The Prodigal Son: Myth and Science in Modernity

Doggett, Luke (2009) The Prodigal Son: Myth and Science in Modernity. The International Journal of Science and Society, 1(3), pp. 99-104. ISSN (online) 1836-6236


As Emile Durkheim has demonstrated, the legitimacy and authority of any discourse ultimately depend upon its moral acceptability in a given society. Scientific knowledge is no exception to this: its impartiality is underpinned by fervent moral commitment. Durkheim also points out that the continuity of moral action in any given society depends upon the network of symbols that refer to it. Since these symbols recall moral action in the minds of society’s members, they are stirred to perpetuate such action. Importantly, a number of these symbols are mythological; and indeed Durkheim indicates that the symbolism in question is responsible for all religious conceptions. However, this brings to light an apparently self-destructive tendency in moral action in the modern context: moral action lends authority to scientific discourse; and yet scientific discourse undermines the symbols which sustain moral action. Durkheim avoids this problem by claiming that symbols of moral action are conscious symbols, so they are not experienced as facts. However, this paper draws on the work of Ernst Cassirer in order to argue that the symbols which successfully sustain moral action are experienced as the immediate presence of the given world, meaning that they are experienced as facts after all. Nevertheless, networks of these symbols have survived the threat of science by migrating from the context of religious conceptions and becoming increasingly fragmented.

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