Wolfgang Smith: Science and Myth

Landscape & SpaceWolfgang Smith’s essay, Science and Myth, utilizes Ananda Coomaraswamy’s articulation of what constitutes an authentic myth in order to raise our conscious awareness that science too develops myths, or paradigms, when interpreting the surrounding natural order. Smith identifies three modern scientific paradigms – the Newtonian, the Darwinian, and the Copernican – which he classifies as “anti-myths.” These paradigmatic anti-myths constitute the revolutionary pillars combatting the perennially wise, sacred traditionalism inherited by mankind prior to the Enlightenment. The importance of recognizing that we are not simply arguing with individuals reporting the scientific facts opens a pathway for a clearer understanding of St. Paul’s teaching that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness.[1] When these paradigms are exposed as the vehicles for countering the authentic, sacred “myths” (paradigms) of biblical revelation, we can then move toward challenging their veracity so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be boldly proclaimed.[2]

Smith begins his essay by introducing the dynamic interaction of myth and doctrine, and that myth exceeds doctrine similar to the truth that a cause exceeds its effect.[3] And while this is an appropriate understanding of the relationship between myth and doctrine, it is not, however, the task of doctrine to explain away the founding myth. To the contrary, the purpose of doctrine is to bring us into dynamic interaction with the myth.[4] Sacred doctrine is respected, proclaimed, and defended by those who adhere to its perennial truth, but ancient doctrine is not sacred to everyone. As Smith points out, “atheists and iconoclasts have myths of their own. Not only the wise, but fools also live ultimately by myth; it is only that the respective myths are by no means the same.”[5] These atheists and iconoclasts champion the modernist paradigms that have fueled much hostility against the traditions of mankind, and especially the Holy Roman Church.

The first myth Smith discusses is the Newtonian mechanical universe, where “bare matter” and the interaction of physical parts is understood through the forces of attraction and repulsion, which reduces the movement of the whole to its disparate parts.[6] To be sure, the mechanical universe is related to the Cartesian bifurcation of reality into the machinery of nature and the subjective soul, so in many ways the stupendous errors of the father of modern philosophy are undergirding the Newtonian paradigm. It is important to note that Smith’s criticisms of the Newtonian paradigm does not amount to an attack on the legitimate scientific discoveries acquired through this model of the universe. Smith says,

“Though the Newtonian worldview may indeed be spurious – a ‘myth’ in the pejorative sense of this equivocal term – history confirms that it has nonetheless functioned brilliantly in its capacity as a scientific paradigm. It appears that error too has its use! One sees in retrospect that science of the contemporary kind could never have ‘lifted off the ground’ without the benefit of a worldview that is drastically oversimplified, to the point of being incurably fallacious.”[7]

He continues,

“Despite its philosophical invalidity, the success of the Newtonian paradigm has been spectacular. From the publication of Newton’s Principia, in the year 1687, to the beginning of the twentieth century, it was universally regarded, not simply as a successful paradigm, but indeed as the master-key to the secrets of Nature, from the motion of stars and planets, to the functioning of her minutest parts. I will not recount the triumphs of Newtonian physics which seemingly justify this grand expectation; the list is long and singularly impressive. Suffice to say that by the end of the nineteenth century the Newtonian scheme had extended its sway beyond the bounds of mechanics, as commonly understood, to include electromagnetism, which, as it turns out, cannot be pictured in grossly mechanical terms.”[8][9]

Smith continues to argue that even the advancement of Einsteinian physics remains largely mechanical, which indicates that the Newtonian paradigm is capable of absorbing new discoveries as long as the physical universe can, in principle, be accurately described in terms of differential equations.[10] It wasn’t until the advent of quantum mechanics that the mechanistic metaphysical paradigm of the cosmos was seriously challenged. The fundamentals of quantum theory have shown that the universe cannot be understood in fully deterministic terms.[11]

The second paradigm Smith identifies is Darwinism. While Smith is critical of the Newtonian worldview, he still respects the breakthroughs made in the field of physics following its institutionalization. The Darwinian paradigm receives no such respect,

“We turn now to the Darwinian paradigm, which proves to be, in a sense, the opposite of the Newtonian: for it happens that Darwin’s idea has been an unmitigated failure from the start. I contend, in fact, that Darwinism is not in truth a scientific theory, but is simply an ideological postulation masquerading in scientific garb.”[12]

The Intelligent Design movement notably influences Smith’s disagreements with Darwinism. He does not hesitate to use the arguments developed by Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski. Smith is particularly impressed by the mathematical application of intelligent design developed by Dembski, which Smith considers the strongest refutation of Darwinism.

