Sacrifice and Simulation

Executive summary. An experiment has been performed to detect whether we are living in a simulation. The experiment is to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. Whatever he does, he breaks a law. Thus there is more to the world than can be understood by natural science.

Beach, sparkling sea, mountains, clouds, sky
Altınova, Ayvalık, Balıkesir, Türkiye
Looking towards Lesbos, Greece
September 20, 2022

C.S. Lewis makes that last point, although not with reference to Abraham. By the Quranic account, Abraham is told in a dream to sacrifice his son. As Mustafa Akyol observes, this leaves to Abraham the decision of whether the dream is from God. It cannot be, since murder is “objectively bad,” and therefore God does not command it.

If the Hebrew version of the story were a Greek tragedy, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his second son could show his regret for banishing his first son and the son’s mother to please his wife.

When Oedipus flees his home town of Corinth, lest the prophecy be fulfilled that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he shows that some part of himself understands the danger in his passions.

Such thoughts are provoked by the story of a Jewish man called Naftali, who is saved from bandits by vowing to sacrifice what he can: his enormous appetite. This does not mean Naftali will no longer eat; he will eat for God.

The story may illustrate what R.G. Collingwood observes in Speculum Mentis, that what seems irreligious may not be. As I understand Collingwood’s metaphor, seeing God only in a prescribed ritual is like recognizing the Pythagorean Theorem only when expressed by the diagram of Proposition I.47 in the edition of Euclid’s Elements that you read in school.

I drafted this post in December, 2021, after reading of Naftali in a book encountered when I was picking up one of the Harry Potter books. Former devotees are sacrificing J.K. Rowling to the new god they have found; but what I had to say about this, I posted as “Imagination.” The rest of what I gathered about sacrifice languished, till I rediscovered it when looking up the notes I had made about the subjective and the objective. Those notes may become another post. I also want to come back to Collingwood and Lewis on the subject of the post “Miracles” of June, 2022, because I think Lewis lacks Collingwood’s understanding of science. Meanwhile, here is what I have to say about sacrifice, in the following sections after an introduction.

Pacifying something makes it peaceful. Should sacrificing it make it sacred or holy? Maybe so; but the way the word is used, if what you have sacrificed was alive before, it is probably dead now.

To make something sacred or holy is to consecrate or hallow it. As Abraham Lincoln said, at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, in words themselves now hallowed,

in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

In an earlier day, that dedication or consecration might have been accomplished through an animal sacrifice; now the blood of human soldiers has done it.

The sacred cow herself is hallowed or revered, but not sacrificed. Nonetheless, various ruminants are put to death annually, in Turkey and elsewhere, in what is called the Feast of the Sacrifice. The meat is not burned on an altar, but shared.

I raise the question of sacrifice now, inspired by an essay in a book that I found on a table of old volumes that Pandora Kitabevi, here in Istanbul, was trying to sell off.

I was in Pandora, picking up the second volume in the Harry Potter series. I had always thought one day I might try to see what made these books so popular. I was finally doing so, because their author was so popular as a figure of hatred for people who had adored her books as children. I went on to write about the controversy in “Imagination.”

As for the Harry Potter books themselves, or at least the first two (which are all I have read so far), I think what makes them entertaining is that they are mysteries, apparently like Rowling’s novels for adults.

When I picked up the second in the Potter series, as I said, I noticed on the discount table a book showing twenty years of aging on a shelf or in a warehouse, but no sign of having been read: The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski. It includes “How to Pray” by Ben Birnbaum.

Subtitled “Reverence, Stories, and the Rebbe’s Dream,” Birnbaum’s essay appeared originally in Image, issue 27, summer 2000. Birnbaum asks a question that all ideologues should answer:

How indeed does one know what God prefers?

This comes after examples of how, “As regards prayer in particular, Chassidism became infamous for flouting rabbinic regulations.” The final example is of

the dark-visioned Kotzker rebbe who once chastised a man who complained that his heart ached when work kept him from praying at the prescribed hour: “How do you know that God doesn’t prefer your heartache to your prayers?”

This is an excellent question, as is shown by My Father My Lord, which my wife and I saw in a film festival in Ankara in the aughts. Beside the Dead Sea, an elderly rabbi abandons his young son in order to pray with his fellows at the divinely appointed time. The film is not too subtle: the boy drowns.

