Confusing mythos and logos

In a recent issue of New Scientist magazine, I came across a book review by religious chronicler Karen Armstrong about a book on Creationism by Michael Ruse. In her review, Armstrong does a remarkably compact job of summing up much of the religious vertigo we face in modern times. Here’s a long quote from her review (the online review is locked behind a subscription barrier at New Scientist).

In the pre-modern world, it was generally understood that there were two ways of arriving at truth. Plato called them mythos and logos. Neither was superior to the other. Logos (reason; science) was exact, practical and essential to human life. To be effective, it had to correspond to external reality. Myth expressed the more elusive, puzzling aspects of human experience. It has often been called a primitive form of psychology, which helped people negotiate their inner world…

Myth could not help you create efficient technology or run your society. But logos had its limits too. If you became a refugee or witnessed a terrible natural catastrophe, you did not simply want a logical explanation; you also wanted myth to show you how to manage your grief. With the advent of our scientific modernity, however, logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited, and now, in popular parlance a myth is something that did not happen, that is untrue. But some religious people also began to read religious myths as though they were logos.

The conflict between science and faith has thus been based on a misunderstanding of the nature of scriptural discourse. Many people, including those who are religious, find it difficult to think mythically, because our education and society is fuelled entirely by logos. This has made religion impossible for many people in the west, and it could be argued that much of the stridency of Christian fundamentalism is based on a buried fear of creeping unbelief.

In the pre-modern world, it was considered dangerous to mix mythos and logos, because each had a different sphere of competence. Much of the heat could be taken out of the evolution versus creation struggle if it were admitted that to read the first chapter of Genesis as though it were an exact account of the origins of life is not only bad science; it is also bad religion.

One observation that she makes in light of these comments is that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. I had heard this said about the Islamic extremists, but the same thing is true of religious fundamentalists of all stripes. The concept of a literally inerrant “history” specified by the bible is a modern construct. It would not have occurred to people before the Enlightenment to dissect the scriptures in such an awkward way. Fundamentalism was enabled by science. The weird scenes pictured by religious historicism (Where exactly was Eden? Is Noah’s ark still wedged in Mt. Ararat?) first needed the framework of historicism to build upon. Mythos is based on dream logic, and dream logic is not Logos.

The Dalai Lama has said “If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.” This sounds like a capitulation, but it is nothing more than a well-drawn line between Logos and Mythos. “You stay over there,” says the Dalai Lama in effect, “and I’ll stay over here. But I still have something valuable to tell you. You’ll see.”

5 thoughts on “Confusing mythos and logos”

  1. “Dream logic” is an incoherent rhetorical ploy to discredit the quoted passage. You should be more careful with your words.

    And just in case you are still missing the logic of the Dalai Llama’s statement, let me put it into propositional representation. Let S = science. Let P = Proves Facts. Let B = Buddhist Understanding

    S does P –> B should change

    What you’re saying is:

    S does P –> B v S

    Congratulations. You’ve just completed Logic 101.

  2. I suggest that those who write with sarcastic condescension either spell correctly or reign* in their spell-checker.

    The Dalai Llama would probably lie down and chew his cud in response.

    *tee hee

  3. I’m not sure whether I’m laughing harder at the idea of wearing a diadem while proofing papers, or at the image of the Dalai Lama with a beal for sipping honey.

    “Where people are swimming say, ‘Look out! There are Buddhists!'”

  4. Llogically speaking, llama non est lama. One cannot prove this, but it IS in the same sense that Mount Everest IS, or that Alma Cogan ISN’T. Good night.

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