Sunday, May 21, 2017

Foundational Myths and the Cult of Science

Every society has its Foundational Myths. I’m not talking about myths in the sense of mythology - gods and monsters and superhuman heroes and such things. I’m talking about the quasi-historical myths that define a society’s sense of itself.

For the Greeks it was the Trojan War. For the Romans it was Romulus and Remus and the founding of the city but the Romans elaborated their Foundational Myth by extending Roman history back to the exploits of the Trojan prince Aeneas after the fall of Troy. For French republicans it’s the Revolution. For Americans it’s the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.

For modern secularists the Foundational Myth is the Rise of Science. Until around the 17th century there was an age of ignorance and superstition then along came Science! and everything was light. Science! ushered in a blessed age of reason and enlightenment.

Foundational Myths can be entirely mythical, or they can be semi-mythical or even mostly historical. The Trojan War might well have happened although the actual events were probably much more small-scale and much more tawdry than the version promoted by the Greek poets.

The Rise of Science is at least partly historical. There has been a great deal of scientific progress in the past 500 years. The benefits are more questionable.

A Foundational Myth should be inspiring. It should give people a sense of cultural identity but more than that it should give a society some sense of purpose or destiny.

Has the Rise of Science done that? In some ways, perhaps. Although it’s worth pointing out that a great deal of human progress in modern times has owed more to practical engineers than to scientists. The engineers who were responsible for providing Europeans cities with sewerage and clean water contributed more to human happiness and prosperity than any scientists.

The problem with Science! is that it has given us a worldview that is bleak and nihilistic. The followers of the Cult of Science! have rarely taken this into account. Did the acceptance of the heliocentric view of the solar system actually make the world a better place? Did the acceptance of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection make us happier? Was there great popular rejoicing when the Big Bang Theory displaced the Steady State Theory of the universe? These things made liberal secularists happier because they provided them with ammunition with which to pursue their war on Christianity. Did it make society as a whole better? Are we better off now that we generally believe that the universe is entirely without purpose and meaning and that our ancestors were ape-like creatures?

Of course Science! may well be right much of the time. Nobody today disputes the heliocentric view of the solar system. The question is not whether the scientific view is often correct, it is whether that view of the world has actually represented genuine progress. Progress is after all always a good thing, or so we’re told. But what if the scientific worldview has actually left us without any purpose or meaning in our own lives?

There’s also another very great danger to the cult of Science! Even the craziest ideas can gain credence if they can be labeled as scientific. Marx claimed that his wacky and misguided theories had to be correct because they were scientific. Freud’s even nuttier ideas were sold as science. In the 20th century we were even told there was such a thing as social science, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Straight-out political propaganda can be promoted as science - the global warming hysteria being a fine example.

Rather than eliminating superstition the Cult of Science! has provided us with a whole grab-bag of new superstitions. Rather than ushering in an age of reason what we actually ended up with was a mixture of emptiness, despair and superstition. Some Foundational Myths seem to work better than others.

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