Life, the universe, and everything (with apologies to Mr. Adams)

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Does anybody want to bat around this pinata and see if it can live up to that?

I will start by saying that it is necessarily and hopelessly anthropomorphic in its proportions. In reality, the ‘myth’ section is probably a tiny region hovering on the edge of a vast ‘truth’ section which, outside of myth, will be entirely opaque to us since all our intellectual living and breathing is done within the context of myth. Anything outside of that (if we comprehend it enough to even bring it up) becomes part of our mythology. So I enlarge the mythology region so as to take a better look at the goodies inside it. Thoughts about my little arrangement?

(Christy Hemphill) #2

So, where science and theology are outside of truth and reality, does that mean they are wrong? Or dealing with what is unknowable in terms of truth and reality? And how would you define mythology? Is myth a controlling metanarrative or something? It seems like you are categorizing it more broadly than, say, a literature genre.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

I am thinking of mythologies as a very broad (even universal) category to contain all the possible things we think about or the way we think of them. Maybe the word “doxa” (from anthropology) kind of captures this if you consider the doxa from across all human cultures. There might be a better word, but I can seldom resist the temptation to redeem the word “myth” from its modern anemic degradation. So perhaps this is my unscholarly rebellion that goes too far the other way. C.S. Lewis probably limited it more to literature given his profession. Is there a great word for our human collection of “controlling metanarratives”?

For example, back when both science and theology had the earth stationary, I would put that in the theology (and science) circles, but outside truth. Of course now, most of us have evicted such a claim from our theology and science circles.

Whatever ideas we have that have no correspondence in truth or reality I would put outside the truth circle. Or perhaps a fiction such as the parable of the prodigal, I would still think of as Truth in terms of the actual truths it teaches, but if someone wanted to insist it was teaching historicity, and in fact it had no historicity, then their take on it would be part of their untrue theology.

(Christy Hemphill) #4

I think the challenge is that we are talking about a lens through which we interpret and make sense of and create meaning out of the claims of all the other circles, as well as the actual propositional content of the conclusions we have drawn in that process. It’s hard to reduce it to two dimensions in relation to the other circles, which are maybe more easily defined by their truth claims.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

A single lens? In my case, yes – since that whole thing is from my perspective. But I want to acknowledge there is quite a varied (and yet similar?) collection of lenses – one for each human. So in postulating something like this, I’m on the inside somewhere (where we all must be) trying to look out at all this.

My intent is for the two outermost and overlapping ellipses to represent 1: the reality independent of any/all human minds (Truth), and 2: the collection of perceived/revealed/conjectured realities inside our minds (what I carelessly called ‘mythology’). In good theological and scientific tradition (and contra any thorough-going postmodernism) I have faith that there should be substantial overlap between those two ellipses [and of course faith that the first ellipse even exists at all]. I know this leaves fuzzy what the ‘Universal’ set is for my Venn diagram, but that is finally my concession of our inevitable inability to discern such outer boundaries from within our present abodes.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #6


It appears that you are using myth and mythology as I would use philosophy. Most people probably would not acknowledge that they have a philosophy, because we no longer study philosophy, but we do have world views and metanarratives as you say. Our understanding of the world is still there, just not as obvious or conscious.

My pleas for a triune world view is based on the need to have a balance between Science, Theology, and Philosophy in our lives and way of understanding Reality. You have made a good effort toward this with your diagram.

Ideally I would have three interlocking circles representing Theology, Philosophy, and Science within the larger circle of Reality. We do not know and understand everything, but we do not need to know everything to know the Truth.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

I can be flexible about that term – philosophy is good too. We agree that everybody’s got one whether they will/can articulate it or not.

I find Venn diagrams to be such a great pictorial communication tool! So running with your proposed one here … do you then see science, theology, and philosophy in a kind of tri-symmetry? Each with overlap of the other two, but also each with its own turf independent from the other two? If so, that would be in contrast to my seeing science as a subset (completely contained within) philosophy. But do you see parts of science as being independent of human thought? We may be conceiving these categories differently I guess. Thanks for your continued thoughts.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

In fact, in my initial diagram I placed science completely within theology (which in turn was completely inside mythology – or philosophy if you prefer). One could defend that from a Christian point of view by saying that anybody who studies reality (most scientists I should think) is really studying works of God whether or not they acknowledge that. But then given how narrowly restricted some may try to make theological truth, I figured it should have areas outside especially for those kinds of major cases (heliocentrism and evolution being the two elephants) where so many have deemed science as opposed to special theologies. But it was perhaps an unnecessary concession justified mainly perhaps to keep some interesting categories available. In the end, though, I would press forward that some of the regions (like the science portion shown outside of theology) turn out to be empty sets. That would be the true conclusion on classical Christian doctrine I think.

