A few months ago, The New York Times published a bizarre opinion piece by philosopher Gary Gutting called Did Zeus Exist? With apparent earnestness, Gutting argues that not only did the ancient Greeks have good reason to believe in the existence of Zeus (and presumably their other gods) but that we should take seriously the possibility that they might just have been right. Not that they were right, but that the idea is just plausible enough that we cannot reasonably dismiss it altogether. Naturally I have wondered if this is some sort of elaborate joke, but if so the punch line remains elusive. Perhaps it was intended as a provocative thought experiment to encourage critical thinking and scepticism about our own claims to knowledge. However, if this was the intention – and I have no proof that it is – then it fails miserably as the amount of uncritical nonsense presented to the reader is so shocking it has to be seen to be believed.
Could Zeus have existed just because people believed in him? What about fictional deities like Cthulhu or Sauron, could they exist on some mysterious plane of reality too?
Gutting acknowledges that we have no evidence at all today that Zeus existed, but that “back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence” to justify believing in him. Let’s examine this “considerable” amount of evidence that Gutting assembles and see just how well it stands up under scrutiny.
Firstly, Gutting seems very impressed that most people in ancient Greek times apparently never even questioned the existence of divine beings. So if enough people believe in something, then there might be something to it then? Because that’s how the smart people decide what is true, by popular vote I suppose.
Oddly enough, after stating that few people ever questioned the existence of Zeus, not even clever fellows like Plato or Aristotle, he goes on to ask, “Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges?” (Huh? I thought there were no critical challenges? I’m confused already.) He answers his own question, by stating that the Greeks were convinced by “experiences of divine actions in their lives.” He cites author Robert Parker: “The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster.” Examples of piety at work include “clear expressions of a god’s favour such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure…” Oh yes, piety works alright – except when it doesn’t. For example, Hannibal’s successes in Italy were believed by the ancient Romans to be a sign of divine wrath. Presumably, failure to escape from a dangerous situation, or remaining ill in spite of prayers for a cure, were seen as signs of divine disfavour, rather than evidence that piety works no better than chance, or that the gods might not be real after all. Has Gutting honestly not heard of confirmation bias? Someone who believes in gods can easily interpret anything that happens as confirmation of their belief because the ways of the gods are inscrutable and mysterious. The fact that the ancient Greeks did exactly this is hardly impressive or evidence of anything except the gullibility of human nature.
Gutting does seem to be aware that there are mundane explanations for why people in ancient times might have believed in their gods, e.g. such as the sociological theory that organised religion reinforces social control of how people behave. However, he wants us to consider an alternative possibility:
“Yes, but why did the society so insist on belief in the gods? We may assume it’s simply for the sake of social control. But the reason could just as well be that everyone was rightly convinced — from their own and others’ experiences — that the gods existed. Then the control would derive from the belief, not vice versa.”
I think it is equally plausible to argue that the reason could just as well be that they were being manipulated by a super-computer from another galaxy. Then the control would derive from an extra-galactic source, not a sociological one.
He goes on to talk about something much more interesting than belief in omens. He notes that during religious rituals worshippers would sometimes actually experience a sense of contact with the divine, a conviction that they could feel the presence of the gods. I think this is a genuinely interesting psychological phenomenon, and people today still have experiences like this, although the particular gods involved depend on the specific religion of the worshipper. Gutting is aware that scientific explanations for such experiences have been proposed by psychologists and neuroscientists, but he summarily dismisses them.
“In principle, any experience of our daily lives can be produced by electrochemical alternations of the brain, but this does not show that, for example, I did not actually eat breakfast or talk to my wife this morning.”
Gosh, what an insightful response. Gutting seems to be saying: “Anything we experience might be an illusion or a hallucination; therefore, anything at all we can experience just might be real.”
If we take this seriously, then the fact that there is corroborating evidence for the existence of things like breakfasts or wives, but that there is no such evidence for the existence of gods, should not trouble us. I once did a research project on people with schizophrenia. One fellow I spoke to was adamant that he had a radioactive transmitter implanted in his brain that was the source of voices only he could hear that constantly abused him. By Gutting’s logic, we should take this man’s explanation of the voices that trouble him just as seriously as a more mundane psychiatric one. The fact that this man’s beliefs do not appear to be grounded in anything that most people would consider to be real is only a minor detail.
Gutting explains why the lack of any evidence for the existence of gods of any kind is not an issue:
“Yes, but the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies. There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.”
No reason?? Again, I am forced to wonder if this is some sort of joke. This is like saying that anything at all might be true and there is no way of knowing if certain beliefs might be wrong. In other words, modern science, with its careful attempts to discern between true and false ideas about reality, can go take a flying leap just because ancient peoples claimed to experience things they thought were of supernatural origin. Gutting goes on to up the ante by suggesting that ancient peoples might have lived in a different kind of reality altogether:
“But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? … This response has force only if we assume that there is very little likelihood of a world that contains supernatural forces. But we have no a priori basis for such an assumption. We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural. But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.”
This is a great argument. In essence, Gutting seems to be saying that we should take seriously the possibility that the world just might be a magical place where the nature of reality is not consistent over time. The ancient Greeks for all we know might have lived in some special world where the laws of science as we know them just did not apply. Ironic considering that the ancient Greeks were pioneers in the discovery of universal laws and regularities in nature that form the basis of modern science.
Gutting sums up his argument by stating that “atheistic denial” of Zeus’ existence is “ungrounded.” We have no reason, he says, to assume that the ancient Greeks lacked good evidence for his existence. Indeed, he might still exist today, but just remains in hiding! Gutting’s ideas about what constitute reason and good evidence seem to derive from Alice in Wonderland. He concludes thusly:
In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”
My response: “yes, we may… if we are prepared to jettison reason and seriously consider any and all fantasies as equally probable, no matter how crazy.”
This article also appears on my blog Cosmic Cogitations.
Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist for alerting me to Gutting's article.
Near Earth Object has a nice succinct critique of the article as well.