The Mythological Function of Science

22 September 2014



Science has a problematic relationship to mythology, so that to speak in terms of the mythological function of science is to court misunderstanding, but this idea is so important that I am going to take the risk of being profoundly misunderstood in order to try to explicate the mythological function of science, both in its descriptive and normative aspects. One of the problems that science has with mythology is that a great many if not most prominent institutional representatives of science explicitly reject mythology, or, if they do not explicitly reject mythology, they invoke a quasi-NOMA doctrine in order to demonstrate their respect for and tolerance of traditional mythologies as long as these mythologies do not interfere in the practice of science.

Science today, however, cannot be neatly contained within any category or limited to any one aspect of life. Science is the driving force behind our industrial-technological civilization, and as such it penetrates into every aspect of life whether or not we recognize this penetration, and whether or not science is even wanted in every aspect of life. Science has become as comprehensive as the global civilization with which it is integral, and so we find ourselves, both as individuals and as part of a society, facing a comprehensive institution that shapes almost every aspect of life. We have a relationship to this institution whether we like it or not, and in some cases this relationship approximates a mythological relationship, although (as I argued in The Next Axial Age) we have not yet seen the axialization of industrial-technological civilization.

On my other blog I have recently written a series of posts on religious experience, across the broad expanse of civilization from the transition from our hunter-gatherer origins to the forms that religious experience may take in the future. These posts are as follows:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experiences

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These posts were narrowly focused on religious experience, and not on other aspects of religious ideas and practices. However, I took as my guide Joseph Campbell’s delineation of the functions of mythology.

Campbell makes a fourfold distinction in the functions of mythology, including the mystical function, the cosmological function, the social function, and the psychological function, as follows:

● The Mystical Function is concerned with reconciling consciousness with the pre-conditions of its existence.

● The Cosmological Function is a unified and comprehensive conception of the cosmos consistent with the mystical function of mythology (above) and the social function of mythology (below).

● The Social Function is a conception of the social order that establishes a model and a form for social institutions, as well as a conception the relation of the individual to the social order, and, through the social order, to the cosmos at large.

● The Psychological Function, which I would prefer to call this the “personal function,” is the function of a myth to guide an individual through the stages of life and to act as a support and as comfort in the individual’s hour of need.

This is a somewhat schematic approach to how an mythological world-view functions in a social context, and not the only possible way to analyze religion. Recently I was skimming some of the work of Ninian Smart, who distinguished seven “dimensions” of religion: 1. Doctrinal, 2. Mythological, 3. Ethical, 4. Ritual, 5. Experiential, 6. Institutional, and 7. Material. Smart further decomposed these seven dimensions into the para-historical (1-3), which must be studied by “dialogue and participation,” and the historical (4-7), which can be studied empirically, like any branch of science. It would be an interesting intellectual undertaking to do a detailed comparison among taxonomies of religious study. Campbell’s master category of mythology is, in Smart, reduced to one among seven dimensions of religion, so some care would be required to sort through respective definitions.

For the moment, however, acknowledging that there are other theoretical frameworks for studying religion, I am going to remain within Joseph Campbell’s structure of the functions of mythology in taking up the central role of science in our civilization. Campbell’s four functions of mythology provide an agenda to approach how science functions in the society of industrial-technological civilization, which can in turn be compared to past instances of mythologies that have served the central role in earlier civilizations equivalent to the role of science in contemporary civilization.

Science, as we all know, has been a source of the dissolution of the cosmological function of traditional mythology. Wherever traditional mythology supplied a myth of origins explaining the structure of the world, this myth has been rudely confronted with the scientific account of the structure of the world. Where the mythological account could gracefully be accepted as a metaphor, this was not a problem, but when great value has been attached to literal interpretations, then it is a problem. Eventually, and slowly, science has supplanted any and all mythological accounts of the nature of the world. Science, then, is uniquely suited to serving the cosmological function of mythology, and does so today even if it is not understood to be a mythological account of the origins and the structure of the world.

In regard to the social function of mythology, I find the position of contemporary science to be very hopeful at the same time that it is very distressing. On the hopeful side, we have sciences of society that are becoming more sophisticated all the time. From an adequate social science human beings are in the position for the first time in the whole of human history to say what kind of cities function well, and which kind of cities function poorly; what kinds of intervention work well, and which kinds fail; what kind of societies are likely to provide health, wealth, and happiness, and which kinds of societies consistently fail to do so. On the distressing side, every utopian program derived from the most advanced social thought of every era of human history has been a disastrous failure that not only fails to provide for health, wealth, and happiness, but which more often than not is transformed in practice into a dystopian nightmare. Thus the ability of a social science to design and maintain even a mediocre society is in question, and we cannot yet count science as ready to fulfill the social function of mythology, even if we are optimistic about the hopeful progress of social science.

