The Twilight of Prophecy Cultures
News stories in Thailand frequently have a supernatural or superstition angle. Two recent examples illustrate the point. First, Pemmika Veerachatraksit received a 4 and half-year prison sentence following her fraud conviction for her role in deceiving a famous Applied Physics tutor named Prakitpao Tomtitchong to give her nine million Baht in cash and gifts. She had convinced him that they’d been a couple in a past life and he had abused her in that past life.
In the second case this week, in Songkhla, in the South of Thailand, a sixteen-year-old Thai died in an exorcist ceremony after drinking 18 litres of water. The ritual was supposed to release a tiger ghost from the boy’s body.
In the same week, Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of a theory of the Higgs boson particle—or popularly known as the ‘God particle.’
We live in two different worlds—the duped physics tutor in Thailand the physics genius in Britain and Belgium. One world is occupied by people who believe an exorcist can banish the tiger ghost and another world where scientists believe a tiny particle causes the fundamental units of nature to stick together to form atoms, you and me, planets, stars and moon cakes.
Thailand is a good place to explore the psychological and cultural gap that separates these two ways of understanding reality.
Part of the challenge of writing a crime fiction series set in Thailand is to understand the cultural mindset that comes into play. Solving a crime doesn’t take place in a cultural void. To understand how police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, private eyes, and others assess criminal behavior, search for a criminal, provide for victims, the cultural mindset needs to be addressed. What is a crime and who and how people are punished are artifacts from a much deeper cultural well.
An author from the West is more likely to have a probability or science-based, fact or evidence-based mindset. It isn’t that the Thai are oblivious to facts. They aren’t. But the role of facts and evidence is filtered through a different way of being in the world, understanding and reacting to the world around them. In places like the United States, there are millions of people who live inside a prophecy culture and butt heads with the scientific community at the political level, over education policy, medical care and other issues such as abortion and gun control.
I have lived the last 25 years in Thailand inside a culture where a large number of people of all classes and ranks believe that certain monks, ex-monks or astrologers (they are on TV, on charging-by-the-minute phone numbers, in the newspapers and magazines) can predict a future outcome. There are tensions inside Thai culture, but disagreement over the role of prophecy isn’t a hot button issue. Most Thais seem indifferent to the fact that these prophecies happen with likelihood equal to that of flipping a coin or random chance. The failure of predictions isn’t generally seen as a bug in the system. It’s like horse racing, there’s always the next race to bet on.
There is a large market in Bangkok for personal predictions. The usual thing people wish will happen in the future—you will find wealth, or a kind, loving partner, or rise to a high position in your company, or become famous. Prophecy comes in a package with other values like multi-colored feathers on a peacock’s tail. You need to believe that certain human beings not only have a deep insight about the world, but that they can accurately forecast what will occur next week, month or year.
From politicians to civil servants on to soldiers, sailors, police, schoolteachers, and students we don’t begin to touch the breadth of the share belief in the supernatural and superstition. Far more public attention is focused on prophecy makers and their predictions than on mathematicians who rely on complex algorithms that indicate a probability of an outcome happening. There is uncertainty built into the scientific system that analysis patterns and attempts to draw inference as to the meaning of the patterns and how likely the pattern will repeat. Will it rain tomorrow? 70% chance of rain mean there is a 30% chance it won’t. So do I take an umbrella or not?
My world in a large, modern city like Bangkok is also another world—one of omens, spirit houses, magical tattoos, amulets, astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers and various other gurus. The undercurrents that drive this magical world in Thailand are found in Hindu myths, animism, and a particular vision of Buddhism. No one is excluded from participation. Everyone has roughly an equal understanding and belief that invisible forces are at work in their lives.
What makes prophecy so seductive is that the prophet doesn’t need to hedge his or her bets. The prophet’s authority isn’t from the realm of science. It springs from an invisible spiritual connection with a higher celestial being. The prophet’s direct pipeline to the gods isn’t a fact. There is no evidence to support the claim. It has to be taken on pure faith. The Prophet is the messenger but until your FedEx delivery guy, this kind of messenger is conferred with a halo. The Prophet claims ‘God’ told him that so and so will happen.
