Thursday, July 27, 2006

On Mythological Thinking

Today is Thursday, 27 July 2006.

Andrea Yates of Texas, charged with the murder of three of her children, was yesterday found not guilty by reason of insanity at her second trial. The jury is to be commended.

It was obvious from the evidence presented at both trials that she had been afflicted for years with the disease of mental illness, and had been poorly-served by both her husband and the state mental health system. She killed her children under the delusion she was thereby saving them from Satan and eternal damnation.

Many persons in this country and around the world don’t really believe in mental illness as a medical phenomenon. For example, many believe that insanity is caused by demonic possession and, since demons cannot possess people against their will, it is the fault of the insane, who out of moral depravity invited the demons in. How can people believe something so irrational?

The sad truth is that many people live mythologically in a scientific and technological world. By this I mean that they enjoy the fruits of science and technology, while grounding their thinking in myths rather than the scientific method.

For example, those who dismiss evolution as “just a theory”, and argue that other “theories”, such as creationism, should be taught in the public schools alongside evolution. They obviously don’t comprehend what a theory is in science.

Scientific method begins by assembling facts about a phenomenon, fashioning a hypothesis which seems to account for those facts, and then devising means to test the hypothesis. If the hypothesis passes the tests, it becomes a theory, or a rational explanation of the given phenomenon. The myth of Creationism, for example, fails because there is no way to test it; one is expected simply to believe it because one is commanded to do so.

What’s annoying is that many people who embrace irrational and anti-scientific mythologies can’t lay their hands on enough of the fruits of science. It is only common decency to expect that anyone who rejects scientific thinking would also refrain from the use of electricity, internal combustion engines, antibiotics, and so on. They should be proud to return to living in caves and dining on grubs and rats.

This same sort frequently thinks they’re making a logical argument when they say, “It just stands to reason”. Well, it if does, one must be able to present reasoning and reasons. What they are really saying is, “It’s just my irrational opinion or prejudice, foisted on me by aberrant socialization, and if you don’t bow down to it and me, I’ll knock your block off”.

This all becomes dangerous when mythological or magical thinking is introduced into public life as a norm or law. It then becomes acceptable, indeed virtuous, to burn witches at stakes, exterminate Jews, and treat the mentally ill as criminals instead of helpless victims of disease.

Is it any wonder that so many people are enslaved by irrational thinking? Throughout history, most people have never been exposed to education in logic and rational thinking. Is it not because ruling elites reserve that for themselves, knowing that the masses may be more easily controlled and exploited if they can’t think straight?

On this day in history:

1908 – Joseph Mitchell born (d. 1996); one of America’s greatest journalists, and a staff writer of The New Yorker from 1938 to his death; a collection of his work, Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (Vintage), belongs on every literate human’s shelves

1953 – a cease-fire suspends the “Korean War”; no peace treaty has ever been signed, and hostilities have never been legally concluded


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