Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Climate change and the alien gods of the Bible: an epiphany of epistemology.


Fish-god and flying saucers depicted on an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal (image from wikipedia). Nothing real but, oh, so fascinating!


As I was waiting for my train at the Milano station, last week, I toured a bookstore and I was attracted to a book titled "The Bible does not tell about God" written by Mauro Biglino. Books, books, books..... how many things are written in books? Never mind, I bought it and I read it. And here is a comment, not so much about the book itself, but about the epiphany it generated in me on how difficult it is to deal with such a complex world as ours has become. It is all, I think, a problem of epistemology, how we manage to know what we are supposed to know. And it is not easy.

First of all, about ancient aliens, I have to confess to you that in my youth I wasn't just interested in that subject but, actually, addicted to it. You have probably heard of Eric Von Daniken; commonly considered the originator of the theory of the "ancient astronauts" having created the human civilization and perhaps humans as well. Perhaps you don't know that Von Daniken had a precursor who wrote under the name of Peter Kolosimo - but he wrote in Italian and hence he is not so well known outside Italy.

I don't know whether Von Daniken copied from Kolosimo, but I can tell you that, in the 1960s, I devoured Kolosimo's books. A brilliant writer, a fascinating subject, a lot of fantasy. I can still find my handwritten notes about his books and I can see that, already as a teenager, I was trying to critically analyze Kolosimo's claims. I think that at least part of my interest in science and in the cycles of civilizations comes from those books.

In time, I lost interest in speculations about ancient aliens. Fascinating stuff, surely, but eventually you see that you aren't getting anywhere. We have images that look - a little - like aliens or spaceships, texts that tell - perhaps - or aliens or of space travel. But nothing beyond images that look like something or texts that sound like something. Never the real thing. Never we could find anything that could be reasonably said to be a true alien artifact. I don't mean a still working ancient phaser gun, but just a little thing; say, a chunk of metallic aluminum or titanium in an ancient Sumerian or Egyptian tomb. That would have been sufficient to tell us of the presence of a technologically advanced civilization in the remote past. But nothing like that was ever found. So no alien astronauts in our remote past. Too bad, but in time I discovered that ancient civilizations are fascinating in themselves; no need to assume that they were created by god-like alien beings.

Yet, the subject remains fascinating and you can understand why I picked up Biglino's book in that bookstore in Milano. It is a book that continues the line that started with Kolosimo in the 1950s; but in a more specific way. Biglino is specifically focused on the Bible that, according to his interpretation, tells us of an alien race of beings who, somehow, ruled over humans in ancient times. Not just that, but they had actually created humans as their servants in a sort of genetic laboratory called "Paradise."

Now, I don't think I have to tell you that these ideas of Mr. Biglino are, ahem..., let's say, a little difficult to consider as fact-based. But the point I wanted to make here is to note how difficult is to understand the complex world in which we live. So, when Biglino starts discussing evolutionary biology and genetics, something that takes about the whole second part of the books, well, I don't want to be nasty about that. Let me just say that I can hardly imagine a clearer examples of how difficult it is to deal with fields that are not part of one's core competencies.

The interesting part of Biglino's book, however, - the one related with my "epiphany - is when he deals with something that he should know well; that is the text of the Bible in its original language. It seems that Biglino worked for ten years with a reputable publisher ("Edizioni Paoline") at translating the version of the Bible known as the "Masoretic Bible" This, at least, can be verified. And, indeed, this section of the book gives a much better impression of competency on the part of the author.

Biglino interprets his philological analysis as implying that the entity called ("Yahweh") in the Masoretic Bible is not "God", but a local warlord engaged in the conquest of as much territory as possible. The faithful will consider this as wrong, if not outright blaspheme (and, indeed, Biglino has been cast as the Antichrist in some websites) but, at least, it doesn't involve speculations on alien beings engaged in genetic engineering.

I don't think it is interesting here to discuss who was this Yahweh, really, although many of Biglino's statements seem to be already known and to have been discussed by other authors. But here comes the epiphany. First of all, as you may imagine, my knowledge of ancient Hebrew is strictly zero (as I suppose it is for most of the readers of the Cassandra blog). So, I went fact-checking over the Web and I found plenty of sites where people who claim to be as expert as Biglino (or more) in ancient Hebrew demolish (or attempt to demolish) his interpretations of the biblical text.