The rebbe of Birnbaum’s subtitle is not the Kotzker one, but an unnamed character in a story that Birnbaum himself chanced upon at age eleven. Having dreamt that an angel told him to study with Rav Naftali of Berzhitz, the rebbe spends a week travelling to this “isolated hamlet,” but a denizen tells him,

Distinguished sage, someone’s played a cruel joke on you for which God will surely take revenge. There is no Rav Naftali here, and the only Naftali at all is Naftali the woodsman who lives up in the hills and is no rav for certain but a proste Yid [a coarse Jew]—not the kind you would care to know.

Since this is a story, you suspect that Naftali is the rav; but the rebbe has to spend a Sabbath with him to learn this. Naftali is a great trencherman, as his wife’s cooking and serving allows him to demonstrate. On Saturday evening, Naftali explains how his eating is a sacrifice:

All my life I’ve had a great appetite for food, and that has been a blessing, giving me the strength to earn my living. And then one day a few years ago, I was alone in the forest when bandits attacked me. They were going to take my wagon and tools and kill me. And so I prayed to our Creator, saying, “I have no learning, I have no pious habits—all I have is an appetite. But if You give me the strength I need today, for the rest of my life when I eat on Your holy Sabbath, I will eat for You, only for You.”

Apparently the essay was included also in The Best American Essays 2001. The passage that I have just quoted is also in “Is Good Food Excessively Indulgent?”—whose writer, Tamar Fox, links to the original essay on the Image website. The link being dead, I used the Internet Archive to recover the old page, so that I could cut and paste my quotations.

As far as the sacred is concerned, I think William Blake has to be right, at the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790):

For every thing that lives is Holy.

It is hard or rare to live by this though, as I think Collingwood spells out in Speculum Mentis (1924, pages 126–7):

If a boy learns a certain geometrical truth, he is taught to symbolize it in terms of a particular triangle. But if he is unable to separate it from this triangle and to see it equally well in another, we say that he does not yet understand it. So a truth which is only grasped under the symbol of a particular act or phrase and cannot be freely symbolized in other acts or phrases is as yet imperfectly grasped.

If, with these arguments in mind, we say: ‘To-day I will glorify God by weeding my garden or playing tennis instead of going to church,’ and if we defend ourselves by quoting Scripture to the effect that God is everywhere and is not confined within the four walls of a church, our parish priest will reply that God has appointed his own means of grace, which to neglect is to neglect God; that the attempt to sanctify the whole of life can only lead to the sanctifying of none; and that in point of fact our real motives for staying away from church are irreligion, indolence, and spiritual pride. This will be his reply if he is a religious man and knows his business; for we have been trespassing on the implicitness of the religious symbol and so breaking away from the religious attitude. This is in itself a legitimate act, and a priest will not despise it, though he may disapprove of it. But if it shelters itself under the cloak of religion, it becomes hypocritical and the object of a just contempt. It is irreligion arguing in the name of religion.

But the strange thing is that this very attitude, irreligion appearing in the guise of religion, is typical of religion itself in its highest manifestations. The great saints really do find God everywhere, really do prove their proposition about any triangle that is presented to them, really do transfuse with religion the whole of life. This is at once the perfection and the death of the religious consciousness. For in grasping the inmost meaning of ritual and worship it deprives these special activities of their special sanctity and of their very reason for existing; the whole body of religion is destroyed by the awakening of its soul. But the awakened soul, in this very moment of triumph, has destroyed itself with its own body: it has lost all its familiar landmarks and plunged into that abyss of mysticism in which God himself is nothing. Mysticism is the crown of religion and its deadliest enemy; the great mystics are at once saints and heresiarchs.

The parish priest might say there were other ways to destroy religion.

Sacrifice in Homer

A libation is a sacrifice, but you can still enjoy most of the drink that you libate from. This is what Hecuba urges on Hector when he comes in from the battle outside Troy in Iliad Book VI (lines 258–62):

ἀλλὰ μέν᾽ ὄφρά κέ τοι μελιηδέα οἶνον ἐνείκω,
ὡς σπείσῃς Διὶ πατρὶ καὶ ἄλλοις ἀθανάτοισι
πρῶτον, ἔπειτα δὲ καὐτὸς ὀνήσεαι αἴ κε πίῃσθα.
ἀνδρὶ δὲ κεκμηῶτι μένος μέγα οἶνος ἀέξει,
ὡς τύνη κέκμηκας ἀμύνων σοῖσιν ἔτῃσι.

