The Consolations of Anthropomorphism

In spite of everything we know, the world still revolves around us

Curiously enough, aeronautical science chose Christmas Eve 1968 to register one of its most important milestones of the last century. That is when the three crew members of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission marked humanity’s first-ever voyage into lunar orbit by reading aloud passages from Genesis. The transmission to Earth of this unprecedented rite was then the most widely viewed television broadcast ever. Later accounts from the participating astronauts and mission control administrators described the key actors in the spectacle as having been in tears.

The most obvious message seemed to be that all the rocket science in the world had not displaced the reigning mythologies of western civilization. Lest the technical achievement proclaim our hubris, our putative life manual, the Bible, served to remind all that we were merely talented engineers operating at the disposal of an omniscient one.

Of course, our humility only ever goes so far. Genesis may have introduced a celestial creator to whom all was owed, but there was no question in that source text as to which was the most important of the living works that he created. And while the
readings from the controls of Apollo 8 provided the mythological text, the dispassionate photographs captured from the craft did at least as much again to promote the human race’s ever-present mythological centrality within life and the universe.

Still the best-known images from all space exploration to date, Apollo’s views of Earth from the orbit of the moon were the first ever seen of our planet in whole. From that vantage, instead of seeming like the grain of sand that one space rock within a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies might appear, the view of our watery blue sphere gave rise to poetic passions around the world. Against a cold, dark, apparently limitless void, hydrated and habitable Earth seemed warmly exceptional and thus, as ancient Babylonians and Greeks and modern Americans believed, so, perhaps, were we.

“We came all this way to explore the moon,” writes space historian Andrew Chaikin, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.”

The ubiquity of the unremarked and even unconscious interpolation of mythological values into scientific declaration is the thesis of The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science Writing by Gregory Schrempp, a professor of folklore at Indiana University. A comparative cosmologist, Schrempp looks at the writing of such science-based authors as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, astronomer John Barrow, cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and others to find that, far from myth functioning as a synonym for falsehood or “primitive” reasoning, its key tropes keep manifesting again and again as science inevitably approaches its unresolved problem of final causes, or what Aristotle called the “uncaused cause”—that is, how anything came to be in the first place.

“Freed from the shackles and inescapable destiny imposed by myth, we nevertheless want to regain one part of what we think myth offered in the past: a coherent cosmic vision that answers questions that we cannot help asking: Who are we? How did we get here? Why? What is to be done?” Schrempp writes.

More prosaically, but no less compelling, Schrempp, author of the earlier Magical Arrows: The Maori, the Greeks and the Folklore of the Universe, explains that mythology has “a certain kind of social and psychological function: that of providing societies and individuals with an ultimate moral ground, a validation and justification of an accepted or prevailing way of life and scheme of values.”

Responding to our compulsion to pick at the uncaused cause and imbue meaning to what we perceive of the world and ourselves—an increasingly steep task as science ever more comprehensively pins our existence to a series of merely mechanistic functions—Schrempp carefully and engagingly builds the case for the inevitability of mythological thinking. The mythological impulse here seems to function as humanity’s bulwark against being subsumed by the reductionism of science.

Yet this hardly appears to be the state of affairs when we take popular scientific writing at face value. Myth’s explanatory purposes are bluntly rejected and the matter of meaning is typically set aside or even invalidated as a subject for scientific query. As my Grade 9 science teacher sarcastically put it, the old view of our origins was that, “God made the Earth in six days and on the seventh went for a hot dog.”

Whether rejecting the Maori belief that the tribe came to be through the physical mating of sky and ground or the Judeo-Christian tradition of a divinity who makes humans in his image, the historic journey of knowledge that Schrempp describes is ostensibly from that of anthropocentric thinking to empirical or “objective” thought. In the anthropocentric view that dominated human culture for millennia, the human is not only at the centre of life and the world but is usually the reason for these in the first place. Mythological origin stories from tribes ranging from Polynesians to ancient Hebrews, regardless of what powers are ascribed to divinities, bequeath to humans the role of chief protagonist in the narrative of the universe.