As I was wading through these elaborate discussions, I found myself totally at loss. Who was right? Biglino or his detractors? Really, how could I tell? What do I know of ancient Hebrew? And, while I was at that, I had a sudden flash of enlightenment: it is not just a question of ancient Hebrew. I saw myself in the shoes (or, better, behind the glasses) of a normal person who has no in-depth knowledge of climate science and who is trying to understand something of the debate on climate. Clearly, such a person would find him/herself in the same position as I am in respect to Biglino's Hebrew. The average layman lacks the intellectual tools necessary to judge in a debate on climate science just as I don't have the correct intellectual tools to judge on a debate on the meaning of ancient Hebrew words.

So, here is the epiphany: the real world is so complex that for each one of us there is just a tiny slice of reality where we can have sufficient knowledge to judge what's true and what's not. The rest is forever shrouded in a fog of ignorance. Now we see as in a mirror, darkly; maybe one day we'll see the truth face to face. But, for the time we can only judge on the basis of the principle of authority. About the Bible, just as about climate, we believe the people whom we trust.

And herein lies the problem. There seems to be nobody left in the world we can trust. Governments? My Gosh... Politicians? Even worse. The Scientists? A little better, but...., Translators from Hebrew who see aliens in the Bible? No comment.... Never before reading Biglino's book Pilate seemed to me be so right when he said: "what is truth?"

The tragic problem, here, is that discussing of alien Gods roaming the Eart thousands of years ago is an intellectual pastime we can enjoy without suffering bad consequences. When dealing with climate change, instead, we are risking our own survival, even as a species. Because this is not an intellectual game; there is something called "reality" out there. But, as Peter Sinclair recently wrote (citing Tucker) "A civilization simply cannot survive if large portions of that civilization have declared war on facts. " We can declare war to reality, but reality will win in the end.



23 comments:

  1. Just a clarification Ugo: the quote you attribute to Peter Sinclair at the end of your post is really D.R. Tucker at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal-a/2016_01/cruz_out_of_control059386.php
    Sinclair was quoting/reposting Tucker.

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  2. I wrote about a similar problem from my neck of the woods.

    http://www.smallanddeliciouslife.com/forest-fires-show-the-failure-of-democracy/

    And so I disagree with the "A civilization simply cannot survive if large portions of that civilization have declared war on facts."

    That continues the narrative of blame—we are in this mess because OTHER people are stupid, or uncaring, or mean.

    In fact, even if we weren't at war with the facts, we cannot hope to understand the volume and complexity of facts now mustered before us.

    If we wish to understand more of our life, we must have simpler lives.

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    1. Exactly, Ruben, exactly! The world has become too complex for us to understand. But we still pretend that we can understand it. And we pretend that majority vote defines truth..... alas, it doesn't work that way.

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    2. And fascinating blog yours, http://www.smallanddeliciouslife.com/

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    3. Thank you Ugo, I am glad you like it.

      If you want more reading, the post I think you may find most interesting is The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change

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  3. Precisely! And this is what drives my existential crisis as a humanities scholar... science and humanities are in the same boat here.

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  4. Swimming in a sea of factoids, how to distinguish fact?

    ...Plato's conundrum from his Allegory of the Cave. 8/

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  5. Faux News knows facts don't matter for the very reasons you state. So they lie all the time and rouse the emotions instead. So, they are smarter than we are -- in the short term -- which grows ever shorter.

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  6. I appreciate your point of view here.

    Two contributions towards the possibility of being relatively confident in something, before the consequences are clear to everyone...

    1. Transparency. We need always to know, to be able to assess, where writers are coming from, what their agenda is, what their connections, their interests, their motivation, insofar as it is possible to see those

    2. Values. I separate this from the previous ones because it is inherently more problematic, as (lived) values are rarely apparent on the surface. And, naturally, there is a great danger of interpretations splitting along the lines of factions, of parties, each with their own world view and value set. But still, perhaps there is no substitute to trying to assess, long term, whether a writer's values are compatible with one's own. Sure, if one has no respect for good scientific methodology, the door is wide open to fantasy. But if one's values include a measured respect for some kind of "objective" or at least "inter-subjective" enquiry -- epistemology -- scientific method -- and that is shared between writer and reader, then I'd say that's not a bad start.

    Worthy of a good and fruitful philosophical discussion!

    Simon

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  7. Ugo
    I guess God-like beings do not do titanium or aluminium ;) - perhaps one or two have an interest in fish, in some way or other?

    They could be more interested in the reliability or otherwise of epiphanies? It's hard to know who to ask.

    best
    Phil

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  8. Interesting observations, Dr Bardi!

    You write about the validities of other people's representations of reality. The Spanish High Renaissance playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca put the matter one stage closer to putative reality in Segismundo's famous soliloquy:

    “What is this life? A frenzy, an illusion,
    A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
    The greatest good's but little, and this life
    Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.”

