Saturday, November 21, 2009

Logos, meet Mythos

Devdutt Pattanaik in a brilliant TED talk explains the contrasts between Eastern and Western thought, and how each is fundamentally rooted in mythology, albeit very different mythologies. Well worth twenty minutes of this life.

19 comments:

Don Geddis said...

Yeah, I didn't care for it. I know you're a big fan of this kind of thing (e.g. the positive effects of religion), but to me, science really can replace all mythology.

I suppose, as a theory of history, it's reasonable to explore how culture affected past decision-making. So that part was interesting.

But I don't think it's much of a guide to our personal futures.

Ron said...

Just because I acknowledge that religion has (some) positive effects doesn't make me a "big fan." I harp on this sort of thing not because I want to find common ground for its own sake. I think there is a much deeper and more important issue. Of course science can (actually I would say could) replace all mythology, but so far it hasn't. Why not? The answer to that question is NOT that the world is full of stupid people, as the Dawkinses and Hitchinses seem to tacitly assume. It is because (I claim) that science has done a terrible job of marketing itself. And one of the reasons it has done such a terrible job is because it has pooh-poohed myth as "mere" fiction. It's true that myth is fiction, but it is not "mere" fiction. Myth is not "mere" anything. Myth is powerful, so much so that a case can be made that the power of myth actually drove the development of Western civilization and hence even science itself. That was the take-home message for me from Pattanaik's talk.

Don Geddis said...

Ah. OK. Yes, that makes sense.

Chris Ryland said...

It seems to me obvious on the face of it that you have to make the gigantic assumption of materialism in order to assume that science will eventually replace all religion.

And that's called begging the question. If there is more to the universe than the matter it contains, science will never be able to address that question.

And it also seems obvious to me, but not to most scientists, that even materialists have to face the ultimate answer of Where did all this matter come from? Matter is contingent--it doesn't have to exist. Then why does it exist?

(Simple argument for the existence of a creator from the contingency of matter.)

Don Geddis said...

Chris, if you really think there's a simple logical argument that can "prove" the (personal, interventionist) Judeo-Christian god really exists, you're in for a world of disappointment.

As for science, it's really (in the abstract) a way of taking everything that you are able to observe, and concluding likelihoods for all possible theories that could explain the observations.

You really only have two choices when you think about these things. Either you're making conclusions which are supported by the evidence you can observe (in which case you're doing science), or else you're indulging in fantasy, not connected with any observation from reality.

There's really nothing else. You have access to no source of truth about the universe, aside from observing it.

Now, that said, there will be some questions (as you've noticed) which science is unable to give an answer to at this time. (Perhaps it will later!) But that doesn't mean that making up an answer has gotten you any closer to real truth. The failure of science to answer a question is not evidence that your fantasy answer is more likely to be true.

Start with Descartes ("I think therefore I am.") Try to figure out how you ever make any progress from there. How can you ever come to know anything about anything? (C.f. "epistemology")

It's easy to make up all sorts of feel-good stories. (As human civilizations have done throughout time.) But the question is: what ties any of those stories to what is actually out there, in the real universe?

Ron said...

> It seems to me obvious on the face of it that you have to make the gigantic assumption of materialism in order to assume that science will eventually replace all religion.

I didn't say that science *will* replace all religion, only that it *could*. I also specifically noted that it *hasn't*, and I'll go out on a limb here and predict that unless some significant changes are made in the way that science presents itself to the world, it *won't*.

> As for science, it's really (in the abstract) a way of taking everything that you are able to observe, and concluding likelihoods for all possible theories that could explain the observations.

No, that's not true. Science is a way of finding probable explanations for everything that you are able to observe reliably and repeatably. But we all have our own privileged vantage point so there will always be things that I can observe that you can't, and vice versa, so there always remains the possibility that I (or you) will observe -- or have observed -- things that will forever be beyond the reach of science.

We've had this discussion at least once before.

Don Geddis said...

Ron: sure, sure ... but I think you're making a point here that is very subtle, compared to the vast gulf in perspective between scientists, vs. Chris's "argument [...] from the contingency of matter".

Ron said...

> I think you're making a point here that is very subtle

Apparently :-)

But just because it's subtle doesn't mean it is without consequence.

Curt Sampson said...

I never expected to find myself on the opposite side of this question from Ron, but, despite being quite committed to science as the salvation of the world, as it were, I don't see how it can replace mythology, at least not without a fairly major biological change in the way our brains work. We appear to be wired to work from stories, good stories resonate for us, and science doesn't really provide those, because science always requires doubt. I think the best we can do is a temporary abandonment of doubt while reading Homer or whatever, tempered by using literary criticism and similar means to explore what these sorts of stories might really be saying, and why we'd be inclined to base our actions around them.

