The predominant opinion that science has the explanation and solution to natural and social problems can be summed in the words of Mel Thompson that ‘science is a massive problem-solving and information gathering enterprise’. Thoughts such as this relegate other forms of knowledge and the benefits therein to the background or sometimes dismissing them as primitive myths or traditional gibberish. However, Karl Popper believes that myths and traditions are essential component of modern science and that without tradition knowledge is impossible. Myths survive via tradition. Popper argues for a critical examination of myths and tradition before rejecting or accepting them. Along this line, the study analyzed and evaluated Popper’s thoughts on myths and traditions. Specifically, the study, using Popper’s theory of critical rationalism as a framework, tried to situate the appropriateness or otherwise of myths and traditions for the enhancement of scientific and social knowledge; discover the philosophy behind myths and traditions; how they are created, sustained and transmitted and finally, discover the role it had played and could play in the development of science and society. The study affirmed Popper’s view that tradition is a very important source of knowledge and that science originates from myths and traditions. It was also established that the philosophy behind every myth and tradition is the explanation and justification of all human experiences and actions. It was equally discovered that cosmological and physical regularities and irregularities give impetus for the creation of myths and traditions. The study advocates the enthronement of the culture of logical curiosity in cultures where critical thinking is not a tradition in other to preserve their myths and traditions for future generations.
1.1 Background of the Study
The title of this essay – Karl Popper on Myths and Traditions – was chosen to enable me evaluate the place of myths and traditions in the growth of knowledge and society. My interest in this topic stems from my own cultural background where myths and traditions which are seen as the people’s culture cannot be questioned or changed even in the face of contradicting realities of the present order in science and social engineering or as Simon Ottenberg puts it – “…the Afikpo people rely much on tradition, on an orientation to past events as precedent”.1
More specifically, this research topic was chosen to find, if possible, a middle point between myth and tradition as a source of background knowledge which if properly harnessed can lead to the discovery of new knowledge in the sciences as well as engender a better understanding of their places in social engineering. Thus, the topic will enable me argue, in line with Popper, that every tradition has a function and that to understand a tradition, we should have the tradition clearly before us and we have to understand in a general way what may be the function and significance of that tradition. We shall also argue that every tradition and myth should be subject to rational criticism.
Popper does not assume that man could ever free himself entirely from the bonds of tradition. But one can free oneself from the taboos of tradition. This freeing according to him can be done not only by rejecting it but by critically accepting it. This critical acceptance for him forms the crucible upon which science and society will grow, creating new myths and new traditions. I shall align my arguments with Popper’s.
Following from the above, we shall stress the point that every society has its own story to tell about its people, culture, environment or religion. That the stories are in all cases weaved around space and time and told in different genres. And that no matter the category of the story, the intended effects is always geared towards the advancement of the people’s knowledge, assuage their curiosity, ensure order, and improve their living conditions. Levi-Strauss captured this point succinctly when he averred that “…each type of story belongs to a given group, a given family, a given lineage or to a given clan and is trying to explain its fate which can be a successful one or a disastrous one or intended to account for rights and privileges as they exist in the present or be attempting to validate claims for rights which have since disappeared”.2
There are a number of literary or narrative genres used in telling the story of a people or events. They include fable, folk tales, fairy tales, legends, sagas, and epics and etiologic tales. These categories put together are called myths. Cultures according to William R. Shea are defined at least in part by their common creation myths; stories that answer important questions about how things came to be and how meaning is to be found within the existing order.3 For Mircea Eleade, “our best chance of understanding the structure of mythical thought is to study cultures where myth is a living thing”.4Myth lives in all cultures of the world, whether developed or developing. People tell stories to entertain, educate and inform the people of its tradition and world views. These stories give answers to questions of creation and other natural phenomena of which no human being witnessed their beginnings. Such issues include the creation of man, the segmentation of the sky from the earth, life-after-death, the divisions of the seas and waters, relations between humans and animals, relations between God, man and gods, and relations between gods, humans and animals.
