Apr 15, 2023
“Mythology is common to all ages. There is no theology, philosophy, or science without it.”
According to popular consensus, mythology is an artifact of prehistory. In this view, mythology was replaced, first by religion, then by philosophy, and now by science. Isn’t it marvelous how something so completely wrong can be so widely believed?
Mythology is common to all ages. There is no theology, philosophy, or science without it. Each of these disciplines consists of a series of non-contradictory propositions. Each propositional edifice rests on a common set of normally unvoiced assumptions. That’s mythology – don’t leave home without it.
This is hard to accept because from our over-intellectualized post-Enlightenment perch to say that something is a ‘myth’ or ‘mythical’ is to suggest that it is untrue or unreal or even silly. In fact, however, a myth is never either true or false, real or unreal… or silly. Myth is a way of understanding the world, a form of trans-verbal language. “Myth is a system of communication; it is a message…it is a mode of meaning.” (Roland Barthes)
According to the Greek philosophical tradition, we understand the world in three ways: Gnosis, Logos and Mythos. Gnosis is knowledge. It is the first step back from raw experience. We organize what we think we know into large, internally consistent, but ultimately limited, bodies of knowledge (gnoses), e.g., science, philosophy, and theology.
These intellectual disciplines are often thought to conflict with one another, but actually, they have a complementary relationship. We need multiple overlapping gnoses to begin to sew together a mappa mundi (a map of the world). The insatiably curious child is just building her map.
Logos takes us a second step back from experience. Logos is the pattern formed by the elements of our various gnoses (above). It is because of logos that events can be defined, distinguished and ordered. Brute fact becomes useful knowledge (praxis). Genesis tells us about the world before logos: “…without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters –.”
With mythos, we take yet a third step back from raw experience. Mythos is an expression of our habits of mind, the unexamined assumptions that underlie logos; they allow us to do science, apply reason, and practice religion. In a logical or mathematical system, mythos represents the undefined terms.
Science reflects the perspective of the seeker, philosophy of the thinker and theology of the believer. Mythos aims to deliver a vision of the entirety from the perspective of the entirety. Mythology is how the world understands itself, what the world has to say about itself, with no scientist, philosopher, or theologian required. Mythos is recursion!
Logos gives us tools to translate experience into understanding. Mythos works in reverse. Mythos embodies certain trans-verbal and non-verbal assumptions about reality that enable us to have experience and to organize that experience first as gnoses, then as logos and ultimately as praxis, the application of logos. Far from being fairy tales, myths tell us what’s real (and what isn’t), what’s valuable (and what’s not).
A myth is not falsifiable. In fact, it is the nature of myth generally that it is not susceptible to ‘mere evidence’. Rather, it is mythology that defines what constitutes ‘evidence’ for any particular culture. As in Alice’s Looking-glass world, with mythos the verdict precedes the trial.
There are four dominant mythologies afoot in the world today. The first is Empiricism. It underpins the scientific world view. It embodies as articles of faith certain basic attitudes about the world that make science possible. What you see is what you get, and it’s all you get. It’s all you can get! It’s all there is to get.
This model is compatible with everything from Newtonian physics to Quantum Field Theory…but that’s the whole idea. We’re not talking about any one physical theory or model here; we’re talking about an attitude of mind that lies behind all such models and makes them possible.
The second myth is Humanism. Humanity collectively and each human being individually is the center of the universe, morally if not physically. The origin of the universe is unimportant. What matters is that it exists now and has sentient beings in it. Those sentient beings are what give it meaning. Human experience is truth. The wellbeing of humanity is justice.
The third myth is Rationalism. It judges systems of axioms and theorems, based on their internal consistency. The world is fundamentally a rational place, so human beings can rely on reason to find answers to their deepest questions.
The fourth myth is Transcendentalism. It situates the space-time universe in the context of non-spatial, non-temporal eternity. It is that eternal realm that gives events in the temporal realm their value and, ultimately, their meaning. Values have a transcendental origin and so per se are absolute, although their expressions, applications, and interpretations will vary from culture to culture…and from person to person.
Values are sub-structural; essence precedes existence. Values are not relative nor merely normative; they are generative. Entities are not incidentally good; they are because and to the extent that they are good. Value is not an extrinsic measure of an entity; it is the intrinsic source of its being.
We need to know what’s real and what’s valuable. This is our primal question, and no gnosis (knowledge) or logos (intellect) by itself can answer that. For better or worse, we are ultimately dependent on unverifiable mythos to guide us through life. Before we deduce a verdict from the evidence, we have to know what counts as ‘evidence’ and what doesn’t. That’s the function of mythology.
We are swimming in uncharted (and unchartable) waters. Like Kierkegaard, we all make our own leap of faith, our own leap in the dark, however unwittingly and unwillingly; and as we do so, mythology is our only guide.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.