The Power of Mythos
There are some statements and beliefs that have great power because they "feel" right.
Consider the following examples:
It may come as a surprise that the first two of these statements are considered (by many) to be solid scientific theories. However, they do not pass one important criterion (forcefully stated to be necessary for scientific hypotheses by the philosopher Karl Popper): they cannot be falsified. It is hopeless to try to shoot them down. Mind you, this does not mean the statements are wrong. On the contrary, they derive their power from being unassailable by the scientific method.
- Life processes change the Earth's environment for the benefit of living things (Gaia hypothesis). (Some do, some don't. On the whole, whatever changes occurred favored succeeding life forms as they successfully caught up by adapting through evolution).
- Natural selection provides for survival of the fittest. (Since success is measured by survival, the survivors are the fittest by definition. How do we know which are the fittest before natural selection has done its work?).
- The solar system was designed to host Life. (Well, it may look that way. How would it look different if it were not so designed, but just happened to have Life because of the inherent laws of carbon chemistry?)
The word "myth", in common usage, has acquired a negative connotation of "fable" or "fiction." There is, however, another meaning of "myth", that of the original "mythos", a truth based on tradition or conviction. A truth that defines us as a member of a culture. The two samples of unassailable "truths" given above shows that science is not immune to such mythos making and that there is culture in science, just as claimed by some sociologists. (Surprise! Scientists are people too.) The third sample illustrates that science has nothing to offer in deciding for or against the verity of Design. Having decided that a hypothesis cannot be falsified it is best to stop discussing it. Discussion leads nowhere, because it does not result in new insights or new ideas about experiments that could decide the question.
There are truths that cannot be decided by experiment. Like a coat padded with goose feathers, they keep their wearers warm and comfortable when facing the immensity of the cold night sky. They have a reality of their own, belonging more to anthropology perhaps than to astronomy or geology, but they are no less interesting in their own way than the models we build based on telescopes and computers. They are valid statements of the human mind's response to the challenge that is the universe. They answered our human desire for understanding, for making the world familiar, before we had science to do this for us. They give answers to questions such as these: "Who are we?" "Where did we come from?" "Where are we going?" "What are we here for?" These are among the oldest and most profound questions known to humankind. ("What's for dinner?" presumably is a much older and more urgent question. We share it with our animal cousins. It is consciousness that sets us apart.)
Science is not equally satisfying in providing answers to this array of questions. To the first, it mainly answers that we are apes with big brains. While this is so, it may not be the answer looked for. To the second, science says we ultimately come from an alliance of bacteria which resulted in complicated single-celled organisms which worked their way up through wiggly things to fish and then to people, by evolution. Surely an astounding answer, but perhaps a bit shocking to some. To the third question, science answers vaguely that, as a species, we might expect a life span of around a million years, and we may be about halfway through the range. To the fourth, science has no answer at all. Philosophers tell us this is one decision we have to make for ourselves, with or without recourse to religion. Science is silent on the matter.