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Philosophy of Science - Myth - Revelation

The History of a Discovery


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 6/2007, P. 17-19
webmaster's own, not authorized translation



Philosophy of science in the strict sense of the word is a philosophical discipline of its own come into being in the first half of the 20th century. Its origin is connected with the seemingly inexorable advance of the empirical and technical sciences changing the world in a way that in this form and speed never before existed. But despite all those successes the intellectual conscience that had come into the world together with philosophy since the classical antiquity could not be silenced, and that asked about the intellectual foundations of every given or recognized reality. Admittedly, all real knowledge should now be left to the so-called empirical sciences - but what is and on what is their experience founded? That was the fundamental question out of which now the theory of sciences developed.

This experience, so one thought for the time being, was originally given us by the senses. Hence it was ultimately to be traced back to sensual experience, or, in other words, all sentences of scientific experience and the explanation based on it had in the end to get their certification in so-called basic sentences (originally called "records") that described the individual sensory experiences and observations. But the experience given by the sensory fields was only the one support; the other one was to bring those experiences into exact logical relations to each other. For this reason the logical positivism, which dominated philosophy in the middle of the last century, used finally a formal logic that goes far beyond the classical logic and is expressed in a certain formal sign language. Hence one had to master that sign language to be able to read at all texts that were to express the facts of the scientific matter both in its strictly empirical and strictly formally logical structure. Here the texts of physics served as a model: they were written in a mathematical-logical language and regarded as the ideal of an exact scientifical-empirical knowledge that alone was true.

But the belief of logical positivism to have found in the basic sentences the decisive foundation for empirical verifications or falsifications was already shaken in 1934, when K. Popper pointed out that there are never absolute verifications of scientifical-empirical statements, because their review is always preceded by theoretical assumptions that cannot be reviewed in the same context. So for instance natural laws are formulated as 'all'-sentences, e.g., "All bodies are subject to the law of gravity". But that all bodies are really subject to the law of gravity cannot be verified - it is a priori assumed. But though Popper denied absolute empirical verifications on the basis of philosophy of science, he nevertheless believed further in absolute scientific falsifications. For just since laws of nature are 'all"-sentences, according to Popper already a single deviation is sufficient to refute such sentences.

But later it became apparent that general basic sentences - they may be verifying or falsifying -, generally have more or less numerous theoretical conditions set a priori, so that Popper's attempt to get at least with falsifications absolute scientific certainty has to be regarded as failure. With those pre-conditions it is more accurately about a series of 'a priori'-determinations: e.g. about the scope and functioning of the measuring instruments used for formulating basic sentences; determinations about the way how one proceeds from individual basic sentences by induction to the formulation of laws of nature, because induction as a more or less infinite extrapolation transcends all experience; determinations in the production of an axiomatic order, by which groups of natural laws, which for their part are - in the already mentioned way - founded on determinations, are summarized to comprehensive theories; and not least determinations - to mention only those yet -, by which with the help of experiments is decided in favour or against a theory. For with it it is also decided what one thinks of the individual determinations or the entire network of determinations that in the respective case have led to verifications or falsifications. In summary: There are in the area of exact empirical sciences no absolute, only by experience and formal logic determined verifications or falsifications.

It would nevertheless be a mistake to think the mentioned determinations ultimately deprived the scientific theories of their empirical content. Far away from sacrificing it, they on the contrary rather serve to make it visible at all. This may be explained by a simple example: If one, like Newton proceeds from the determination that the universe is Euclidean, the empirical result is that gravitational forces work in it; if one proceeds, like Einstein from the determination that it is a curved space, the empirical result is that no gravitational forces work in it. Hence it is neither an empirical fact that the universe is Euclidean and gravitational forces work in it nor that it is curved and no such forces work in it; but empirical are only such meta-theoretical sentences of the type: If these or those determinations are made a priori, then it has these and those empirical consequences. Hence reality appears not in the theory but only in the meta-theory assigned to it.

Is there now a criterion that enables us to see which of the 'a priori-determinations' we can - among other possible ones - regard as more suitable to see reality in the right light? For example, it may be that one theory explains the area of objects affiliated to it in a simpler or more comprehensive way, or in a simpler as well as more comprehensive way. But apart from the fact that if you decide for that reason in favour of a certain theory, the metaphysical idea is based then on the assumption that nature was constructed according to the criterion of simplicity, nothing was decided about the question of truth. For a theory can be wrong even if it satisfactorily explains everything that occurs in its radius, because according to the laws of logic truth can follow out of wrong (but never wrong out of truth).

