Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for October, 2011

Why Mythology?

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 8, 2011

One night, a long time ago, three cavemen, Ug, Boggle, and Carl, we`re watching the clear skies. Ug wondered,

“Where do the stars come from?”

“A wise old caveman told me a story one time,” Boggle said. “A thousand years ago, before the sun had been born, the world was dark and the people could not see. So Mother Earth birthed a sun and sent him across the sky to shine bright. The day was bright and the people were happy. But each evening the sun begins to grow tired, and lies down behind the mountains to sleep. One night, the people went to Mother Firefly to ask her for help. So she sent her children to the sky to try to light up the night. Thousands and thousands of children she sent, but they could not bring light to the night. But noble fireflies they were: they stayed in the sky, and each night they try with all their might to shine light onto the world.”

And Ug believed Boggle’s story.

Carl was not satisfied. “But how could the fireflies get into the sky?” he said. “Why do they not flicker as other fireflies do?”

“These fireflies know that it is their duty to brighten the night sky,” Boggle responded. “They do not flicker, but instead they shine their light at all times in order to bring more light to the world.”

“But your story still does not make sense,” objected Carl. “I will tell you what I think happened.”

“Tell me, Carl, what do you think happened?”

“Thousands of thousands of thousands of years ago, a great cosmic explosion scattered matter across the universe. Most of the matter formed into great clumps. At the center of these clumps was an enormous amount of pressure, forcing the matter to become a mighty fire. This happened many times in many places across the universe. All these great fires shine light across vast distances and appear to us, because they are so very far away, as tiny points of light in the sky.”

Ug thought about this for a minute. “What? You’re crazy. You can’t put a bunch of dirt together and start a fire. And besides, the universe isn’t nearly that big. I like Boggle’s story better.”

And that’s why mythology is the way it is.

In my opinion, the idea that the universe is almost fourteen billion years old and forty-six billion light years across, and contains billions of galaxies that each have billions of stars—massive spheres of gas that emit unimaginable quantities of energy—is far more amazing than the conception of stars as fireflies. But if the truth is so much more amazing than the fantasy, why does the fantasy win out?

The fact that the reality is so amazing ends up working against it. People do not want to be amazed. Amazement is on the border of incomprehension, and people have a natural tendency to want to understand things. We would rather something be mundane than incomprehensible.

The cavemen in this story have difficulty conceiving of the vastness of the universe, but they have no problem thinking about fireflies. They know what fireflies are, and they can imagine scattering them across the sky. Fireflies are much easier to understand than giant balls of fire in space that are set off when gravity forces hydrogen nuclei to fuse and convert matter into energy.

Examples of the believable fantasy taking precedence over the extraordinary truth can be seen across cultures and religions. The Greeks had Helios pulling the sun across the sky in a chariot, much more relatable than a spherical planet rotating at a thousand miles per hour while hurtling through space at even greater speeds; modern young-earth creationists explain geographical formations in terms of Noah’s flood, instead of the complicated truth that myriad events (including earthquakes, volcanoes, and even simple water flow) make small changes to the earth’s surface over billions of years.

Of course, I was not there when the Greeks were thinking up their mythology, so I do not know why it is what it is. However, I find this to be a very plausible explanation; and if we do prefer familiarity to profundity, that says something important about how the mind works.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Society | 3 Comments »

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