No amount of marketing from science can fix this because science is designed to avoid exactly the kind of marketing that appeals to people, because that's in many ways a recipe for failure in science. I certainly don't think that science "pooh-poos[s] myth as 'mere' fiction;" I think that science has been making progress into why stories so appeal to us. See, for example, books such as Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions.

I wasn't terribly impressed by the presentation, either. It's got some interesting insights into different cultural values and how they affect the way we live our lives and run our businesses, but these are not new insights, especially to anybody who's ever spent a fair amount of time living in and learning to understand a culture different from his or her own.

Ron said...

> I don't see how it can replace mythology, at least not without a fairly major biological change in the way our brains work.

That's an ironic statement from someone who is "committed to science as the salvation of the world." Clearly science has replaced mythology for *you*. Do you think your brain has major biological differences from other people's brains?

But I'm actually not suggesting that science *replace* mythology. That's not going to happen. It's not because there's a fundamental biological limitation, but just because people *like* their myths just like they like their chocolate and alcohol and internet porn (and for exactly the same reason it is worth noting).

The answer is not to try to eliminate myth. (Prohibition never works.) The answer is to offer better myths.

> science doesn't really provide those, because science always requires doubt

Why is doubt an impediment to telling a good and powerful story? In fact, have you seen the movie "Doubt"?

> No amount of marketing from science can fix this because science is designed to avoid exactly the kind of marketing that appeals to people, because that's in many ways a recipe for failure in science.

I think its possible to develop a mythology that is compatible with science, that serves the purpose of mythology without compromising science. There are existence proofs: science fiction, for example, is a sort of mythology. Star Trek and Star Wars in particular show signs of becoming fully-fledged myths that actually serve the purpose of mythology. Star Trek even has a code of ethics ("The Prime Directive") associated with it! Even classical mythologies exhibit a very wide range of compatibility with science, with fundamentalism at one extreme, and, say, Judaism at the other. (It is no coincidence that so many great scientists have been Jewish.) It's certainly not going to be easy, but I don't think it's hopeless.

Actually, Judaism is a perfect example. It is actually not only acceptable for Jews to doubt the existence of God, it is required! (ref: Prager and Telushkin: Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism).

> I certainly don't think that science "pooh-poos[s] myth as 'mere' fiction;"

Science may not, but some scientists (and Scientists) certainly do, notably Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris.

Curt Sampson said...

Science has replaced mythology for me, yes. But I am certainly unusual in that; few people seem to be able to accept that there's no inherent meaning to the universe, and any meaning we find has been assigned by us. My brain most likely does not have major biological differences from other peoples', I just happen to be one of the rare people that can overcome the tendencies we've evolved, at least in that particular respect. (Note that this may also leave me less psychologically stable than many others, too, for all I know.)

Can science offer better myths? I doubt it. Myths are all about assigning meaning to things, which is something that science does not do.

I've not seen the movie Doubt, though it sounds interesting enough that I avoided reading the plot summary on Wikipedia to avoid spoiling it when I get a chance to see it.

As for Star Trek and Star Wars, these certainly have strong and appealing stories for many people, but I wouldn't say that they are in any way compatible with science. These two sets of stories, actually, particularly Star Wars, fall much more into the "fantasy" category than "science fiction."

I can't speak for Dawkins and others, of course, but I suspect that they, as I, enjoy fiction and realize that creating and consuming function is a key part of being human. It's just that you use fiction to understand human behaviour, not to understand the physical behaviour of the world.

Ron said...

> few people seem to be able to accept that there's no inherent meaning to the universe, and any meaning we find has been assigned by us

Yes, but that is because that idea has not been marketed very well.

> Can science offer better myths? I doubt it. Myths are all about assigning meaning to things, which is something that science does not do.

That's exactly right. Science can't offer myths. But Scientists (capital S) can.

> As for Star Trek and Star Wars, these certainly have strong and appealing stories for many people, but I wouldn't say that they are in any way compatible with science.

"2001" then. Or "Contact." Or "The Golden Compass." Or:

http://mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTaoist.html

> It's just that you use fiction to understand human behaviour, not to understand the physical behaviour of the world.

But human behavior *is* (part of) the physical behavior of the world.

Try this: science gives you the power to choose your fate. Myth gives you the wisdom to decide which fate to choose.

Curt Sampson said...

