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52 | Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths. —Karl Popper (1957) u n t i l t h e l a t e n i n e t e e n t h c e n t u r y t h e a n c i e n t phenomenon of myth was regarded as it had been since the Enlighten­ ment, as a primitive way of knowing, a phenomenon to be supplanted by science. The growth of the social and behavioral sciences in the early twentieth century led to the recognition of the vital role that myth plays in the lives of people in most cultures. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the study of myth included the application of numerous psychological and anthropological theories. What does that abundance of theory reflect? As one distinguished mathematician /physicist put it: The existence of a variety of theories about a given phenomenon is a sign that it may be perceived in a variety of different ways. This may be a sign of scientific vitality; not weakness, especially if we are perceiving a marvelous phenomenon.1 Most people no longer use mythic explanations to account for natural phenomena; and in fact it is now widely believed that this never was the primary function of myth. Instead, the myth’s raison Chapter 4 An Overture to the Scientific Study of Myth| frank tikalsky and john nagel | an overture to the scientific study of myth | 53 d’etre may be, to functionalists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, to enhance the functioning of social institutions. For Jungians the study of myth provides insight into the mind of man. This Jungian notion is evident, for example, in the popular writings of Joseph Campbell. Although a variety of scientific theories have been applied to myth study, Segal emphasizes that no scientific theory deals exclusively with myth.2 Instead theories of larger scope, most from psychology and anthropology, are applied to myth. In psychology, these theories exist in the theoretical categories of Freudian psychodynamics, neoFreudian theory, and Jungian individual psychology. In anthropology, the social anthropological theories of structuralism and functionalism prevail. The obvious implication is that any introduction to the scientific study of myth must introduce these theories. And to appreciate these theories one must begin with the meaning of the scientific concepts theory, fact, and hypothesis. As a hypothetical example of the scientific use of the terms theory , fact, and hypothesis, imagine a fourteenth-century sailor on a ship making observations of other ships in the distance. In those preCopernican days, it was almost universally believed that the earth was flat. Strange as it seems to us now, this belief was supported remarkably well by some astronomical observations. The important point for us to grasp is that this belief in the earth’s flatness is a theory. Now the sailor is an astute observer because his observations (facts) of the ships are inconsistent with the flatness theory. The ships sailing away from him toward a distant horizon do not appear to diminish in size to a vanishing point, but instead, at a distance of some seven nautical miles, they appear to sink! His empirical observations are inconsistent with the assumption (theory) that the earth is flat. Now, he must modify the theory or develop a new one. The sailor does just that by assuming, “Perhaps the earth is round.” A great step forward in scientific inquiry occurs when the sailor goes on to develop his hypothesis. A hypothesis may be defined as an “if, then” statement which can be tested. An example could be: “If I sail continually in one direction, then I should return to the point of origin.” What can be learned from this example? We learn that there is an intimate relationship between theory, fact, and hypothesis, and that theories give the things we observe meaning. This is one of the most important understandings we should develop. But we should understand, in addition, that theories also define the observations we make, point to 54 | part i gaps in our knowledge, and predict facts. As this example shows, we do not experiment directly with theories; rather, we experiment with hypotheses deduced from theories. In addition to knowing something about theories and their application , the person new to myth study needs some basic knowledge of myth. A brief, readable authoritative text is Robert A. Segal’s, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2004). This work will provide an understanding of the...


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