Prophecies, Predictions, and Preposterousness

Lottery scratch ticketHow can a religion prove its own validity?

One of the arguments often put forth is that a religion is true because its main book says that it’s true, but that’s a terribly circular argument. A better argument is that certain prophecies made in its main book have come true over the years. This is, I believe, a more accurate gauge, but not all prophecies are created equal. Besides, not all prophecies are about the future; some are about events that have already happened, or about rules of conduct rather than events. In short, not all prophecies are predictions.

What’s the difference between a prophecy and a prediction? Both mean “to say before” (prophecy is from the Greek pro- + phanai, prediction is from the Latin præ– + dicere), but they have diverged since about 1848.

A prophecy is a message a prophet passes on from the Divine. It could be anything, from “don’t eat pork” to “three centuries of rule by white people will end with one season of rule by yellow people.” It doesn’t have to be about the future. The key part is that its source is claimed to be divine.

A prediction is a statement made about an event which hasn’t happened yet. “The sun will rise tomorrow morning” is a prediction, as is “the world will end on December 21, 2012.” It doesn’t have to be divinely inspired.

So some prophecies are predictions, and some aren’t.

Many religions point to statements made by their prophets about future events (so they’re both prophecies and predictions) as evidence that the predictions were divinely inspired, and therefore their religion has proved itself to be true. This is a statement relatively easily analyzed. But a lot of prophets have said a lot of things. How can we analyze whether a prediction is worth considering as divine inspiration? I’d like to submit for your approval the concept of notability in predictions, and how notability differs from mere interest.

What Makes A Prediction Notable?

There are 4 features that I’d say make for a notable prediction:

  1. The event described has to be unusual.
  2. The prediction must have been made before the event described.
  3. The event described must have happened.
  4. The subjects of the prediction can’t have knowledge of the prediction.

The first of these is what makes it interesting. “The sun will rise tomorrow morning” is a boring prediction; the sun rises every morning. (“The sun will not rise tomorrow morning” is a far more interesting prediction.) The second is really just a rephrasing of the definition of the word “prediction”: præ, meaning before, and dicere, meaning to say. If the prediction is said after the event occurs, then it’s not a prediction.

But there’s a difference between an interesting prediction and a notable one, and that’s where the third and fourth features come into play. The third is important, and often overlooked. If the event didn’t happen, then the prediction is not at all notable; it’s just a false statement. In between the time the statement is made and the time the event is supposed to happen, it’s not the prediction that captures our attention; it’s the possibility of an interesting event which does.

The fourth is not obvious and, I’ll admit, potentially controversial. If the subject of a prediction knows of the prediction, then they can take steps to either fulfill or avert the event the prediction predicts. If they take steps to fulfill it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and is therefore neither interesting nor notable. If they take steps to avert it, the the prediction becomes false and, again, neither interesting nor notable.

An Example: The Lottery Ticket

Say there are three people in a convenience store: a Customer, a Predictor, and the Clerk. The convenience store sells scratch-off lottery tickets.

The Predictor goes up to the Customer and says, “See that lottery ticket right there, on the top of the pile? It’s not a winner. Whoever buys that ticket will simply be out the price of the ticket.” And thus a Prediction is made.

Is this a notable prediction? Not at all. It’s not even interesting; most lottery tickets aren’t winners.

But what if the Predictor says instead, “That ticket’s a winner. Whoever buys that ticket will win ten thousand simoleons”? Now it’s interesting! That’s a hefty prize. So it passes the “unusual” test. But is it notable? Well, it’s made before anyone has bought the ticket, so it passes the “made before” test. But as of right now in the example, no one has bought the ticket, so it doesn’t pass the “event has happened” test.

Now the Customer is skeptical and thinks lottery tickets are a waste of money, but this one time he decides “ehh, why not” and buys the ticket. He scratches it off, and hey! He wins ten thousand simoleons. The Predictor was right! So the event happened. Three of the four tests have passed.

That leaves the controversial one: did the subject of the prediction know of the prediction? No, because in this case the subject was the lottery ticket, and lottery tickets have a very limited capacity for knowledge. So this particular prediction is indeed notable.

