Posted on April 2, 2022 by Larry Barnett
Truth can be elusive, so much so that the whole of the scientific method can be seen as a systematic attempt to find it. Our scientific age, some 300 years old, was preceded by countless eons of magical thinking and mythology, variously employed to explain both natural phenomena and the course of human events. Clearly, the absence of science as we know it has posed no obstacle in humanity’s race to find its future; unscientific belief systems based on superstition, religious faith, and tradition fueled ancient endeavors as massive as the construction of the pyramids of Egypt and as tiny as advice on daily diets.
The scientific method is not so much about proving what is true as it is about proving what is false. Controlled experimentation involves revealing incorrect assumptions, turning hypothetical claims to truth into hearsay, false assumptions, or flawed theories. Even then, the truth remains elusive; as the techniques of science improve, what has been held to be true frequently turns out to be false; time is not fixed, matter is not solid, observation itself modifies the results.
We live in an age of hyper-specialization, and due to modern scientific advances, most people lack the skills to fully understand the latest findings and conclusions. The mathematical complexity of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, genetic biochemistry, etc. makes it difficult for all but very few to fully grasp emerging scientific truth; language, reason, common sense and simple observation are insufficient.
Into this void enter our old habits of magical thinking and mythology, explanatory tools we use to make sense of the world. Unable to keep up with specialized science, but eager for explanations, we are drawn to more accessible answers to relieve our anxiety, even if they offer few proven solutions or cures. Scientifically illiterate ideas like injecting bleach or ingesting livestock dewormer are emerging as antidotes to Covid-19; past mythical remedies included burning witches and shunning the night air.
Although cultures differ widely in religious and social development, the lure of mythology unites us. Its common characteristics cross linguistic, cultural and educational boundaries – the belief in an afterlife, for example. Whether in pre-industrial or modern cultures, belief in an afterlife is widespread, although specific descriptions of it vary. Likewise, mythologies about health and diet persist, although they often contradict each other or defy rational explanation. Tomatoes, one of the most consumed foods in the world, were once considered poisonous. Even politics is subject to mythology; slogans, rumors, conspiracies and propaganda promote faith in heroes and villains, the substance of insurgencies.
The myth of the hero, the myth of freedom, the myth of the gods, all myths inhabit the space of the human imagination. Imagination allows us to project ourselves into metaphysical space while maintaining self-awareness rooted in physical reality, an activity that some neurologists refer to as sustained hallucination. This ability to psychologically occupy two places at once facilitates faith in the supernatural but, at its extremes, madness; if it is generalized, it generates social chaos and conflicts.
Magical thinking goes no further. That said, scientific rationality and cold reason are generally not so emotionally satisfying, neither exciting the artist or poet nor inflaming the senses of the audience. Mythology also fills this void, driving flights of imagination that stir the soul. This is how fiction in all its forms fascinates and entertains us but can also leave us seriously mytho.