Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Mythology of Science: Telling Stories Around the Campfire of the Universe

Today's Science: Tomorrow's Mythology?

"I would say that all our sciences are the material that has to be mythologized. A mythology gives spiritual import - what one might call rather the psychological, inward import, of the world of nature round about us, as understood today. There's no real conflict between science and religion ... What is in conflict is the science of 2000 BC ... and the science of the 20th century AD." --Joseph Campbell, from an interview with Jeremy Mishlove

When I talk to people about modern mythology, many mistakenly believe I'm talking about urban legends. And while theoretical debates about alligators in the sewers of New York may be entertaining, they are certainly not as important to me as the mythic framework of human society. In fact I feel urban legends are more akin to cultural "white noise," than any kind of true mythology.

In the past, I think mythology (and today contemporary religion) served as a medium for the transmission of culture, social mores, and world views. They were narratives that help broadly define an individual's sense of reality. They were important, because they gave purpose to people's lives.

In this broad context, even "science" can be viewed as a mythological construct. Science has its own creation story (the big bang), as well as "deities" that help us make sense of our environment--personifications of nature that define our understanding of existence. The familial pantheon of protons, neutrons, and electrons would be meaningless without their colorful interactions with each other. They are symbolically very similar to Greek gods, each playing an archetypal role, and given an important task to keep the universe running.

"Your ancestors called it magic...but you call it science.
I come from a land where they are one and the same."
-Thor, Marvel Entertainment 

Interactions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Things once attributed to magic by early man, are now the province of gravity, light waves, and theoretical physics. Even the search for the higgs-boson particle is similar to mythic quests for fire, a golden fleece, or a holy grail.

We look back at our history, and laugh at ancestors who thought the sun was a fireball pulled across the heavens by a flying chariot, or that our world was flat and everything orbited around us. Who can deny that our great-great-grandchildren will be shaking their heads at what we today posit as scientific "fact?"

It is in our nature to tell stories: they help us make sense of our chaotic existence. There is nothing wrong with wanting to leave a night light on in our dark and frightening universe.  We shouldn't feel ashamed to pull a blanket of familiarity close, when the strange and inscrutable creeps up, sucking the warmth of happiness from our bones, and stealing our sense of safety from us. We should offer our blanket world-view to those who need the warmth. 

Mythology (Photo credit: KairosOfTyre)
But it is a truly despicable thing to burn our  neighbors blankets out of spite, just because they don't want to use ours.

Does it really matter what people believe? What your blanket is made from? What pattern is woven into it, or even who gave it to you?

Reality is in the eye of the beholder.  It doesn't matter what 'is.' To humanity, what matters is what 'seems to be.'  And if there is one thing you can count on about humanity, it's that everyone has their own opinion.

Physics or magic; religion or science; in an inexplicable existence, the only thing you can count on is that we will never know the meaning of our existence.  After all, the only meaning a life has, is the meaning we give it.  Does it matter where that meaning comes from?  Whether your neighbor thinks that meaning is fact, or just wishful thinking?

We are all stories; we all have a beginning and an end. And in our personal mythologies, what really matters isn't how much wealth we acquire, or how much we learn, or even how many battles we survive. In the end, all we have is our experiences, our stories.
Starchild (Photo credit: Starscapes)
Monuments crumble, empires fall, and kings are forgotten...what we leave behind, what survives, are the myths of what we've done; the feats we've accomplished; the terrible mistakes we've survived.

So hold your blankets close, and huddle next to one another for warmth. As the embers of life begin to fade, and the cold mysterious night creeps ever closer; look up at the stars and smile...the universe is big, the night is dark--but we are not alone. 

Enjoy each other's company, and share the story of your life--and be thankful if it isn't boring...

-Peter Usagi

[Check out some of the books, albums, and soon movies produced by Mythos Media and our various media partners.]
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