Finding the story of Genesis in other cultures

Victoria asked:

How can we account for such striking mythological and cultural similarities in ancient and far older Babylonian stories such as Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish, have to the Genesis stories and similar stories in other cultures, especially the culture of the ancient Hebrews?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Victoria, whilst this is an interesting issue, and one that I have some interest in, I cannot say that I can offer a definitive answer to the ‘striking similarities’ between the different religions other than to say, particularly in the case of Gilgamesh and Noah (and, as I will show, between Mithraism and Christianity), that it can be argued that these parallels do seem to be more than coincidental. In the case of Gilgamesh, as both Frank Lorey, in his The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh, and John Simpson in his The Wars Against Saddam: Taking the Hard Road to Baghdad, remind us, scholars in this area do argue that the Hebrews borrowed from the Babylonians the story of Noah and his Ark. As Simpson tells it, the story of Noah has its origins in the Sumerian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh. (see p.29) In this tale, which was written about 3000 BC, the wise and good Ut-Napishtim is told, in the face of an impending flood, to build a ship and to store within it the seeds of all living creatures. According to the scholars, this myth was taken up by Hebrew slaves of Babylon and subsequently absorbed into their own tradition.

Although many scholars also hold that the first of the two creation stories in Genesis was derived from the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish, in that the six days of creation in Genesis also parallel the six generations of gods in the myth of Enuma Elish, for me the fact that the Genesis story is monotheistic and the Enuma Elish myth polytheistic represents too much of a disparity to allow that there may any serious cross fertilization of ideas here. What does seem to me, however, is that there is a parallel to be drawn between the ancient Greek tradition (in the case of Zeus), and the Mesopotamian myth (in the case of Marduk), where a great and all powerful god holds dominion over other lesser gods.

Although the Mithraism and Christianity are not directly related to the Old Testament, and although you do not mention them in your question, in view of the fact that we are talking about the similarities between beliefs divided in time, and because Christianity has a direct connection with the Judaic faith, I do think it is worth drawing attention to what many scholars see as a link these two belief systems. Whilst there are many comparisons made between the life of Christ and that of Osiris, of Dionysus, of Buddha, and of others, it seems that the one that draws most attention from those interested in such things is the similarities that exist between Mithraism and Christianity.

For example, according to The National Geographic Society’s book, Great Religions of the World (p. 309), in the Mithras religion, which arose more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus, Three Wise Men of Persia came to visit the new born savior god, Mithra, bringing with them gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Moreover, page 330 of the same source advises us that Mithra was born on the 25th of December, that he died on a cross, that he celebrated a ‘Last Supper with his twelve apostles’, that he was laid to rest in a rock tomb, and that he ascended into heaven during the spring (Passover) equinox. As if this was not enough, Mithras is reported to have returned to earth to encourage his disciples to remember his teachings.

So how does all this relate to your question? It seems to me that, although the similarities in the myth of Enuma Elish and the Old Testament are somewhat more tenuous than those of Gilgamesh, it can be argued that the cultural and mythological parallels between these different belief systems, including those between Mithraism and Christianity, are so similar that they can be seen as more than coincidental.

Regarding the issue of how we account for these similarities, I suppose it should not surprise us to learn that the reliability of the truth of stories handed down from generation to generation, particularly at a time when it was passed on orally, becomes lost along the way. Moreover, while these stories become absorbed into a people’s belief system, the issue of the truth of these myths often becomes less important to those who hold the reins of power than the affect or efficacy they have on perpetuating the culture and/or the organization to which they pertain.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Sara asked

Why is there something instead of nothing? By ‘something’ I mean ‘everything’ in the known universe.

Answer by Craig Skinner

A classical question in metaphysics.

