Are mythological stories scientific explanations?

{It would seem so because Zeus, for example, was as early explanation of lightening.}

Or are they stories/rhetoric?

Or is story-telling or rhetoric identical to scientific explanation?

{It would seem so because the Big Bang theory, for example, is a story about the development of the universe.}

  • You might be able to stretch the definition that way. It was a hypothesis based on observation, which was later disproved. – takintoolong May 22 '17 at 16:28
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    as far as i know, the narrative that zeus creates lightning makes no predictions. The theory that lightning is the sudden conversion of static to current electricity as areas of differing charge try to equaluse, makes predictions, such as how to actually create or control lightning. – Richard May 22 '17 at 19:52
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    Quine thinks that they are. – Alexander S King May 22 '17 at 20:07
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    Zeus was certainly an explanation, but it was not scientific, at least by the modern meaning of "scientific" (and at the time there was no such thing as modern science). One could say that science (along with art, religion, etc.) emerged out of syncretic mythological protoculture, but calling mythology scientific stretches "scientific" beyond its usefulness. – Conifold May 22 '17 at 21:23
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    the locus classicus here is not quine, but levi strauss and the other anthropologists, e.g. goodreads.com/book/show/782026.The_Savage_Mind – user20153 May 22 '17 at 21:34

Quine famously drew a comparison between mythology and science as being different only in degree, not in kind. In his 1951 paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", he states:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.

The point he is trying to make is a subtle one. Since the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers of science have been trying to come up with a definitive way of separating science from pseudo-science and mysticism (See this post). This is know as the demarcation problem, and none of the solutions so far have been successful.

Quine is arguing that it is not possible to do so, because no matter how scientific and empirical an explanation gets, it is still based on our language, which is a cultural artifact, not a brute fact of nature.

Consider the following:

An ancient Egyptian observes the sun's movement, and proposes a theory that its movement is due to the god Ra's Sun Boat. A modern scientist observes it and proposes a theory that it is moved by mysterious force called gravity. In both cases, the only thing that can be observed is the sun's movement, both the god Ra and the force are abstract entities which cannot be observed. Both the Ancient Egyptian and the modern day scientist have to resort to unobservable metaphysical objects for their theory to be meaningful, otherwise they don't have a theory, they just have a bunch of observations. The concept of force seems more "rational" to us only because we have gotten accustomed in Western culture to concept, but to a truly neutral and empirically minded observer, the idea of a mysterious unseen vector pulling the sun through the sky is just as outlandish as a god on a boat. Both are cultural artifacts.

This is not to say that Greek, Egyptian, Nordic mythology are on the same footing as modern science, Quine is clear in that. Quine wasn't a mystically inclined person trying to bring mythology back to the same level as science. On the contrary he was a materialist, mathematically inclined logician. Modern science produces far better results than mythology in terms of being able to predict reality accurately, and one would be stupid to rely on mythology (or astrology, or faith healing, etc....) instead of the latest scientific theories in predicting reality. But that improvement in accuracy is the only difference, we have no other way of separating science from mythology. Quine's point is that we cannot separate theories into science and non-science, only into good science and bad science.

