Posted on Feb 26, 2013
I'm about a quarter of the way through John N. Oswalt's very readable The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? I've just been stopped short with a question about the relation of science to myth, and whether philosophcial materialism may itself be a form of myth.
Now I recognize there are a number of problems with that question. The first is that materialism is often associated with a certain school of thinking among scientists, which could cause anyone with half a brain's worth of regard for science to rise up in protest. Science (so the objection would go) is the very opposite of myth, for science reliably seeks and discovers what is true, withholds judgment on what cannot be known, and rejects all the superstitious and supernatural falsehoods for which myth is famous.
That's the first problem, and it's the easy one: I'm not talking about that sort of science, and I'm not talking about that sort of myth. In fact, by the end I hope to give you some hint of just how huge a difference there is between that so-called scientific way of thinking and actual science.
What Is Myth?
Myth is not necessarily untruth. This is the burden of most of Oswalt's message early in the book: to show that myth is not necessarily distinguished from other accounts according to whether it's true or not. He sets out at the start to discover a better definition for it, noting that anthropologists, literary specialists, and philosophers have proposed many definitions for myth, and for many, the truth or falsity of a story is secondary or even irrelevant. Oswalt surveys half a dozen or more proposed meanings for myth, and lands on one that best describes the way the term is actually used across times and cultures. He concludes that what best defines it is continuity and connectivity:
How shall we sum up these descriptive definitions of myth? At heart, they all recognize the one central feature that explains the several common features. Around the world, those literatures that express the deepest perceptions of a people or a culture tend to share the worldview of “continuity” or “correspondence.” Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that all things are continuous with each other. Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually. The tree is me, I am the tree. The same is true of every other entity in the universe, including deity. This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe that we know….
Is Philosophical Materialism Myth?
Now if the deity is part of the universe in that way, it becomes questionable what the word deity even means, which I think might allow me to assume the freedom of leaving it out of the definition provided here. I realize that move could be controversial, but as an experiment it leads us in very interesting directions. For if that's a fair move to make, then it strikes me that there is myth pervading much of Western culture—and I'm not speaking of New Age beliefs or religion. It is a worldview that holds there is unbroken continuity between the tree and me, and that humans are essentially of the same sort of thing as all other organisms and even with inanimate objects. It is a philosophy of deep continuity.
Though it neither flows from science nor is essential to its practice, still this worldview is often associated with certain scientists' way of thinking. But it's not actually science, or at least not science of the sort that reliably seeks and discovers what is true, withholds judgment on what is known, etc. It's just that some people want us to think this way of thinking is all tied up together with science. I am speaking, as I have already said, of philosophical materialism, the view that the physical world is all that there is: that there is nothing real except for matter, energy, and their interactions according to (or described by) inviolable natural law. This materialist view is prominent among the “New Atheists” in particular and the contemporary atheist movement in general.
Believers in materialism typically insist on the continuity of all things, for example that each living organism is just the sum total of its physics and chemistry, just as non-living things are. Everything is the same thing, only at different levels of complexity. Humans in particular have no free will, no true self, indeed no consciousness (all are illusions, on many versions of materialism), and no enduring reality that could possibly continue beyond death. We are one with the animals in that way, and also of course in our having evolved from them—and being ourselves just a snapshot in the process of evolution's career.
This is continuity. It is continuity without personality, so in that sense it differs from other myth (there's no point in my over-stating my case), although Oswalt explains that myth characteristically denies that personality is essential to reality, so to that extent it still fits. And yet there is one more thing Oswalt wrote on myth, which in the current light poses very serious problems for anyone thinking that materialism and scientific thinking go hand in hand. In fact, it seems to indicate they would have difficulty getting along with each other. Oswalt says (p. 44),
The lack of distinction [continuity] that we are discussing here can be stated in more abstract terms as a denial of the subject-object distinction. The subject is me and the object is something apart from me that I can contemplate. All science is based on this distinction. I am not the experiment, and if the experiment does not come out according to my expectations, I do not falsify the report in order to escape being diminished. That is, I do not do so if I am a good scientist. Why not? Because science believes that there is a reality that exists apart from me.
Science requires the subject-object distinction. It requires a me, a self that is not the experiment. For many materialists, though, the existence of a genuine me—a self—is problematical. It requires (if I may extend beyond Oswalt's point) a conscious, observing self, which is even more problematical; and it requires one who can choose what to study, observe, analyze, and report, which is adding difficulty on top of difficulty for materialists who typically deny that there is such a thing as human choice.
And so you see this materialist way of thinking, which many New Atheists say is essential to science, includes features that are deeply antithetical to science, which is why from the start here I've avoided saying it's really science. In fact it's really just another indication of the contradictions inherent in today's atheism.
It may even be an indication that materialism has more in common with myth than science.