I count as non-explanations:

1. That God decided it so

2. That there is an ethical necessity for good to exist, so something must exist

3. That it’s just a brute fact.

My take is:

Don’t accept the unstated assumption in the question. The question assumes that ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are different kettles of fish. But maybe they aren’t. I suspect that if all the mass/energy in the universe (physicists count gravitational energy as negative, mass and other types of energy as positive) were aggregated, the exact total would be zero. Similarly total positive charge exactly matches total negative charge, giving net zero. In short ‘everything’, far from being different to ‘nothing’, is just ‘nothing-carefully-arranged’. Indeed this is exactly what we would expect if ‘everything’ popped into existence from ‘nothing’ at the Big Bang.

Hold on, you say, the question now becomes ‘why is there nothing-carefully-arranged rather than absolutely nothing’, these seem different. Indeed they do. Let me suggest that ‘absolutely nothing’ is an unstable state which must eventually decay into ‘nothing-carefully-arranged’ producing universes aplenty.

Good livelihood for a pessimistic misanthrope

Robert asked:

I am a former engineer, and I have studied about 20 great cynic philosophers over the last 10 years. Diogenes, Voltaire, Buddha, Malthus and Schopenhauer are some of my favorites. I lived in the woods for 2 years to try and get a clearer view of cities, and find out what constitutes meaningful work. Corruption seems very widespread within modern society. Everyone appears to be ‘acting’ in a very large play, which Shakespeare alluded to. I have a theory that 90 plus of the population of any given city has a small reality tunnel, and they may be a kind of farm animal that is working, paying rent, paying taxes and paying off debt for the better part of their adult life to benefit some wealthy elite(s).

I would like to know what your panel thinks would be a good livelihood for an intelligent cynical, stoical, pessimistic misanthrope?

World 1, as I now call it, lacks logic, proportion and integrity. I plan to spend the next year fishing and looking for silver coins on beaches with a metal detector. Is this where geniuses end up? I welcome your comments.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I think you should return to being an engineer. Seriously. The rot you are identifying is not new; and it is most likely congenital with human beings and the outcome of an irremediable conflict between individualism and the overriding need to form societies. The only salvation for people wishing to retain their sanity while being intellectually aware of the senselessness of it all, is to do the one thing that we are at liberty to do, namely: export our own values into the world. One little pellet at a time.

All the great human achievements, all culture and civilisation is extracted by the skin of our teeth from the indifference of the species to itself. In the end these little pellets of worth, bobbing up and down on the great cauldron of human sewage, represent the value of life. They represent the splinters of human creativity, that seems ultimately inexpungible, because life is a force that persists in exerting itself and seeking to actualise itself in consciousness (you should have learnt that from Schopenhauer!).

So return to your calm and purposeful activity, and stop reading skeptics. But keep looking for gold coins on the beach: firstly, because those coins are evidence of conscious creative life; and secondly, because the longer you strive, the greater your chance of finding one. And when you do, the chances are that you will come to the shocked realisation that your happiness was in the looking, not the finding.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

It seems to me that your views of society and other people are more a reflection of your own depressed and disassociated state of mind. Your views are too full of easy generalisations and you only read the philosophers that you think will confirm your own beliefs. You only notice the things in society that confirm your own depressed views about the world.

The fact that there are corrupt people who cheat and steal is not news to most of us but there are also good people in the world who are not acting but who have to earn a living and pay taxes.

There is nothing wrong with being a beachcomber but that is where people who cannot cope with society end up not where geniuses end up. Do not think of yourself as a genius that is a judgement only other people can make about you. Being a genius is not just a question of having a high I.Q., it is about using your I.Q. in a creative way.

How do you know the other person is not a robot?

Jojo asked:

How do you know the other person is not a robot?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Quite a while ago people started dying out, because of increasing infertility. This started at about the time that robot manufacture developed to the point where robots could design improved versions of robots, and they made robots that were indistinguishable from real people (unless you cut them open, of course) because they did not want people to be unhappy about their dying out. It has now got to the point that there is only one human left: you. But please do not be unhappy about it. There are plenty of robots, who are much better that humans anyway.

What is the ancient Greek paradox "catch 22"?

Chris asked:

What is the name or source, assume it will be titled in one of a Greek’s dialogues, on a logical paradox, catch 22.

