October 4, 2006
TVG Print: Killing the Messenger
I'd like to tell you a couple of stories this week.
A long, long time ago, only God had fire. He kept it close, only for Himself and His most divine creations. Humans went without.
But one day, one of God's cronies took pity on us. He stole the divine fire and gave it to humans, who used the power of fire to craft and build and cook.
God found out and punished the thief by strapping him to a rock and having an eagle pick out his liver. The organ would grow back every day and the eagle would return to pick it out once more.
Sound familiar? It should, it's the ancient Greek story of Prometheus, transcribed into more modern theistic terms. Sound ridiculous? It might, but it is often used as an analogy for a more modernist view of science and the acquisition of knowledge.
This Promethean view of science is the antithesis of the Faustian view, focusing on the gift of knowledge as a rational and technological boon to humanity, instead of the burden of knowledge as a morally destructive force.
We can turn again to our pop culture for more current examples of the Promethean view (of which there are few compared to the Faustian/Frankenstein stories).
Star Trek (in any of its many incarnations) is probably the most well known example of the modern day Promethean story, at least in the mainstream.
When it began back in 1966-amid the tumult of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution-Star Trek was a fresh idea in the science fiction genre. It depicted a crew of culturally diverse human scientists in the far future exploring the galaxy for no other reason outside of discovery; "to boldly go where no man [had] gone before."
That may sound incredibly nerdy (I make no concessions for that fact), but Star Trek carried with it the lofty ideals of the Promethean view of science. Human beings in this far-fetched future valued knowledge for its own sake, using the technology gained from this knowledge to explore the galaxy and continue to learn.
It is valuable to remember Star Trek's creator and his purpose behind the story. Gene Roddenberry's intentions were to explore a world where things had no supernatural causation; the crew of the Enterprise always used reason and knowledge to overcome obstacles, even when the phenomena they observed had no immediate or obvious natural cause.
To look further into the Promethean ideal in our society, let's have another story.
In the beginning, God creates man and woman in a grand and beautiful garden. He places a tree in the middle of the garden and warns them not to eat the fruit of this tree or else they will die.
Soon a serpent approaches the couple and persuades the woman to eat of the tree. Her eyes open. She does not die. She feeds her spouse the fruit. He feels the same effects.
They clothe themselves before God interrupts, inquiring "innocently" of their strange new behavior. He becomes angry at the Serpent and damns the creature to a lifetime of crawling upon its belly. He also banishes the couple from the Garden, forcing them to fend for themselves.
Put Prometheus in the place of the Serpent. Replace "fire" with "fruit." Now you see the problem.
The Promethean view of science is seamlessly equitable with the Fall of Man in Western/Christian societies. The Serpent in the Garden of Eden is viewed as the ultimate corruptor for tempting humans into seeking knowledge, while Prometheus is celebrated as the benefactor of human accomplishment.
I am by no means suggesting that Western religious convictions have to be in direct conflict with the acquisition and usage of knowledge, or that Satan should be elevated to a level of benefactor above the Christian God; those are issues for the student of theology.
I am, however, pointing out the significance of these myths. They are inherent in Western culture, stories told over and over again for thousands of years. Their relevance in the modern world, however, is declining.
The only way to combat the detrimental aspects of traditional symbology is by telling new stories - true stories - through scientific inquiry and reason to represent our world and ourselves instead of relying on the fear of knowledge promoted by ancient and irrelevant myth.
The only way to do that is by careful, patient, creative communication between the scientific community and the general public.
Originally published here.