Thursday, March 03, 2005

On Truth and Myth

Dr. Lewis Thomas writes in The Lives of a Cell:

"Our most powerful story, equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution. Never mind that it is true whereas myths are not; it is filled with symbolism, and this is the way it has influenced the mind of society."

Dr. Thomas is a man of science as well as a fine essayist, and when he wrote those words, he had on his scientist's hat, but he had the underpants of the essayist on as well, so we may forgive him the teeny-tiny lapse in claiming that evolution is "true". Rhetorically, we don't see anything wrong with that. (By evolution, we mean the Theory of Evolution ny Natural Selection.) But if you want to be persnickety about it... Science is not in the business of looking for Truth. Science is in the business of looking for Fact and interpreting those facts within an accepted system. That system is the scientific method in which hypotheses are formulated and tested. The Theory of Evolution is the best interpretation of the facts observed by scientists and from these facts, they have proposed a theory that explains how species evolved. Observed phenomena can be interpreted through the Theory of Evolution. It sounds a bit circular but that's how it works. I for one am not about to tell working scientists how to do their job. The fact is, Evolution works. It works as a paradigm for interpreting the facts. Whether it is true or not is beyond its purview and scientists couldnt care less. Before the Copernican revolution, scientists could map the stars and planets and can make accurate predictions based on their observations on where the planets would be at certain times in the future. Accurate predictions. Never mind that they did so while working on the premise that the Earth is the center of the Universe. The Earth-centric model was 'true' at the time.

Dr. Thomas's observation that Evolution is equivalent in its way to universal myth is dead-on, however. And Im not using the word myth for Evolution disparagingly, and I dont think Dr. Thomas was either. Everthing--and I mean Everything--can be explained by evolution. From the origin of species, to the origin of behavior, socities, right and wrong, good and evil. It explains why I find Scarlett Johanssen cute, why I like dipping my pandesal in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and why I like the smell of napalm in the morning. It has indeed pervaded everything, it has "influenced the mind of society." Western society at least.

What I do find inappropriate is when Evolution is used beyond what it was meant for; when it is used to push an agenda for which it has no jurisdiction. For example, Evolution has absolutely nothing to say about the existence or lack thereof of a Creator. It's just not interested in it. "Evolution proves that God doesnt exist." Non sequitur. It does nothing of the sort. It doesnt even prove that the Judeo-Christian God doesnt exist if you allow for an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. I suspect that those who believe that Evolution proves that God doesnt exist are just annoyed at the barbaric acts done in the name of God more than anything else. They hope that by offering 'proof' of God's non-existence, they could best show people the folly of burning people at the stake or crashing a passenger plane into a building full of people. A noble enough intention, to be sure, but a bit dishonest. Teach children Evolution in schools, by all means. Teach it as Science, for in point of fact, it is scientific: it is a theory based on observable data. But teach Evolution as Truth? If youre going to teach it as Truth, then you have to allow for other stories as well. You have to allow for things that are not within the experience of everybody. You have to allow for personal experience. (Try to describe what a banana tastes like to another person such that that other person has the same sense of the banana as you do. You can't. The banana experience is yours alone. For another person to have a banana experience, they have to taste their own banana.) To teach it as Truth, you have to allow for poetry, for metaphysics. In short, you have to allow for Myth. Mythos is in the business of Truth.

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