Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ancient Polytheism and the Concept of Evidence Reconsidered (More Briefly)

The issue of whether the ancient Greeks could have had good evidence of the existence of their gods comes down to the issue of whether a theistic explanation of their religious experiences can be a better explanation than any naturalistic one.

My previous entry on this blog (“Ancient Polytheism and the Concept of Evidence,” August 2, 2013), written in response to a piece by Gary Gutting (“Did Zeus Exist?”, The New York Times on line, July 31, 2013), grew out of a couple of paragraphs that I had posted in a discussion of Gutting’s piece on Facebook. I thought at the time that I needed only to add some circumstantial explanation to what I had written to make an entry for this blog but instead I ended up writing a completely new piece twelve paragraphs long. It is bad enough to put so much time and so many words into commenting on someone else’s blog post; what makes matters worse is that by writing at such length I make it all the more unlikely that anyone, even among the small number of people who ever see this blog, will read what I wrote. Today I will try to make up for the verbosity of that entry by setting forth my main thoughts in this matter concisely and without much reference to the details of Gutting’s piece. I have on some points modified the position that I took in the earlier piece, as I have come to a more charitable assessment of what Gutting does with the concept of evidence, but I do not bother to indicate the modifications here.

(1) If some people, such as the ancient Greeks in Parker’s account, have experiences that they take to be theophanies (manifestations of a god or of gods), these experiences may be the basis of their belief in their gods. But that does not mean that they take these experiences to be evidence of the existence of those gods.

(2) In fact, no one who experiences what seem to him to be theophanies can coherently regard his experiences as evidence of the existence of gods, since the presumption of the existence of gods is inherent in the experiences themselves. An ancient Greek who claims to have experienced a theophany might say, e.g., “Zeus manifested himself to me.” To make such a statement is not to cite anything that can possibly count as evidence of the existence of Zeus, as the statement presupposes the existence of Zeus.

(3) For an ancient polytheist to be in a position to cite his religious experiences as evidence of the existence of his gods, he must renounce the naive conviction that originally characterized his experiences in favor of a skeptical attitude, and must redescribe his experiences in terms that are neutral with respect to the existence of gods. So he must say, e.g., not “Zeus manifested himself to me,” but rather, “It seemed to me as though Zeus manifested himself to me.”

(4) Note that such a person would have to do this across the board with regard to everyone’s putatively theophanic experiences. The issue is not the veracity of this or that person’s religious experience but rather the existence of the gods themselves. It would be no effective argument to say, e.g., “What I saw and felt during the ritual agrees with the accounts of others to whom Zeus has appeared; therefore, Zeus exists”; for the statement that Zeus has appeared to others presupposes that Zeus exists. To cite religious experiences as evidence of the existence of gods, one must describe all such experiences in terms that are neutral with respect to the existence of gods.

(5) For an ancient Greek apologist for polytheism to get from the premise “Such and such Greeks have had such and such experiences” (the experiences being described in terms that are neutral with respect to the existence of gods) to the conclusion “The gods exist,” he would have to supply some further premise or premises. Otherwise, the premise of his would-be argument provides no reason to accept its conclusion. That is to say, the cited experiences do not constitute evidence of the existence of the Greek gods unless a further premise or premises can be supplied that makes the argument cogent.

(6) What might this premise be? One possibility is: “So many pious Greeks can’t be wrong.” That, of course, invites the rebuttal: “Yes, they can.” The issue, as far as I can tell, comes down to the question of what sort of explanation of the Greeks’ religious experiences is most compelling: a theistic one, according to which the gods really did appear to the ancient Greeks, or a non-theistic one, such as one in terms of natural causes. If the polytheistic apologist can establish the claim that the best possible explanation of the data that he has cited is that the Greek gods really have appeared to him and to his fellow Greeks, then he has a cogent argument, and the religious experiences of ancient Greeks do indeed constitute evidence of the existence of the Greek gods. But can he establish such a claim?