(Jon Garvey) #9


The shape of your diagram changes radically depending on definition of terms. But I think your “mythology” category is probably the best available, since it not only redeems the word, but forces us to realise that, contrary to modernism’s claims, myths are not “ancient lies primitive people”, but (as you put it) “controlling metanarratives” we all have, and which are better identified. They have much in common with “worldviews”, I guess, but are to them as “mission statements” are to “policies”. For example, “Science leads to all truth” is myth, whereas a philosophical defence of materialistic naturalism is a (failed!) worldview.

My point about the definition of terms is related to that - do you count the scientistic myth as part of science, or as myth separate from science, since it’s non-essential? On the other hand, the exclusion of final causes from curent science is an essential, but also a metaphysical assumption that could be seen as myth, perhaps?

Likewise, the overlap between theology and science could be taken (a) as something like the science-faith dialogue, or (b) as the claim that science should encompass divine activity or © simply as B B Warfield’s position that theology is a science.

So it’s a great conversation starter, but I’d hate to rely on the diagram in a book on “life, the Universe and Everything”.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

So you picture a mythology is to a worldview (another well-used word I like and could have used) as a mission statement is to a policy [if I understood your order correctly]. I.e. the mythology being the explicit statements we can hold out and examine at arm’s length if we so desire, but the worldview being the thing that we cannot so easily emerge from to examine it from without. Although based on your example of “science leading to all truth” and a [formal] philosophical defence of materialistic naturalism, I would have switched those categories so maybe I did mix your words up. But that may be of little consequence since I/we are hardly authoritative in assigning formal labels to these categories and the important thing is that they do exist and function for us in the discussed ways.

I would not count the Scientistic myth as itself part of science, though many of its adherents may be doing real enough science. But then again, I think we agree that the very groundings for [real] science itself must come from outside of science (much, if not all of it from theology in fact). So obviously I’m not devaluing something just because it isn’t strictly in the ‘science’ set.

I would allow for that, as I realize the minefield it is for the ID controversy if one begins to nitpick over what all [up to and including teleology] is allowed or disallowed in the science set. So any such proposition regarding [dis]allowance (either way) is probably itself from outside of science (again --which is not to rule any propositions out prematurely.) It is just to say they have to be ruled on from other grounds.

I agree with [a]. And reject [b].

Thanks for continued discussion … gotta run!

(Jon Garvey) #11

Yes, that’ll do - though I also had in mind the idea that a myth is a narrative, like “Galileo suffered aginst religion for his science” or “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, whereas the worldview is, if once examined, a more prosaic list of assumptions, “human freedom is the greatest good + reason leads to all truth + the Great Architect created Nature who now wisely manages Her own affairs +…” etc.

Have a good Sunday!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #12


Thank you for your response.

My thinking is influenced by the Trinity. The Creation which is the object of Science is separate from the Creator which is the object of Theology. They are also related which is the reason that there is overlap.

Science is not independent of human thought, but science like math is based on experience. 2 + 2 = 4 is not depende3nt on our world view. Neither should be the basic facts of science like the age of the earth. Still Science is interpreted facts, so there is overlap with Theology and Philosophy.

I prefer Philosophy to Mythology for historical reasons. Myth is something that people believe for non rational reasons, like tradition and authority.

Christians are often accused of believing in myths, which would be true if we believed in the Bible because of tradition and authority. The Bible called Jesus the Logos which the opposite of Myth. Philosophy is about Logos, human rational understanding. It is about how we think and understand God, the universe, and ourselves, which is why it is separate from Science and Theology, but related with an overlap.

Another aspect is we want this diagram to be universal if possible. Not everyone has a Western world view. I think that using three circles for Philosophy, Theology, and Science allows us to better examine other nonwestern models of Reality as well as different Western models of Reality.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

The overlap I get. Can you give an example of something that is in science or theology that is not in Philosophy? And if your example is something like “2+2=4” or “the earth is not flat” as factoids that are independent of our philosophy, then I don’t follow. To the extent that such facts have an existence independent of our acceptance or comprehension of them just means that our philosophy (which must contain all the knowledge we accept as factual) happens to overlap with reality at that point (kudos around to all!). The moment I call something a “fact” I have just made use of a philosophy that I have well in place. In the absence of
any philosophy, I’m not in a position to think / recognize / assert anything at all.