Due to the weight of the criticisms developed by the Intelligent Design movement, Smith is in agreement with at least four of their main contentions. The first contention is that the fossil record lacks the necessary evidence to support the theory, which is why the evidential situation calls for developments such as ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ Simply stated, the intermediary forms are nowhere to be found. What does occur in the fossil record, however, is the clear indication that species appear, and then disappear with very little, if any morphological changes.[13] The second criticism of Darwinism is that the key principle of naturalistic evolution, “survival of the fittest,” is a vacuous tautology. It amounts to nothing more than a slogan masquerading as a scientific hypothesis. Chanting the “survival of the fittest” is tantamount to saying, “whatever happens, happens.” The third criticism is the circularity of “the so-called molecular clock, which supposedly measures the rate at which evolutions takes place.”[14] Smith explains, “However, in the euphoria generated by this discovery, one forgets that not even a ‘molecular clock’ can measure the rate of evolution unless evolution has indeed occurred.”[15] This criticism leads to the fourth critique, which is Michael Behe’s discovery of irreducible complexity. According to Behe, the irreducible complexity of say, the bacterial flagellum, cannot be accounted for in purely Darwinist terms, which leads into the mathematical explanations of William Dembski demonstrating the impossibility of Darwinian naturalism.

The third myth Smith discusses is the Copernican paradigm. To properly capture the enormity of this paradigm, it is worth quoting Smith at length in his description of it,

“Our third paradigm pertains to contemporary cosmology. It happens that field equations plus astronomical data do not suffice to determine the global structure of the physical universe: an infinite number of ‘possible worlds’ remain. One therefore requires an additional hypothesis. Following Einstein’s lead, scientists have generally opted for a condition of spatial uniformity in the distribution of matter: one defines an average density of matter, and assumes this to be constant throughout space. Thus, on a sufficiently large scale, the cosmos is thought to resemble a gas, in which the individual molecules can be replaced by a density of so many grams per cubic meter. It was Hermann Bondi who first referred to this assumption as the Copernican principle, and not without reason; for even though Copernicus himself knew nothing about a supposedly constant density of stellar matter, the principle in question constitutes in a way the ultimate repudiation of geocentrism, and thus consummates what has been termed the Copernican revolution. Henceforth space in the large is assumed to be void of structure or design, and subject only to local fluctuations from an average density, much like the molecular fluctuations in a gas, which remain imperceptible on a macroscopic scale. I would like however to impress upon you that this is not a positive finding of astrophysics or a proven fact, but simply an assumption: to be precise, it is the postulate or hypothesis which underlies our contemporary scientific cosmology.”[16]

This assumption eventually developed into what is now recognized as standard big bang cosmology. However, the standard model is facing difficulties due to observations that do not comport with the presupposed Copernican paradigm.[17] Only time will tell if this particular paradigm will survive the storm of observational abnormalities.

These three paradigms, these anti-myths, are what informs the modern mind and shapes the culture. The modernist cultural psychology, guided by these paradigms, is what motivates the new atheist activists looking to eradicate religious traditions from society at large. Instead of defending the authentic discoveries of science against the spirit of ‘fundamentalist’ anti-intellectualism, enemies of sacred tradition have become the ideological vanguards of an anti-mythos inherited from the now defunct “Age of Reason.” These realities significantly affect the spiritual conflict between sacred tradition and modernism,

“Now, it is at this point, I say, that modern science touches upon the spiritual domain: it enters the picture, I contend, not as an ally of 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.”[18]

Recognizing the clash of worldviews leads to the identification of metaphysical idolatry in the modern mind,

“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.”[19]

These insights afford us a properly biblical understanding of our current state of affairs. The traditionalist worldview, in possession of the graces of the Christ-mind, must interact with the deformations of the fallen, anti-christ worldview of the modernist mind in an uncompromising manner. The anti-mythos discussed in Smith’s essay cannot be approached by Christ’s disciples seeking respectability so that Christ might be added onto these erroneous presuppositions built to dethrone the King of kings from the cosmic monarchy. These paradigms under examination are intrinsically anti-logos, and therefore deny the absolute primacy of Christ over all of the created order.

