"Revelation" on

Mon, 10 Jan 1994 11:51:41 CST

K. Poewe's insistence that the term "revelation" is as suitable for
scientists' as for religionists' flashes of insight I find puzzling,
along with her call for examples of my contrary usage. Well, how about
the Book of Revelation in the Bible? How about David Koresh's many
revelations? Joseph Smith's? Wovoka's (leader of the Ghost Dance
revitalization)?Take your pick from the religious visionaries of past
and present, and you can find as many references to their flashes of
insights as "revelations" as you want. On the other hand, Archimedes'
famous flash of insight about the principle of displacement; Newton's
about gravitation; Kekule's about the benzene ring; or Carneiro's about
circumscription: these are not ordinarily called "revelations." But by
all means, call them that if you like.
I think the word "revelation" generally connotes belief in a
Revealer. Scientific discoverers run quite a gamut in their reactions
to their flashed of insight: Archimedes is said to have run through the
streets naked shouting "Eureka" ("I have it!"); Carneiro quietly
expresses a sense of good luck at his nervous system having been the
one in which several cultural elements converged. Perhaps there have
been scientific insights that the originators, or society at large,
routinely referred to as "revelations"; I, however, am unaware of
any. The ideas we designate "scientific" seem intrinsically profane
rather than sacred; we seem to recognize that their claim to our
belief is contingent on this-worldly support ("evidence"), rather than
on faith.
K. Poewe quotes me as having claimed that revelations exempt
themselves from scrutiny. Far be it from me to say that! The finest
minds of medieval Europe tortured themselves scrutinizing such
revelations as Christ's death to redeem humans from sin. They reasoned
with the fixed presupposition that it was a divine truth, however,
and they debated questions on which direct evidence could not be
brought to bear: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
If a rat gobbles a crumb of the Host, does it attain grace? Could
Christ have saved humnkind had he taken the form of a donkey? These
were real questions, and they were scrutinized to death; but where
was the systematic resort to evidence, and why the sacrosanct
presuppositions? Oh, religious insights are scrutinized alright.
What I wrote is that "... What is characteristic of what are usually
called 'revelations' is that their origin and content are explicitly
exempted from scrutiny *based on further interaction between reason
and evidence alone* [emphasis added]. --Bob Graber