Here now the history of science proved to be an indispensable tool to examine the reasons of the 'a priori'-part of every theory. For it became apparent that with the substantiation of theories not only the conceptions of its strict scientific framework played a crucial role, but also those of the cultural environment.

That was especially the case when paradigm shifts took place, i.e. changes in the general theoretical foundations of several theories that at a certain time were related to each other. Examples for it are given by the transition from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican conception of the world, from the Aristotelian to the Newtonian physics, and again from that to the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. It is sheer positivist superstition to think all that was only the result of further and further advancing pure empirical knowledge.

For scientific progress is not only given by the fact that the wealth of experience constantly expands, but also by the changing of the 'a priori'-determinations and prevailing conditions, briefly, of the individual components of the 'experimental' system "science", and not at all only under the pressure of new empirical findings.

But on the other hand this reality "science", which is not only always growing but also time and again changing in its 'a priori'-drafts and prevailing conditions up to radical paradigm changes, is based on a fundamental view of reality that has never changed, because it belongs to the definition of the phenomenon "science" itself, as it at the latest exists since the 17th century. Such an 'a priori', fundamental and general conception of reality is called ontology, i.e. General Teaching on Being.



At the time when the general problems of justifying the empirical sciences' claim to truth became visible, in Europe a wide research on myths developed, which was without doubt also connected with the technical, scientific age. It may be asked: Was myth not a paradigmatic alternative to scientific ontology and what was its relation to it? It became apparent indeed that it too was like ontology a system of experiences, and that one can enumerate the points that characterize it on the one hand as such one and on the other hand make recognizable the analogous relations between the mythical and the scientific ontology. They are mainly the following:

  1. In contrast to the natural sciences spiritual and material reality is for the myth an insoluble unity. Every spiritual reality gets at once a material shape.
  2. What the laws of nature are in the natural sciences, the archaí are in the myth, namely stories about the origin. Every regular, always repeated course in nature is reduced to an original primal event that cannot be dated.
  3. In contrast to natural science myth does not distinguish the general concept from the object represented by it.

This brief account of the ontology on which the myth is based may at first glance strengthen the impression of people totally educated in the spirit of scientific ontology that myth is related to a kind of fairytale world. But such an impression is based on the narrow-minded prejudice that it was proved that the scientific ontology agreed with reality, hence that it was true, whereas the ontology of the myth was a mere figment of fantasy, hence it was wrong. To maintain this has long since become a habitual way of thinking, so that not even the question is put, how it can be proved. But there were only the following possibilities for such a proof: First one proves that an empirical refutation of the mythical ontology exists, or secondly a rational refutation, or thirdly a practical rebuttal.

To the first: There is just as little an empirical refutation of the mythical ontology as empirical reasons for scientific ontology. For with both it is about 'a priori'-frameworks of determinations and systems of experience within which - as already indicated - all experience is interpreted. To the second: A rational rebuttal of the mythical ontology could just be that one either regards it as contradictory to reason or as not free of contradictions.



But how does one assess what is contrary to reason? Where does one get that standard, existing for itself and called reason, judged by which one would be able to answer this question, unless one submits to Hegel's deceptive idea 'World Spirit'? As regards the absence of contradictions, one will in vain try to prove that mythical ontology infringed it. Its fundamental description of reality is simply a different one than that of scientific ontology. Now to the third: The practical rebuttal is mainly pointing out that only science was able to fulfil certain purposes that people had set themselves, but that could only in the scientific age, especially in the area of technology be realized. This view overlooks not only that most of the purposes satisfied by science have anyway been first awakened by it, but also and above all that the purposes in the sphere of myth substantially result from the numinous dealing with the gods.

The whole practice of everyday life, people's dealing with each other, the commercial and social life in the polis and in the cult was determined by myths. Without regard to this fact to deal with nature only from the mere purposes of mortals was suspected of hubris. From where would one now take the standard, if one wanted to prove that the man-set purposes of the scientific-technical world were superior to a mythical one? If one wants to repudiate the suspicion of hubris weighing on the technical-scientific world, one must also reject the whole mythical context in which it has its roots, hence also the mythical ontology - but as proved above just that is impossible empirically as well as with reference to reason or rationality.

