Monday, January 5, 2015

Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs

James A. Herrick's Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs offers a fascinating look at the interplay between fiction and reality. Sci-fi literature has had far more of an impact on scientific research than one might expect. Rather than being a purely logical endeavor, science is sometimes fueled by- and often distorted by - what scientists want to be true. As a result, scientists sometimes embrace cherished ideas in ways that are remarkably at odds with their claim to be dispassionately pursuing hard, cold facts.

Mr.  Herrick identifies seven of what he calls scientific mythologies that arise when fertile scientific imaginations join with a strictly materialistic view of the world: the myth of the extraterrestrial, the myth of space, the myth of the new humanity, the myth of the future, the myth of the spiritual race, the myth of space religion, and the myth of alien gnosis. I will let Mr. Herrick summarize the dilemma this creates:

“We are the victims of our fictions; for well over a century, our popular stories have argued that the future was pregnant with something beyond the human, something requiring our assistance to be birthed. Speculative science as well has helped to popularize and propagate this myth of the miracle baby, fruit of science and nature, citizen of the future, destined for space. We are no longer the pinnacle of a divine act of creation, the specific flesh in which God chose to clothe himself. We are now instrumental people, no longer flesh, but stepping-stones to something more important, indeed, something divine.

Nature and Science groan in anxious yearning for the revealing of the future-humans, a pagan apocalypse. We are haunted by the idea, confirmed in our own experience, that something is wrong with us, something that desperately needs fixing. But only a peculiarly human blend of vulnerability and hubris, nakedness and pride, leads us to conclude that we can do the fixing ourselves, thus missing the great historical Fact that the fixing has already been done…

But scientific visions of immortal geniuses striving for divinity are dangerous precisely because they represent a hubristic human imitation of a divine purpose - to restore spiritually and physically a fallen human race. This restoration required, not the genetic invention of a superman, but the death and resurrection of the Divine Man.”

Scientific Mythologies is a fascinating book. I am big fan of sic-fi, so I loved all the behind-the-scenes stories of how classic stories sparked the careers of so many scientists. It also put some of my favorite stories into a cultural context that added depth to both the stories and the authors. Did you know, for example, that C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke corresponded? And that Lewis wrote his space trilogy as a Christian response to the scientific mythologies he saw in Clarke's humanistic view of the future? Whatever your worldview, stories such as those brought the author's claim to life in a way that was both insightful and entertaining. 


I had just finished this book when I saw Interstellar.  Matthew McConaughey's character embodied Mr. Herrick's claim that these scientific mythologies look remarkably like a new religion. Hamilton James, who is not a fan of the idea of God, notes his discomfort with the transcendent aspects of an otherwise scientific movie::
Significantly, thanks to the writer and director Christopher Nolan, the movie denies a role for Godly explanation, but on epistemological grounds is the presented substitute, “love”, any better?
Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, the movie opts for a view that 'love' is before/transcends the recent descriptive science of evolution and moral psychology that seeks to ‘explain it away’. The film holds love is an essential component, a catalyst of the universe and life itself, and that we should trust in it for ultimate underlying direction. McConaughey’s character certainly takes the lead as an explorer for love itself, a champion of the underlying nature of the universe…brave love. Perfect casting? Better than a God perhaps, but how different epistemologically? By which I mean is it any better to suggest ‘love’ as an underlying all purposeful characteristic than say ‘Good’ or ‘God’?
This approach to life, though grounded in the insights we glean from the science, certainly goes beyond the mere facts and moves into something far more nebulous. It requires an adoration of human ingenuity, a worship of the as yet unachieved promise of the scientific endeavor, an essential component or catalyst of the universe in which we should trust, and even the sacrifice of human life in order for humanity to find salvation. It's an approach that begins to look remarkably like the religious urge that many scientists so quickly decry.

Scientific Mythologies makes it clear that we all believe in something beyond the reach of science. We all have "evidence for things not seen." The question is not whether or not we have a belief that goes beyond the facts; the question is whether or not the foundation upon which we build matches the shape of the world. 


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the book! I thought it was pretty awesome myself. I think he overstates the case at points with regard to the alleged agendas of various authors, but I do think he brings a valuable critical perspective to science fiction that we as readers need to be aware of.

  2. I read it at your recommendation :) Even a cursory list of some recent sci-fi films (Elysium, Looper, End of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Space Station 76, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) offer some support for his claims (though I agree with you that he protesteth too much at times). And once you begin to add horror/dystopia to the sci-fi mix, I think you get a different kind of story as well. Oh, and I am just planning to read what you recommend from here on out.

    1. Thanks for your kind words about my recommendations! I read quite a few books you recommend as well. The Mistborn Trilogy was one of them, and I was absolutely blown away. We have similar taste, my friend! Thanks for all you do!