This was all supposed to be gone by the time we got to the Scientific Revolution and the rationalist work of Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes. And still somehow, whether employing models of kinship or the body, say, to explain such things as the relations between planets or solar systems, Schrempp catches the scientists reflexively humanizing an impassive cosmos of gases, minerals and empty space.

John Barrow with The Artful Universe, for example, a title that already telegraphs reaching outside the usual bounds of science, introduces the themes of chance and contingency and notes that these nudge science into the realm of the humanities. Barrow explores a universe with three kinds of elements: inorganic, organic and those of “mind,” this last important category remaining impervious to any thorough empirical deconstruction to date. So when Barrow places great emphasis on the domestication of fire as a key stimulus to the evolution of mind and culture, the talent for which required an animal like the human, Schrempp is ready to pounce, invoking the Promethian story of
the theft of fire from the gods as a cornerstone of human mythology.

Popular science writing like that of Barrow, in other words, frequently invokes a narrative of sorts, and narrative is positioned here as both unique to the human consciousness among that of all other animals and comprising the most elemental of tools of persuasion. In any event, within the humanities and even social sciences, academe has arrived at its own deep-seated mistrust for objective knowledge, with such Big Minds as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky assailing all notions of disinterestedness with their deconstructions of our most rudimentary tool of thought, language. Some kind of empirical neutrality, if such exists, is in any event not what the public seeks in popular science writing, according to Schrempp, referring rather to “the public appetite for new metaphors, icons, and objects of fascination.”

An arts reviewer who was my long-time co-worker at The Globe and Mail used to make the case—not without provocation, coming from a journalist—that it was the novel and fiction that had to extend and deepen our understanding of a thing after journalism had mapped it out as thoroughly as factual observation would allow. While the trained observer could follow a sequence of events and record human responses and ponderings on them, it was the novelist who could (must) actually ascribe psychological resonance and larger meaning to them. Inevitably, a melding of such efforts has long occurred, most prominently with the genre of New Journalism that emerged in the United States in the 1960s, when novelist-journalists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer brought to bear all their tools of inquiry and articulation from both professional work kits.

This is much like the case Schrempp makes not for the insertion of mythological reaching within popular science writing but for acknowledging what he finds to be already there, that is, the expressly psychological, moral and grand-scheme aspiration that seems to always emerge within it. Two millennia after Aristotle described how we could come to a comprehension of things through kinship metaphors—two unlike things with some underlying similarity might belong to the same “genus”—the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein found utility in the same descriptive tool. The self-declared last philosopher, Wittgenstein wrote of family resemblances among such concepts as “meaning” and “language,” terms that he pursued to the far ends of abstraction but with the metaphor of kinship providing an anchor of understanding for his readers.

The clash in this reification of myth is with the received scientific wisdom of five centuries at this stage in human history. The enduring scholastic notion, one that Schrempp visits at length, is that Nicolaus Copernicus’s revelation of a heliocentric universe is the dividing line beyond which anthropocentrism no longer holds. The Roman Catholic church’s long-running and intensely fought war to suppress observations that the Earth circled the sun and not the reverse speaks to what was at stake in the transition.

The Copernican Revolution, of course, not only reset the heavens but also appeared to displace humans from their central perch within the universe, and hence within creation. Most of the great discoveries in the centuries that followed affirmed and deepened this devastating 16th-century epiphany from Copernicus—humans were not the centre, and so perceptibly not the intention, not the raison d’être of the universe. In Freud’s construction, these blows to the anthropocentric consolations of human mythology would eventually peak with the work of Darwin and the development of psychoanalysis, with their revelations that we had naturally evolved from lower species while even at the animal world’s apex as humans we were still only agents of unconscious, primal forces we could not control.

Yet Schrempp seeks to demonstrate that we inevitably return to our pre-Copernican impulses—even the scientists among us. This of course does not mean that Carl Sagan doubted that the Earth turned around the sun, or that Stephen Jay Gould questions our descent from apes, but rather that popular science writing keeps returning to metaphorical and contextualizing explanations that effectively re-mythologize our understandings: “What for the science writer is the discovery of a powerful, absorbing cosmic image, is for the mythologist the discovery of yet another scientist discovering mythologizing.” Even renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking cannot resist such language in praising our mathematical configuring of space and time as knowing “the mind of God,” a framing device for the nearly impenetrable A Brief History of Time that had much to do with that book being situated atop the bestseller lists for months.