The comparison between scientific and mythical ontology made with the help of philosophy of science can now be generalized: ontologies of the kind described are equal on principle. That is what I call the first principle of tolerance, because there is another to which I will return later. But just because of that tolerance principle the question remains open and needs not to be answered, why the one ontology replaced the other one. There are, as proved above, neither empirical nor rational practical reasons. Whatever we may historically explain, it will always be explained within one of the great systems of experience. The transition from one system of experience to another one remains unexplainable. In that respect one can say, history simply happens. Hence also all the so familiar attempts to represent the myth in the light of science as anthropomorphism sprung from fear and ignorance are inapplicable.

Until now my explanations were exclusively due to the area of philosophy of science. For as I said above, the realization of the equality of the scientific and the mythical system of experience is a scientific theory, since it is based on the comparison of the scientific with the mythical ontology. But it must not be overlooked that such a comparison, which results from reflections of the philosophy of science, is only possible as exterior view on the myth. Only in this view it is presented as one system of experience among other possible ones. But if one shifts from the exterior to the interior view and puts oneself in the place of people living within the myth, then they have - according to their understanding - to deal with numinous experiences that have the conditions of their possibility not in the framework of a man-set 'a priori'-draft - as it is with a system of experiences -, but in a reality where in the one or other way some numinous being appears, some Absolute.

The classic example for it is the epiphany, i.e. the appearance of a god, which is of such importance in the Greek myth. By his appearance he steps out of seclusion into openness. That's why for the Greeks truth is not the congruence of reality with the thought produced by a subject in the framework of an 'a priori'-set system of experiences, but it was that openness - in Greek 'a-letheia', in which the actual reality, the object reveals itself as a god to the subject. Hence the knowledge of the god is absolute, because it is a knowledge set by him alone. When one shifts from philosophy of science's comparison between the scientific and mythical system of experience to the interior view of a mythical system of experience, one leaves once and for all the idea on which scientific thinking is based, the idea of a more or less arbitrary framework of 'a priory'-determinations, hence of a system of experience ultimately drafted by man himself, and the dimension of an absolute experience opens.

Thus also a contradiction becomes apparent between the tolerance principle of philosophy of science on the one hand, according to which there is only a relative experience, i.e. an experience that is related to a certain 'a priori'-set ontology, and on the other hand the genuinely mythical experience that does not know such a man-set frame of reference and therefore lays claim to absolute significance. But this contradiction is resolved when one recognizes the boundaries set to that principle of tolerance.

For when it maintains that we can with equal right consider reality now under the viewpoint of this and another time under the viewpoint of that ontology - because they are all equal, this means that we can consider it now under the aspect of this and then again of that ontology, hence that reality has an aspectual character. But as a general statement about reality the sentence "Reality has an aspectual character" is an ontological principle itself! And consequently it too has, like all ontological, i.e. man-thought sentences no absolute validity but belongs to the area of those 'a priori'-determinations that lead our whole existence as soon as we move within the area of philosophy of science.



When it now turned out, in the above described way, that myth - in the wake of philosophy of science's self-criticism of scientific thinking (tolerance principles) - appeared in a new, previously undreamt-of light, in the end also a re-opening of the old dispute between scientific thinking and revelation became inevitable, which had since Enlightenment - according to a widespread opinion - been seen as already decided in favour of scientific thinking. And this all the more so, as theology itself had come under the spell of such enlightened thinking and its leading minds - I mention only Bultmann and Tillich - began under the heading "demythologization" to cleanse theology of all mythical items that were flatly regarded as out of date.

Thus, in the light of a myth-research following the interpretation of philosophy of science, the Christian cult of the Eucharist, where wine is changed into Christ's blood and bread into his body, has a mythical form. And there is also obvious the extensive formal relation to antique theoxenies where God was present and one enjoyed the divine feeding. Moreover, the Eucharist is a mythical Arché, i.e. an original event that is always repeated as the same - in this case as the original event of the Last Supper. Both, the idea of original sin and the idea of redemption from the original sin are also mythical. St Paul states this in full clarity when he says: "As now through the sin of the One damnation came upon all people, so also through the justice of the One justification came to all people." (Rom 5, 18).

Hence one can generally say: Whenever and in whatever way God or the divine reality appear in the world and can be perceived by man's senses this will happen in the form of myths. Thus the mythical world continues in the Christian revelation, albeit in a new interpretation and in a new garment, and the pre-Christian myth proves to be the preliminary stage of the Christian one. In this respect, there is no Christian faith without myth; though, as the Greek myth shows, there is a myth without faith. All that is the reason why the Christian revelation uses, as it were, the language and the form of mythical reality.

