The Advantages and Disadvantages of Expertise

© 2011 Brian Forbes

We strive, as intellectuals, to be experts in whatever topics we consider.  I don’t read Newton to be ignorant of him.  So long as there is more to be known, I will seek to know it.  I will seek it because the more I know, the greater the blessing.  Hold on, though.  In the title of this paper, I implied that there were disadvantages to expertise.  Indeed, I did.

Anyone reading this article will no doubt have exposed themselves to the ideas found in my book, From Noah to Hercules.  They will know that the gods of paganism were deified kings and ancestors.  They will also be familiar with the account of Adam and Eve.  If you are not, read Genesis.  In the account, the name of the forbidden tree was the “knowledge of good and evil”.  They were faced with a choice.  They could live in ignorance, trusting to the benevolence of their Creator, or they can, with pride, project evil on God.  They chose to know.  To the untrusting mind, this story sounds ridiculous.  It is a scare tactic used to keep the ignorant masses ignorant and under control.  I aim to present the counter evidence to that seemingly logical position.

Having learned what we have up to this point in life, it seems like we would always rather have knowledge before we act.  I’d rather know a spider is harmless before I shriek like a girl and run away from it.  I’d rather know if it’s a scam before I spend all my money.  I’d like to know if a movie is good before I buy a ticket.  If we think beyond the surface, though, there are some experiences that give us reason to want to live without knowledge.  Recently, I attended an assembly where the children were asked to come up.  I sent my children up.  It turns out, he was asking for a specific set of children to come up.  Knowledge could have saved me the shame I felt washing over me the rest of the day.  However, my kids felt no embarrassment at all, and I left them to their ignorance.  I have an atheist friend who recently told me that he’d much rather know that God doesn’t exist than live in a fantasy that brings joy and meaning to life.  “Don’t speak.  I know what you’re thinkin’, and I don’t need your reasons.  Don’t tell me, cuz it hurts.”  Or the famous, “Pretend that you love me.  Lead me, lead me, just say that you need me … I don’t care if you really care, as long as you don’t go.”

Clearly there are times when it’s better not to know.  To some, however, it will always be more desirable to learn the truth, no matter how miserable.  This is a fundamental divide.  I will never be like my friend.  He will never be like me.  Those who are inclined to trust will trust, and those who are inclined to doubt will doubt.  It’s not that clear cut, though, is it?  We often doubt some things that others accept, and accept things that others reject.  The divide differs from person to person.  Our choices can be so arbitrary!

It is in light of that fact that I wish to explore whether it is better to be untrained in history, or if it is better to be given an expert’s synopsis of history, learning about the finer points of the debates of the past before diving into the source documents.  A student in a university will certainly have lectures, articles, and books that dictate to him how he should read what he will eventually read.  He will have years of prejudice even before he starts into the texts.  He will be an expert even before he studies his subject, and his views will be changed by very little of what he comes across in source texts.  He will already know how to categorize all the knowledge that comes into his head.  That is not how I started reading history.  I was driven by interest in the topic.  I was convinced that nobody knows history better than those who lived through it.  The closer you can get to those accounts, the better the source.  I read the source materials for more source materials, so that I could, with an empty and ignorant mind, fill it with the world presented to us by the ancients.

Because I came to history from the bottom up, I was exposed to a good many things that a university student, with access to experts, would have seen much earlier in their top down studies.  I will explore one of these ideas now.

A major premise of my book is that of the deification of kings and ancestors.  I don’t know when I first heard the word “deify”, but I know that I’ve known the word for much of my life.  A word I did not know, which means exactly the same thing, is apotheosis.  A word I had not heard until recently is euhemerism.  The meaning of that word is more nuanced.  It is a word to describe the interpretation of pagan myths as mutated historical events, and not as works of fiction.  Having three words to describe it, you would expect that the myths would commonly be interpreted that way.  And they were!  Up until about the late 1800’s, this was the most common way of interpreting pagan mythology.  So why hadn’t I heard of it?  Why hadn’t my friends (some of whom were even trained in history) heard of it?  This was a minor mystery to me until I discovered this obscure word. 

The first nine of ten Google search results relating to euhemerism were dictionary or encyclopedia definition pages, and one was a book with the word in the title.  Yet, not all uses of this word are specifically for the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian myths.  It has been used to encompass the eye witness written history of Judaism, Christianity, and just about any other account where a man is given extraordinary abilities or features, and whose story is not verifiable by modern historians.  Clearly, this word is not in common use today.

