Creation Myths : the Status of Human Beings

The Babylonian epic Atrahasis opens on tablet 1 with the background to the Babylonian gods’ creation of humans:

Atrahasis Tablet 1

When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold

Made the Igigi bear the workload.
The gods had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land, The Igigi had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land. The gods dug out the Tigris river
And then dug out the Euphrates.

They were counting the years of loads.
For 3,6oo years they bore the excess,
Hard work, night and day.
They groaned and blamed each other, Grumbled over the masses of excavated soil
‘Let us confront the chamberlain, And get him to relieve us of our hard work!’


so the lower gods, the “Igigi” go to complain (with weapons!), and the higher gods discuss the matter, and eventually a solution is proposed:

‘Beletili the womb-goddess is present-
Let her create primeval man
So that he may bear the yoke,
So that he may bear the yoke, the work of Ellil, Let man bear the load of the gods!’
They called up the goddess, asked
The midwife of the gods, wise Mami,
‘You are the womb-goddess (to be the) creator of mankind!
Create primeval man, that he may bear the yoke! Let him bear the yoke, the work of Ellil,
Let man bear the load of the gods!’


And so Enki, one of the Gods, acts. They sacrifice a god, mix his flesh and blood with clay, and create humans.

If we ask, “what view of humanity does this story suggest?” then it seems to me the answer is, human as slave. The raison d’être of humans is to work so the gods don’t have to. Later, the story suggests an element of mutual need: when Atrahasis makes a sacrifice to the gods after the Flood, they flock to the smell “like flies to dung”.

It forms an interesting contrast with the more familiar (to us) Genesis chapter 1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the fourth day.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may govern over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and take control of it. Govern the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food. ” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the sixth day.


Genesis makes several points that, compared to other ancient literature are eyebrow-raising. Firstly that the stars, the sun and the moon are not divine or even spiritual beings. They are mere “things”, lights in the sky. They are, as it were, demythologised.

Secondly, the place of humans. Humankind is first of all described as “made in the image of God.” If we ask what that implies, the proximate explanation given is that humans are made to govern. This is evidently a much more exalted view of humanity than that reflected by the Atrahasis epic.

We should notice this appears to apply to all humans. Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires all used the idea of Kings being divine (like a divine right of kings, but on steroids) and therefore having authority to rule as justification for exercise of brutal power over other humans.

Genesis, by contrast, describes all humans as made in the divine image, and the task of government over the earth is given to all.

We should also notice that female and male are included simultaneously. The one Image is created male and female; the command to govern is given to both; and obviously the command to be fruitful (if we take fruitful to mean having descendants!) requires both.

In a less individualistic society than our own, the relationshiops are key. In Atrahasis, humans relate to gods by being slaves, offering labour and food. In Genesis, there are no such gods, and we relate to the one Creator as authorised representatives, governing—that is, taking care of—the world on his behalf. Our fellow-human beings, female and male, are co-rulers, divinely appointed to govern, all given the authority of a ruler, not an underling.

Notes

  1. Atrahasis text translation taken from Myths from Mesopotamia. It’s hard to find on the web, presumably because all the translations are still in copyright.
  2. Genesis text mostly from NIV except I translate רדה as govern, not rule; and כבשׁ as take control, not subdue. If you want to dispute my translation, I’m up for an argument. (In my view it will mostly revolve about connotations of words in 21st century English vs 16th century English. In the 21st Century we associate ‘rule’ with monarchy, and we suspect monarchy of implying inherently bad government. But the entire human race cannot be a monarch, and government is not inherently bad. So rule now seems a poor translation).
  3. “Be fruitful and increase; fill the earth” sounds in English like an emphatic command to have lots of children. But all three of the Hebrew verbs can be read as about fulfilling potential rather than as about fertility specifically.

Science & Logical Positivism

New Scientist once published a ½ page letter in which a working scientist ranted that philosophy was all meaningless and that the Only Worthwhile, And Obviously True, philosophy is Logical Positivism.

But logical positivism is distinguished amongst all philosophies as the one which disproves itself in a 2-line proof.

Logical Positivism Premise #1 : All meaningful statements are either analytic (that is to say, statements of mathematics or logic or some other tautology) or else statements of empirical fact, and any sentence that is not in one of these two categories is strictly and literally meaningless.

2. If premise #1 —which is not a tautology, nor a statement of mathematics or logic, nor a statement of empirical fact—is true, then by premise #1, premise #1 is itself strictly and literally meaningless, so cannot be true.

A Hard Problem of Grammar: A formal logic analogue to Nagel’s bat

The hard problem of consciousness, and variations on it, revolves around the difficulty of explaining mental phenomena—I see and smell a rose; I think about my work; I feel pleased by good news—in materialist or physicalist terms.