The verb for libating here is σπένδω, cognate through Latin with our sponsor, spouse, despond, espouse, and respond. In Caroline Alexander’s verse, and A. T. Murray’s prose, Homer’s lines are:

But wait, while I bring you wine, honey-sweet,
for you to make libation to Zeus the father and the immortals
first, and then yourself have enjoyment, should you drink it.
Wine greatly strengthens the spirit in a weary man,
as you have been wearied protecting your people.

But stay till I have brought thee honey-sweet wine that thou mayest pour libation to Zeus and the other immortals first, and then shalt thou thyself have profit thereof, if so be thou wilt drink. When a man is spent with toil wine greatly maketh his strength to wax, even as thou art spent with defending thy fellows.

There is also a noun τὸ θύος, for a burnt offering, derived from the verb θύω for making the offering. This is what Hector has come to ask his mother to do (lines 269–70):

ἀλλὰ σὺ μὲν πρὸς νηὸν Ἀθηναίης ἀγελείης
ἔρχεο σὺν θυέεσσιν ἀολλίσσασα γεραιάς:

But you to the temple of Athena of the Spoil
go with burnt offerings, summoning the elder women,

Nay, do thou go to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil, with burnt-offerings, when thou hast gathered together the aged wives.

The μέν in the first line will have an answering δε (quoted later), when Hector asks his mother for an additional sacrifice.

The same verb θύω, or else a different verb with the same spelling, is used also for boiling with rage. The River Scamander does this when fighting with Achilles in Book XXI (lines 233–6):

ἦ, καὶ Ἀχιλλεὺς μὲν δουρικλυτὸς ἔνθορε μέσσῳ
κρημνοῦ ἀπαΐξας: ὃ δ᾽ ἐπέσσυτο οἴδματι θύων,
πάντα δ᾽ ὄρινε ῥέεθρα κυκώμενος, ὦσε δὲ νεκροὺς
πολλούς, οἵ ῥα κατ᾽ αὐτὸν ἅλις ἔσαν, οὓς κτάν᾽ Ἀχιλλεύς.

He spoke; and spear-famed Achilles leapt into midstream,
springing from the overhanging bank; and with a seething surge the river sped toward him,
and made turbulent all the streaming waters as he churned them and shoved aside the many
bodies that were clotted all along his stream, those whom Achilles killed.

He spake, and Achilles, famed for his spear, sprang from the bank and leapt into his midst; but the River rushed upon him with surging flood, and roused all his streams tumultuously, and swept along the many dead that lay thick within his bed, slain by Achilles.

The “he” that did the speaking was the river, complaining about Achilles to Apollo.

Back in Book VI, as I said, Hector asks his mother for further sacrifice. He wants two of them, actually; but the verbs he uses for them, τίθημι and ὑπισχνέομαι, refer literally only to placing and promising (lines 271–6):

πέπλον δ᾽, ὅς τίς τοι χαριέστατος ἠδὲ μέγιστος
ἔστιν ἐνὶ μεγάρῳ καί τοι πολὺ φίλτατος αὐτῇ,
τὸν θὲς Ἀθηναίης ἐπὶ γούνασιν ἠϋκόμοιο,
καί οἱ ὑποσχέσθαι δυοκαίδεκα βοῦς ἐνὶ νηῷ
ἤνις ἠκέστας ἱερευσέμεν, αἴ κ᾽ ἐλεήσῃ
ἄστύ τε καὶ Τρώων ἀλόχους καὶ νήπια τέκνα.

and place a robe, one which seems to you to be the loveliest and most ample
in your house, and which is most precious to you,
and place this on the knees of the statue of Athena of the lovely hair;
and pledge to sacrifice to her in the temple twelve young cows,
yearlings, unbroken, if she would have mercy
on the city and on the wives of the Trojans and their infant children.

and the robe that seemeth to thee the fairest and amplest in thy hall, and that is dearest far to thine own self, this do thou lay upon the knees of fair-haired Athene and vow to her that thou wilt sacrifice in her temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if she will take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children.

