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Welcome to a problem-identifying node of the Pandeism index!!


A common tactic of proponents of faith is the claim of prophecies fulfilled. So goes the argument, "the ancient prophets of our faith forecast that this event would come to pass, and lo!! this event came to pass and so our faith is true." Oftimes, the "prophecy" and the "fulfillment" come wrapped in the same ancient scripture, with one portion relating a prophecy and another its fulfillment; or with but one story of how the event is truly a fulfillment of a prior prophecy. But, naturally, common problems plague these claims, and here I endeavour to name some of these and shine the light of reason upon them. Six to be addressed here are commonality, ambiguity, self-fulfillment, after-the-fact reporting, selection bias*, and a special case of the undistributed middle.

Commonality:

First as to commonality, a hypothetical prophecy made five thousand years ago that the prophesied "future leader of the people" (or leader of the faithful, or Messiah, or like figure) would be male, as opposed to female, would be unremarkable since our handy history books teach us that almost all leaders in that time were men. A prophecy that a woman would lead would be remarkable by comparison; a prophecy made by members of a group that their leader would come from one born within that group would be unremarkable for the same reason; and a prophecy that the future leader would be descended from a long past leader is meaningless if just about everyone in the group can claim some line of descent leading back to that past leader (which, in cladistic societies is almost always the case -- think about it, you've got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents and so on, so if you go back twenty generations where you've got over one million ancestors, what are the chances that they won't include at least one great leader from your culture, especially if that leader was a male who whorishly fathered dozens of whelps?)

A prophecy that some "future leader of the people" will be born "during a time of war (or of peace)" or "of famine (or of plenty)" means nothing, for throughout human history, there is always war somewhere, and peace somewhere, and famine somewhere, and plenty somewhere. And so, there is never really a time in which the conditions set forth in the prophecy could not be said to be fulfilled. Another strain of commonality is inevitability. Extremely powerful storms are rare; but a prophecy that an extremely powerful storm will occur at some undefined future point is meaningless because it is inevitable that one will occur sometime.

Ambiguity:

Second, as to ambiguity, This is similar to the issue of commonality, except that it is not necessarily a common circumstance, but instead use of words and phrases which can be bent to apply to many different instances -- especially where a word or phrase is susceptible to multiple interpretations, and one particular interpretation is only applied as to a later figure to whom that particular interpretation may be applied. For example, suppose an ancient prophecy claims the future leader would "bear a pitcher"; well that could mean he'd be an Aquarius, or that he would at some point have carried a pitcher of water, but if in modern times a baseball player carried his team's pitcher to the mound (or, expanding yet further, if a woman gave birth to, ie "bore" someone who ended up pitching), then you've got yet more meanings which could be crammed into the original phrase, making it applicable to broader and broader classes. It is, naturally, highly unlikely that a thousand-year-old prophecy would intend to address a person's position on a baseball team; but that won't stop advocates of the faith from reading the phrase just that way!!

Self-fulfillment:

Thirdly, self-fulfillment -- if I prophesy today that next Tuesday I'll eat a soup with eight carefully specified ingredients, and lo!! come next Tuesday I indeed come to make and eat a soup with those exact ingredients, am I a prophet? do my prophecies show me to have supernatural powers? Surely not, and such is the case for any prophecy where the person claiming to be its fulfillment knew beforehand what the prophecy claimed would come about, and had the capacity to pull off whatever was described would happen in the prophecy, proves nothing more than the ability to read words which were written in the past. A more practical example: in Libya, dictator Muammar Gaddafi took to wearing a blue turban at one point. Why? Well the seer Nostradamus had, in his writings, foretold a leader arising from the Middle East who would wear a blue turban. So does that make Gaddafi the fulfillment of this prognostication? No, because the only reason he wore the turban was that he knew of the writings of Nostradamus and wished to make himself appear to be their fulfillment. So, anyone who reads a prophetic statement about what the future great leader will wear, or some simple act they will do, can fake being the culmination of that prophecy.

