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?

“Travel between the extremes.”

Nearly everybody is familiar with the myth of Icarus, the youth who flew too close to the sun on man-made wings and plunged into the sea when the heat caused the wings to fail. I just typed “flew to” into Google and the first auto-complete suggestion was “flew too close to the sun”. That is a real testament to how thoroughly ingrained the story of Icarus is in our culture. Even more evidence of how deep this story is embedded in our collective consciousness is the way that Icarus appears in pop culture. When George Constanza on Seinfeld got dumped because he brought a cold cut sandwich into bed, he told Jerry that he “flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami.”

The lesson of the story seems obvious; Icarus fell because he overreached. If he had only been more cautious, he would not have crashed into the sea and drowned. But “don’t fly too high” is only part of the moral. In Ovid’s retelling of the ancient myth, Icarus’s father Daedalus warned about flying too high but also about flying too low. Flying too close to the sun would scorch the wings, but flying too close to the sea would weigh them down with moisture. “Take the middle way,” he cautioned, “Travel between the extremes.” With that advice, the story really appears to be about moderation. And moderation happens to be a popular topic on this blog.

The dangers of being immoderate are especially acute as we move into Lent. On one hand, there is Mardi Gras, during which many people engage in all manner of excess. (Like that one Fasnacht Day that I ate an entire box of donuts.)  If the reports are true, there are a few cities that really go to extremes. But the excesses of Fat Tuesday are followed by the austerity of Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I have pointed out before, abstention is immoderate. There is certainly value in giving up something for Lent as a way to focus on what really matters. But focusing on the abstention itself is just another kind of excess. So if you are going to give something up for Lent make sure that you apply yourself to ordering your soul and don’t dwell on the thing that you are missing.

Beer of the Week: Mythos – Sometimes the beers I review have nothing to do with the reading. This time, however, is an obvious slam dunk. From the time I saw Mythos on the shelf, I knew that I’d have to read Ovid. The can informs us that Mythos is “the World’s Most Famous Hellenic Beer.” Of course since Greece is not exactly known for its beer, this honor is not quite as impressive as it could be. This pale lager has a pleasant aroma that is somewhat malty. The flavor is understated, with some light grass notes and a bit of lingering hop oil in the finish. It is primarily a good beer for quenching thirst since it goes down like water. As a light, drinking beer, there is nothing wrong with it. It is not exactly mythical in quality, but it is appropriate for a sunny Mediterranean beach.

Reading of the week: Metamorphoses by Ovid, Bk VIII:183-235 – There was a time when every educated American was well acquainted with Ovid. Unfortunately this has  changed considerably. As noted above, the stories are still part of our culture but their origin is not known by most people. I mentioned that “flew too close to the sun” came up right away on Google. What I didn’t mention is that most of the results for that search were “who flew too close to the sun?” The underlying story is there, but the details are mostly forgotten.

Question of the week: What is the most that you could give up without dwelling on the loss?