mean that’s all the sciences are. The sciences are trafficking in empirical things that are not just talk.

    If you want to call that dualist, it’s fine by me, even though I’ve always considered my positions to be pragmatically monist.

  6. Larry Stout

    A great many people who are “scientists” according to sheepskins and other credentials are in fact merely exponents of some orthodoxy imparted by their particular academic mentors, enjoying piggyback careerism. As someone has noted, the [few] creative members of any orthodoxy eventually outgrow their discipline. Most exponents of a given orthodoxy, “scientific” or otherwise, do not outgrow it.

    Not trying to butter up, but I’d say Cris is, pardon the expression, an “outgrowth”. :>)

  7. Larry Stout

    “Myth” and “science” can’t be regarded as generic human universals, seeing that each is expressed only within any of myriad cultural confines. Look at any list of “100 books everyone should read”, even the most intellectually loaded; the cultural bias is unmistakable. Probably a mistake to assume that people who never have read and never will read any of the hundred don’t understand and don’t know “things”. Orthodoxy is mind-numbing. Iconic thinkers have not all been Greek, Roman, European, American.

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