(7) Gutting argues, in effect, that we have no rationally compelling basis for rejecting such a claim. The modern rejection of supernatural causes, he holds, is not a finding of science but an a priori presupposition of scientific procedure. Therefore, we have no rational basis for dismissing the possibility that the ancient Greeks had good evidence of the existence of their gods. Therefore, we have no rational basis for dismissing the possibility that their gods existed.

I have further thoughts on the last point, but rather than include them in this entry I will simply post this part by itself.

Added August 7, 2013:  Upon further consideration of Gutting’s piece, I have concluded that its arguments do not merit further close attention. We have abundant reason to prefer a naturalistic explanation of Greek or any other religious experiences to a theistic one. A naturalistic explanation can be thoroughly well-integrated with everything else that we know about how the natural world works, while a theistic one cannot be. A naturalistic explanation needs to posit no entities that act in contravention of the known laws of nature, while theistic explanation (at least as understood by Gutting) does so. The principles of a naturalistic explanation admit of the derivation of predictions that can be empirically tested and confirmed, while those of a theistic explanation do not. The theistic explanation may have an advantage in simplicity (though even that may be contested: see this piece at Philosophical Disquisitions for reasons why the notion of simplicity of explanation is not itself simple), but it is a clear non-starter in all other respects.

Gutting’s insistence that the Greeks may have had good evidence of the reality of their gods because we have not got decisive evidence that they did not have such evidence is as fatuous as the assertion that the Greeks may have had the technology to build nuclear reactors or that it may have been possible for human beings to fly by attaching wings made of wax to their bodies in those days, since we have no decisive evidence to the contrary (by the standard of decisiveness that Gutting’s reasoning seems to presuppose). In each case, the assertion of what “may have” been the case amounts to nothing more than the proposal of a fantasy in which there is no obvious logical incoherence. It provides not the slightest reason to take such fantasies seriously as real possibilities or to set them alongside the contrary assertions—viz., that the ancient Greeks had no nuclear technology, could not fly with waxen wings, and had no good evidence of the reality of their gods—and to say that there is no sufficient reason to choose between the two.

Agnosticism about the existence, past or present, of the Greek gods seems to me a defensible position; but Gutting’s argument for such agnosticism, founded as it is on the assertion of agnosticism about the former availability of now-unknown evidence for the existence of those gods, is itself indefensible.


  1. You still haven't explained 'why' Greeks made the claims that they made.

    This is common flaw of the naturalist as they forget the fact that we need to have an explanation for 'why' the Greeks made the claims they did.

    Did a group of them just sit by the fire one day and say 'hey, let's make up Zeus!'

    Was there are real Zeus who was a human hero in which the later Greeks exaggerated his status to the divine?

    You can't just walk say oh there is natural explanation (whatever that means) and leave it at that.

    What is the natural explanation then?

    Maybe there were suprahuman beings that existed back then and are either too far away to intervene now, don't care about humans anymore, or have died.

    Agnosticism isn't an answer it is a cop-out.

    1. First of all, I don't see what your point is. I criticized Gutting's argument for agnosticism about ancient Greek gods. You *seem* to be arguing that my argument goes nowhere until I furnish a naturalistic explanation ("whatever that is": have you tried reading what I wrote?) of their beliefs. So you would appear to be defending agnosticism about those gods. But you end by saying that agnosticism is a "cop-out." So apparently you are not defending agnosticism. Then what is your point? To argue for credulity toward ancient Greek polytheism?

      Second, to the issue of agnosticism and naturalistic explanations: Suppose you read in the newspaper that a man claims to have been abducted by aliens who looked like ET but talked with the voice of Gilbert Gottfried and who drew him up into their spaceship and sodomized him. (1) Would you be able to explain, without positing the truth of the man's claims, why he has such a belief? Remember that you know little or nothing of the man's personal history and circumstances (as I know little or nothing of the history of ancient Greek religious beliefs—certainly not enough to offer an explanation of how they arrived at those specific ones). (2) If you could not furnish such an explanation, would you conclude that the man's beliefs must be true (credulity), or that there is no reason to choose between accepting them and rejecting them (agnosticism)?