Often what is predicted isn’t the usual garden variety that a red traffic light will in three-minutes at Asoke and Sukhumvit Road transition to yellow and then green. Prophets, like novelists, are lovers of high drama. Predictions spring from the same well of belief as the apocalypse with its messy, inky dark non-future. Prophets announce prophecies. Abrahamic religions were founded upon the writings of prophets. We have a long tradition of masses of people believing prophets were the output pipe fitted to an input pipe with a higher being who wrote a holy book without the aid of a computer. Once you are on that slippery slope all you can do is enjoy the ride into the waiting jaws of the apocalypse.
The worldview of Peter Higgs and his God particle and the exorcist in Songkhla have been on a collision course since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The core insight of the enlightenment was to view superstition and prophecy as bogus tools to work out an understand the fundamental nature of reality. That battle continues to be fought 500 years later. From our computer screens we are far removed from the reality as experienced by billions of people whose identity is tribal or through their clan. Prophecy functions as a belief in a transcendent realm that protects a tribe or clan and its members from harm. It is also part of the ‘religious’ justification for the tribal leaders’ decision and legitimacy as rulers. In Peter Higg’s world there is no transcendent realm where prophecies are handed down to local prophets; there is only a material reality that is subject to investigation, testing, evaluation and analysis. No politician will use Higgs Boson as a justification for punishing an opponent or to support their authority to govern.
A prophecy culture doesn’t have a place for people like Peter Higgs, Francois Englert, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or Jon Stewart. The writer of noir crime fiction wouldn’t be safe either.
Over an epic sale of time a large number of wars between people claiming their prophet’s predictions were the true word of god. Sooner or later that is bound to come to blows as these kinds of predictions are thought to be absolute and universal. There’s no room for doubt, evidence, irony or satire. Even when one of the vague predictions appears to be false, there is never any real fall out; there is rarely a dent in the credibility of those believing in the idea of predictions being a source of truth, revelation, and guidance.
The question is whether these two worlds incompatible worldviews can co-exist? A case can be made that they will remain in conflict and at war with one another. Modern technology is being used to dissemble the tribal world and reconfigure it as par of the global system. Essential to that task is to change the way tribal people around bound by their own Higgs-boson of prophecy and superstition. The process is to make prophecy a commodity, and prophets another system provider who is motivated by profit and expanding markets.
Tribal and clan leaders have long benefited from a prophecy culture that is outside of time, markets and dissent. The American drone program is an example of a high tech device to dismantle the tribal-warlord system. The idea is superstitious people will fear the drones that hover overhead for 24 hours a day. Drones will force the inflexible tribal leaders to leave their villages for the safety of caves and mountains. Drones and their power of destruction show that their local gods can’t protect them, and there is a new god on the block who can kill them in an instant so they’d be wise to abandon their old leaders, ways and beliefs and become absorbed into the modern high-tech world. The reality is the unintended consequences have been to increase loyalty to the prophecy culture, strength tribal ties, and allow extremists with strong traditional values to assume leadership roles.
I don’t have a problem with people who believe in prophecy. It is the way they process the reality of the world. That there is someone who is connected to a higher voice who communicates an event before it happens. What usually goes hand in hand with this view, is that there is nothing anyone can do but accept the prediction. If you have power, not brooking dissent is always a goal, and if you can shelter behind the veil of predictions from a divine source, you can crack a lot of heads, eat most of the buffet, and claim these outcomes are ordained. You don’t have to look far in the world to see a lot people are having second thoughts about the prophecy business and how it drives social, political and economic choices in ways that serve the prophets and their best clients.
When a modern, globally wired society tries to communicate with a culture of prophecy it becomes apparent that they don’t share a common vocabulary about the world. The modern, global wired society isn’t because fibre optics, computer chips, nanotechnology, and waste treatment plants are with us because science and mathematics banished prophecy from the way we understand the world. In its place came theories that could be tested and falsified through experiment. That’s how knowledge accumulated. That knowledge continues to accelerate in velocity. As new evidence arises old theories are thrown out. I recently read that in 1920 most people, scientists included, thought that Earth was one, fixed, immoveable surface. The science of shifting plates in the geology of the planet created a new science of tectonics, which destroyed the old belief. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes; it deals in probability of outcomes.
The implications of this one vital difference drive the worldview and behavior of people. You won’t get the engineering required to put a space station in orbit from a prophecy-guided guru. They live in two different worlds. When a prophecy culture imports the engineering and technical know-how to build dams, bridges, road, trains and planes, they seem to have achieved the best of both worlds. You get to use the modern transport, appliances, weapons, and means of communication without giving up your belief that Wednesday is a bad day for a haircut, and the lucky lottery number came to you in a dream as often believed in Thailand.