Euhemerus was a guy who lived a couple hundred years BC.  He is credited with the “revolutionary” view that the gods were once men.  We really don’t have any of his writings left.  We only have quotations from a few ancient authors, most notably Diodorus Siculus (see page 46 of my book).  If you give a guy who has no lasting writings credit for an idea that you can’t verify actually started with him, any speculation you might come up with will probably be accepted by anyone less expert than you, never to be contradicted by source texts.  The idea stood no chance against the fashionable fad of Darwinism.  Euhemerus was not the originator of this idea.

Herodotus lived at least a hundred years before Euhemerus.  We don’t know exactly when Euhemerus lived, but we know who came first.  If I can show that Herodotus believed in euhemerism, it would follow that euhemerism did not originate with Euhemerus.  So let me quote Herodotus.

"The Heraclides, descended from Hercules..." Oh really?  But Hercules was clearly a hero in history, not one of the original gods.  Yet they sacrificed to him as a god.  They also elevated Cesar and many of the pharaohs to god status.  "On the death of Lycurgus they built him a temple, and ever since they have worshipped him with the utmost reverence."  Clearly, they honored heroes as gods, but how many modern cultures and religions pray to their dead ancestors?  Did they get the idea from Euhemerus?  "…the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner [...] When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods."  The gods of Persia had an origin.  That means they were not eternal.  Persia wasn’t the only nation whose gods had beginnings.  “The Egyptians […] first brought into use the names of the twelve gods, which the Greeks adopted from them; and first erected altars, images, and temples to the gods […] the first man who ruled over Egypt was Min…”  Min was the god of fertility.  And to top it off, "I made inquiry of the priests whether the story which the Greeks tell about Ilium is a fable, or no."  Herodotus had to ask if one of the Greek myths was a fable, as if they weren’t all fables.  It seems to me that Herodotus thought that the gods were once men on the earth.  Who is an older historian than Herodotus?  Not many, I assure you.  Moses was far older, but he didn’t permit the mention of the names of foreign gods.  He mocks them for praying to wood and stone images.  It is interesting, though, that Moses also traced the most ancient tribes of men to their first kings and ancestors.  This is something Herodotus also does.  This is long, but it shows that what I said is true.

"For my part I am astonished that men should ever have divided Libya, Asia, and Europe as they have, for they are exceedingly unequal. […] As for Libya, we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necos, the Egyptian king, who on desisting from the canal which he had begun between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. […] and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. […] In this way was the extent of Libya first discovered."  The land was divided illogically into thirds.  Someone sailed around the southmost tip of Africa.  To the point, just a few sections later...  "For my part I cannot conceive why three names, and women's names especially, should ever have been given to a tract which is in reality one […] According to the Greeks in general, Libya was so called after a certain Libya, a native woman, and Asia after the wife of Prometheus. The Lydians, however, put in a claim to the latter name, which, they declare, was not derived from Asia the wife of Prometheus, but from Asies, the son of Cotys, and grandson of Manes, who also gave name to the tribe Asias at Sardis. As for Europe, no one can say whether it is surrounded by the sea or not, neither is it known whence the name of Europe was derived, nor who gave it name, unless we say that Europe was so called after the Tyrian Europe, and before her time was nameless, like the other divisions."  You can’t get any clearer.  Lands were named for people.  Nations were named for ancestors.  They knew how massive the African continent is.  The concept that ancestors should be honored as gods was not invented by Euhemerus.  It is a practice as old as humanity, which, if you believe Herodotus, isn’t very old. 

“Hercules is one of the gods of the second order, who are known as "the twelve"; and Bacchus belongs to the gods of the third order, whom the twelve produced. […] from Bacchus, who is the youngest of the three, they reckon fifteen thousand years to the reign of that king. In these matters they say they cannot be mistaken, as they have always kept count of the years, and noted them in their registers. But from the present day to the time of Bacchus […] is a period of not more than sixteen hundred years; to that of Hercules, son of Alcmena, is about nine hundred; while to the time of Pan, son of Penelope (Pan, according to the Greeks, was her child by Mercury), is a shorter space than to the Trojan war, eight hundred years or thereabouts.”  For more detailed calculations, see Eusebius’ and Newton’s corrections.  They say that the Egyptians were using lunar years and overlapping reigns.  Though I haven’t read it, I’m sure that Ussher dealt with this calculation as well.  The exact numbers aren’t half as important as the fact that they had records back to the first gods.  This isn’t a claim from Euhemerus or later.  This is Herodotus speaking of Egyptian priests.