The psychological or personal function of mythology is, in some senses, the whole of the problem in miniature. If science can provide an adequate account of the individual, many of the other functions of mythology will fall into place; if science cannot provide an adequate account of the individual, nothing else will work. The best science of the human individual is to be found today in evolutionary psychology. While evolutionary psychology remains controversial, the growing body of work on evolutionary psychology is giving us insights into human nature as derived from our biology and our evolutionary history. We should distinguish criticisms of evolutionary psychology between the political rejections of evolutionary psychology (which is hated by both left and right, in the same what the both the political left and the political right ultimately cannot countenance natural history) and the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that rest on a is/ought conflation. The politicized rejection of evolutionary psychology is uninteresting, so I will ignore it, and only discussed is/ought conflation in the criticism of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a descriptive science with no normative content, but, sadly and inevitably, no matter how carefully one points out that evolutionary psychology only studies human history, and how we got to be the way that we are, and has nothing whatsoever to say about what we ought to do, nor does it contain any prescriptions, many are unconvinced and are profoundly disturbed by the unflattering evolutionary origins of behaviors that we think of as being typically human. The confusion over the word “natural” in contemporary popular culture embodies a similar problem, except that “natural” is not a scientific term. People use “natural” in ordinary language to describe the world apart from the intervention of human civilization, but they also use the world to express certain values, especially connecting nature with conservation values and environmental concerns. It is extremely difficult to talk about nature without others jumping to the conclusion that one is also going to advocate for a range of issues related to environmentalism. While advocacy may grow out of the growth of scientific knowledge (as was explicitly the case with Lori Marino), and scientists often grow to love their object of study no less their their personal contributions in terms of a theory of their object of study, there is no necessary connection between scientific knowledge and advocacy. It has been considered highly counter-intuitive that, for example, Michel Foucault has been called an “anti-humanist human scientist,” as it is simply assumed that if you study humanity by way of the human sciences, you will also be an advocate of humanity. Similarly with evolutionary psychology, it is often assumed that one is being an advocate for behaviors conditioned by evolutionary, rather than merely explaining the evolutionary mechanism that brought them about.

If we can get past these simple-minded conflations, evolutionary psychology can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our relations with others while in no sense arguing that we are obligated to blindly follow those instincts engendered in us by our evolutionary development. It is a familiar theme that human instinctual life must be repressed in the context of civilized life; this was, of course, the theme of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Another way to formulate this would be to observe that civilized life is incompatible with the instinctual life, so that evolutionary psychology would seem to provide no guide whatsoever to life in our industrial-technological civilization. But this is a deceptive claim to make. To understand the discontent of man in civilization, and especially the widespread anomie of alienated individuals, it is necessary to understand exactly the conflict between instinctual behavior and the behavior demanded by civilized society. Individuals who have studied evolutionary psychology have gained a unique measure of insight into these instinctual conflicts, and I think it is entirely reasonable to assert that such knowledge would likely be a help in guiding the individual through the stages of life experienced in civilized society — especially if evolutionary psychology were supplemented by an evolutionary account of the development of civilization — so that science could be said to be within reach of a robust ability to serve the psychological function of mythology.

This leaves us with the mystical or metaphysical function of mythology, and this will be the toughest task for science, because the science that has propelled industrial-technological civilization relentlessly forward has been a positivistically-conceived science that distances itself both from the mystical and the metaphysical, almost to the point of a cultivated ignorance of the tradition — what I have elsewhere called Fashionable Anti-Philosophy.

I see two possible sources for a mystical function that science could serve: 1. the eventual reconciliation of science with philosophy that allows science to draw from the resources of philosophy of produce a metaphysical conception consistent with modern science, or 2. a scientific theory of consciousness that is neither eliminativist or reductionist, but which gives a definitive account of consciousness that individuals without scientific training will feel is adequate to the explanation of their experience of the world. While many scientists are working on consciousness, and several scientifically-minded philosophers have claimed to “explain” consciousness, we cannot regard any of these efforts or explanations as yet being adequate to the task that would be required of a scientific approach to the mystical function of mythology.

A definitive scientific account of consciousness coupled with an account of evolutionary psychology, including evolutionary social psychology, would give a thorough descriptive account that could serve the mystical, social, and psychological functions as mythology as well as science now serves the cosmological function of mythology. The same is/ought distinction, however, the prevents us from being forced to regard a descriptive account of evolutionary psychology as a prescriptive account of how individuals and societies ought to conduct themselves, constitutes a limitation on the ability of science to function as a mythology, though even here science is not powerless. Sam Harris has recently written a book and given many lectures on the possibility of a scientific approach to morality, and while I disagree with his account, it demonstrates that scientific thought still has many resources that it can bring to the table. Here is where philosophy becomes indispensable. The kind of rapprochement between science and philosophy mentioned above as a possible source for a scientific metaphysics that could serve the mystical function of mythology is perhaps more crucial in overcoming the limitations of science to be prescriptive without violating the is/ought dichotomy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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