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Philosophy and Divination
Mar 29, 2018

Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 12 min.

At the opening of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that people have a natural desire to know things. This may seem obvious, but the obvious may be worth repeating from time to time. However, obvious or not, this observation does not get us very far. Rather, it provokes at least two further questions. First,what is it that people want to know? Secondly,how do they believe this knowledge can be found?

As to the first, there is a clear continuity in human concerns over the centuries. People want to know about emotional and health matters, about family and financial matters, about work and career matters, about religious and political matters. Such records as have been preserved relating to the oracles of antiquity indicate that these are precisely the kinds of issues that exercised those who consulted them for hundreds of years. They are also, it might be pointed out, the subjects routinely covered in the astrology columns to be found in many a contemporary newspaper.

These comments about the `what’ of knowledge also provide one answer to the `how’ question: for a very long time people consulted oracles to find out what they wanted to know. This was certainly a common practice around the time that Aristotle was writing. In his Laws (759), Plato made it clear that the people of his model society should seek guidance in religious matters from the oracle at Delphi, and its pronouncement concerning his wisdom was taken very seriously by Socrates. Furthermore, Plato and Socrates subscribed to a widely held view. While not all ancient philosophers may have believed in oracles, many (probably most) of them did. This has often proved something of an embarrassment to modern philosophers, unwilling to accuse their illustrious predecessors of credulousness, but equally unable to understand their views on this matter. However, although credulousness has never been in short supply across the span of human history, the beliefs of others need to be treated with respect, even if they are ultimately dismissed. My aim here is to argue that although the believers in oracles may have been wrong, their beliefs were not unreasonable. I will furthermore suggest that faith is routinely put in purported sources of knowledge in contemporary times that turn out to be no more rationally respectable when properly examined.

The Case Against

I will begin by looking at why some of the philosophers of antiquity did not believe in oracles. The most significant figures here are Xenophanes and Epicurus, and their arguments turn out to be broadly similar. They both held a very remote conception of the divine, leading them to believe that it took no interest, and had no involvement, in human affairs. Consequently, neither had a place for divine revelation of any kind.

Epicurus put forward other relevant objections in addition to these. Not all oracles involved gods; some involved the dead. But for Epicurus death was quite final, so there were no ghosts to be consulted. Some believed in the revelatory power of dreams, but for Epicurus these were to be explained naturally, not supernaturally. So, although he did not consider the matter in any kind of systematic fashion, the impression is that for Epicurus neither oracles in particular nor divination in general possessed any credibility in the world as he understood it. It was not so much that they did not work as that they could not work, according to his way of looking at things.

The only surviving work from antiquity that does deal with divination in a systematic fashion is Cicero’s De Divinatione. Two preliminary remarks may be made about this book. First, the Romans had relatively little interest in oracles. Consequently Cicero spends much of his time discussing other forms of divination. Secondly, although Cicero wasn’t an Epicurean, his approach draws heavily on Epicurean ideas as well as those of Academic Scepticism. The two schools were united in their opposition to Stoicism which, with its strong views on the power of fate, is a frequent target of the book.

The disparagement of oracles largely follows a Sceptical line, questioning why we should believe the stories about them. Divination in general is dismissed as superstition, with rates of failure and disagreements between different prognosticators used as evidence to suggest that examples of success are nothing more than lucky guesses. The Stoics’ belief that the future is fixed and therefore potentially knowable is turned against them to indicate that divination is pointless since what is fixed cannot be escaped however much foreknowledge we have of it. Cicero concludes that knowledge of the future is best sought from human experts operating on the bases of science, reason and experience. If they don’t know, no one does. There is much more to Cicero’s position than this, but what has been given is, I think, sufficient to demonstrate its general tone and direction.

The Case Against the Case Against

I suspect most modern readers would find Cicero’s line of argument both sympathetic and persuasive. However, it is significantly weaker than it may at first appear. In the first place, his understanding of divination as the search for knowledge about the future is seriously mistaken. Most responses of most of the oracles of antiquity have long been lost, so any conclusions concerning them must be speculative. Nevertheless, the surviving responses attributed to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi have been examined by Joseph Fontenrose in The Delphic Oracle (University of California Press, 1978), and his observations are at least suggestive. Looking at those most likely to be genuinely historical (because they were recorded reasonably soon after their supposed delivery) he found that the majority consisted of commands rather than predictions, and that the subject matter more often than not was religious in nature. In short, the primary function of the oracle was as an authority on religious affairs. Appealing to a god to adjudicate on matters of religion is not, on the face of it, unreasonable. It appeared so to Xenophanes and Epicurus only because they entertained an unorthodox conception of the divine.