Let’s switch gears slightly. Now let’s say that the Predictor goes up to the Customer and says instead  “You will buy that lottery ticket.” Unusual? Yep; the Customer doesn’t buy lottery tickets. Before the event? Yep. Now is where the fourth criterion makes a difference. The subject (this time it’s the Customer, not the ticket) now knows what the prediction is, and that changes the prediction into one that can be self-fulfilling. Since he has the ability to choose whether or not to buy the ticket, he can alter the eventual truth value of the prediction. This turns the prediction into something indistinguishable from an imperative. “You will buy this lottery ticket” is no more notable than me telling my son “you will go clean your room.” He can choose not to, but that doesn’t make it a notable prediction.

One more variation. The Predictor tells the Customer, “that ticket is worth ten grand,” and he tells the Clerk, out of earshot of the Customer, “the Customer will buy that lottery ticket.” And then the Customer does, and the ticket is a winner again. Is this a notable prediction? Yes. In fact it’s two! By telling the Clerk “the Customer will buy that ticket” instead of telling the Customer “you will buy that ticket”, the subject of the prediction (the Customer) is taken out of the equation and can no longer make the prediction be self-fulfilling.

So What Does This Have To Do With Prophecies?

By applying these four criteria, we have an objective basis for weeding out un-notable predictions. We can then score prophets on the tally of their notable predictions.

A Few Famous Prophetic Predictions Analyzed

Jayabaya: “The Javanese would be ruled by whites for 3 centuries and by yellow dwarfs for the life span of a maize plant prior to the return of the Ratu Adil: whose name must contain at least one syllable of the Javanese Noto Negoro.”

Jayabaya was a Javanese prophet-king who lived from 1135 to 1157 AD. In the 1600s, Dutch people (“whites”) conquered Indonesia (including Java). In 1942, the Japanese (“yellow dwarfs”) occupied part of Indonesia (again, including Java), and returned control to the Indonesians in 1945.
So how does this one score?

  • Unusual: I’d say so. Remarkably specific, actually.
  • Before the event? Yes.
  • Event happened? Well… one part happened: whites ruled for three centuries. But Japanese rule lasted for three years, not just one growing season, and the Ratu Adil (kind of like the Indonesian King Arthur) hasn’t returned yet. So no, the event heralded by this prediction has not happened yet.
  • Subject unaware? It’s plausible that the Dutch had no knowledge of this prediction before they conquered Java. It’s also plausible that the Japanese had no knowledge either.

Final tally: hasn’t happened yet. Therefore not notable. Sorry, Javanese.

Luke 21:25: “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring”

This is Apocalypse stuff. “Signs in the sun” is incredibly vague, and besides, the Sun does weird things all the time; that’s why the Earth has auroras. Distress of nations? Again, not unusual. And the sea and the waves roaring? Nothing could be more common.

Score: Not unusual, therefore not notable.

John Elfreth Watkins: “Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

Watkins was a civil engineer in America. In 1900 he made 29 predictions about the future of technology, 10 of which came true. All 29 are as specific as this one is.

  • Unusual? You bet.
  • Before the event? Indeed.
  • Event happened? Definitely.
  • Subject unaware? I guess it’s possible that the engineers at Motorola and all the other early wireless phone companies has read an article in an issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal published over two generations earlier, but I don’t really consider it plausible.

Score: It passes all four tests.  Therefore it’s notable. The only thing is that Watkins isn’t considered a prophet, just a really good predictor.

Further Application

These four criteria can be applied to any prediction, prophetic or otherwise. If a religion is to be judged on the quality of its prophetic predictions, then it’s vital that none of the predictions be false or made after the fact, of course. Predictions about common events might be true, but they really aren’t very interesting, so they should not be considered either. And self-fulfilling predictions need to be thrown out, no matter how interesting or attractive they are.

An ideal religion would therefore have all its prophetic predictions be either notable or currently unfulfilled (but still not common or self-fulfilling). Once all the
unsatisfactory prophetic predictions of a particular religion have been weeded out, the religions can be compared to each other to determine which best stands up to scrutiny.