myth of scienceOverview

If, as some literary theorists assert, science is a myth, then we need to understand what myths are, and how science could be limited in this way.

Introduction: Ernst Cassirer

Religion, science and art are all pictures of experience, symbolically created to give meaning to life. So thought Ernst Cassirer. {1} They were the emotion-laden, unmediated "language" of experience, which couldn't interrogated for a more primary intellectual meaning. And as to where they came from, the ultimate ground of their representation, one couldn't ask: that was extending everyday attitudes into areas where they didn't belong. Cassirer's thought returned to Kant, whose terminology was inconsistent and misleading but whose central thesis he extended — that the ideal was not something exterior to man but a regulative principle necessary if sense experiences were to be integrated, completed and given systematic unity. Our picture of the world today is very different from Kant's, but Cassirer argued that the great philosopher's categories could be modified to take account of such modern notions as quantum theory and relativity.

Galileo believed the world should be understood in mathematical terms alone, not through commonsense notions or sense experiences. Men produce these concepts to verify and correct these mathematical principles, which are objective and real in a conceptual sense. Whence come these concepts? From mind, said Descartes, attempting to make mind an equal partner with God. {2} And these concepts have substance: extended space and time are real things existing independently of us. Objects themselves furnish the simple ideas in which mind conceives them, said Locke. {3} Impossible, retorted Berkeley. They are creations of the mind, fictions, or would be if they were not in the language through which God speaks to man. {4} But Hume did away even with God. The origin of impressions can only be attributed to unknown causes external to us. Imagination produced concepts like consistency and coherence. The self was only a bundle of sensations. Knowledge may be certain (geometry) or probable (facts of the world) but comes down at last to psychology. {5}

Scientists joined the debate. Zeller denied the Hegelian view that knowledge could be swooped upon from above: its construction had to be taken into account. Helmholtz equated knowledge with signs brought to our awareness through perceptions, so that lawful order preexisted in our perception, even if matter was a fundamental reality. For Mach a thing was a thought symbol, standing for a complex of sensations of a relatively fixed nature. He emphasized the need for links between theories and perceptions at every level and turn. A physical law had no more factual validity than the individual facts combined. Hertz saw the fundamental concepts of theoretical physics as patterns of possible experiences and not copies of actual experiences. Duhem regarded theories as deductive abstractions of individual laws that were characterized by mathematical elegance and simplicity. {6}

Without much influence — Susanne Langer may be his only important follower — Cassirer fought against metaphysical notions of ultimate reality on one hand, and reductionism on the other. Gödel showed the impossibility of any intellectual system judging itself. Tarski's 1931 incompleteness theorem drew on the interconnectedness of matter, which cannot be imagined in axiomatic systems. To that extent, no axiomatic system, no formal language, is ever final. Kuhn argued that science does not progress towards truth but undergoes revolutions in which one pattern of thought (paradigm) is replaced by another less complicated or unwieldy. Elsasser regarded biological systems as open and non-deterministic, allowing them in some ways to be self-directing. {7}


What are myths? The word comes from mythos, Greek for story, and is commonly taken to mean fictions or fabrications. Some anthropologists were inclined to rationalize away myths as memories of some historical figure, or as crude, pre-scientific accounts of natural phenomena by native peoples. {8}

But that didn't explain their power or significance. In his studies of native peoples, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the meaning of myths lay not in their surface content but in their underlying structure, an idea which combined with ideas of Saussure and Jakobson to produce Structuralism and good deal of other literary theory. Isabel MacCaffrey, for one, interpreted the Christian myth in Milton's Paradise Lost not as representation but the "rendering of certain stupendous realities now known only indirectly in the symbolic signatures of earthly life." {9}

In a similar way, the psychoanalyst Jung (1875-1961) had postulated shapings of psychic energy or archetypes which emerged into human consciousness in dreams, mental illness and art. Of course, archetypes were not structures, being processes or perspectives rather than content, but they dealt with number and rationality as much as with artistic and emotional expression.

From this meeting of philosophy, anthropology and psychiatry, several new schools of literary theory emerged. Perhaps the best known is that of Northrop Frye, whose Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths in his Anatomy of Criticism {10} brought individual, apparently unrelated archetypal images into an hierarchical framework of myths which could be seen to organize the whole of literature. Myth theory has its shortcomings — the myths "revealed" can be somewhat arbitrary, and have little to say on the quality of a work under review — but the approach does recognize structures that can be studied.