So trinitarian thinking itself doesn’t have a peculiarly western slant to it? I guess there is the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but are you seeking to apply a trinitarian matrix also to the far east — Buddhism, Taoism, etc.?

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #14


You are right in saying that we use “philosophy” to determine what is a fact. On a basic level I would classify this with our philosophy of Science and our philosophy of Theology.

So trinitarian thinking itself doesn’t have a peculiarly western slant to it?

We are comparing how people understand Reality. I am accepting the fact that Reality can be understood through the disciplines of Science, Philosophy and Theology. Buddhists do not believe in God, so it seems that they have a Philosophy, but not Theology. Islam has Theology, but no real Philosophy. It is difficult to say that any of these faiths recognize Science.

(Peaceful Science) #15

Reading over this entertaining thread, I would say that it all starts with a very western framing about the nature of truth and reality, even conflating the two. In many senses, I agree with the intent of the diagram, but wonder if it is missing something grander.

I think of Jesus declaration: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

For me, Truth is a Person, not a list of facts or a model of the world, or even the world itself. As a Christian, the Totality of Truth hangs together in Jesus. There was a phenomenal talk by Praveen Sethupathy I attended last week that expounded on this point, looking at how even our notion of truth is totally reshaped by science. We see truth as a list of facts or mechanisms or laws or propositions. But maybe Truth is a Person.

If this is so, we would have to rework the entire diagram. Right?

Btw, when the video hits the web, I’ll try and link to it here. Maybe @jpm or @BradKramer or @DeborahHaarsma could comment on it too. They were there too.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #16

This makes no sense to me at all, Roger. No Muslim scientists?! No Buddhist scientists?! An entire religion with no philosophy? I have no difficulty whatsoever acknowledging the obvious … that all these faiths have both science and philosophy in their own ways.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

You are almost certainly right about the incompleteness of my homemade diagram. You might also notice that it is missing the traditional rectangular box around its perimeter usually designated as a Universal set in many Venn diagrams. In other words, my diagram is a rather “open set” around its edges — or if one wanted to insist (with considerable warrant) that the ‘Truth and Reality’ ellipse really is the universal set and everything should be within that, then that would rework it too.

Take it not so much as an attempted toward some comprehensive treatise so much as a nifty way to float multiple conjectures here for discussion.

I like your statement about Jesus being the Truth. And as such I would certainly see him as being in that ellipse so labeled.

As to its western bias, I plead guilty.

(Terry Powell) #18

I like your scripture, and I would agree that truth does not exist independent from God. I also agree that Jesus came to lead us into all truth. However, I take that in light of what I consider to be God’s primary purpose for man in his current state. I believe God’s primary purpose in history is restoring the original image and likeness intended for man as God’s highest creation - bringing wholeness to fallen man. Wholeness relates to holiness. Holiness means perfection in the sense of completion. So, when Jesus said “Be perfect,” He was inviting us to a life of wholeness and holiness. The Greek word for “perfect” means “complete” or “whole.” Jesus was saying, “Be whole as your Father in heaven is whole.” Jesus came to make broken people whole. He was calling us to the life that was His. Scripture also states that man’s wholeness will bring about the wholeness of creation. This is why the idea of original sin is important. Man knew God and His ‘wholeness’ from the beginning. If man grew into an understanding of God and His ‘wholeness’ then sin is merely a misunderstanding and not a breaking of a known, loving relationship. With original sin Jesus’ death delivers man from sin back to wholeness. Without it merely acknowledges an incomplete understanding on man’s part and places the burden on man to achieve wholeness under his own power.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #19

Dr. Swamidass,

Welcome to BioLogos. Thank you for your excellent comment.

I trust that you have read my statements concerning a triune understanding of Reality. This takes into consideration both the Christian stance that God is Trinity and thus Reality is triune and the fact that Jesus is the Truth and Jesus is a Person, which makes Jesus triune, body, mind, and spirit. All this indicates that Reality is not one dimensional, as materialism would indicate or some mystics would have us believe.

Jesus is the Truth, because He is the Logos, which governs Creation, Salvation, and the Kingdom of God, all three dimensions of Reality.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

Can you say more about how you would frame the big picture from within your cultural context? And how would you distinguish truth and reality? I do realize that truth is propositional or epistemological while reality is ontological, but that is probably just more of my western framing, and maybe not the distinction you were getting at. I’m curious to know more about how you would frame it. Introduce me to a less western way of thinking about it if you are willing.

Eastern vs. Western Angles on Truth