Perceiving the World: The Mythic and the Scientific

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the greatest change in all human history came with the birth of modern science. But Lewis had more in mind than the ideas and discoveries. He was referring to the new way of looking at, or perceiving, the world. It is claimed that this scientific worldview replaced the religious, which may be true. But religion is ultimately a branch of mythology. As the American scholar Joseph Campbell put it, “religion is mythology misunderstood,” meaning that myths come first and then, over time, begin to be taken literally, giving birth to religion. It could even be said that man is a myth-making animal. The truly great shift, perhaps the most fundamental in all human history, is from a mythological understanding of the world to a scientific one.

The Mythic Perspective

Mythology teaches people who they are and how they should live. Perhaps most fundamental of all, it explains why there is something rather than nothing. Until recently, the book of Genesis did this for Western culture. Of course, some took the story literally, others interpreted it metaphorically (in its lust for knowledge, humanity had fallen away from God). Either way, the story of Genesis shaped the way people saw the world. A supernatural, male God had created “the heaven and the earth,” in which case everything was charged with meaning and significance. Since it was the work of a divine being, it was sacred.

The Romanian novelist and scholar Mircea Eliade used the phrase ‘Homo religiosus’ to describe pre-scientific man. Traditionally, human beings divided the world into two separate realities: the sacred and the profane. The first is true reality, and includes everything from gods and spirits to mythic and tribal ancestors. The second, ‘the profane,’ is essentially the material world. Pre-scientific man, according to Eliade, yearned to escape the profane and contact the sacred. He also lived in fear of both. Profane space and time could be chaotic, limitless, meaningless and hellish. Myths, according to Eliade, are therefore concerned above all with origins, with explaining how time and space emerged out of the sacred. Genesis, for example, opens with the words, “the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, ‘let there be light’.” In Milton’s Paradise Lost, written during the scientific revolution as a last defence of Christian mythology, this primitive fear of profane space can also be found. Milton even dares to suggest that there is something older than God, “a dark/ Illimitable ocean without bound/ Without dimension,” something where “time and place are lost.” Ritual, for example, is in part an attempt to escape this chaos – a way of keeping chaotic time and space at bay.

Science and Desacralization

Modern science, however, has ‘de-sacralized’ the world. Galileo and Newton taught that no unit of space or time were more significant than any other. And there was no need to fear chaos. In fact, according to Newtonian physics, the Universe resembled a great machine moving in accordance with fixed laws of gravity. This new way of thinking about the universe led to a new way of perceiving the universe and the events that occurred within it. In Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Inklings, he reconstructs a conversation between J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis at Oxford University in which Tolkien says, “to you,” (by which he means ‘you’ as a modern man) “a tree is simply a vegetable organism and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course.” He then contrasts this with the mythological view. To pre-scientific man, “the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver…the sky as a jewelled tent.”

Another good example can be found in the life of Martin Luther, the man who triggered the Protestant Reformation in the early 17th century. In July 1505, he was caught in a thunderstorm. The thunder and lightning so disturbed him that he sank to his knees and promised God he would devote his life to the church and become a monk. Today, such behavior would be considered paranoid, even insane. To a scientist, a thunderstorm is merely an interesting natural phenomenon which can be explained by electrical charges and sound waves. Scientists can even tell you that lightning moves at 270,000 miles per hour!

The Human Body

These different perspectives become even more apparent when encountering the human body – especially a corpse. One of the founders of modern science, Rene Descartes, argued that the body was essentially a machine. The essence, or spirit, of a human being lay in his thinking. Indeed, according to Descartes there were two fundamentally different kinds of stuff in the Universe – mind and matter.

To pre-scientific people, a dead body was a sacred thing, not to be approached without ritual precaution. This attitude persists even today in parts of Africa and South America. But medieval Christians were no different, regarding a corpse as something that might one day be resurrected. To modern science, a corpse is nothing more than a machine that has ceased to function and is now decaying, just as a leaf falls to the ground, turns brown, and eventually rots away altogether. This new attitude was even reflected in art. Rembrandt, for example, twice depicted the public dissection of a recently hung criminal. It is no coincidence that both were painted during the scientific revolution. The first, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp (1632), depicts a surgeon (Tulp) exposing the veins and muscles of the man’s inner arm to an audience. Fellow surgeons crowd round in fascination. They are not looking at a sacred object, something spooky or destined for resurrection; they are looking at a machine, with its parts exposed like the wires of a broken computer. The second, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deijman (1656), is even more horrific, with the corpse propped so that it seems to sit up. Yet it has been disembowelled and the top of its head removed, exposing the brain. This time it is as if Rembrandt is mocking both the surgeon and the viewer, as if he is saying “look at what we have reduced ourselves to.”

How we will perceive the world in the future is of course impossible to say. It is worth noting, however, that Darwinian evolution may reunite science and myth. After all, the story of human evolution has a grand, mythic quality to it, describing the human journey (or exile) from the African rainforest to the savannah and eventually out of Africa itself. It also reminds humanity where it belongs: part of nature, not a machine separated from it.

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