Myth vs Evidence

Would you criticize a poem for being factually incorrect? See, this poet wrote that the Moon is smiling, and it’s such an idiotic thing to say. Everybody knows Moon is a lifeless rock. We have millions of photos to prove it and even managed to land on it and bring samples back. Why write such unscientific bullshit that has so much evidence stacked against it?

Speaking this way about a poem sounds absurd, but many people apply the same logic to myths. They’re saying that Heaven and Earth both hatched from a cosmic egg after 18,000 years? Even little children know about the Big Bang, supernovas, and Earth forming out of stardust. Why confuse them with disproven ancient nonsense?

Unrealistic images seem to be fully embraced in one but used to discredit the other. It’s likely because there exist people who believe in the myths of their tradition literally. Even these days there’s lots of folks who consider their holy book an accurate account of what happened in the past. A few hundred years ago claiming otherwise would have you burned at stake.

But once we go past the literal meaning of each word, myths can serve as a deep metaphor for what life is all about. They can help you make sense of birth and death, happiness and sorrow, bliss and grief, love and heartbreak. When everyone around understands the same framework, you have a language to communicate these ineffable states. Suffering becomes less when you make sense of it, and put it in broader context.

Objective, scientific detachment is great for some purposes but mostly useless in others. When falling in love, I don’t want to hear about oxytocin levels, as accurate it might be. I want to feel that you know what I’m feeling, and that you also can feel the same thing. I want to know what it means to us, and hope we share the same meaning together. It would be unfortunate if one of us thought we’re connected by eternal love while the other one hopes for a one-night stand.

Is this unscientific? Maybe. But speaking above love, happiness, or meaning in purely scientific terms reduces them to only the things that can be easily measured. There’s much more to love than oxytocin and evolutionary drive to reproduce, just as there’s more to happiness than experiencing pleasure and not experiencing pain. Once we decide that objective measurement is all that matters, all these other dimensions get lost.

Some may argue focusing on these other dimensions is useless and impractical. In fact, it’s the most practical thing of all. Unless people believe in a common myth, such as nation, economic growth, or divine glory, they’ll never work together on any grand-scale project. No combination of atoms can be used to objectively prove the existence of the nation of the United States. It exists only in the shared mindspace of people who believe in it, and this belief still has far-reaching real-world consequences.

It took a scientist to figure there are cycles in the apparent motion of Sun across the sky. But it took whole generations of people believing in a shared myth to build a Stonehenge.

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