Aug 01 2013

Presupposing Zeus

Is there really any reason
We should not believe in Zeus?
Or at least to say he possibly existed?
A professor of philosophy
Believes there’s no excuse,
Though his writing seems, to me, a bit ham-fisted.

If we presuppose existence
Of the Father of the Gods
Or of anything at all, for what it’s worth
Then we find we can’t disprove it,
Though it’s way against the odds,
You can’t kill it, once you presuppose its birth.

So an atheist’s denial,
The philosopher asserts,
Should be traded for a pure agnostic stance
But logic is supposed to help
In this case, logic hurts,
As we watch him make his suppositions dance

And it isn’t quite pragmatic
Just believing something true
Till it’s false beyond the shadow of a doubt
We have vast imaginations;
Our ideas will accrue
Since we never have the leave to weed them out.

A very strange thing, in the NYTimes Opinionator today–Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, writes “Did Zeus Exist?” He notes, first off, that the ancient Greeks certainly seemed to believe Zeus existed:

The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.

Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned. Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light. But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide. There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.

Rather than being skeptical about the existence of a supernatural being, Gutting seems to turn Descartes on his head, refusing to doubt anything that there is the slightest possibility of being true, or even having once been true.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?

If we can’t be 100% bulletproof, bet your children’s lives certain (and we can’t), we need to accept the possibility of, in this case, Zeus.

He then considers some objections, which you’ll have to see there. It’s a very brief piece, so I am perhaps expecting too much, but they really come down to “since we cannot unequivocally prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond any possibility… then it just might be true”. Mind, he’s not claiming it is true, but rather that we should keep our minds open.

On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

Two things, then. One, I’m surprised that a philosophy prof is conflating ideas of belief with ideas of knowledge. Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded. Without convincing evidence (this is where “knowledge” comes in, and where his objections actually matter), Zeus has not passed the threshold for my belief. I have no obligation to believe in something that has no positive evidence for it, just because there is no evidence against it.

Which leads to my second thing. Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight, but this example shows why good logic can lead to bad conclusions. It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world. And we, therefore, cannot conclude there is no supernatural, since that would simply be circular logic, assuming our conclusions. And since our conclusions about the supernatural depend on our assumptions, the logic is no help at all.

A pragmatist approach, though, does not ask what is true, but rather, what is useful. A theory that explains more phenomena, or explains with fewer assumptions, is not necessarily “true” in any ultimate sense, but it is more useful than the theory it replaces. And theories are replaced–upgraded, if you will–all the time. They don’t have to be absolutely true or false–really, that is not a concern. And pragmatically, whether you believe there is a god that keeps the universe behaving naturally, carefully making it look as if the naturalistic explanations work… or whether you believe the naturalistic explanations… actually work… it really doesn’t matter. We know that if you start out assuming there is a god, you’ll conclude you can’t deny it, and if you start out assuming there is no god, you’ll conclude there is no need for one. So it really just doesn’t matter.

But (back to point one) that is all about knowledge. Not about belief. So… why would one presuppose the existence of a god? That’s the question we should be asking. Sure, once you presuppose one, you can’t deny it, but the same is true for Zeus, for Russell’s Teapot, for Sagan’s Dragon, and for compassionate conservatives. There may be no reason not to believe, but there is no reason to believe. Atheism is perfectly justified, even for agnostics.

One last thing… the comments at the article are very strange–given that it is the New York Times, the commenters are not what you usually see at, say, FoxNews or CNN. But the article itself is so bizarre, commenters can’t quite tell if it is satire, apologetics, excellent, horrible, or what. Anyway, I understood it all perfectly. By which I mean, you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not.


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  1. 1

    He’s obviously been reading Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods!

  2. 2
    Corvus illustris

    Oh, you can find all sorts of crap in that part of the NYTimes. Recently (I can’t find it or I’d link–has the memory hole swallowed it?) in one of their blogs (or a column?) there was a plug for the deBroglie-Bohm deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics, which removes the probabilistic elements of the usual “Copenhagen” interpretation exemplified by, e.g., Schrödinger’s cat. The deterministic interpretation has some followers, one of the most conspicuous of whom is a very smart probabilist known to me professionally; it’s not a crank theory but it has many flaws. Nonetheless, when a philosopher attacks random-events-in-the-small, you can be certain that the random-mutation part of the foundations of biology is the real target.


  3. 3
    Pierce R. Butler

    Philosophers make baby Zee-us cry!

