Monday, January 20, 2014

Myths Are Not False

Sometimes you will be asked a question, the wording of which, tells you that the person asking the question doesn't understand the fundamental questions of the topic.  A computer salesmen being asked by a customer how many windows he will need for his new computer.  This indicates to the salesman that the customer doesn't understand that Windows is an operating system and, perhaps unintuitively, a non-count noun.  Someone could ask when the weather ends.  Ummm...the weather never ends.  A particular storm or weather system might end, but never the weather.

Defining your terminology before engaging in a deep discussion (and certainly before an argument or debate) is critical.

We see this when someone clinging to an unsupported belief claims that "science was wrong."  Fundamental misunderstanding of science?  Science is always our current best explanation for natural phenomena.  It, like the weather, is never finished.  As better tools are invented, our findings get more accurate and often uncover new questions to be answered.  Science is a process.  So, you might ask, how can an ongoing process that makes no claim to absolutely right or to have a final answer be wrong?  It can't.  The person making the statement suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts involved.  The best they could say would be that a particular, point-in-time measurement or hypothesis was later proven incorrect.

Which brings us to myth.  I have heard many people dismiss myth because it is "false".  Uh oh.  Myths are stories about a similar, often idealized, world to our own where ideas about the meaning of life can be tested.  The best myths, like any great story, not only entertain but also guide us through our mortal walk of life.  Why are we here?  What does it mean to live a good life?  What is the good?  How can we open jars of peanut butter and carefully lace our shoes knowing that we are mortal and will, on some not too distant day, cease to be?  Myths provide models from which we can select elements of the person we want to be and the journey we want to take.

It makes no sense to attempt the assignment of truth values (true or false) to a story.  Is a novel false?  It is a work of art, a product of the imagination which makes no claims to journalistic accuracy.  What would it even mean for a novel to be true or false?  The same applies for myths.  They are neither true nor false.  This confusion could arise if a person started believing some myths as true.  This would create confusion in that person's mind and they might expect other myths to believable as true statements concerning our physical universe.  How they would select which myths to believe as accurate statements about our physical universe and which to reject as mere stories, I have no idea.  It is a category mistake from top to bottom and they would be better served by understand the definition of myth, to appreciate their beauty, their timelessness, and their wisdom.

Perhaps, if more people begin to understand that myths aren't false, they will start paying more attention to these thought experiments.  One can be entertained while being shown possible ways to live a meaningful life.  Whether you use myths or not, the jar of peanut butter needs to be opened and your shoes need laces.  And someday you will die.  How will you live until then?

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