    It comes across better in Spanish:
    “¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
    una sombra, una ficción,
    y el mayor bien es pequeño:
    que toda la vida es sueño,
    y los sueños, sueños son.”

    But I'm with you, often feeling like poor Pontius Pilate, unpoetically asking what is reality, anyhoo. Wishing the problem would go away, wishing to wash my hands of the matter, but like Lady Macbeth, we can only moan, "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!—"

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  9. I think people find it hard to take a position on something from reason alone. There are usually preferred answers, such as how exciting it would be if there really were ancient astronauts, or existing prejudices that they aren't willing to challenge, such as the view that anything stated by 'liberals' must necessarily be false.

    For those who are prepared to use logic and reason to determine the truth of a matter, there are some shortcuts which don't require 5 years of highly technical study. One is to think of the wider implications of people's claims. You might not have personally read all the scientific evidence for CO2 being a powerful greenhouse gas but is it really likely that the entire global scientific community are colluding in a gigantic hoax to raise your taxes? Just think how hard it would be to organise such a scheme and keep it secret.

    Another point is that it's actually very hard to maintain a plausible and self-consistent but false narrative about reality. Cracks start to appear when you question it. People who deny AGW contradict themselves, and quickly resort to accusations of fraud instead of facts and reasoned argument. It's generally easier to defend a truthful position than a false one.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. How one decides what is 'true' and what is not is certainly at the heart of one's understanding of our world. I believe a large part of the problem are the competing narratives that arise for any number of reasons; although I believe many/most are created by particular interest groups to support their own agendas (usually with economic/political bias).

    As I wrote on my own website (http://olduvai.ca): "One of the ‘insights’ I’ve had over the past several months as I read the competing narratives that are floating about the globe and attempting to ‘explain’ why the dilemmas we are facing are happening is that we really don’t understand complex systems and the way they behave, so we are bound to cling to simple explanations that support our personal biases and reduce the cognitive dissonance that results when our belief system is challenged."

    These 'simple' psychological processes that are relied upon in shaping our belief systems are well known to the fact-spinners of the world and thus the use of powerful rhetoric and propaganda. The fact that the mainstream media are controlled by a particular segment of our population (i.e. corporate oligarchs) goes a long way in understanding why certain narratives are held by large numbers of people or why there is so much confusion.

    The unfortunate reality is that it is unlikely we will ever achieve true clarity and/or consensus and then be able to use our knowledge to prevent the fallout from the infinite growth paradigm that is dominant on a finite planet. The best we might hope for is to be prepared for the consequences of our complex world and understand that every society/civilisation that has existed before us has experienced decline/collapse for one reason or another and that 'this time is not different'.

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  12. You are correct that all of us cannot be experts about everything, but fortunately most of the really important and dangerous issues are so simple that even an elementary school child can understand them.

    Fossil fuels- If a child was given a huge box of his favorite food and then told that when the food ran out he would be responsible for growing his own if he wanted to eat, don't you think that even a child would realize he needed to start learning how to grow food well before the box was empty. Now if we tell him after he starts eating from the box that if he ate more than half the food, his house would burn down, even a child would realize he better start learning soon, well before the box was half empty.

    Nuclear weapons- Children who live in houses with light switches know how they work. If a father told his daughter that every house on the street had a secret red light switch that could blow up all of the houses on the street and that everyone on the street wanted to get rid of their red switch, but they were afraid that one of the neighbors might hide his switch, even his young daughter would suggest that all the people on the street go together from house to house and find and remove all of the red switches. If daddy said that someone might put his red switch back in, even a child would suggest that each house could be inspected regularly to make sure no red switches were installed.

    Nuclear waste - If a child were told that there was a wonderful machine that made sure that when he flipped on a light switch the lights would come on, he would be thankful and appreciative. Now tell the child that in order for the machine to work it makes a little bit of poison every day that would kill anyone that got near it. Even a child would say, "Well, they better put the poison in a safe place so that nobody gets close to it".

    Come on Ugo, these issues are not rocket science. If even children can understand, do we really grow stupider as we become adults? Why would any grownup believe that fossil fuels are infinitely available, that nothing can be done to get rid of nuclear weapons, and that there is nothing to be done about nuclear waste. The issues of relying on synthetic fertilizers, overpopulation, economic inequality and environmental pollution aren't any harder.

    It's not the understanding that's hard, it's the doing. It seems grownups are just not capable of collectively doing the things they absolutely know they need to do. Why that's the case is one thing this grownup will never understand.