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    @mobileink very true, but that just supports Quine's claim that Newton's concept of force is just as metaphysical as Homeric or Valhallic deities. On the very likely chance that physics improves beyond Einstein's relativity, then the post-Einstein notion of gravity will be relegated to the status of cultural artifact was well. – Alexander S King May 22 '17 at 21:32
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    Newton wasn't trying to explain what Gravity is. He was only trying to find a mathematical formula which predicted its actions. Einstein on the other hand realised that if his model of the universe was correct, there ought to be some tiny differences between reletivity's prediction of the action of gravity, and newtons. Einstein turned out to be correct. Yet still science doesn't really know what gravity is. It appears to be a property matter, like inertia. And yet.. not. We have better and better models for it's behaviour, but as yet, no real fundamental truth about what it is. – Richard May 22 '17 at 21:44
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    Where did Quine state that mythology is "a type of primitive scientific explanation"? I read the quote making the point that ordinary physical objects are from the point of view of empiricism (I assume he means here phenomenalism) qualitatively in the same epistemological position as Gods, i.e. both are posits. He is talking about the empiricist's perspective not the ancient Greeks. I don't think you can draw clear conclusions about Quine's anthropological views from that quote. – Johannes May 22 '17 at 21:48
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    @richard +1. i believe Newton rejected the idea that gravity is a force, at least at first. he just got descriptive equations, that's different. pretty amazing that we have these great descriotions of something we still do not understand. – user20153 May 22 '17 at 22:05
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    @Johannes Ok. And how is postulating that electricity is mediated by unobservable small objects called "electrons" than postulating that it is mediated by unobservable small jinns who obey the godess electra? – Alexander S King May 22 '17 at 22:35

For this answer, my position is that a scientific explanation is defined as an explanation for natural phenomena that follows the scientific method and has various traits, most important of which are being falsifiable (testable), and that said empirical tests have been run and shown to not prove the explanation false (since we are being careful here, we do not say that it has been proven true; science cannot offer that, only offer that something cannot be shown to be false despite significant attempts to do so).

That is the definition of science. To call something that does not follow the scientific method science, for example to claim science covers all attempts to explain natural phenomena rather than only those explanations that follow this method, is to twist the term beyond its definitions and make it useless.

And it is clear that mythological explanations for natural phenomena were not produced by following the scientific method. Some of them are arguably falsifiable (we’ve been to the top of Mt. Olympus; it didn’t have any gods), but they weren’t posited in the same way that scientific explanations were. Scientific explanations are by definition asking to be proven wrong (and only those that have not been proven wrong despite numerous attempts to do so are considered valid). Myths were made to be believed, which is very much quite the opposite.

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    It's not obvious here what it would mean for an explanation to follow the scientific method. The scientific method — and I doubt that there is one scientific method — is usually understood as part of scientific inquiry not scientific explanation. – ChristopherE May 23 '17 at 3:05
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    This is a poorly written answer and shows little or no familiarity with philosophy of science. You said "various other "traits", what are these other traits? Falsifiability and testability face a serious problem: the underdetermination of scientific theories. There is no one single scientific method - and some authors have argued that there is no scientific method at all. There are several issues as well when dealing with the demarcation of science. – Alexander S King May 23 '17 at 3:17

no. scientific theories, by definition, are open to revision based on empirical evidence. myths are not. if you change the myths of Zeus, you get different myths, not better (more explanatory) ones.

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    not a super helpful answer imho. a) are we talking about the demarcation problem or some other salient quality of 'science' b) how has the history 'science' changed – user25714 May 22 '17 at 19:50
  • sorry if i seemed like a complete jerk, don't think i am. is string theory "open to revision based on empirical evidence"? – user25714 May 22 '17 at 20:41
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    i have no idea. but if it is not, then it is not a scientific theory. – user20153 May 22 '17 at 20:44
  • i have no opinion about wrt jerkiness. but if you have asked a sincere question in the first place, without the gratuitous insults, i would have been happy to explain further. – user20153 May 22 '17 at 20:46
  • i didn't think them "gratuitous" sorry. point about the grammar and coherence was just that explanation doesn't need to be "open to revision". i can create very elegant explanations which are entirely vacuous. whether or not it is, i suppose, explanation in the full blooded or real sense. i think that's what this means "For Aristotle, the stated goal of scientific explanation is to 'save the phenomena'. " – user25714 May 22 '17 at 20:49

Although we are [claims Barthes] not necessarily aware of it, modern myths are created with a reason. As in the example of the red wine, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media.

So myth may overlap with some of the less savoury aspects of science, of socially constructed explanation. Obviously, myth making cannot be called a science after we've demarcated science from pseudo science.

Whether you call it, myth, proto-scientific would depend on your historical analysis, and likely your ideology.

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