Homer’s infinitive ὑποσχέσθαι is indeed a form of what is found in the dictionary as ὑπισχνέομαι. Apparently this would have been ὑπίσχομαι, but in Attic Greek and in Herodotus, the syllable νε was added by analogy with the verb ἀρνέομαι, which has the opposite meaning of denying, refusing, declining (source: Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 2010). English does this sort of thing, with spelling at least, so that the ell in “could” is inserted by analogy with “would” and “should.”

In Book IX, when Achilles receives the embassy consisting of Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Phoenix, he has Patroclus sacrifice part of the meal on offer (lines 215–21):

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς.
αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἀντίον ἷζεν Ὀδυσσῆος θείοιο
τοίχου τοῦ ἑτέροιο, θεοῖσι δὲ θῦσαι ἀνώγει
Πάτροκλον ὃν ἑταῖρον: ὃ δ᾽ ἐν πυρὶ βάλλε θυηλάς.
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ὀνείαθ᾽ ἑτοῖμα προκείμενα χεῖρας ἴαλλον.

And when he had roasted the meat and heaped it on chargers,
Patroclus took bread to distribute around the table
in fine baskets, but Achilles distributed the meat.
And he himself sat facing godlike Odysseus
by the opposite wall, and to the gods he bade
Patroclus, his companion, make offering; and he into the fire cast the first cuts.
Then they reached out their hands to the good things set ready before them.

But when he had roasted the meat and laid it on platters, Patroclus took bread and dealt it forth on the table in fair baskets, while Achilles dealt the meat. Himself he sate him down over against godlike Odysseus, by the other wall, and bade Patroclus, his comrade, offer sacrifice to the gods; and Patroclus cast burnt-offering into the fire.

The embassy has come from Agamemnon, who offers gifts to Achilles, if only he will come back and fight with the Greeks. Phoenix will urge Achilles to accept the gifts, just as, according to him, the gods accept sacrifices.

Such a teaching could make you think there’s no point to being a good person, because you can always make up for whatever you do wrong. This is what Adeimantus argues in Book II of the Republic. In Book III, Socrates wants to censor the advice of Phoenix, because it encourages greed in Achilles and thus anybody else who hears it.

Nobody seems to observe that Phoenix is wrong, on the evidence of the Iliad as a whole. Adeimantus does report the opinion (364b),

ὡς ἄρα θεοὶ

  • πολλοῖς μὲν ἀγαθοῖς δυστυxίας τε καὶ βίον κακὸν ἔνειμαν,
  • τοῖς δ’ἐναντίοις ἐναντίαν μοῖραν.

that the gods themselves assign

  • to many good men misfortunes and an evil life, and
  • to their opposites a contrary lot.

The verb that Shorey translates as “assign” here is νέμω, used above in Iliad VI.216–7 for what Alexander translates as distributing, and Murray as dealing. The gods deal out woes, even to those who sacrifice to them as Hecuba does. Adeimantus and Socrates do not seem to point this out.

Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible

My post called “Abraham and Gideon” concerns the juxtaposition of those two names in two of the Pensées of Pascal. Each of Abraham and Gideon is called on to make a sacrifice, and afterwards each one receives a miracle.

I thought Pascal did not really spell this out. To find a connection between the two figures, one had to believe or at least suspect that there was a connection. Just so did the discovery of natural laws, such as Pascal’s Law on the transmission of fluid pressure, require a belief that the natural world was governed by such laws in the first place.

Perhaps Pascal was clear enough. In any case, the sacrifice of Abraham is in Genesis 22:

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Here is how the sacrifice of Gideon is described in Judges 6:

11 And there came an angel of the Lord, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abi-ezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites.
12 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him, and said unto him, The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.
13 And Gideon said unto him, Oh my Lord, if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.
14 And the Lord looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?
15 And he said unto him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.
16 And the Lord said unto him, Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man.
17 And he said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, then shew me a sign that thou talkest with me.
18 Depart not hence, I pray thee, until I come unto thee, and bring forth my present, and set it before thee. And he said, I will tarry until thou come again.
19 And Gideon went in, and made ready a kid, and unleavened cakes of an ephah of flour: the flesh he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out unto him under the oak, and presented it.
20 And the angel of God said unto him, Take the flesh and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth. And he did so.
21 Then the angel of the Lord put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the Lord departed out of his sight.
22 And when Gideon perceived that he was an angel of the Lord, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord God! for because I have seen an angel of the Lord face to face.
23 And the Lord said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die.
24 Then Gideon built an altar there unto the Lord, and called it Jehovah-shalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abi-ezrites.
25 And it came to pass the same night, that the Lord said unto him, Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it:
26 And build an altar unto the Lord thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove which thou shalt cut down.
27 Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had said unto him: and so it was, because he feared his father’s household, and the men of the city, that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night.

