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The Poverty of Prophecy

Why Prophets should not be believed

I am sure you are familiar with Vermeer's famous portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earing. Now, please imagine I have equipped you with easel, primed canvas, palette, brushes and paint. Do you think you would be able to create a better portrait? I'm not talking about imagining a portrait of a more beautiful girl. I'm talking about producing a better painting. My guess is that you could not. Unless you're astonishingly gifted, your technique is almost certainly not up to the job.

OK, now, a slightly different test. Within the limits of your own technique, what do you think would be easier - to paint, from imagination, a beautiful face or an ugly one? I'm prepared to bet you'd find ugly much easier. Misshapen, discoloured, blotchy, scarred, one-eyed, broken teeth, dewslapped and goitred - there's not a nine-year-old on the planet who can't draw ugly in spadefuls. Beauty, that's harder.

One last test before we get into prophecy. Close your eyes and imagine the most facially attractive person in the World. Your ideal of beauty. (Male or female according to taste!) Now, try to imagine someone more attractive by far. What? You can't do it? Don't worry. Neither can anyone else. Yet if such a person appeared, or you travelled to a far country and met him/her, it would be instant recognition and your standard of beauty would be forever changed. (What s/he would think of you in return is not my concern!)

What did these three thought experiments tell us?

Applying this to prophecy, what comes across strongly is that any clown can be a prophet of doom. It takes very little skill or imagination to paint a bleak future. You don't need inventive imagination. You simply destroy, inflict and smite. And we know this to be true. Prophets of doom are three a penny. There's one in every bar in town.

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of such prophets. But to be fair to them, for the most part, they were not trying to foretell future events. They were more interested in forestalling them. They wanted to be wrong, not right. Their contention was: Israel (and it was usually Israel!) if you carry on doing what you're doing, you're heading for trouble. Their aim was to frighten people into obedience, and they did this by predicting plagues, wars, famines. And this is pretty safe, because plagues, wars and famines are cyclical and about as hard to predict as the next new moon. Especially if you don't have to be too specific with dates.

The New Testament tended to give that sort of prophecy a rest, for a time at least, because they had no need of it. The writers knew that the second coming of their Lord, and the end of all their troubles, would happen within their own lifetime. They just had to wait and not be caught sinning at the wrong moment. The second coming didn't happen of course, but hey... In a way it's a pity it didn't, because if it had, we'd have been spared the subsequent ramblings of a bitter, angry and demented old man, in a book which has spread more misery round the World than all the combined prophecies of the OT, namely the Book of Revelation.

Now I know that Revelation is important to many people, but looking at it as prophecy we'd have to say it's pretty second rate stuff. The imagery is all retrospectively derived. There is lots of exaggeration and juxtaposition, but actually no true invention in the whole book. So, we have lots of gold, whores, trumpets, horses, clouds, thrones, beasts with horns, scrolls, kings, plagues. But nothing new. Jesus even has a sword coming from his mouth. Why? Because swords were still the last word in hi-tech weaponry (and a slingshot would have looked wimpy). The book is devoid of creative imagination. Its apologists insist that the descriptions are symbolic and must be interpreted correctly. But by whom? By the apologists themselves of course, who can't even agree with each other. Well, there's a surprise.

But, as I have no wish to court controversy, I'll leave the Bible alone and focus instead on modern socio-political prophecy. Here's Paraglider's Practical Prophet's Manual:

How to be a Prophet

1) extrapolation

In Mathematics, Science and especially Statistics, extrapolation means drawing a graph of measured (known) data and projecting it into an unknown area. For example, if you measure sea temperature against depth, down to say 100 feet, you could extrapolate your graph to estimate the temperature at 150 feet. But it would be rash to go much further. Extrapolating the range by more than 50% is considered dubious.

In prophecy, or futurology, extrapolation is the technique of identifying a trend and projecting it into the future. If your data is good and your trend is strong (and preferably linear) you might have some success in predicting the future of that trend for a year or two. But that hardly merits the name of prophecy. It's more like common sense. What you can't predict is whether or not your pet trend will be completely sidelined by something unforeseen before it comes to fruition.

2) historicism

Historicism is the activity of discovering or inventing historical Laws that govern the development of societies. Probably the most famous historicist was Karl Marx. To put this in context:- with Newton, the physical sciences had acquired the Laws that had made possible the Industrial Revolution and had changed the World forever. The social 'sciences', feeling left out, groped around for equally far-reaching laws. Marx reckoned he'd found them. He hadn't of course. He'd fallen into the familiar mistake of confusing correlation with causation. It's true, of course, that if you oppress people too much they'll rebel, but no-one knows when or with what success. What changes history is people, not natural laws. No law predicted the birth of William Wallace (Braveheart!), Napoleon Bonaparte, Isaac Newton or Marx himself. Come to think of it, Marx didn't even predict Marxism. Others had to do that!

3) intuition

This is actually the only respectable form of prophecy. Extrapolation is very limited and historicism is delusionary. But intuition is at least honest. The intuitive prophet works by hunches, based on, but not derived from, observation of the past and present. Often motivated by a desire for universal wellbeing, the intuitive prophet reaches for better futures organised along better structures and technologies. The problem here though, is the one illustrated in our third thought experiment - the natural limitation of our imagination to extend ideals. Because if it were easy, we'd have done it already.

The Ignoble Art of Retrospective Validation

There is a whole industry out there aiming to prove prophecy is valid. Beware of them. They demonstrate 'conclusively' that futures were accurately predicted. But they wait until the futures are firmly in the past before performing their party trick. That volcano, that oil spill - here it is in Book x, Chapter y, Verse z. See? We're in the End Times. Repent... OK, thanks pal, but where were you two weeks before it happened? The doom merchants are like the poor - you have them always with you.

Now, for today's challenge, please find:

In other words you don't know, I don't know, no-one knows, what is round the next corner. All that is certain is change. So, don't believe the prophets, and...

Thank you for reading!

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