Imagine if I had gone the university route.  I would have had little motivation for looking into the source texts.  I would have learned from others what was “true” of history.  I would have never read Herodotus and seen that his text already had traces of euhemerism.  He couldn’t have gotten this idea from Euhemerus.  The most logical conclusion is that euhemerism wasn’t an opinion invented by Euhemerus and enthusiastically adapted by the early church as evidence against paganism.  It was true the whole time.  It was noticed by anyone who wrote down history. 

A few other disadvantages to learning from experts include, but are not limited to:

1.    We might accept “just so” stories such as the assumed age of cave paintings, and the stupidity of our ancestors.  They say that agriculture (or the planting and breeding of weeds) was too hard for man to figure out before a couple thousand years BC.  This is not the opinion that ancient historians had about even more ancient man.

2.    We have to please our professors.  If we let slip that we don’t share their bias, we might not get the grade.  We are subject to their one sided accounts of what happened.

3.    Testing is par for the course.  We are not driven by interest, but the grade.  We learn what we are required to learn, and not always what we want to learn.  Within a 4-8 year season, we only have so many hours in a day, and we will often forget to confirm the assertions before the position is planted and developing a strong root structure.

4.    I know a lot about many topics, such as theology, ancient history, logic and debate, etc., but I don't know the first thing about farming or ranching.  It seems like an easy topic to learn, and I could probably become an expert in about a year, or even a month.  I have never applied myself to it, and I probably never will.  Neither do I care about basketball or pop culture.  I could be an expert in those in a year too, but I don’t care to use my time for that.  The same is true for experts.  They will know their topic well, but they may not know other topics quite as well, even where they meet.  Note the AiG study that shows that experts in religion are not looking at the science (or history, for that matter).

5.    I once called a number from a TV commercial that resulted in LDS missionaries coming to my house to talk me into Mormonism.  They told me that they would discuss the topics in stages, and that I had to accept the first stage before they would move on to the next.  The tactic reminded me of the modern university.  You pass a test and move on to the next topic.  If you fail the class, you will not move on to further revelation. 

6.    You have to sound smart to be esteemed.  You have to come up with new ideas.  You have to use words that nobody knows the definition for.  Smart people are rarely able to cross academic boundaries, because it takes years to learn the vocabulary.  Get a load of this paragraph from a Wikipedia article regarding fungus reproduction: “Sexual reproduction in basidiomycetes is similar to that of the ascomycetes. Compatible haploid hyphae fuse to produce a dikaryotic mycelium. However, the dikaryotic phase is more extensive in the basidiomycetes, often also present in the vegetatively growing mycelium.”  This was the most persuasive reason I gave to myself for quitting college.  This sort of arrogance sickens me.

7.    Often times, stupid or irrelevant ideas, ideas that you’ve categorically rejected are required for your degree.  People end up wasting time on problems they will never solve.  Someone who has determined that the Hebrew scripture is false does not need to apply himself to ancient Hebrew grammar.  In fact, it’s better for everyone if he doesn’t.

8.    I knew a bus driver with a master’s degree in History.  The bus rides home were quite enjoyable.  The student loan debt, too… It may be worth it.  Maybe. (click)

Compared to some, I am still not an expert in paganism or early history.  In many ways, that fact works to my advantage.  Nothing can hinder progress like the fallacy of affirming the consequent.  Experts often need folks like me to point out the obvious meaning of ancient texts.  The beauty of ignorance is that it lets the learned see the world through new eyes.

It’s time to backpedal from my argument, at least a little.  Perhaps I blame the wrong thing.  I am not opposed to experts.  I am still hoping to become an expert some day.  God is an expert.  We can certainly learn from learned people.  Herodotus was the expert of history in his time.  I’m not at all opposed to learning.  I still read and incorporate the information I come across.  I’m not opposed to colleges or universities.  There are some clearly valid reasons to attend one (e.g. to get a job, to qualify for a position, to bring structure and commitment to learning, etc.).  It is not the learning that causes these modern historians to miss the obvious.  It is bias.  It is emotional attachment to unproven assumptions.  Be cautious of it; we can all be blinded by it.  I am not immune, but I certainly had an entirely different set of assumptions than many of those who begin their study at a university.  Choose your bias carefully.  Your final opinion will depend on it.