More verses of the two chapters are quoted in “Abraham and Gideon.”

Sacrifice in Christianity

Here is what Pascal has to say about all of the verses, first in Sellier 446, Lafuma 892, Brunschvicg 822, complete (the translation is Trotter’s, from Project Gutenberg):

Abraham, Gédéon : [signes] au-dessus de la Révélation. Les Juifs s’aveuglaient en jugeant des miracles par l’Écriture. Dieu n’a jamais laissé ses vrais adorateurs.

Abraham and Gideon are above revelation. The Jews blinded themselves in judging of miracles by the Scripture. God has never abandoned His true worshippers.

J’aime mieux suivre Jésus-Christ qu’aucun autre parce qu’il a le miracle, prophétie, doctrine, perpétuité, etc.

I prefer to follow Jesus Christ than any other, because He has miracle, prophecy, doctrine, perpetuity, etc.

Donatiste, point de miracle qui oblige à dire que c’est le diable.

The Donatists. No miracle which obliges them to say it is the devil.

Plus on particularise, Dieu, Jésus-Christ, l’Église …

The more we particularise God, Jesus Christ, the Church …

The bold emphasis is mine, and I have edited the linked online text to have the paragraphs of Descotes’s 1976 print edition of the Brunschvicg text; the bracketing and italicizing of signes is as there, because, as I wrote in the earlier post, the manuscript is not clear, and Havet reads sont. In any case, I suppose Révélation is equivalent to Écriture, which could mean more precisely the Five Books of Moses, since Pascal may not be talking about any other miracles than that have been written down in scripture in the broader sense.

Pascal’s second juxtaposition of Abraham and Gideon is in S 450, quoted here in part, that part being the whole of L 903 and B 851:

L’histoire de l’aveugle-né.

The history of the man born blind.

Que dit saint Paul ? Dit‑il le rapport des prophéties à toute heure ? Non, mais son miracle. Que dit Jésus-Christ ? Dit‑il le rapport des prophéties ? Non. Sa mort ne les avait pas accomplies, mais il dit : Si non fecissem. Croyez aux œuvres.

What says Saint Paul? Does he continually speak of the evidence of the prophecies? No, but of his own miracle. What says Jesus Christ? Does He speak of the evidence of the prophecies? No; His death had not fulfilled them. But He says, Si non fecissem. Believe the works.

Deux fondements surnaturels de notre religion toute surnaturelle, l’un visible, l’autre invisible. Miracles avec la grâce, miracles sans grâce.

Two supernatural foundations of our wholly supernatural religion; one visible, the other invisible; miracles with grace, miracles without grace.

La synagogue, qui a été traitée avec amour comme figure de l’Église et avec haine parce qu’elle n’en était que la figure, a été relevée étant prête à succomber, quand elle était bien avec Dieu, et ainsi figure.

The synagogue, which had been treated with love as a type of the Church, and with hatred, because it was only the type, has been restored, being on the point of falling when it was well with God, and thus a type.

Les miracles prouvent le pouvoir que Dieu a sur les cœurs par celui qu’il exerce sur les corps.

Miracles prove the power which God has over hearts, by that which He exercises over bodies.

Jamais l’Église n’a approuvé un miracle parmi les hérétiques.

The Church has never approved a miracle among heretics.

Les miracles, appui de [la] religion. Ils ont discerné les Juifs. Ils ont discerné les chrétiens, les saints, les innocents, les vrais croyants.

Miracles a support of religion: they have been the test of Jews; they have been the test of Christians, saints, innocents, and true believers.

Un miracle parmi les schismatiques n’est pas tant à craindre, car le schisme, qui est plus visible que le miracle, marque visiblement leur erreur, mais quand il n’y a point de schisme et que l’erreur est en dispute, le miracle discerne.

