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Myth And Science

In the West, the ancient challenge to myth was on ethical grounds: Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) bemoaned Homeric myths for presenting the gods as practitioners of immoral behavior. The chief modern challenge to myth has come from science.

One form of the modern challenge to myth has been to the scientific credibility of myth. Did creation really occur in a mere six days, as the first of two creation stories in Genesis (1:1–2:4a) claims? Was there really a worldwide flood? The most unrepentant defense against this challenge has been to claim that the biblical account is correct, for, after all, the Pentateuch was revealed to Moses by God. This position, known as creationism, assumes varying forms, ranging, for example, from taking the days of creation to mean exactly six days to taking them to mean "ages." At the same time, creationists of all stripes tout their views as scientific as well as religious, and they enlist scientific evidence to refute "pseudoscientific" rivals such as evolution.

A much tamer defense against the challenge of modern science has been to reconcile myth with that science. Here elements at odds with modern science are either removed or, more cleverly, reinterpreted as in fact scientific. There might not have been a Noah who was single-handedly able to gather up all living species and to keep them alive in a wooden boat sturdy enough to withstand the strongest seas that ever arose, but a worldwide flood did occur. What thus remains in myth is true because it is scientific—modern scientific.

By far the most common response to the challenge of science has been to abandon myth for science. Here myth is taken as an explanation of its own kind, not a scientific explanation in mythic guise. The issue is therefore not the scientific credibility of myth but the compatibility of myth with science. Myth, here a part of religion, is considered to be the "primitive" counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Because moderns by definition accept science, they cannot also have myth, and the phrase modern myth is self-contradictory. Myth is a victim of the process of secularization that constitutes modernity.

The pioneering English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) remains the classic exponent of the view that myth and science are at odds. Tylor subsumes myth under religion and in turn subsumes both religion and science under philosophy. Primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion. There is no primitive science. Modern philosophy, by contrast, is divided into religion and science. Primitive religion is the primitive counterpart to science because both are explanations of the physical world. The religious explanation is personalistic, the scientific one impersonal. The explanations are incompatible because both are direct explanations of the same events. Gods operate not behind or through impersonal forces but in place of them. One cannot, then, stack the religious account atop the scientific account.

Modern religion has surrendered the explanation of the world to science and has instead become a combination of metaphysics and ethics, neither of which is present in primitive religion. One now reads the Bible for not for the story of creation but for the Ten Commandments, just as for Plato a bowdlerized Homer (fl. 9th or 8th century B.C.E.) would enable one to do. This irenic position is like that of the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002). Yet for Tylor, myths are too closely tied to gods as agents in the world to permit any transformation like that of the rest of religion. Where, then, there is "modern religion," albeit religion shorn of its prime role as explanation, there are no modern myths.

In pitting myth against science, as in pitting religion qua explanation against science, Tylor epitomizes the nineteenth-century view of myth. In the twentieth century, the trend was to reconcile myth as well as religion with science, so that moderns can retain myth as well as religion.

Closest to Tylor stands J. G. Frazer (1854–1941), the Scottish classicist and fellow pioneering anthropologist. For Frazer, as for Tylor, myth is part of primitive religion; primitive religion is part of philosophy, itself universal; and primitive religion is the counterpart to natural science, itself entirely modern. Primitive religion and science are, as for Tylor, mutually exclusive. But where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, functions as the counterpart to scientific theory, for Frazer it functions even more as the counterpart to applied science, or technology. Where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, serves to explain events in the physical world, for Frazer it serves even more to effect events, above all the growth of crops. Where Tylor treats myth as an autonomous text, Frazer ties myth to ritual, which enacts it.

The biggest difficulty for Tylor's and Frazer's view of myth as the primitive counterpart to science is that it conspicuously fails to account for the retention of myth in the wake of science. If myth functions to do no more than science, why is it still around?