After-the-Fact Reporting:

Fourthly, after-the-fact reporting of the prophecy (or its fulfillment, at least). Well, you'd better be able to prove both what was prophesied and what occurred and that the prophecy preceded the occurrence. Suppose I tell you today (29 May 2010) that seven days ago (22 May 2010), I prophesied the imminent death of Gary Coleman (which happened 28 May 2010)? Well he indeed died, so does my claim of having prophesied it prove my supernatural pedigree? Suppose I show you a piece of paper setting forth that prophecy and signed and dated on that claimed date, and suppose I get three friends of mine to swear to you that I wrote the note, in their presence seven days ago? What level of evidence ought to be required of me to prove I truthfully foretold the death of Gary Coleman? Well I would suppose something like my having published my claim in a newspaper which ran before that date, or having mailed it and gotten the unopened letter returned with a postmark attesting the date, but no amount of simple sayso, or of documentation which could possibly have been created after the date, could rationally be taken as evidence of the power of prophecy in action.

Selection Bias:

Fifthly, selection bias. Many prophetic traditions contain scores of statements describable as "prophecies," and yet they declare a victory of prognostication where only a handful come to pass amidst a sea of those which ought to be fulfilled, even as to the single same broader event. As a fellow noder (acknowledged below) has pointed out, "when we see a thousand prophecies, about five of them will turn out to be eerily accurate, and it's those five that will stick in the mind." And this holds even where several prophetic announcements are made toward the same event, of which one or two come true. For example, a prophecy declares a great king will be born in a foreign land, his name will be George, he'll have a beautiful singing voice, and his favorite color will be blue; a king is indeed born in a foreign land, and his favorite color turns out to be blue--but he can't sing a note and his parents have named him Regis.... what to do? Ignore the name, and declare victory with a trumpeting of the fulfilled elements!! Now, two out of three might be bad for demonstrating an eerie level of coincidence, but hardly for demonstrating the power of an omniscient deity. And, naturally, the faithful will reply to the unfulfilled prophecies with a, "well not yet"-- which is why end-timers have been steadily forecasting a prophesied "end of the world" every few years since ancient times until this very day.

The Undistributed Middle:

And, as to the undistributed middle--all fallacies of prophecy aside, a prophecy is a "miracle" like any other, and so may well be fully accounted for by theoretical models which account for "miraculous" events generally -- either through non-supernatural explanations, or through explanations which, while invoking the supernatural, require fewer assumptions than are required by the faith arguing a fulfilled prophecy as proof. One such model is that of the "deus deceptor" or the "evil daemon," an entity with supernatural powers but which seeks to deceive us instead of enlightening us. Such is often imagined by proponents of one faith as the source of miraculous events recounted by other faiths. Another such model would hold that all miracles are merely instances of humans unwittingly touching upon the unconscious mind of a power which underlies and sustains the energy which is our Universe; and, even as there are true uncertainties in the future of our Universe, there are also probabilities which may be observed to shape the next few hundred or few thousand years, probabilities generally too nuanced too be calculated by humans (who, after all, lack information about much of what is going on right on Earth right this moment even) but the constant calculation of which could be among the myriad flow of information in an unconscious underlying mind of immense creative capacity. Such-probability based prophecies need not even be supernatural. As Isaac Asimov supposed in his Foundation series of books, a person with sufficient insight and calculative capacity and possessed of sufficient information could quite possibly simply calculate with fair accuracy some details of some future course of events.

Even a true prophecy proves no more than the power of the prophesying person to see the event prophesied (or the power of the providing entity to provide the prophecy provided). And, after all, why are human prophecies so limited? Why do they cover only events to come within the next few thousand years, not a million or twenty million years hence? Why do they cover only events on Earth--and even then, generally only events within a few scores of miles of the site where the prophecy was made? Why did no ancients prophecy about the European discovery of the Andean civilisations, or of the economic theory of Communism arising over half the world's land and people? A prophecy of what will happen in a mere thousand years in a land a mere few hundred miles away is a minor miracle, far below what would be the far more impressive and convincing correct assertion of what would happen to a distant star in half a million years, or in a billion years!!

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An example of the application of some of these fallacies is to be found in Thomas Paine's Examination of the Prophecies, though he does not develop the idea of these specific fallacies as such, arguing only against their actual use.

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If anyone wishes me to add a fallacy applicable to prophecy which I've missed here, message me and I'll put it it and note your considerateness....
*And thank you, rb, for pointing out selection bias!!

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