Contained in the sacred pages of Scripture is a cosmic picture of reality that does not cohere with the modern anti-mythos. What we discover in the Bible is a cosmos that is created, finite, contingent, organic, hierarchic, ordered, designed, purposeful, meaningful, intentional, metaphysically peaceful, spiritual as well as material, qualitatively objective in its beauty, and revelatory. The modern picture of the cosmos, guided by the Newtonian, Darwinian, and Copernican paradigms is uncreated, mechanical, chaotic, disordered, metaphysically violent, not designed, devoid of purpose, unintentional, meaningless, materialistic, contains no objective beauty, and snuffs out any notion of God being revealed by the things that have been made.

There is simply no way to reconcile these two divergent worldviews. What separates them is figuratively, and quite literally, cosmic in scale.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” Romans 1:18-23

[2] Smith doesn’t suggest that sacred tradition is a myth in the sense that it is false, or a silly fairy-tale. What Smith suggests is that there are true “myths,” those of sacred tradition, and there are false “anti-myths,” which are the paradigms of modern scientism.

[3] Science & Myth, Pg. 7

[4] Ibid, Pg. 7

[5] Ibid, Pg. 7

[6] Ibid, Pg. 9

[7] Ibid, Pg. 9

[8] Ibid, Pg. 10

[9] This is an important qualification because any criticism made by a religious traditionalist of the metaphysical naturalism and epistemic scientism prevalent in elite corners of society is often mistaken for a criticism against the field of science itself. It is in many ways a preposterous conflation made by the adherents of the modernist paradigm, but it is necessary to make such mistakes in order to guard against the wafer thin justification these errors are resting upon. Philosophical crudity is often the intellectual residence of those who live comfortably in the realm of mantra.

[10] Ibid, Pg. 10

[11] Ibid, Pg. 10

[12] Ibid, Pg. 11

[13] Ibid, Pg. 11

[14] Ibid, Pg. 13

[15] Ibid, Pg. 13

[16] Ibid, Pg. 14, 15

[17] “Before too long, however, big bang cosmology ran into difficulties, which have since led to a number of modifications in an ongoing effort to accommodate the mathematics to the empirical data of astronomy. Nonetheless, all is not well, and those who claim otherwise ‘overlook observational facts that have been piling up for 25 years and have now become overwhelming,’ as Halton Arp pointed out in 1991. For example, astronomers claim to have spotted galaxies separated by close to a billion light-years. Now, given the low relative velocities observed between galaxies, it would take about 200 billion years to arrive at such a separation from an initially uniform state: a good ten times longer than the estimated age of the universe. Or, to cite another fundamental difficulty: there seems not to be nearly enough matter in the universe to generate gravitational fields strong enough to account for the formation and persistence of galaxies. Such incongruities, however, are general taken in stride by the experts…What does one do, for instance, if there is not enough matter in the universe to account for galaxies? One strategy is to introduce something called ‘dark matter,’ which supposedly does not interact with electromagnetic fields, and is consequently invisible. Its only measurable property is gravitation, and its only discernable effect is to bring the gravitational field up to the levels demanded by the big bang scenario. Never mind that not a single particle of dark matter has ever been detected: for advocates of big bang theory, it seems, the existence of galaxies is proof enough. According to some estimates, proposed by the respected members of the astrophysical community, about 99% of all matter in the universe is dark. What is more, one postulates two kinds of dark matter: so-called ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ with very different properties, in a mix of 1/3 hot and 2/3 cold as the required blend!” Ibid, Pg. 15, 16

[18] Ibid, Pg. 19

[19] Ibid, Pg. 19

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