That the idea that life has no inherent meaning is not very popular because it "has not been marketed very well" is a pretty bold statement.

2001? Better, but that bit at the end was either sheer fantasy or a pretty good acid trip.

I suppose I need to qualify my statement that "science is the salvation of the world," and say instead that it is an essential part of the salvation that must be applied broadly and wherever possible. We need more than that, in my opinion, because science does not make value judgements. Science merely describes how things work.

And that leads me to believe that science cannot provide myths, since I feel (admittedly without a good basis for this at this point) that myths incorporate value judgements. Certainly scientists can provide myths, and quite probably good ones, but not in their role as scientists.

So "myth [giving] you the wisdom to decide which fate to choose" works for me, but it seems to me that myth cannot come from science, since, from a purely scientific point of view, whether we turn earth into Utopia or Hell, they're both interesting phenomena.

Ron said...

> That the idea that life has no inherent meaning is not very popular because it "has not been marketed very well" is a pretty bold statement.

Really? Why? Do you think that idea has been marketed well? Why do you think it hasn't gotten more traction?

I agree with you that myth cannot "come from" science. What I think is needed are more effective and positive myths that are compatible with science.

Curt Sampson said...

Do I think that the idea has been marketed well? No, certainly not, in the sense that there's not been what you could call a successful marketing campaign with a lot of take-up amongst the targeted consumers. But my question is more along the lines of, "Can it be marketed successfully?"

My proposal here is that science is essentially nihilistic. It doesn't make value judgements (in the sense of saying one "should" do this or that); it studies what is, rather than what should be. To be able to do this, it cannot have value judgements beyond "this theory predicts things well or not." It cannot provide a guide for how to live your life.

That's not to say that science is not extremely important. It's the best way we've found for trying to predict the consequences of actions. But, and I realize I sound as if I'm reversing myself in a way here, it's only a part of what you need to decide how to live your life. For science, in a sense there's nothing to market.

So where do I get these ideas about how to live my life, and how to treat other people? I'm not sure now. It seems that I'm just as dependent as a Catholic in my reliance on what seems to be faith.

At any rate, I'm entirely and violently in agreement with you that what "is needed are more effective and positive myths that are compatible with science."

Thanks for this argument/discussion, by the way. It certainly seems to be leading me towards rethinking things that really needed better examination.

This really needs discussion over a beer. (The congruence of location being the key part of that.)

Ron said...

> Thanks for this argument/discussion, by the way. It certainly seems to be leading me towards rethinking things that really needed better examination.

Thanks. You just made my day.

> This really needs discussion over a beer. (The congruence of location being the key part of that.)

You're in Tokyo, right? I don't think I'm going to be back there any time soon (bummer!) but any time you're in LA drop me a line. Beer's on me.

Don Geddis said...

Curt: do you know much economics? The bulk of it is descriptive: if you institute such and such a policy, then we predict the following long-term stable economic equilibrium.

But it's a pretty short jump from there, to normative economics. E.g. pareto optimal: if you could make one person better off while making nobody else worse off, you "ought" to do it. Or macroeconomic policy: if you adopt the following procedure, then you'll smooth out the business cycles, and have less recessions and unemployment.

Basically, you only need a few high-level shared goals, such as relieving suffering, or making some better off at no cost to others, in order to turn "is" descriptive science, in to "ought" normative mythology.

Ron said...

Yes! Don Geddis FTW!!!

Curt Sampson said...

Don: yes, I have what I would consider a moderate layman's knowledge of the basics of economics. And I certainly agree that, once you've got some goals for a society, economics is a fantastic tool for helping you head towards them. (Or, ideally, dissuading you of those goals if they're extremely difficult to achieve.)

But economics doesn't provide those goals, does it? In fact, in many real situations, economics is going to tell us things such as "doing this will likely result in more people miserable relative to the current standard of living, but not doing so will likely result in a lower standard of living in ten years." That's excellent information to have, but doesn't help with the hard moral problem there.

So I suppose what I'm really arguing here is that science as a discipline doesn't appear to provide moral guidance; it provides only the tools to more effectively implement the moral system you picked up elsewhere. Is anybody here arguing otherwise?

And an interesting question: I posit that scientists, as a group, seem somewhat "more moral" than other groups of people. Why is this? Do they simply better understand the effects of what they do (i.e., others are just as moral, but don't understand the result of their less moral actions)? Or is there something else there? Perhaps scientists better understand their interdependence with the rest of society, and that their own personal fortunes hinge on the stability and wealth of the whole society, not just a part of it?