Monday, December 12, 2011

The Relationship of Myth and Science

One of the most important mythic/philosophic/spiritual ideas across human civilization is the idea of the great chain of being.  Part of this idea is the notion of distinct hierarchies within existence, i.e. the material, the living, the cultural, the intellectual, and the spiritual.  The number and naming of these hierarchies differ somewhat in different traditions, but the basic distinctions are named in each civilization.

Western science, by and large, has attacked this hierarchy.  Rather than the differences, it has emphasized the points in common between matter and life, the biological and the cultural, and on the whole it has simply denied a category above the cultural.  It is interesting to note that although science has attacked this hierarchy, the divisions of science itself are built upon it; we still commonly divide the sciences as the physical sciences, the life sciences, and the social sciences.  Within academia, beyond the sciences, we have the humanities, the domain of a fourth level.  (Here, I will ignore the category of the spiritual.)    While the division between the physical and biological sciences has blurred somewhat in recent years, the division between the biological and social sciences seems to have become more and more distinct.

In a recent post, I emphasized that from the perspective of creativity, humans are unique among living creatures.  I have made this suggestion many times over the years, and the response is predictable.  Inevitably people will deny any human uniqueness, and point out some vestigial intentionality, creativity, or symbol manipulation in some other species of animals as evidence.  The magnitude of the difference between a chimpanzee using a stick to get termites and sending a spacecraft to the moon and back is apparently considered unimportant.   

It seems to me that the idea of the non-uniqueness of humans is a religious idea for some people with a scientific outlook in much the same way that an absolute distinction between humans and other animals is a religious idea for many Christians and followers of other religions.   Probably it is a reaction to it.  It seems to me a matter of common sense that the distinction is striking and noteworthy, but not absolute.  Similarly, the distinction between the living and the non-living is striking and noteworthy, but not absolute. 

On most matters about the world, I think the religious view needs to accept the superior answer of science; on the matter of this hierarchy, however, I think it is science that most give way.  It is correct that the distinctions are not absolute, but wrong in not recognizing that the distinctions are striking and noteworthy.

It is interesting to note that within science itself, there has emerged the idea of emergence which provides grounding for the ancient idea of the hierarchy of being.   Whether emergence qualifies as a theory or not, is not important.  If it is nothing more than an alternate way of describing the world, it still accomplishes this task. 

Recently the idea of “big history” has become popular, with several books providing the outline of the great story of physical, biological, and cultural evolution.   It will not surprise me if the battle between the hierarchical and non-hierarchical views of our world will get played out in big history.  There are those who hope that big history will provide a common story that all humanity can share.  It will do so, I think, only if it fairly incorporates the distinctions common to the great chain of being.  In doing that, science and myth could at last come to some common ground.

(This post is a response to a post at the Humanistic Paganism site, titled “Saving the marriage of science and myth.”  Although my own thinking on this did not come from the writings of Ken Wilbur, I will note that he has written quite extensively, and quite well, on this topic.)

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