However, this is clearly only part of the story. Delphi was not the only oracle, and even there religious worries were not the only ones prompting consultation. From Delphi and elsewhere it is evident that other concerns included affairs of state (not always easy to separate from religious ones in the ancient world), as well as a range of personal matters covering such topics as paternity, missing property, prospective marriage, choice of career, and so on. On such issues what was often sought was advice or a decision (or, psychologically, reassurance) rather than information. Presumably, following the advice did not always work out well, but as the proverbial doctor said when a patient complained of feeling no better after taking the prescribed medicine, “If you hadn’t taken it you would be feeling much worse.” In short, oracles appear to have made testable predictions relatively infrequently.

However, oracles only constituted one particular medium of divination. One preferred by the Romans was augury, which involved the observation and interpretation of omens. Cicero himself belonged to Rome’s College of Augurs, and its specific function was to judge the presence or absence of divine favour. Although this might have an effect on future events (for example, the success or otherwise of a military campaign), it did not involve prediction as such. (The extent to which members of the College had any faith in their own activities is questionable. Cato once observed that it must have been difficult for two of them to meet without smiling.)

From the examples of oracles and augury it is clear that to define divination purely in terms of knowledge of the future, as Cicero does, is some way wide of the mark. Consequently, much of De Divinatione involves a protracted straw man argument (a typically Ciceronian rhetorical red herring?). Arguments against the possibility or reliability of prediction cannot conclusively tell against divination if that is not its sole, or even its main, function.

What is divination?

I think most people would agree that it would be strange for someone to sacrifice a goat in order to find out the number of the local swimming baths instead of looking it up in the phone book. Although we may only rarely articulate it, I think most people would subscribe to some kind of distinction between what might be termed `natural’ and `supernatural’ knowledge. It is surely such a distinction that Cicero had in mind when he suggested that we should seek knowledge from human experts who operate on the bases of science, reason and experience. Another way of expressing the distinction might be in terms of ‘scientific’ and `unscientific’. I would therefore suggest that divination is the search for knowledge (or advice, or whatever) by unscientific means, and unscientific means are those that lack any satisfactory scientific explanation as to how they (might) work.

This definition has some interesting implications. First, it means that divination is primarily about the `how’ rather than the ‘what’ of knowledge. Secondly, it implies that what is to be counted as divination isn’t fixed but may change as the limits of scientific explanation move (in much the same way that the limits of metaphysics and physics are covariant). Thirdly, given the premium attached to scientific explanation, it suggests that, all things being equal, scientific means, where available, are reasonably preferred to unscientific means. All of these are matters of some significance and need to be spelt out further.

As I indicated at the beginning of this article, the evidence is that human concerns have not changed dramatically over the centuries. People today want to find out about many of the same things that exercised their remote ancestors. When Lysanias asked the oracle of Zeus at Dodona whether Annyla’s child was his, he was seeking knowledge that does not appear to be in any way extraordinary. However, in the 2nd century BC there was no scientific means of answering his question. Since then, scientists have discovered one, and I assume that anyone with a similar enquiry today would seek to have the appropriate tests done rather than head off to northern Greece. On the other hand, Lourdes regularly receives visitors for whom the modern medical profession can do nothing, just as the sanctuaries of Asclepius were the destinations of the incurables of antiquity. Where science gives out, the alternative is between doing nothing and having recourse to the unscientific.

