Wolfgang Smith on Myth & Anti-Myth

Science and Myth“The tenacity and fervor with which the presiding paradigms of science are defended even in the face of plainly hostile data suggest that, here too, an element of ideology may be at play. Science is not in reality the purely rational and ‘disinterested’ enterprise it pretends to be; it is after all the work, not of computers, but of men. There is reason to believe that the paradigms of science are more in fact than cold, sober conjectures, mere hypotheses to be discarded in the face of contrary evidence. It appears that the top paradigms, at least, are weightier by far than that. In addition to their formal or ‘operational’ connotation, one finds that these paradigms carry a wider sense, a ‘cultural’ meaning, one can say; and it is mainly this broader connotation, which actually eludes scientific definition, that mainly communicates itself to the public at large, which in fact is incapable of comprehending its strictly ‘scientific’ use.

Now, it is this circumstance that in a way justifies our claim that science entails an element of ‘myth.’ I say ‘in a way,’ because it happens that traditional or authentic myth is something far greater, something that categorically exceeds the ‘mythical’ dimension of scientific paradigms. Let us say, then, that there are different kinds of myth, ranging all the way from the sacred to the profane, from the sublime to the trivial or absurd. We need, moreover, to understand that man does not live by ‘facts,’ or by ‘fact’ alone, but preeminently by ‘myth’”: this is indeed, culturally speaking, his daily ‘bread.’ What, above all, differentiates one man from another – again, from a ‘cultural’ point of view – is the presiding myth that directs, motivates, and informs his life. I contend that the stature and dignity of a person depend primarily on the myth he has made his own; in a way we become what we believe. And I would add: no more telling reason has ever been proposed for treading cautiously!

To comprehend the nature and function of ‘myth,’ we need, first of all, to get over the idea that myth has to do with what is imaginary or unreal, a notion which came into vogue in the course of what historians call the Enlightenment, when men thought that science had at last delivered us from the childish dreams of a primitive age. In this optic, myth was perceived simply as the antithesis of fact: at most a pleasurable or consoling fiction. One might go so far as to admit that such fictions may be indispensable: that our life would be intolerably drab and void of hope without some kind of mythical embellishment; but when it comes to the question of truth, it is to Science that we must look.

Such then was the prevailing view of myth during the age of modernism; but that phase, as one knows, is presently nearing its end, both philosophically and culturally. The new outlook, generally termed postmodernist, breaks with the old: the deconstructionist zeal, which in days gone by was directed mainly against established religious, cultural, and political norms – against everything, one could say, that smacked of tradition – has now been turned against the scientific enlightenment as well. There is logic in this, and a certain justice too; but yet it needs to be understood that the effects of the Enlightenment or modernity upon our Weltanschauung – and in particular, on our ability to perceive what science is actually about – have not been thereby canceled or ameliorated. Readers of Ananda Coomaraswamy will comprehend very clearly how much we have lost: that despite the material advantages of modern life, we have become woefully impoverished. In fact, we have arrived at the point of losing what is truly ‘the one thing needful.’ Cut off – as never before – from the source of our being, we have all but forgotten that life has meaning: a goal and a possibility which is not ephemeral; but needless to say, neither modern science nor its postmodernist critics can enlighten us in that regard. For this one requires authentic myth: the kind that belongs inextricably to sacred tradition as the paramount expression of its truth. Such myth, says Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words’: a far cry indeed from the prevailing conception of myth as ‘the fictitious’!

Myth alone, however – no matter how exalted it may be – will not save, liberate, or enlighten us. Traditionally speaking, the illuminating myth must be received under appropriate auspices, which include conditions upon the recipient or disciple, the chief of which is sraddha, faith: there can be no spirituality, no true enlightenment, without faith.

Now, at this point, I say, that modern science touches upon the spiritual domain: it enters the picture, I contend, not as an ally to true religion, but perforce as an impediment to faith, and therefore as a spoiler, an antagonist. It is a case of opposing myths, of mythologies that clash: or better said, of myth and anti-myth.

Let us try to understand this clearly. We must not be put off by the simplistic look of traditional myth, its typically crude literal sense, remembering that such myth speaks, not to the analytic mind, but to the intuitive intellect, sometimes termed ‘the eye of the heart,’ a faculty which, alas, modern civilization has been at pains to stifle. Now, it is precisely on this level of understanding – the level of the authentic Intellect – that myth does in fact constitute ‘the nearest approach to absolute truth.’ What we have termed the ‘myths’ of science – namely, its paradigms, be they true or false – on the other hand, deliver such content as they have primarily to the rational mind; there is no mystery here, no reference to higher realms of truth. Quite to the contrary: these so-called myths offer a substitute, a ‘quasi-myth’ here below, a kind of idol of the mind, which impedes our spiritual vision. As a tool of science – as a paradigm in the strict sense – they have of course a legitimate use: think, for instance, of the now discredited Newtonian paradigm. The trouble with paradigms, however, is that they tend to become absolutized, that is to say, dissociated from the scientific process; and this is where the idolatry sets in. One transitions surreptitiously from the hypothetical to the certain, from the relative to the absolute, and thus from a science to a metaphysics. But not to an authentic metaphysics! True to its origin, that ‘relative rendered absolute’ remains unfounded and illegitimate, a pseudo-metaphysics one can say. It needs to be understood that a paradigm of science absolutized turns forthwith into an anti-myth.”

Wolfgang Smith, Science and Myth


– Lucas G. Westman

*Science & Myth, Pg. 17 – 19

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