Myths are passed on from generation to generation and according to W.B Kees in the New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 24, they are specific accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extra ordinary events or circumstances in a time that is unspecified but which is understood as existing apart from ordinary human experiences. For him, every myth presents itself as an authoritative, factual account and no matter how much the narrated event is at variance with natural law or ordinary sense experience, no attempt is made to justify it or render it plausible.5
In contradistinction to Kees position, myths were in facts attempts by the ancients to justify and render their curiosity plausible within their own cosmological matrix in space and time. Nicholas Corte defines myth as a representation of reality which though fantastic, claims to be accurate.6 Corte’s definition assumes that man met reality as a situation on ground and could not explain it scientifically so he (man) resorted to deduce some fantastic reasoning to assuage his curiosity and wonder. For Emeka Ekweru, myths are sacred historical narratives that are essentially bodies of traditional stories that seek to define man’s relationship with his natural environment both at the most elementary level and the sublime and philosophical levels. He describe them as something more than mere historical narratives; they are sacred history.7 William Bascom on the other hand, sees myth as prose narrative which in the society they are told are considered to be truthful account of what happened in the remote past.8 In his works, on oral tradition Isidore Okpewho arrived at the conclusion that myths give account of historical events which are facts but not always since some myths are fictitious stories. He asserts that the narrator based on his creative capability contributes a lot to the aesthetics of the story since it admits creativity.9
Myths are about communities because they have collective significance and refer to past events that have reference to the present. One important characteristic of myth is that they are assumed matters of fact. This is because they are not only sources of historical information but are also virtualized up to the present. The virtualization of myth means the re-enactment of myths in the present. For example, the installation of traditional rulers in some cultures based on the stories handed down from one generation to another. Also, the experiment carried out by scientists to confirm or refute some mythic explanation of the cosmos is another example of the virtualization of myths. It is this re-enactment that enlivens myths; they make them fresh in the mind of the people. They also make people visualize myths. For these reasons, according to Okodo “myths are acts of history whether proved or not”.10 Okodo’s position corroborates Kees’ assertion that myths have its authority not by proving itself but by presenting itself as a given. This presentation is done via tradition.
Tradition is the tripod upon which myths stands. It derives its staying power from tradition and survives from generation to generation by it. Tradition according to the Oxford English Dictionary Vol. Xviii is the action of transmitting or handing down; or fact of being handed down from generation to generation. It is the transmission of statements, beliefs, rules, custom or the like especially by word of mouth or by practice without writing. In another sense, according to the Oxford Dictionary, tradition could also be said to be a long established and generally acceptable custom or method of procedure having the force of law.11 This seeming force of law exhibited by tradition is as a result of the stories told and the practices handed down from one generation to another generation in all cultures and every generation is always careful not to breach the trust of handing over the tradition as it was passed on to it leading Arnold Toynbee as it were to posit that:
As an historian studies history, he or she is struck by two things. First, that human history is largely a story… and second, that societies live entirely on myths.12
The realization that societies live almost on myth may have informed Karl Popper’s decision to take a philosophical look at the rationale behind the theory of tradition. In a lecture entitled ‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition’ given at the third annual conference of the Rationalist Press Association on the 26th of July 1948 at Magdalin College, Oxford, Karl Popper raised some questions in regard to the theory of tradition and went ahead to articulate possible ways of solving the problem of tradition and the role of myths in the social and natural sciences.13
This long essay is therefore an attempt to evaluate Popper’s thoughts on myths and traditions, especially its significance and importance for the growth of knowledge in science and society.
1.2. Statement of the Problem
Primitive societies all over the world attributed the vagaries of social life to the activities of the gods. Also, cosmogonic alterations, atmospheric inconsistencies, and natural dislocations were all viewed and explained as the acts of the gods by the ancients. This theistic attributes are handed down from generation to generation in myths and nourished by traditions via taboos.
Karl Popper’s interest in myths and traditions was geared towards the clarification of their places in social and scientific engineering. And also reconcile the seeming hostility between rationalists and anti-rationalists. Rationalists according to Popper are inclined to adopt the ‘I am not interested in tradition attitude’. The rationalists wants to judge everything on its merit, he wants to do it independently of any tradition. He wants to judge with his own brain and not the brain of other people who lived long ago.14
This attitude was the rationalist foundation built by Rene Descartes in the 16th century when he resolved to deconstruct the system of acquiring true knowledge upon the powers of human reason alone. According to Stumpf, since his (Descartes) system of truth would have to be derived from his own rational powers, he would no longer rely on previous philosophers for his ideas nor would he accept any idea as true only because it was expressed by someone with authority.15
Ironically, some rationalists seem to beg the question when they insist that they follow the rule of judging everything on its merit. Following such rules constitutes a certain tradition. Popper then raises the question of why should the tradition of the rationalists be better than any other? Other problems include: what is the philosophy behind myths and traditions? How are they created, sustained and transmitted? What role do they play in the development of science and society? And, can Karl Popper’s critical rationalism offer solutions to the problems posed by myths and traditions in science and society? These are problematic issues and solutions will be proffered for them in this study.
1.3. Purpose of the Study
The advent of western education, science and technology threw spanners in the wheel of motion of traditional societies leading as it were to the abandoning of former ways of doing things. The enlightenment was embraced and tradition and traditional modes of learning and living declared primitive and mythical.
Karl Popper thought otherwise. He believes we should question the myths and traditions handed down to us. Accept the ones we can and criticize the ones we do not understand. But most importantly, he thinks we must guard and respect our traditions. With that understanding, this work shall aim at exposing and evaluating Karl Popper’s thoughts on myths and traditions and its significance to contemporary society.