The Role of Myth in Science

Myth and Science in Mount Shasta

Myths and science serve the purpose of unifying their narratives of seeking truth and facts and solving earthly mysteries. Myths serve a function similar to science, theology, religion, and history in that it provides an explanation of the universe. Myths are often viewed in opposition to science because the supernatural elements in myths cannot be proven through scientific means. Yet, science did not develop in opposition to myth. The founders of modern science, like Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), addressed metaphysical problems like the omnipotence of God and were trying to prove, not disprove, “God’s laws” and existence.

Myths and Scientific Investigations

Science depends on updated knowledge and cumulative information, whereas myths are beliefs passed down from generation to generation. At one point in life, almost every person will experience an odd state of consciousness or something outside the realm of “normal.” Without a scientific model to rationalize the experience, people will look to other frameworks of knowledge similar to those presented in myths. In other words, if science fails in its logic, then all information that is not logical falls outside of science. It is in this way that mythic narratives create a knowledge system outside of scientific findings.

Science is not the only valid test for truth-finding, and there are many methods used to derive data besides the scientific method. Myths may be false literally and scientifically, but they are true symbolically and emotionally. Myths will always be true because they offer wisdom that is true. Science divides the mind into the rational and the irrational. For science, rational thinking relies on the use of logic. Thus, irrational modes of human behavior, including mythology, cannot be explained by reason and are dismissed as invalid epistemologies.

Accommodating Science and Myths

John McCrone provides a different model of the western mind that seeks to accommodate myths. He argues that the mind should be divided into two parts: the animal part and the culturally molded part. The animal part completes simple mental abilities like awareness, recognition, muscle control, and associative thought and emotions, and the culturally molded part of the brain, which is dependent on language, includes logical thought, self-awareness, and the ability to remember. In this model, myths and knowledge not accommodated by science are simply constructed and organized under “culture.” Therefore, its validity is not suspect.

Another alternative way to accommodate myth is Platonic, or Aristotelian, philosophies that emphasize the continuity of the dichotomy of the mind. For Plato (427-347 BC), the reason was a process of contemplation, not a scientific method. Plato divided the mind into three areas: the first was epithumetikon, or animal desire; the second was a childish part; and the third was logistikon, or reason. This became the dominant model of dividing the mind when Greek philosophy was adopted by Christian theologians in the fifth and sixth centuries.

In the third century, Plotinus further developed Plato’s ideas and proposed a dualism between the divine and evil. Later, St. Augustine, in the fourth century, used the writing of Plotinus to prove that the Bible was historically accurate. For early Christians, myth provided an alternative framework for sorting and gathering information. By restructuring scientific models of what constitutes rational and irrational, myth becomes a viable way to reach scientific truth claims.


In western science, teleology has gained importance because the origin of humans has been sufficiently explained by scientific methods, especially the Big Bang Theory. Teleology is the doctrine that argues final causes exist in nature. The definition of teleology is the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise. Often, teleologists have identified purpose in the universe with God’s will.

The teleological argument for the existence of God maintains that order in the world could not be accidental and that since there is a purpose there must also be a creator. Teleology is opposed to the mechanism, the theory that all events may be explained by mechanical principles of causation.

The Purpose of Myth in Science

As long as science or any method of rational investigation cannot answer the question of “What is the meaning of life?” myth will continue to provide answers. In this way, myth and science seek to answer the same question but through different means. The main difference between scientific models of knowledge and mythic models is that myth attributes events to the gods, while science attributes events to impersonal, mechanical processes.

The persistence of myths to remain in society demonstrates that people can live without answers but not without beliefs or interpretations. Only when a scientific model fails in its attempt to explain does myth create the remainder of the model. Darwinian Evolution, DNA, and viruses are the cultural equivalents of centaurs and angelic beings.

Will Myths Continue into the Future?

Science, replacing myth, is a myth itself. Myths are reconfigured when new information is discovered. For example, technological inventions like computers and machines cannot be accounted for in ancient myths, only in modern ones. Science will never displace myth because myth strengthens social bonds between people, which are meaningful and create coherence in life. Science and technology may be favored epistemologies in modern society, but they are not philosophies. When myths are explained by science, new secular myths are created and elaborated. Every belief system wants to remold worldviews according to its own formula, which can be called theology, history, or science.

Further Reading

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