Saturday, May 21, 2011

Myths and Legends and Science

While reading a lengthy blog post about atheist/theist arguments that science can't explain everything - thus religion had the answer - I wondered what may be most helpful to a non-believer - critical reasoning or science. While I believe they're both essential, I reflected on science first, and before I knew it, this blog post was complete.

Science is relevant to people and organizations of people when they identify things that they need to or want to understand. The motive might be pure knowledge - to answer questions like "what are those points of light in the sky?" or "where did we come from?". The motive might be to overcome a problem, such as designing a building so that it bears the weight of its own structure and withstands wind forces. The motive might be financial, such as designing smaller mobile appliances. The motive may be to benefit mankind - as the ongoing effort to cure cancer is (with the appropriate financial compensation, of course). At every step of the way, something that we didn't know is revealed to us ... and large mysteries are eliminated.

We know what lightning is. We know what hurricanes are. We know what earthquakes are. We know what tsunamis are. We also know what cause these things. In the distant past, we didn't know what these things were ... thousands of years ago, when a flood happened, or a drought happened, or wildfires, pestilence, lightning, earthquakes, eclipses, rainbows happened - these things were scary, awesome, beautiful, mysterious ... and our ancestors tried to explain them. They didn't know about plate tectonics or weather or the buildup and discharge of electricity in the atmosphere or how the moon orbits the earth or any number of other things that grade school kids know today - so they made up explanations.

They knew that they were smarter than other animals. They were self aware and able to plan and execute their plans. They had emotions. They put all of these facets of their being together and imagined that bigger, more powerful, more awesome versions of themselves were behind floods and droughts and earthquakes and the like. For thousands of years, there was no way to discover the underlying reasons for natural phenomena - so these stories were refined and repeated and the good ones persisted and the bad ones dropped by the way side.

Soon, man developed writing, and began to record these wondrous tales. The many myths and legends that may have been originated by and perpetuated by clans and tribes were assimilated into or discarded from fewer and fewer tales that had resonance with people. If the people survived, their tales survived. In some cases, the tales were strengthened when a powerful leader took the tales for his own - leading to further clearing of the mythological landscape.

When man began to gather into larger and larger groups - when villages and towns and cities arose, there was a need for keeping people aligned with each other and the intentions of the powerful ... and these now-maturing myths and legends acted as a way to keep the people aligned, and incidentally, to keep the powerful in power.

Two, three thousand years ago, the rituals and beliefs and organizations and ethics that were built upon these myths and legends were augmented by governments and academicians as civilization advanced. There has been tension ever since, as the religions that had primacy early in history were overtaken, then overtook, then were overtaken again, by the pursuit of equitable ways of building societies and academic pursuits that attempt to explain and master the world.

So religion is in tension with government and the pursuit of knowledge. In America, religion has done well to co-opt government somewhat, while the pursuit of knowledge tends to diminish the foundations upon which religion was originally built.

Today, we know to be skeptical of claims of the supernatural. There has never been an elf or leprechaun sighting that could be independently, objectively verified by parties that did not have a stake in the potential veracity of the claim. The same is true of dragons, angels, demons, ghosts and gods. There has never been a prophecy of true significance made that could be verified. No magic has ever been performed. No resurrections have occurred. No one has been swept up into the sky in flaming chariots.

Most everything that man ascribed to gods and demons and angels and spirits two, three and four thousand years ago has been explained, and the few really thorny questions that remain are within reach. The question of how life began may be answered in our lifetimes. The question of how the universe "began" - or more correctly, what happened at the earliest possible instant we can observe, may take several lifetimes, but the frontier of knowledge is pushed further toward the beginnings of observable existence every year. Gods, angels, demons, spirits, elves and leprechauns have no place in the world anymore.

I started this post thinking that it would be about how you don't need science to be a non-believer. But you do need knowledge. And knowledge comes from academics and science and industry and society and the sum total of our experiences and observations. So ... somewhere, out front or behind the scenes, science is at work pushing forward the frontier of what can be known, and eliminating the ground upon which superstition and the supernatural once flourished.

It will always be so.

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