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.

9 comments:

  1. I'm having real trouble following this. I think you lost me with the "Promethean view of science." If you can explain that more carefully, I might be able to parse the rest of this.

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  2. I think I explained it pretty well:

    "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."

    If science equals knowledge, and knowledge equals fire in the story of Prometheus, the Promethean view of science is a positive one, showing how our knowledge makes us "gods" capable of god-like powers (speaking symbolically).

    This is antithetical to the Faustian view of science, which is illustrated by stories like the Garden of Eden, Frankenstein and The Matrix. Creation destroys creator (I should have inserted a link to my previous article before).

    I think our perpetuated myths and lore might express our complex societal phobias in a clear, intelligible medium, but that does not necessarily make them relevant. In fact, I think they are hindrance to progress.

    I hope that helps, Thud.

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  3. Mythology is used as a lens for understanding the world and our relationship in it. It is fuzzier and more intuitive than science, but it can reach further at any given moment than science can. This is why it continues to be of value.

    When you say the "Promethean view of Science" you're not just saying that knowledge is a good; invoking Prometheus invokes his motivations as well; which was on the one hand to provoke Zeus and on the other to take pity on humans for the evil at Zeus had thrust upon them.

    A Promethean view of science (as near as I can tell) would see scientists (Prometheus) as standing in opposition to the tyranny of religion (Zeus) and bestowing gifts on the laity (humanity). That's not an invalid view of science, but it does suggest a social/political agenda for science.

    Aligning science with Prometheus actually works *better* from a religious standpoint because -- from a Zeus standpoint -- Prometheus was an upstart who sought power and authority that was not rightly his. And his actions ultimately made things *worse* for people; it was because of Prometheus' theft of fire that Zeus had Pandora created.

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  4. Interesting way of putting things.Got me thinking. I lub
    mythology :P

    Prometheus in my opinion is more a benefactor to humanity, patron of human civilization.Pandora was created becoz of Prometheus' excesses, agreed.But Prometheus had told Epimetheus not to accept the gods' gifts, still Pandora unfortunately opened the "box", gifted to her by Zeus.
    Progress of science by its very nature will be always opposed to religious ideology, but by no means should its capacity for emancipation of mankind be underestimated.The closer to godlike science gets us the more it will be at odds with religious convictions.The only thing that needs to be taken care of is that "fire is a good servant but a bad master"

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  5. "it was because of Prometheus' theft of fire that Zeus had Pandora created."

    In one version of the story, anyway; Pandora was another Greek "danger of knowledge" story, just like the story of Icarus.

    I didn't exactly coin the phrase "Promethean view of science"; it has been discussed at length by people far more informed than I decades ago. Generally the story concerns Prometheus as a benefactor, and as I said, there are two sides of the coin concerning the acquisition of knowledge/science: the idea that knowledge is a boon, and the idea that it is a destroyer. There is a very thin line between the two.

    "Promethean" and "Faustian" are general, convenient terms to describe both views simply, not specific and entirely descriptive terms to follow through with literary analysis. In other words, the myths are useful merely as categorical tools for broader ideas.

    As I said before, I think that the respectful place these stories hold in our society contribute to the public's fear of science.

    By the by, I strongly disagree with your first statement (it sounds extremely post-modernist). Mythology is purely psychological symbology, a direct result of our natural (and necessary) tendencies to categorize and prioritize information in our brains. I agree that myth appeals to our cravings of purpose in the universe and is useful for many to organize their lives.

    Myth is limited by our own naked intuition.
    Science and mathematics extend our ability to learn, allowing our minds to stretch and comprehend phenomena beyond our primitive intuitive faculties. Without science and math as tools, we would know nothing of our universe as it truly is.

    It kind of depends on how you define far reaching.

    Good points, sciencejunky. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Believe it or not, I'm a huge fan of mythology too.

    :-)

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  6. I think we're in material agreement, actually: mythologies that value knowledge and inquisitiveness are of more value to us now than mythologies that do not. And not all of the old mythologies are particuarly suited to that task.

    When you say:

    Myth is limited by our own naked intuition. Science and mathematics extend our ability to learn, allowing our minds to stretch and comprehend phenomena beyond our primitive intuitive faculties. Without science and math as tools, we would know nothing of our universe as it truly is.

    I also agree with that; science should inform how we see the world, even in the fuzzy areas of religion and myth; But there is much that both religion and myth offer that science can not yet replace -- and may never. I prefer to keep all three tools in my toolbox, and not rely on just one.

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  7. Well said, Thud. :-)

    I figured that we were more or less on the same page. Always a pleasure chatting.

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  8. I couldn't get a trackback to work, but I wanted you to know this post is in the Carnival of the Godless this time!

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  9. David Harmon6:32 PM

    And of course, it's no accident that the Christians damned Prometheus as the ruler of Hell... under his Roman name of Lucifer.

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