While employing the diplomatic language of a fellow academic, Schrempp effectively finds a kind of hypocrisy at work here, as myth is both denounced and made use of in the same breath in popular science writing. There is little recognition among these writers that myth offers scientists a crucial entry point to “a number of the overarching concerns of contemporary thought: the nature of human cognition and communication, the place
of science in contemporary culture, and the human search for sustaining moral visions.” His point is that myth itself was based on what earlier, pre-scientific humans took to be their own empirical observations while also attempting to go beyond these observations into the larger visions of life and purpose that humanity still seeks. Maori cosmology, Schrempp’s specialty, held that the trees the tribe walked among were the children of Thane, ancestral god of the forest, and so there were moral implications to the felling of a tree. Forest animals, birds and fish were also related by divine parentage to tribe members, a theme that resonates with things we know of aboriginal tribes in North America and their ethos of connection to natural elements.

Up front, a modern scientist’s post-Copernican intent is typically opposed to anything implied by myth. Yet this opposition seems to always have its limits, even back to western civilization’s original foe of myth, Plato. The Greek genius wanted to overturn the gods that took human forms and self-indulgent behaviour, but he wished to depose them only in favour of a transcendent divinity that was rational. This problem of needing an element of the transcendent to make even the most rational schema work, in Schrempp’s view, continues to today, when he finds even a strict rationalist such as cognitive researcher Daniel Dennett running into his own Platonic impasse.

The notable example here is in Dennett’s analysis of artificial intelligence, one that has him metaphorically reaching for divine assistance. Artificial intelligence, the digitized reasoning for which we are assiduously training our computers, has long leaned on the explanatory metaphor of the homunculus, or “little man” in Latin. AI is commonly understood as coming from a series of nesting homunculi, like nesting Russian dolls, the lowest level executing digital functions in a purely “menial” way, and each succeeding layer bringing some small new refinement of functionality
to it. But Dennett concedes he needs something to transcend the metaphor: “The ever-present worry is that as we devise components—lesser homunculi—to execute various relatively menial tasks near the periphery, we shall be ‘making progress’ only by driving into the centre of our system an all-powerful executive homunculus whose duties require an almost Godlike omniscience.”

Where does God-like omniscience come from in a rational universe without a divinity? If artificial intelligence is limited by our biologically granted intelligence that now prizes a rationality that rejects the transcendent, are we not at an end point of purpose? Perhaps fortunately, new mythologies can adroitly step into any such existential gaps. Sagan is openly emotional about the earth as a Pale Blue Dot, one of his book titles, and Schrempp finds in his writing modernity’s familiar existential two-step: if we accept our meaninglessness in terms of the universe, we liberate ourselves to devise our own meanings. And God knows we are prone to come up with big ones.

In all the variations Schrempp describes, where science writers almost unwittingly invoke the “storytelling, heroizing, speculative origin scenarios, microcosm/macrocosm analogies, bold celestial imagery” of traditional myth, the conundrum ultimately seems to translate as an inability of humans to relinquish their specialness.

Well, yes. Utterly relinquishing our specialness—isn’t that the rarefied spiritual achievement for which the most accomplished yogis and rinpoches must toil for decades?

A Buddhist-oriented friend of mine once dramatically declared “you haven’t realized you’re not important.” But I had read enough astronomy, seen enough of my forefather apes at the zoo, often enough compared our 80 or so years in the life of the planet to the eons behind any rock to realize it well enough. Acknowledging our unimportance is rational. It aligns with all the known facts of physical existence, of time and space.

Yet to this point, humans have done a poor job of assimilating this Copernican eureka, as Schrempp shows that even our scientists reveal. In the infinite quandary of pointlessness we face, perhaps this mythological depth of human truculence against emptiness must stand as the ultimate declaration we make to the heavens and Earth.