#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.