However, the unscientific is a very vague category, and one that is only negatively defined. Just because a means is unscientific does not entail that it has no justification at all, or that a scientific justification for it might not be found at some future time. Cicero talked of human expertise being based on science, reason and experience. It is not entirely clear whether he intended reason and experience to be understood as subsumed under science or juxtaposed to it. (The term here translated as ‘science’ is ars, which is both broader and vaguer.) Nevertheless, in modern usage it seems acceptable to say that there may be more or less reliable knowledge that is based on experience but which is (so far) resistant to scientific explanation. ‘Scientifically proven’ drugs have sometimes been isolated from successful `folk’ remedies. A technique such as dowsing may deliver practical results, yet no one knows how it works. Simply put, some unscientific means have better success rates than others and are therefore inductively justified to different degrees. If divination is the collective term for unscientific means of seeking knowledge, then the conclusion is that some forms of divination are more reliable than others. Pragmatically, it seems rational to trust most whatever method works best, whether it is scientifically explicable or not.

Modern oracles

I have suggested that the business of prediction played a relatively minor role in the operations of the oracles of antiquity. This, perhaps, contributed to their longevity. I have also suggested that it may not be irrational to employ unscientific means such as dowsing as long as they deliver the goods. Nevertheless, I suspect that many if not most readers of this article will regard oracles and dowsing as distinctly questionable enterprises and compare them unfavourably with more modern sources of knowledge. Most, I imagine, will feel that if we have not yet left oracles and dowsing behind, then we should have done. However, there are other practices current in our society that have no superior claim to credibility but that are widely accorded it.

In his book The Fortune Sellers (Wiley, New York, 1998), William A. Sherden examines what according to its subtitle is “the big business of buying and selling predictions.” This business, he claims, rakes in more than $200 billion a year. However, in a study of seven different types of forecasting, he concludes that most of what goes on in them is of little value. Only in demography and short-term weather forecasting does he see a limited return on the huge investment, and only in meteorology does he identify any kind of scientific foundation. In the areas of economics, investments, technology assessment, futurology and organisational planning the predictions turn out to offer no firmer or more reliable platform for decision-making than does tossing a coin. All of them are at least as often wrong as right, and provably so. What this means, he suggests, is that tossing a coin has as much chance of coming up with the right answer as any of them do. (This is a particularly apt fact, since tossing a coin was originally a form of divination.) Yet, for reasons that are not entirely easy to understand, these professions are respected and well paid. Are those who trust in them more or less credulous than those who sought omens in the entrails of goats?


Aristotle rightly observed that people want to know things, and it is as much a fact of the modern world as it was of the ancient one that science is unable to deliver all the knowledge that is desired. While Sceptics might leave it at that (and have their doubts about science as well), many find it difficult to do so and resort to unscientific means, including those that falsely pose as scientific ones. One way of interpreting this is to see it as the triumph of the need for psychological reassurance over rational scruples, a form of self-deception. However, while self-deception may certainly have a role to play in proceedings, there is more to it than that.

I have suggested that some forms of divination may be more rational to believe in than others. Again I would make the point that being irrational is not the same thing as being wrong. For those who believe in a god or gods, and who believe that contact with the divine is possible, prayer or consulting an oracle is a rational activity. For those who lack either of these beliefs, it is not. An atheist who goes to Lourdes is confused as well as ill. Whether it is rational to believe in the divine or not is a higher-order and metaphysical question, a question, one might say, of macro-rationality rather than micro-rationality. I do not anticipate it being definitively answered any day soon. If the oracles of antiquity had routinely made factual predictions that turned out to be false, this would have posed a serious rational objection to their authority. However, as I have indicated, they generally offered advice or made decisions and only rarely delivered empirically testable pronouncements.

On the other hand, modern investment advisors do make empirically testable pronouncements. For example, it is possible to know to the exact penny how much an investment in BP would have made compared to the same investment made in Shell at the same time for the same period. And most of the time the experts get it wrong. A study carried out by Digital Look (Sunday Times, Money, 26/5/02) found that had investors bought and sold shares in line with the recommendations of top City analysts in early 2001, then they would have made a significant loss over the next 12 months. Worse still, had they bought the sell recommendations and sold the buy ones, they would have made a tidy profit! It may be pointed out that this was a relatively small-scale study, but if William Sherden is right its results are not out of order.

Of course, the modern experts do not always get it wrong, and neither did the ancient oracles on those occasions when they did venture to make predictions. But not always getting it wrong is scarcely enough to support a claim to expertise. The point is that the success rates of significant numbers and types of expert are sufficiently low to question the rationality of trusting their judgement. Those who are inclined to mock the ancients for their faith in oracles might care to keep that in mind.

by Trevor Curnow For Philosophy Now

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