Rather more individual has been C.L. Barber's examination of Shakespearean comedy: the release achieved by the plays leads to social clarification that was related to the ceremonial, ritualistic and mythic conception of human life evolving into a psychological and historical understanding among Shakespeare's contemporaries. {11} René Girard has looked at ritual sacrifice and myth in ancient Greek drama, suggesting that the violence inflicted on the victim is a metamorphosis of a communal violence more deeply-rooted in the human condition than we are willing to admit. {12}


Many of the commonplaces of science are difficult to understand in everyday terms — even the simplest, probability, tossing a coin. If we obtain one hundred heads in a row, what are the chances of the next throw producing heads. Fifty-fifty, says the statistician. Less than that, says the layman, or the chances of heads and tails equalling out over a long experiment will not be achieved. But that means the previous results will affect the future, says the statistician, which clearly cannot be. And what of bizarre accidents for which actuaries have calculated the probabilities? What makes horses throw and kill their mounts at a certain statistical level? And how do they consistently achieve that level? {13}

In nuclear physics we have Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in which the position and velocity of a particle cannot both be precisely determined: define one more accurately and greater uncertainty attaches to the other. No doubt any attempt to measure a property of something so small will have an effect on its properties, but there are more difficult matters. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment of 1935, and J.S. Bell's theorem of 1964 both ask how, if we have a two particle system of zero spin — meaning that particle A has spin up and particle B spin down — changing the spin of one particle automatically and immediately (faster than the speed of light) changes the spin of the other. Bell's theorem has been tested and shows quite conclusively that if the theory of quantum mechanics holds (which no sensible scientist would question) then the principle of local causes fails. Events are necessarily connected through space. That is a conclusion indicated by Thomas Young's experiment of 1803. With two slits open a characteristic interference pattern is obtained, which demonstrates the wave nature of light. But if just one photon at a time is fired at the slits, the photon will change its position of impact on the screen behind the slit to accord with whether one or both of the slits are open. And it will not land on a strip that would be dark if the other slit were open. How does the one photon know of the larger circumstances? {14}

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity postulates that the velocity of light is constant (in a vacuum) across space that is curved and non-Euclidian. In classical causality an event can only be influenced by events in its past (Minkowski) light cone. But for quantum mechanics we consider events outside the light cone, where indeed information between them can be transferred faster than the speed of light (tachyonic). Breakdowns in classical causality indeed occur elsewhere. Background microwave radiation, for example — three degrees above absolute zero, the remnant of the cosmic bang — must have light-waves coming from different directions that do not overlap and could not have influenced each other. It is in fact possible, as Carter showed in 1968, for a super-intelligence to create its own appearance by influencing the past. Josephson proposed that knowledge alters physical reality according to equation: increase in minimum amount of free energy = Boltzman's constant x absolute temperature x bit of information. {15}

What do orthodox scientists themselves make of these conundrums? Very little. Most would agree with Feyerabend that the philosophy of science is of little use to them. A theory is simply a proposition, which may be expressed in several ways, for example as wave or matrix mechanics. A theory is always provisional, and the world a good deal stranger than we can intuit or even imagine. {16}

But these puzzling phenomena are not restricted to the physically very large (cosmic spaces) or very small (atomic nuclei). Two matters are becoming increasingly clear. Firstly that the line between living and non-living is not easy to draw: Prigogine's experiments have shown that even simple inorganic substances will set up cyclic systems which mimic the rhythms of nature. {17} Secondly, many events in the real world are nonlinear, so that unpredictability and randomness is built into life at an elementary level, spelling the end of most hard determinism. Fractals have recognized in a wide variety of things — from brain waves to river drainage patterns — and objects very easy to conceive mathematically can have puzzling fractional dimensions (e.g. not 2 but 2.24 dimensions, etc.) {18} More recently, biologists have begun to construct computer models of societies, finding that systems can have unexpected properties (emergent properties) which are not to be deduced from the simple properties of their components. Such systems are not only dynamic but creative. When such modelling is applied to living organisms, it appears that species may not be free to evolve randomly (mutation shaped by natural selection) but are controlled by the system, by interaction between animal and environment: order is inherent in the system. Species can only adopt the 'ghost species' already given by the system: strange attractors in effect. {19}

How do scientific laws capture significant features of the universe? Because we are built to see the world in its terms. At base, the world may certainly be infinitely complex and random ( the reductionist nightmare), but it also and ineluctably produces higher-order features. To explain the process, Cohen and Stewart coined the terms simplexity (a process whereby a system of rules can engender simple features) and complicity (a coming together of features that enlarges the space of the possible, where the patterns created cannot be deduced from the features of the components.) {20} Scientists therefore conceive generalized models (features) and test them against instances (serviceable approximations), but neither features nor instances are arbitrary figments of our imagination. Both arise inescapably (the mathematical proof is still awaited) from the way the world actually operates, and we recognize them because our brains/minds are also congruent with such processes. We therefore, they speculate, share a dynamic with the world that is both comforting and awe-inspiring, being at one with its warp and weft in a way that Spinoza would have recognized.

Conclusions: Is Science a Myth?

If science, the most prestigious achievement of western civilization, is largely an autonomous system (self validating, regulating and reporting), is it therefore a myth? Some speculative literary theorists have gleefully thought so, arguing from Kuhn that science is merely one paradigm among many. But there are important differences. The research findings of one specialization interlock with those of another, and theories lead on to other theories, which are themselves consistent with matters yet more fundamental. Science is broadly successful in presenting a world that is coherence and consistent, if sometimes by repressing alternative views and presenting research findings with practiced rhetoric.