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    1. The answer to the conundrum of understanding -at some level -but failing to act is very simple:

      1/ If the current mode of behaviour delivers comfort and gratifying sensations, it will be persisted in.

      And

      2/ If the remedy proposed in any way touches on personal extinction, (ie it would be most helpful in maintaining a viable biosphere for 99.9% of humans living and polluting/consuming to disappear in short order) the mind will, quite naturally, fight shy of it.

      We are what we are.

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  13. Thank you Ugo for a great post.
    You are one of my favorite thinkers and I love your writings.
    It's funny how you hit a nerve with me with your insights. Recently I saw a video from Ivar Giaever and I have to say I was, again, uncertain of the basis for AGW. I was confused and realized that I did not have qualifications or the time to fully investigate and decide, for myself, who is right and who is lying. And discover the truth as a freethinking individual.

    And In a recent conversation with a coworker who has a spouse that works at JPL, he offered that the OCO-2 was not finding the expected levels of co2. I asked about calibration of course and later visited the official website. He seemed to hint that the actual opinions of the scientists was at odds with the official story. Of course, these things take time and time to resolve, as with any observational data. But it got me thinking, what is the truth and what is really happening.

    I have the same fault in being drawn into these ancient aliens stories. Not because I believe they are true, I don't believe in UFOs, but because I think that ancient myths evolved over time from the original handed down description of a normal event. A thunderstorm is Thor striking his anvil. I watched a video of Mauro Biglino and was fascinated but could already had issues with his own exegesis. But he focused on areas in the early bible that I've questioned. Why would Cain worry about other people when there was only their family? As a former Christian, I don't have to toe the official line and I'm more interested to alternative explanations. But, again, I do not have the qualifications or means to really decide what is the truth.

    So there we have a conundrum. We as modern apes have the same issue as those living in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian and Akkadian religions having an irresistible impact on society and influence on future systems of control as human civilization, fueled by the largesse of agriculture, paved the way for greater expansions of kingdoms and empires.

    We have the same issues today. We live with the largesse of cheap fossil fuels and the powerful influence of religion, in every country. The American mindset of end times begetting the antichrist, the holy call to prevail against evil dicatorships and evil terrorists, never mind that that our government created and supported these groups, and driven by fear, will continue to fuel the tyranny of twisted policies.

    Well, perhaps we are all glorified knuckle dragging apes. If apes had the ability to construct war machines of steel and gunpowder and coal, and they had discovered and harnessed fossil fuels, they would have followed their genetic inclinations for dominance and the result would have been World War One. Oops, did I get by human and ape analogies mixed up...?

    To me, the calculus of World War One is damning for all current modern civilizations. If we had taken the largesse of cheap fossil fuels to improve all peoples, then one could argue that we have the ability to change our future. But, instead we are like yeast thrown into a vat of sugar. We cannot help ourselves.

    Being a glorified ape, I am bound to the limits of my ability to discern reality.

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  14. I received several very thoughtful comments. Thanks, everybody. Then, I am rethinking to what I wrote and I am humbled by my own reflections. Really, there is a very deep problem here. I am preparing another post on this subject, I hope you'll be interested in it.

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  15. useful info.. thanks for sharing.

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  16. I look forward to the next post and set of comments on this subject. I think it would be good if it addressed the following issues already identified / flagged in this post:

    "And herein lies the problem. There seems to be nobody left in the world we can trust" ("true" enough in my view; and again in my view this applies to both sides (all sides) of the "AGW and climate change" (and etc.) political debate(s), and its (their) "now clearly settled" science.

    and…


    "Let me just say that I can hardly imagine a clearer examples of how difficult it is to deal with fields that are not part of one's core competencies."

    But can one really trust one's own "core competencies"? Where do they come from and how are they continually being formed and shaped by others who (perhaps) we ought not really trust?

    Increasing societal complexity may be an additional current problem making "understanding" more difficult, but I think that even in "non complex" societies (and were there ever any?) such problems existed.

    I tend to like evolutionary theories. Perhaps some of the answers can be found there. People, communities and societies managed to survive and "evolve" further for hundreds of thousands of years having very partial and biased notions of what "the truth" or "reality" or "facts" were (about most subjects) during their particular times. And over time views and understandings of these very notions also evolved. ...As have so called "Zeitgeists" . Will the overall "Zeitgeist" (or the several Zeitgeists that different human communities live within) now cease to evolve? (personally, I doubt it)

    Enough material above for many more posts and (in my view) very unlikely definitive answers that will not suffer from the very same problems.













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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)