A miracle among schismatics is not so much to be feared; for schism, which is more obvious than a miracle, visibly indicates their error. But when there is no schism, and error is in question, miracle decides.

Si non fecissem quæ alius non fecit. Ces malheureux qui nous ont obligé[s] de parler des miracles.

Si non fecissem quæ alius non fecit. The wretches who have obliged us to speak of miracles.

Abraham, Gédéon confirmer la foi par miracles.

Abraham and Gideon confirm faith by miracles.

Judith. Enfin Dieu parle dans les dernières oppressions.

Judith. God speaks at last in their greatest oppression.

Si le refroidissement de la charité laisse l’Église presque sans vrais adorateurs, les miracles en exciteront. Ce sont les derniers efforts de la grâce.

If the cooling of love leaves the Church almost without believers, miracles will rouse them. This is one of the last effects of grace.

S’il se faisait un miracle aux jésuites !

If one miracle were wrought among the Jesuits!

Quand le miracle trompe l’attente de ceux en présence desquels il arrive et qu’il y a disproportion entre l’état de leur foi et l’instrument du miracle, alors il doit les porter à changer, mais, etc. Autrement il y aurait autant de raison à dire que si l’Eucharistie ressuscitait un mort il faudrait se rendre calviniste que demeurer catholique, mais quand il couronne l’attente, et que ceux qui ont espéré que Dieu bénirait les remèdes se voient guéris sans remèdes …

When a miracle disappoints the expectation of those in whose presence it happens, and there is a disproportion between the state of their faith and the instrument of the miracle, it ought then to induce them to change. But with you it is otherwise. There would be as much reason in saying that, if the Eucharist raised a dead man, it would be necessary for one to turn a Calvinist rather than remain a Catholic. But when it crowns the expectation, and those, who hoped that God would bless the remedies, see themselves healed without remedies …

Impies.—Jamais signe n’est arrivé de la part du diable sans un signe plus fort de la part de Dieu, au moins sans qu’il eût été prédit que cela arriverait.

The ungodly.—No sign has ever happened on the part of the devil without a stronger sign on the part of God, or even without it having been foretold that such would happen.

Sacrifice in Islam

In “Why Do Muslims Slaughter Animals for God?” (New York Times, August 21, 2018), Mustafa Akyol attributes to Kant the idea that “Abraham’s blind submission” was “not as an example to emulate but as a failure to avoid.” Akyol also traces the idea further back to the Muʿtazili school, according to whom, “murder wasn’t bad simply because God told humans so—it was objectively bad … Our guide should be not blind obedience … but reasoned deliberation.”

According to Akyol,

There are minor differences between how the story is told in Islam and how it’s told in Judaism and Christianity—such as the name of the child, which the Quran doesn’t mention and Muslims gradually accepted as Ishmael. But the moral lesson is the same.

Whether the differences are minor or not, perhaps they are worth noting. We saw above the Biblical account of the sacrifice of the sacrifice of Abraham from Genesis 22. Here now is what Quran 37:74–113 says about it, in the translation of Muhammad Asad. While trying to preserve the paragraph breaks in the print edition, I have put Asad’s bracketed additions into italics, in the manner of the King James Bible; and I have removed the verse numbers:

EXCEPT for God’s true servants, most people are apt to go astray.
  And, indeed, it was for this reason that Noah cried unto Us—and how excellent was Our response: for We saved him and his household from that awesome calamity, and caused his offspring to endure on earth; and We left him thus to be remembered among later generations: “Peace be upon Noah throughout all the worlds!”
  Verily, thus do We reward the doers of good—for he was truly one of our believing servants: and so We saved him and those who followed him and then We caused the others to drown.