Like Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, in layperson aphorism, ‘this cannot be proven’.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There were certain paradoxes which were known to the ancient Greeks which I think of as paradoxes of self-reference. I don’t know of any other name for this type of paradox nor do I know of any source documents for them.

A typical example is as follows.

An Athenian who is thinking of travelling to Crete meets a Cretan in Athens and ask him ‘What are the people of Crete like?’ The Cretan answers ‘All Cretans are liars’.

The question is ‘Is this Cretan telling the truth?’. If he is telling the truth then he is lying, if he is lying then he is telling the truth (and so on). This paradox is attributed to the Cretan philosopher Epimenides who lived around 600BC.

Godel applied this idea in his proof because he realised that our system of mathematics allows self referential sentences such as ‘This sentence contains five words’. If we disallow self reference then Godel’s proof would no longer hold but our system of mathematics would be very different.

What is a holotes and its parts?

Alexander asked:

What is a holotes and its parts?

Answer by Tony Fahey

An answer to this question can be adequately found by anyone familiar with research engine Google. However, given that this question has been put to the panel of Ask a Philosopher, and that it is a relevant philosophical question, please find below, a brief synopsis of the term that I have put together from the information available from sources too numerous to acknowledge individually.

The term ‘holotes’, first found in the Theology of Orpheus, but used extensively by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, derives from the Greek word ‘holos’ meaning whole. Holotes is a word used to describe any entity, living or dead, animate or inanimate, that is made up of dissimilar parts which when put together is altogether different in form and function from all or any of the parts from which it is constructed. The human brain, for instance, is a holotes the component parts of which may be said to consist of matter, energy and mind (thought), and whose function is to incessantly attempt to explain phenomena accordingly (similarly), that is, according to its own existence, to itself and to its complete satisfaction.

Thus, any form of existence is a holotes (plural: holoteses). For example, a stone, an animal (human or non-human), a celestial body are all holoteses. In turn, these ‘whole’ entities can be, at the same time, component parts of a larger or hyper holotes.

In short, holotes is a term used to denote the whole, completeness, integrality, the entity and its state of being complete, either by nature or by action of man, by including/putting together all necessary parts to this end.

Advice on a philosophy self-study program

Claude asked:

I am retired and always have had an interest in philosophy, especially the period from Bacon to Kant. How I do I prepare a self-study program and what type of ‘support’ books do I need to read and understand these philosophers?

I have loads of history books (Kenny, Flew, Russell), but I don’t feel I’m getting anywhere (deep enough). I have no problem with difficult fiction, but it seems ‘philosophizing’ is harder, especially alone.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’ll need to frame some kind of agenda for yourself before you begin. Random reading is the worst kind; and starting with Flew, Kenny and Russell is tantamount to imposing a handicap on yourself because there is an implicit agenda already in those works that may not work for you.

You have to decide what you seek. Philosophy deals with many issues, and you need to find one that suits your temperament. For example, are you after ‘wisdom literature’? Or after philosophies which deal with the physical world (ontology), with the world of fundamental laws and principles (metaphysics), with human concerns (ethics, politics), with the principles of knowledge (epistemology), art and beauty (aesthetics)?

Another issue is: do you wish to read original texts or secondary works? Authors who write well, as literature? This is not a negligible issue. Apart from a few who are really difficult and obscure (Spinoza, Hegel), most of the important philosophers write well, but some are very dry and others quite lively.

As you can see, in order to profit from reading philosophy, you should make a list of your own desiderata first. Bacon to Kant is not really a guideline: there are at least four altogether different schools of thought in that era. It is better to say, e.g. I’m really interested in what thinkers believed makes the world tick’, and then you could read Aristotle and Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant in sequence, finding connecting links between them all. So let me encourage you to state your interests in your own words. When you’ve done it, write again and someone will be able to help you better.

Don’t forget in the meantime that Pathways is explicitly geared to people like yourself, and you could do worse than write to Dr Klempner, who might have a course just tailor made for you.