Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young. So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.” They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology. This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals. Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods. It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought. Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.
That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit. It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method. No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me. We understand so little about the universe. Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet. And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason. “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories. Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time. They were ways of understanding how this universe works. Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.
It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most. Not everything in life comes down to an equation. That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything. One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky. It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians. They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later. And they all assuredly believed in gods. It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy. Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam. You don’t have to shave to support science.