And yet it is something fundamentally different from the myth. The crucial difference is that in the myth everything happens within the world, whereas the Christian God as Creator of the world is an absolutely transcendent reality, a deus absconditus, and only insofar as he communicates with man, i.e. in this or that way appears in the world, he takes on mythical forms in the way described. But thus every mythical reality, as it is generally summarized under the concept 'numinous', gets according to the Christian viewpoint a quite different meaning in comparison to the genuine mythical reality. Thus already the angels, despite all formal resemblance to the mythical gods, are distinguished from them by the fact that they are both, inner-worldly envoys of the one God's absolute transcendence and demons who seceded from him and have like Adam their origin in him. (Think of the serpent seducing Adam and Eve.) Angels and demons of that kind are unknown to myth. In particular the numinous reality in nature - the sacred grove, the Témenos may serve here as an example, which is so familiar to myth, is in the light of revelation a numen, a sign of God the Creator. So St Paul writes: "For God's invisible being, i.e. his eternal power and divinity, is since the creation of the world seen from his works ..." (Rom 1, 20). Thus the mythical experience of world and nature can absolutely remain in force and gets nevertheless a totally different, and as regards myth, new meaning by becoming the reflection of the one transcendent Creator God.



Let's look back. First, the self-criticism of the exact empirical sciences as philosophy of science lead to the realization that they are based on an ontology that serves to organize scientifically empirical knowledge. One can call it also its system of coordinates, in which everything is classified but which is not subjected to any empirical justification. Then the newer myth-research lead to the insight that also mythical thinking is - like the scientific-empirical one based on an ontology. From it followed what I called the first tolerance principle, according to which all ontologies - since they are in this sense the basis of all reasons and that's why they cannot be proved - are epistemologically equal. But as it became apparent, this tolerance principle is based on the aspectual nature of reality, which is in itself ontological and therefore also belongs to the area of those 'a priori'-determinations that lead our whole existence, as far as it happens within the area of philosophy of science. Now, these different kinds of ontologies - one could call them also common conceptions of reality - have their origin in human thinking, or, in other words, in subjectivity. But what if there are ontologies, like those of the myth or the Christian religion, which originate in human subjectivity only according to the viewpoint of philosophy of science, hence according to a viewpoint foreign to them, but which understand themselves - be it in the mythical or Christian form - as divine revelation, i.e. as something absolute? If one rejected such an absolute revelation on the grounds that there was no absolute knowledge or that its existence was impossible, so one maintained at the same time that only relative knowledge was possible, which was set by the subject in this or that way; but would that not be a contradiction in adjecto? Would so not be said that it was absolutely certain that an absolutely certain knowledge was impossible? An absolute knowledge as revelation can admittedly not be set or proved by us like a scientific one - we can only believe or not believe it. So we came to the second principle of tolerance, according to which absolute experiences have to be tolerated in principle; by this is said that there are limitations to that tolerance. And one of those limitations is particularly rationality as formal logic.



Whether scientific or mythical ontology, whether Christian revelation - everything must be in accordance to the general rules of formal logic, what means nothing else than: It must be possible to think it without contradictions, for a contradictory statement is no statement at all.

Everything that has been said so far was just a self-analysis of human reason, the result of which may be summarized as follows: Reason is the fundamental ability to form ontologies on the basis of logical thinking, and to open oneself to revelations. Ontologies spring from subjectivity and have only a historical-relative significance, whereas revelations are messages of the deity and have an absolute significance. In this respect the ability of reason to open to revelations is the ability to believe. But faith itself, since it does not spring from reason, is grace. That does not mean that ontology and revelation are completely separated from each other. In the course of history ontologies were inspired by revelation, revelation in the course of its interpretation by ontologies. But by this nothing is changed in their fundamental difference.

Thus I come - albeit on different paths - to the same result as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. He distinguishes between two types of reason that nevertheless are an insoluble unity. The one regards the thinking of the subject and is always active in a historical context, and the other regards the understanding of the eternal revelation. But - so the then Cardinal: "Reason in its relativity will not become sound without the absolute faith, faith will not become humane without reason in its respective inevitably historically conditioned phenomena." With that Ratzinger has understood the real depth of Enlightenment, which was not recognized because one was content with rudimentary concept of reason, namely the one which regards only the formation of ontologies, but disregarded the ability to obtain the revelation.


    {*} Prof. Dr. Kurt Hübner, Professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Kiel


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