Science and the Oracle

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Strange piece by William J. Broad in the NYT on the relationship between science and religion. Broad echoes Gould's famous non-overlapping magisteria argument (though Gould wasn't the first to make it) but the particular example he chooses is... unusual:
The recent discoveries of a renegade four-member team of scientists illustrate how the two realms are quite independent. They found the truth behind the Oracle of Delphi's legendary powers, showing how the most influential figure of ancient Greece prepared for ecstatic union with Apollo. The scientists, analyzing the Delphi region and the god's temple, discovered tons of bituminous limestone down below, its layers rich in intoxicating gases. [by de Boer et al--EKR]

They also found two faults that crisscross beneath the shrine to form a geologic pathway to the surface. They even measured traces of intoxicants still bubbling up today. This and other evidence suggest that the Oracle inhaled a mist of potent gases that could promote trancelike states and aloof euphoria, helping send her into mystic ecstasies.

The scientists' triumph, however, did little to pierce the Oracle's veil, as the scientists were quick to acknowledge. They claimed no insights into how her utterances stood for ages as monuments of wisdom. They had no explanation for how the priestess inspired Socrates, or the seeming reliability of her visionary pronouncements. In short, the scientists, while solving a major riddle of antiquity, wisely left other mysteries untouched.

I don't get this argument. Does Robertson seriously believe that the Oracle of Delphi's visions were somehow inspired by Apollo? Of course not, and neither do you. Even the most tolerant people don't seriously believe that millenia-dead mythologies like this have any epistemic validity. A good sign of this is when this stuff gets taught in schools it's called "mythology", not religion, and nobody even pretends that it's anything else. Contrast this to the way that, for instance, Islam gets treated--though no doubt nearly every American teacher believes it's false.1

The research Broad cites provides a reasonable natural explanation of the origin of the visions and their supposed "accuracy" doesn't need explanation any more than does the accuracy of horoscopes or divination by entrails. All three cases are adequately explained by a simple combination of coincidence and wishful thinking--which is no doubt why de Boer et al. didn't bother to address them in the particular case of the Oracle of Delphi. So, how exactly does this serve as an example that there are some things science shouldn't investigate?

1. In a similar vein, here's Dennett on tribal religions:

I should emphasize this, to keep well-meaning but misguided multiculturalists at bay: the theoretical entities in which these tribal people frankly believe--the gods and other spirits--don't exist. These people are mistaken and you know it as well as I do. It is possible for highly intelligent people to have a very useful but mistaken theory, and we don't have to pretend otherwise in order to show respect for these people and their ways.

3 Comments

Not addressing your other points, I have a minor quibble with your point about mythology.

"Mythology" means a body of traditional stories, typically serving as an explanation of origins (of a people, or the world), history, and otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

Since myths are created and passed down by telling or perhaps writing stories, and not through careful scientific or historical research, we expect them to contain a lot that is not true. However, a particular myth may be true (or partly true) and still be correctly called a myth. For example, a myth may recount an otherwise unverifiable event of ancient history (a particular battle, say) in a manner which is correct in broad general outline. Due to the decay of any evidence it may be impossible to verify the myth through independent confirmation; in that case it is an unverifiable myth that happens to be true. (But we would need a reliable oracle or time travel to find out that it's true.)

True myths are not logically precluded. I agree, however, that the ancient greek gods did not actually exist and therefore did not inspire the oracle. :-)

I rather think that last line is coding for "We're not going to delve into this issue of whether or not they truly spoke for the gods back then so that we don't have to deal with any nutbags who get all antsy because we're showing that religion has no objective reality (even though this particular religion is as dead as a doornail)."


I dunno. It's weird, I agree. It's like a little apology or coda or tacked on bit of respect to take out the sting of "researching religion" and/or to reassure that the research stops there instead of continuing on to current religions?

I think the explanation is obvious. They had read this news story:

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/43028

Better safe than sorry!

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