Reacting against the views of Tylor and Frazer and other members of what he imprecisely calls "the English school of anthropology," the French philosopher and armchair anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) insisted on a much wider divide between myth and science. Where for Tylor and Frazer "primitives" think like moderns, just less rigorously, for Lévy-Bruhl primitives think differently from moderns. Where for Tylor and Frazer primitive thinking is logical, just erroneous, for Lévy-Bruhl primitive thinking is plainly nonlogical.

According to Lévy-Bruhl, primitives believe that all phenomena are part of a sacred, or "mystic," realm pervading the natural one. Phenomena become one another yet remain what they are. The Bororo of Brazil deem themselves red araras, or parakeets, yet still human beings. Lévy-Bruhl calls this belief "prelogical" because it violates the law of noncontradiction: the notion that something can simultaneously be both itself and something else.

For Lévy-Bruhl, as for Tylor and Frazer, myth is part of religion, religion is primitive, and moderns have science rather than religion. But where Tylor and Frazer subsume both religion and science under philosophy, Lévy-Bruhl associates philosophy with thinking freed from mystical identification with the world. Primitive thinking is nonphilosophical because it is not detached from the world. Primitives have a whole mentality of their own, one evinced in their myths.

One reaction to Lévy-Bruhl was to accept his separation of myth from philosophy but not his characterization of myth as pre-philosophical or pre-scientific. The key figure here was Malinowski. Invoking Frazer, Malinowski argues that primitives are too busy scurrying to survive in the world to have the luxury of reflecting on it. Where for Frazer primitives use myth in place of science, for Malinowski primitives use myth as a fallback to science. Primitives possess not just the counterpart to science but science itself. Where science stops, they turn to magic. Where magic stops, they turn to myth—not to secure further control over the world, as Frazer would assume, but to reconcile themselves to aspects of the world that cannot be controlled, such as natural catastrophes, illness, aging, and death. Myth explains how, say, illness arose—a god or a human brought it about—but primitive science and magic try to do something about it. By contrast, myth says that nothing can be done about it.

Reacting both against Malinowski's view of primitives as practical rather than intellectual and against Lévy-Bruhl's view of primitives as mystical rather than intellectual, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) has boldly sought to revive an intellectualist view of primitives and of myth. At first glance, Lévi-Strauss seems a sheer throwback to Tylor. Yet in fact Lévi-Strauss is severely critical of Tylor, for whom primitives concoct myth rather than science because they think less critically than moderns. For Lévi-Strauss, primitives create myth because they think differently from moderns—but, contrary to Lévy-Bruhl, still think and still think rigorously. For both, myth is the epitome of primitive thinking.

Where for Tylor primitive thinking is personalistic and modern thinking impersonal, for Lévi-Strauss primitive thinking is concrete and modern thinking abstract. Primitive thinking focuses on the observable, sensible aspects of phenomena rather than, like modern thinking, on the unobservable, insensible ones. Yet antithetically to Tylor, Lévi-Strauss considers myth no less scientific than modern science. Where for Tylor myth is the primitive counterpart to science per se, for Lévi-Strauss myth is the primitive counterpart to modern science. Myth is primitive science, but not thereby inferior science.

If myth is an instance of primitive thinking because it deals with concrete, tangible phenomena, it is an instance of thinking itself because it classifies phenomena. Lévi-Strauss maintains that all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world. Many cultural phenomena express these oppositions. Myth is distinctive in resolving or, more accurately, tempering the oppositions it expresses. Those contradictions are to be found not in the plot but in what Lévi-Strauss famously calls the "structure."

Karl Popper (1902–1994), the Viennese-born philosopher of science who eventually settled in England, breaks radically with Tylor. Where for Tylor science simply replaces it, for Popper science emerges out of myth—not, however, out of the acceptance of myth but out of the criticism of it. By "criticism" Popper means not rejection but assessment, which becomes scientific when it takes the form of attempts to falsify the truth claims made.

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