Science is a practical matter, and modern life is increasingly dependent on its results. Science resolves, explains and predicts matters to a degree difficult for the nonscientist to appreciate. An enormous number of highly intelligent and independent individuals — laboratory workers, researchers, theoreticians — are every day toiling away to test, refine and extend our understanding. At base, science rests on consensus — about what is relevant, how the work should be carried out, and how reported — but the methods have stood the test of time, and the experiments or observations can always be repeated and validated. In this there is little room for widespread collusion, or for the vagaries of personal response that typify the reading of a novel or poem. {21}

Science is not the only world view. The aesthetician Stephen Pepper recognized five ways of dealing with reality: formism, mechanism, contextualism, organicism and selectivism. {22} These root metaphors, as he called them, were the use of one part of experience to illuminate another, to help us understand, comprehend, even to intuit, or enter into the other. Each was a distinct and perfectly plausible way of making sense of the world, but they were independent, and couldn't be mixed. Pepper formulated each root metaphor in his own way, but formism broadly corresponded to Platonism, contextualism to Dewey's pragmatism and organicism to Hegel. Mechanism corresponded to the Anglo-American empiricist tradition: general laws that explain a world ultimately made up of sense impressions. Selectivism was introduced later, in Pepper's Concept and Quality of 1966, as the purposive act.

But if science carves nature at joints of real importance, it still has enormous difficulties in answering simple philosophic questions — the reality of quarks, the nature of scientific laws, and so forth. Moreover, it deals with the morally neutral, and with abstractions amenable only to advanced mathematics. Nonetheless, science is distinctive in two respects. Broad agreement does exist as to how theories should be tested, refined and refuted. And science is much more objective and comprehensive.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. S. Itzkoff's Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man (1971).
2. John Cottingham's Descartes, René in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995). Also introductory philosophy texts for Descartes and references 3 to 5.
3. Roger Woolhouse's Locke, John in Honderich 1995.
4. Geoffrey Warnock's Berkley, George in Honderich 1995.
5. Alexander Broadie's Hume, David in Honderich 1995.
6. J. Losee's A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1980).
7. See any introductory biology textbook.
8. G.S. Kirk's Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970).
9. Charles E. Reeves's Myth Theory and Criticism in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994).
10. Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957).
11. Reeves 1994.
12. René Girard's Violence and the Sacred (1977).
13. A. Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence
14. P. Davies and J. Gribbin's The Matter Myth (1991), and J. Briggs and FD Peat's The Turbulent Mirror (1989).
15. G. Playfair and S. Hill's The Cycles of Heaven (1978).
16. J. Losee's A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science ( 1980).
17. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers' Order Out of Chaos (1984).
18. Non-mathematicians should see the many popular accounts of modern mathematical thought — e.g. John Allen Paulos's Beyond Numeracy: An Uncommon Dictionary of Mathematics (1991), and Ian Stewart's The Problems of Mathematics (1987). Morris Kline's Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge (1986) is a more advanced text.
19. R. Lewis's Complexity (1993).
20. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart's The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World. (1994).
21. Alan Gross's The Rhetoric of Science (1990) and M.J. Mulkay's Science and the Sociology of Knowledge (1979).  
22. Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses: a Study in Evidence. (1942)

Internet Resources

1. Bell's Theorem. David M. Harrison. Feb. 1999. Harrison/BellsTheorem/BellsTheorem.html. More detailed account, with interpretations.
2. Identity and Individuality in Quantum Theory. Steven French. Feb. 2000. Metaphysical implications of quantum physics.
3. Holism and Nonseparability in Physics. Richard Healey. Jul. 1999. Technical entry on the properties of quantum systems.
4. Ilya Prigogine. Brief account, with in-text links.
5. Ilya Prigogine. Oct. 2002.
. Critical account of Prigogine's work
6. Complexity, Complex Systems & Chaos Theory Organizations as Self-Adaptive Complex Systems. Business applications of chaos theory.
7. Ten Myths of Science: Re-examining What We Think We Know. W. McComas 1996. Some popular misconceptions.
8. Dispelling Some Common Myths about Science. Dr. Terry Halwes. Mar. 2000. Several linked articles, with references.
9. A Look at Some Myths about Scientists. Carl Wieland. 1989.
. Short article on an anti-creationist site: other pages show how readily evidence can be interpreted to support a particular view.
10. How Science Works. David L. Hull. 1992. Review of The Scientific Attitude by Fred Ginnell.
11. How Science Works. David Goldstein. sciman0d.pdf/$file/sciman0d.pdf. Standard but cogent account.
12. Susanne Langer. Rhetoric/RhetoricWeb/langer/test.htm. Introduction to her ideas, with good listings.
13. The Limits of Science. Serghey Stoilov Gherdjikov. 1998. A view with some similarities to Cassirer's.
14. Paul Feyerabend. John Preston. May 2002. Understanding as a result of what we ask of the world.
15. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmonts. 1998. First chapter of their book, and review.