Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?


Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?

Scanning the Vault of Heaven

This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?

Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:

“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”

The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”

So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)

Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.

Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?