A brand new, modern full-automated rail system appears to be like a young adult at his physical peak, but it is actually more like a newborn that needs constant attention. Not surprisingly in a prophecy culture the technical knowhow may be accessible but the attitude of many of those in the system is based on luck or chance and blessing ceremonies.
This year Thailand has had 114 train derailments. Every other day a train seems to fall off the track. There are many reasons given to explain why this has been happening, including the lack of funding for the national rail system. Not funding the system makes perfect sense if you believe in prophecy. The civil servants in charge of the rail system decided it was a damaged painting in the HQ that caused the spirits to become angry and have ordered the painting to be resorted. When the army bought lots of GT200, a fraudulent mine-detecting gadget, they insisted, once the scientific evidence showed the device was less reliable than pure chance in discovering a mine, announced that they had ‘faith’ in the device.
The twin of prophecy is the belief in the world of spirits, angels, demons, and forest fairies. No one needs wasting years to acquire a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, chemistry, or engineering to join the club that makes a living from the prophecy business.
My horoscope for 8th October 2013:
“This is just the kind of day you like, intense and supercharged, just like you! It seems there’s a deadline coming up, or a time-sensitive project. You’ll have a lot to do and not a lot of time in which to do it. Just remember to drink plenty of water and eat. Lucky Color Dark Red Lucky No. 5.”
As a harmless form of entertainment, astrology has a place with The Daily Show, Not the Nation and The Onion. But as a mindset in charge of procurement of high-tech devices, and the maintenance and repair of water management systems, trains, airplanes and telecommunication systems demonstrates the limitations of a prophecy culture to operate highly complex systems developed in science cultures.
Scientific development progresses as scientists and mathematicians have new insights into fundamental reality. Those insights can be tested. The insights of a prophet are of a different order. You can’t build a safer nuclear reactor or cure cancer based on a guru’s prophecy. Scientists will explain to you that predicting future outcomes is extremely hard. There are too many variables that come into play, and their connection, lack of connection, or random shifts influence outcomes in ways that can’t be predicted in advance. Prophets don’t process reality with this humility as to their limitations. Or the limits of the law of physics.
It’s not uncommon to climb into a Bangkok taxi and find amulets hanging from the rearview mirror, or to find the driver touching the amulets as he races through a red light. Amulets in this way of think somehow neutralize the law of physics, allowing him to pass free through an intersection.
In a science culture the devil is in the details, in a prophecy culture the devil is the detail. Prophecy is an example of deception used by rulers in the past to keep themselves in power. With prophets on the payroll they could claim a pipeline to the divine themselves. The thing with prophecy is the lack of an audit trail where you can break down the reasoning into a series of steps and find out what sequence caused the mistake about a future outcome. That is one reason why accountability is difficult to graft onto a prophecy culture. No prophet can withstand an audit; no prophet is held accountable, as he’s just the input pipe, and the output pipe, being divine, is beyond accountability.
In the end, a culture decides how to explain what it knows and how it knows things as a collective intelligence. In the event the culture is based on prophecy, that way of knowing about the world will produce a certain kind of society. A culture where science is allowed to flourish, evolving insights lead to better and improved precision measurement instruments, and those lead, in turn, to more advanced technology.
In the West, the scientifically minded believe that the stories that science tells are more powerful as others can test and repeat the facts and evidence to support the stories. Thailand is in transition from a prophecy culture to a scientific one. This is a long process and during the transition, one is bound to see contradictions. The more connected Thailand becomes to the outside world, the more that prophecy culture will lose its force. In far less developed countries in the Middle East, the fog of conflict masks the rate of any such transition. Drones are the response of a science-based technology, and tribal cultures haven’t shown an inclination to give up their transcendental beliefs in the supernatural world to embrace a materialistic world. Meanwhile, we have at the front line of this conflict panic, irrational claims, terrorism and violence—as the world of the prophets’ lashes out against the world of science.
It is the struggle of our times as one culture is in the death throes and the new science culture requires a deep knowledge of difficult concepts. This level of understanding of Peter Higgs’ theory excludes the average person from participation except as a consumer. In the world of prophecy everyone is equally at the mercy of the gods and that creates a degree of solidarity.