AND, BEHOLD, of his persuasion was Abraham, too, when he turned to his Sustainer with a heart free of evil, and thus spoke to his father and his people: “What is it that you worship? Do you want to bow down before a lie—before deities other than God? What, then, do you think of the Sustainer of all the worlds?”
  Then he cast a glance at the stars, and said, “Verily, I am sick at heart!” and at that they turned their backs on him and went away.
  Thereupon he approached their gods stealthily and said, “What! You do not eat of the offerings placed before you? What is amiss with you that you do not speak?”
  And then he fell upon them, smiting them with his right hand.
  But then the others came towards him hurriedly and accused him of his deed.
  He answered: “Do you worship something that you yourselves have carved, the while it is God who has created you and all your handiwork?”
  They exclaimed: “Build a pyre for him, and cast him into the blazing fire!”
  But whereas they sought to do evil unto him, We frustrated their designs, and thus brought them low.
  And Abraham said: “Verily, I shall leave this land and go wherever my Sustainer will guide me!”
  And he prayed: “O my Sustainer! Bestow upon me the gift of a son who shall be one of the righteous!”—whereupon We gave him the glad tiding of a boy-child gentle like himself.
  And one day, when the child had become old enough to share in his father’s endeavours the latter said: “O my dear son! I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice thee: consider, then, what would be thy view!”
  Ishmael answered: “O my father! Do as thou art bidden: thou wilt find me, if God so wills, among those who are patient in adversity!”
  But as soon as the two had surrendered themselves to what they thought to be the will of God, and Abraham had laid him down on his face, We called out to him: “O Abraham, thou hast already fulfilled the purpose of that dream-vision!”
Thus, verily, do We reward the doers of good: for, behold, all this was indeed a trial, clear in itself.
  And We ransomed him with a tremen­dous sacrifice, and left him thus to be remembered among later generations: “Peace be upon Abraham!”
  Thus do We reward the doers of good—for he was truly one of our believing servants.
  And in time We gave him the glad tiding of Isaac, who, too, would be a prophet, one of the righteous; and We blessed him and Isaac: but among the offspring of these two there were destined to be both doers of good and such as would glaringly sin against themselves.

That Abraham here dreams of being told to sacrifice his son seems to me to be a minor difference from the Biblical account; it is a bigger difference that Abraham tells his son of the dream, and the son urges him to obey it. This frustrates an attempt to interpret the story as I would that of Oedipus.

In Oedipus Tyrannus (994–9), and as translated by David Grene, Sophocles has Oedipus say,

μάλιστά γ᾽: εἶπε γάρ με Λοξίας ποτὲ
χρῆναι μιγῆναι μητρὶ τἠμαυτοῦ τό τε
πατρῷον αἷμα χερσὶ ταῖς ἐμαῖς ἑλεῖν.
ὧν οὕνεχ᾽ ἡ Κόρινθος ἐξ ἐμοῦ πάλαι
μακρὰν ἀπῳκεῖτ᾽: εὐτυχῶς μέν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως
τὰ τῶν τεκόντων ὄμμαθ᾽ ἥδιστον βλέπειν.

Oh no! Once upon a time Loxias said
that I should lie with my own mother and
take on my hands the blood of my own father.
And so for these long years I’ve lived away
from Corinth; it has been to my great happiness;
but yet it’s sweet to see the face of parents.

Abraham hears a divine command; Oedipus, a divine warning. Each man respects what he hears. I call the respect superficial though: certainly in Oedipus’s case, and possibly in Abraham’s case, at least by the Biblical account.

Oedipus could respond to the oracle in any of several ways.

  1. Dismissively: “That’s disgusting and ridiculous. I would never do such a thing.”
  2. Thoughtfully: “I have passions that I never knew. How can I control them?”
  3. By repressing thought: “I had better get out of Corinth: God says so!”

By fleeing, Oedipus suggests that he finds the oracle’s prediction all too plausible. I suggested something like this (more briefly) in “How to Learn about People,” written in the early traumatic days of the Trump administration.

In the Bible, when he gives the instruction to kill Isaac, God has already told Abraham to send away Hagar and her son Ishmael by him, for Sarah’s sake. If Abraham resents this, then killing Isaac—on God’s orders of course—can be a way to take vengeance on Isaac’s mother. There is no textual basis for such an hypothesis; but it is the kind of thing that the Greeks could think of, as for example in the story of Medea, who killed her children by Jason when he left her for another wife.

The Bible does not tell us what Abraham thinks. The Quran has him discuss the divine command with the intended victim.

Here are Akyol’s core paragraphs:

The Muslim world at large has not had its own Enlightenment, but that doesn’t mean Muslims never developed similar ideas. Medieval Islam had its own rationalists who also took an unorthodox position on the sacrifice story for the same reason Kant did: They could not accept that God would have ordered something so cruel.

