When we are mythtaken

Truth can be elusive, so much so that the entirety of the scientific method may be seen as a systematic attempt to find it. Our scientific age, roughly 300 years old, was preceded by uncountable eons of magical thinking and mythology, variously employed to explain both natural phenomena and the course of human events. Clearly, the absence of science as we know it posed no hurdle in humanity’s race to find its future; non-scientific belief systems based upon superstition, religious faith, and tradition fueled ancient efforts as massive as the construction of Egypt’s pyramids and as minuscule as guidance about daily diets.

The scientific method is predicated not so much on proving what’s true, but what’s false. Controlled experimentation is about revealing incorrect assumptions, rendering hypothetical claims to truth as hearsay, false supposition, or failed theory. Even then, truth remains elusive; as the techniques of science improve, what has been taken to be true is frequently revealed as false; time is not fixed, matter is not solid, observation itself alters outcomes.

We live in an age of hyper-specialization, and due to modern scientific advances, most people do not have the skills to fully understand the latest discoveries and conclusions. The mathematical complexity of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, genetic biochemistry, and the like make it challenging for all but the very few to fully grasp emerging scientific truth; language, reason, common sense, and simple observation are inadequate.

Into this void step our well-worn habits of magical thinking and mythology, tools of explanation we use to make sense of the world. Unable to keep up with specialized science, yet craving explanation, we’re drawn to more accessible answers to relieve our anxiety, even though they offer little in the way of proven solutions or remedies. Scientifically illiterate ideas like injecting bleach or swallowing a livestock de-wormer emerge as antidotes to Covid-19; past mythical remedies included burning witches and avoiding the night air.

Although cultures differ widely in religious and social development, the allure of mythology unites us. Its common features cross linguistic, cultural, and educational borders – belief in an afterlife, for example. Whether in preindustrial or modern cultures, belief in an afterlife is widespread, even while specific descriptions of it vary. Similarly, mythologies about health and diet persist, although they often contradict each other or defy rational explanation. Tomatoes, one of the most widely consumed foods in the world, were once considered poisonous. Even politics is subject to mythology; slogans, rumors, conspiracies, and propaganda foster faith in heroes and villains, the stuff of insurrections.

The myth of the hero, the myth of freedom, the myth of the gods – all myths inhabit the space of human imagination. Imagination allows us to project ourselves into metaphysical space while simultaneously maintaining self-consciousness grounded in physical reality, an activity some neurologists classify a sustained hallucination. This capacity to psychologically occupy two places at the same time facilitates faith in the supernatural but, at its extremes, madness; if widespread, it breeds social chaos and conflict.

Magical thinking goes only so far. That said, scientific rationality and cool reason are not generally as emotionally satisfying, stirring neither the artist or poet nor igniting the public’s senses. Mythology fills that void, too, piloting flights of imagination that stir the soul. So it is that fiction in all its forms excites and entertains us but can also leave us seriously mythtaken.

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