The presumptive barrier that prevents neurophysiological research answering this question, is that objective observations which can be made by a researcher — such as, electrical current moves through these neurons; a biochemical cascade releases such and such a hormone — appear to be about completely different things than the subjective experiences of a conscious experiencer.

This objective/subjective gap has also been called a first person / third person gap: how can third person sentences such as “that neuron spiked” possibly relate to a first person sentence such as, “I see red.”

Expressed this way, the problem can be studied with formal languages. This appears to make it provably insoluble. It’s a hard problem of grammar: there is no sound deduction from a set of 3rd person sentences to a 1st person sentence in any formal logic.

  • If subjective experience could be explained in objective terms, then that explanation—if it is a rational one—must be expressible in formal language.

(This claim may not be obvious. It’s like claiming that some form of the Church-Turing thesis applies not only to mathematics and logic, but to rational discourse more widely, including empirical research.  I’m suggesting that any argument which is genuinely rational, can be expressed in a formal language. If some part of the argument can’t be formalised then I think we will discover, on inspection, that it’s because the argument isn’t rational. Either it will be a non-sequitor, or it will be an appeal to emotion, or an ad hominem attack, or somesuch).

  • If so, the formal version of that explanation would have to, at some point, define the word ‘I’ in ‘3rd person’ terms, that is, without relying on any first person noun or verb or other part of grammar.

(This is essentially an assertion that some form of the Craig interpolation theorem can be proven for any formal grammar suitable for rational discourse. The Craig interpolation theorem says (more-or-less), that given a set of sentences only about apples, you cannot validly deduce from them a sentence about oranges. I suggest that any formal language that does not satisfy this constraint is not a language we can use for rational discourse. It may still be fine for poetry; but not for being rational).

  • I assert that any such attempted definition will, on inspection, turn out to be invalid.  That is, when we look at any such purported definition, we’ll be able to see that it doesn’t quite work and hence that the explanation which it supports will also fail. I do of course look forward to being proven wrong, but there aren’t any attempts on the table so far.

I think any attempt to define 1st & 2nd  person words – I, you, me, we  – in 3rd person terms fails. Any definition using only 3rd person terms can only succeed in defining 3rd person ‘things’.

The thought is somewhat similar to Chalmer’s “Structure and functions” argument: anything you can define with structure and function will itself be structure and function. I think the grammatical argument is stronger, surprisingly (one doesn’t expect arguing about grammar to prove anything!), because 1st and 2nd person speech and relationships is, and always has been, a core part of the reality of human experience.

Intuitively, throughout the modern era, people have always felt that a reductionist materialist account of humanity surely misses something. The grammar of every human language (at least, every one that I know of) embodies that fact.

Mathematics: a Definition

I propose a definition of mathematics:

Mathematics is the deductive analysis of structures

  • Deductive, because empirical data does not generate mathematical results; only logical deduction does so.
  • Analysis, because mathematicians tease out the consequences of the definitions of structures, rather than merely admiring, or using, or playing with them.
  • Structures because … well, this is the question: what do mathematicians study?

What do Mathematicians Study?

The OED definition of mathematics relies on a rather post hoc list, as the “etc” acknowledges:

“The abstract deductive science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement, including geometry, arithmetic, algebra, etc., studied in its own right (more fully pure mathematics), or as applied to various branches of physics and other sciences (more fully applied mathematics).

Shorter OED 2007

Without the etc, this would need revision every time a new area of mathematics opens up. It is more like a rough description than a definition.

But every branch of mathematics straightforwardly has this in common : it analyses a particular structure (or a family of structures; which is still a structure), and deductively analyses it, that is to say draws out its properties and relationships to other structures.

There are favoured structures. Numbers, of course. Then the Euclidean plane, which is the structure of lines and points on a flat surface. These favoured structures define the familiar major areas of mathematics–number theory, algebra, geometry, analysis. “Progress” in mathematics divides into, on the one hand, discovering new things about known structures; and on the other hand choosing new structures to study.

New structures may be chosen for the light they shed on old ones: complex numbers, for instance, shone a new light on algebra, as did topology on geometry. Formal logic & computer science intended to shine light on the very processes of mathematics itself. Whenever a new structure is found to have interesting properties it may become a part of mathematics and even, if there is work enough in exploring it, be dubbed a branch of mathematics, which is perhaps the ultimate mathematical status.

The virtue of naming structure as the subject of mathematics is that it becomes easy to say whether something is or is not mathematics: anywhere there is a structure that can be analysed deductively, there is a subject of mathematics. The ad hoc element of the definition is banished.

It also reminds us not to be surprised every time a new branch of mathematics opens up. If it moves, or even if it doesn’t, it’s fair game to a mathematician.