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21.1.04

Sagan Versus Habermas

Scientists Look For The Physics Behind A Miracle

The study, published in the Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences and reported upon today in The Moscow Times, concluded that a reef running to the north side of the Red Sea could have been the "dry land" upon which the Jews crossed the sea, provided that a 30-meter-per-second wind blew across the sea all night. The cessation of the wind would then lead to the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian forces, trapped on the reef as the waters returned, as recorded in the Bible.

-- via The Right Christians


These kinds of stories (see also the theory that Noah's Flood is based on the bursting of the Black Sea, or that Atlantis is a misremembered version of the explosion of Thera and the fall of the Minoan civilization) have an understandable appeal today. For the believer, they can validate the myth and lift the burden of believing in a major supernatural intervention. For the nonbeliever, they can eliminate the need to bring in God to explain things. Both views, however, seem to partake of what I would call Saganism* -- the idea that myth is a primitive form of science, attempting the same objective rendering of the facts but without the techniques of modern verification. So we can look back at the marvels recorded by prescientific people and see that they were just guesses at explaining things that we now understand better.

Jürgen Habermas's thoughts (yeah, I know you're all getting tired of hearing about Habermas) on the structure of communication shed some light on what makes me uncomfortable with Saganism. Habermas states that every act of communication makes claims about three worlds -- the objective (regarding facts in the world we share), the intersubjective (regarding norms of social interaction), and the subjective (regarding personal experience). While those three elements are present in every utterance, in modern cultures they've been somewhat separated out so that each statement explicitly addresses one of the worlds. Along with that, we've developed three forms of reasoning, each corresponding to the characteristic perspective of one of the worlds (though it can be applied to any subject matter) -- science, ethics, and aesthetics. The boundaries between these subject areas, and the definition of what topics are amenable to what kind of reasoning, are open to negotiation within society.

However, Habermas stresses that this separation is distinctively modern. For premodern peoples, whose worldview he refers to as "mythic," the three worlds run together. They aren't thematized separately the way they are for us. Thus, when we hear a myth that tells a story about the past, our modern impulse is to treat it as part of the world where we would locate it -- the objective, dealt with by science (including history). We thus treat the myth as scientific/historical reasoning, and when it comes up short on that count, we arrive at Saganism. Studies like the one quoted above are attempts to validate the myth on scientific grounds.

Certainly myths did serve to represent the objective world for their tellers. Saganism's mistake is to forget that they also served to represent the intersubjective and subjective worlds, to express truths of how people should interact and how they experience their world. It is on these dimensions that myths retain most of their significance today. In its focus on the historical fact of Jesus' life (and consequently that of the rest of the Bible), Christianity has abetted Saganism (both with regard to Christian myths and, by extension, with regard to other religions' myths in the minds of people from Christian and post-Christian cultures). But when religion decides to step onto the objective playing field and go up against scientific reasoning, it has a history of either losing (as in the Copernican revolution) or of stunting our knowledge (as in creationism). And even if our modern ethical and aesthetic reasoning beats myths in the intersubjective and subjective worlds, recognizing that they must be confronted there enriches our understanding of myths.

*I haven't read Carl Sagan's books yet, but this theory aligns with what I've heard of his ideas.

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