    (A non-Greek – also non-German – once told me that much of Greek mythology was first transcribed to the Roman alphabet by Germans, and thus the “eu” diphthong should be spoken to rhyme with “boy” [e.g., Freud]. Alas, I neglected to ask whether this also applies to eucharist, eudaemonism, etc.)

    Which, if true, plays merry hell with the above rhyme. I can only hope that linguistic pedantry doesn’t make cuttlefish cry…

  4. 4

    Fortunately, the verse is in English!

    Actually, the “eu” in eucharist and the like, being Greek, would be pronounced “eff”. “Eucharist” is virtually identical to the Greek Ευχαριστώ, or “thank you”, which makes perfect sense.

    So, yeah, Zeus is pronounced “Zefs” in Greek, and probably Zoyss in German (that one, I don’t know).

    Linguistic pedantry? Don’t you dare throw me into that briar patch!

  5. 5

    That’s only in post-Classical Greek (IIRC already started happening regionally in Hellenistic times so pretty early still) where Classical ευ – [eu]** changed to [ev] or, in this case before a voiceless consonant, [ef].

    Allen’s Vox Graeca is still considered a good overview, I think.

    **[oi], on the other hand, would be οι, not εu so Pierce’s friend seems to have been mistaken

  6. 6
    Corvus illustris

    Cuttlefish @5: Actually, the “eu” in eucharist and the like, being Greek, would be pronounced “eff”. “Eucharist” is virtually identical to the Greek Ευχαριστώ, or “thank you”, which makes perfect sense.

    It is not my place to disagree with my host, but I think the development of upsilon into a consonant is quite late–certainly Koine if not Byzantine. Of course it persists in modern Greek. The upsilon was a vowel having the value /ü/–also in diphthongs–with the Germans with whom I studied classical languages.


  7. 7

    I have the smartest readers/commenters…

  8. 8

    I thought about your comment “… presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight…” for the past day because something really irks me about this statement. I decided to look up the typical presuppositional argument which appears to be:

    1. X’s existence is a precondition to the existence of Y
    2. Y exists
    3. Therefore, X must exist.

    This sounds robust because it follows typical logic structure, and also follows the scientific format of manipulating independent variables (X) to find the effect on the dependent variable (Y). This is commonly stated as for example, “God is a necessary being for the existence of rational thought. Rational thought exists. Therefore, God is a necessary being.” The problem is that the argument looks like a logical construct, but is not a logical construct. Rather, it is an assertion: it asserts the existence of something by asserting it is connected to something else without showing that X exists, let alone that X is connected to Y. Like “Not even wrong”, this supposed argument should be considered “Beyond a logical fallacy”.

    Let me demonstrate with a couple more “logical proofs”:
    1. The existence of light sources is a precondition to the existence of light
    2. Light exists
    3. Therefore, light sources must exist.

    This argument seems to work, but does it really? Light sources are what emit light in our experience but light itself is a wave. Is it conceivable for the wave to exist without an emitting source? Note also that the existence of light itself says absolutely nothing about the nature of light, and does not allow us to conclude (or indeed, presuppose) that all light must be from light sources. It is an assertion dressed up as a logical argument.

    Let’s look at this from another angle:
    1. The existence of gold-pot-carrying leprechauns is a precondition to the existence of rainbows
    2. Rainbows exist
    3. Therefore, the pot at the end of the rainbow (along with the leprechaun) must also exist.

    The argument is exactly the same structure, but is evidently wrong: we know why rainbows exist and it has nothing to do with leprechauns or gold. The role of this presuppositional apologetic should more aptly be termed “assertive pseudo-logic”: it makes an assertion and then links that assertion to something that may (or may not) exist to deflect from the assertion and give it an air of intellectual consideration.

    Currently, apologists who employ this device use concepts like rational thought or “the rules of logic” as the distracting factoid (Y). But oddly (and yet, typically for theistic arguments), the argument fails to consider how or whether we would be able to distinguish between the existence or nonexistence of that variable, when the variable they employ is universal. If the argument for deities based on the existence of rational thought were true, and no deity existed, nobody, not even the apologist employing the argument would be able to tell as rational thought would be a mirage. Yet, if the argument is unsound (such as a deity existing but not creating rational thought), then the argument remains false and the apologist is still incorrect. Amusingly, if the apologist were correct and rational thought is the product of a deity, then both they and the atheist are both using rational thought, and merely attributing it to different causes. It is an argument which literally does nothing but prop up wavering belief by allowing believers to continue to imagine their belief is not simply an assertion. And it does so by hiding the assertion behind a useless pseudo-argument.

    The question is, is this argument really any different from the argument from morality, or for that matter, the argument from “look at the beautiful trees”?

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