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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)