These were the Muʿtazilites, members of a theological school that flourished in Iraq around the 9th century, which argued that “good” and “bad” were defined not just by divine verdicts, as their rivals claimed, but also human reason. For example, murder wasn’t bad simply because God told humans so—it was objectively bad. Moreover, God would never do, or order people to do, something that is bad. So, they reasoned, Abraham could not really have been commanded to carry out child sacrifice.

This view was further articulated by Ibn Arabi, a Sufi master from medieval Spain, who highlighted an important nuance in the Quranic version of the story. Unlike the Bible, in which Abraham receives an explicit commandment from God to sacrifice Isaac, the Abraham of the Quran only has a dream in which he sees himself sacrificing his son. He then consults his son, and they together decide that this is a commandment from God. But this was a wrong interpretation, Ibn Arabi argued, and by sending a sacrificial ram at the last moment, “his Lord rescued his son from Abraham’s misapprehension.”

If this take on the sacrifice story is true, then the lesson for Muslims is that they should be cautious about obeying what seems to be the will of God and compare religious commandments with their moral sense. This is especially true for ordinary mortals like us, who learn religious commandments not from direct revelations, as the prophets do, but rather from the transmissions and interpretations of fallible men. Our guide should be not blind obedience, in other words, but reasoned deliberation.

This is all related, in my mind at least, with another NYT essay.

World As Simulation

In “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out” (August 10, 2019), Preston Greene concludes:

If scientists do go ahead with these simulation experiments, the results will be either extremely uninteresting or spectacularly dangerous. Is it really worth the risk?

Sabine Hossenfelder tweeted the link with the comment, “This is why you shouldn’t let philosophers discuss physics.” My immediate thought is, “Should we let physicists like yourself discuss philosophy?” I asked her to explain her objection to the conclusion I just quoted; but lots of people address tweets to her, and she didn’t respond to mine.

I have not understood the hypothesis that we are all living in a simulation. But now it occurs to me that maybe I do. However, the people making the hypothesis may reject the following suggestion.

We are living in a simulation. C.S. Lewis shows this in Mere Christianity, in the sense that we are subject to a force that Lewis calls variously the Law of Nature, the Law or Rule about Right and Wrong, the Law of Human Nature, the Moral Law, and the Rule of Decent Behavior. We are subject to this law, and yet it is not one of the laws that are, or even can be, studied by the natural sciences:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

… what we usually call the laws of nature—the way weather works on a tree for example—may not really be laws in the strict sense, but only in a manner of speaking. When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means “what stones always do”? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground. You only mean that, in fact, it does fall. In other words, you cannot be sure that there is anything over and above the facts themselves, any law about what ought to happen, as distinct from what does happen. The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean “what Nature, in fact, does.” But if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behaviour, it is a different matter. That law certainly does not mean “what human beings, in fact, do” …

As I understand Greene in the Times and Hossenfelder in her own blog article, an experiment is contemplated that would seek inconsistencies in the Laws of Nature as we know them from physics.

The experiment has already been performed. As the Muʿtazilites observed, per Akyol, murder is objectively bad. We know this, but not by the tools of natural science. There is thus more to the universe than meets the eye of the physicist. The hypothesis is confirmed.

If that is not what the simulation theorists mean, I should like to know how they differ from Lewis, who suggests in Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947),

There might be other systems in addition to the one we call Nature … they would be related by their common derivation from a single Supernatural source. They would, in this respect, be like different novels by a single author … there would be no normal cutting across from an event in one Nature to an event in any other. By a ‘normal’ relation I mean one which occurs in virtue of the character of the two systems. We have to put in the qualification ‘normal’ because we do not know in advance that God might not bring two Natures into partial contact at some particular point … It would be one kind of Miracle … If we decide that Nature is not the only thing there is, then we cannot say in advance whether she is safe from miracles or not.

Human figure in silhouette against a shining sea
Altınova, September 12, 2022

Copy-edited November 27, 2022

One Trackback

  1. By On Homer’s Iliad Book I « Polytropy on November 29, 2022 at 9:20 am

    […] The Achaeans thus make sacrifice in the process of returning a woman to her father. Chryseis was the prize of Agamemnon, who at first refused to return her, even for ransom. However, as a priest of Apollo, Chryses was able to have the Achaeans afflicted with a plague. I note by the way that this is one case where a god actually responds to a prayer; often it does not happen (as I observed with an example in “Sacrifice and Simulation”). […]

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