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Reply To: The “Mythology” of Science


Wow, Andreas,

A blast from the past! It’s good to see you at this revival of Conversations of  Higher Order (COHO); you should notice a few familiar souls (though not everybody has the same cybermoniker as before). James has been quite active, and Nandu is around more these days (he recently started an intriguing thread on “Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell”).

For several years JCF sponsored a discussion group of on Facebook (the Mythic Salon) as a place holder of sorts, as the old forums succumbed to an aging website. That group ballooned to over 13,000 members; as active and dynamic as that was, we are talking social media. No matter how profound the posts in a thread, exchanges proved fleeting, tending to scroll down the screen and out of sight in hours, or days at most. And then Facebook never sleeps;  for moderators (Clemsy, aka Michael Lambert, and yours truly), it was truly exhausting.

So once the website was technologically advanced enough to support it, we shuttered the Salon and opted to create another iteration of The Conversations. The individual forums here are a bit different in their focus than you may remember, apart from the catch-all Conversation with a Thousand Faces. Folks tend to expect the Facebook experience, so there’s a little bit of culture shock to overcome – conversations aren’t automatically delivered to one’s newsfeed (in fact, I urge participants to check the “notify me of replies via email” box before clicking “submit” on a post), and you can’t click Like or Love and other sections. Nevertheless, momentum is slowly building.

As for this subject, I do recall a lively past discussion.

Your perspective on the myth of science (and maybe the science of myth) rings true for me – as does your Clemsy quote (“science can explain the how but it will never explain the why”). Pretty sure Joseph Campbell would be comfortable with that. Here’s an excerpt from a draft I’ve edited of a yet-to-be-published Campbell book, drawn from obscure interviews and unpublished Q & A sessions following lectures:



Well, evolution is a scientific finding to which the mythology must adjust itself. If it isn’t adjusted to, there is a stress between the mythological (or religious) and the actual experience of the world⁠.

I would say that all of our sciences are the material that has to be mythologized. A mythology gives the spiritual import—what one might call rather the psychological, inward import—of the world of nature round about, as understood today. There’s no real conflict between science and religion. Religion is the recognition of the deeper dimensions that the science reveals to us⁠. You find all kinds of suggestions in the world of modern physics. And boy, you can translate them into Sanskrit without any trouble. The Hindus have the whole thing already⁠!

Science deals with what in logic are called instrumental causes. But then there’s another order of causation, known as the formal cause, and that is very mysterious.  Scientists are right at this moment running into the mystery zone. They’ve pushed right to the edge of what can be known, analyzed, and interpreted simply in terms of instrumental causalities, and are themselves recognizing this.

So Erwin Schrödinger, this great physicist, turns to Hindu imagery in his book: “Tat tvam asi” and all is Brahman!  That’s what he ends up saying. Here is an intuitive insight that goes past the fields of time, space, observations, and realizes that the sphere of time and space is secondary to another.⁠

What is in conflict is the science of 2000 B.C, which is what you have in the Bible, and the science of the twentieth century A.D⁠. The mythic image does not fit the contemporary mind. So the message can’t get into the contemporary body. You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it⁠.”


Myth relates to narrative – the stories we tell ourselves. The scientific method, as Clemsy noted, focuses on the how – observable facts and results the can be replicated by others – where myth focuses on the why.

But those stories we tell ourselves shape what science finds, for good or ill.

For example, in the 18th century a commission of the French Academy of Sciences that included Antoine Lavoisier (“the father of modern chemistry”) conducted a study of a meteor, including a chemical analysis, that determined it was of earthly origin – a rock apparently struck by lightning – a conclusion arrived at in large part because everyone knows rocks don’t just fall down out of the sky. The peasants and farmers and other ordinary folk who had witnessed falling meteorites were a superstitious lot who no doubt misinterpreted what they saw.

As a result, museums in Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Bern and Verone, not wanting to appear foolish or superstitious,  purged their collections of meteors from two 16th century and four 17th century falls because, well . . . science! Within  few years science caught up to reality and affirmed that meteorites do exist – but the opportunity to study the make-up and origins of those discarded samples was forever lost.

This example is one of many cited by Joseph Campbell and his fellow authors of Changing Images of Man (a futuristic study  compiled in the mid-1970s for the Stanford Research Institute, a think tank now known as SRI International), noting that what science discovers is often limited by the collective image of humanity dominant in a given period – those background myths that shape our understanding of the universe. This is part of a case they made advocating scientific study of many things considered unscientific or superstitious at the time: biofeedback, dreaming, meditation, clairvoyance, telepathy, psychedelics, altered states of consciousness, yoga, etc.

Indeed, since then the science surrounding many of these (particularly the effects of yoga and meditation on well-being, the benefits of psychedelics, biofeedback, etc.) has opened up.

Of course, we don’t generally see an active myth as myth, but simply what is (“rocks don’t just fall down out of the sky, you know”), which can affect what science finds. So, while I would not identify science with myth, the two are entwined, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Good to see you back, Andreas!