Review of 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies by Raymond Smullyan

Raymond Smullyan is best known for his engaging books of logic puzzles, such as What is the Name of This Book? and The Lady or the Tiger? Less well known are his advanced textbooks, such as Set Theory and the Continuum Problem (co-authored with Melvin Fitting), and his philosophical writings, such as The Tao is Silent and the book currently under review.

I have met many Christians who regard philosophy as something to be hated and feared. At worst, someone who reads too much philosophy is in danger of suffering the worst of all possible fates, namely of losing their faith. At best, philosophy consists of pointless word games that have no connection to real life. For such Christians, 5000 B.C. will be of little interest.

For those who are more favorably disposed towards philosophical thinking, however, 5000 B.C. is a delightful and unconventional romp through a wide variety of philosophical topics. Its style is reminiscent of Douglas Hofstadter’s famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach (indeed, Smullyan mentions Hofstadter’s book in the introduction), in that Smullyan intersperses his reflections with entertaining fictional dialogues. My personal favorite is his “Epistemological Nightmare,” starring a so-called experimental epistemologist who is unable to determine what he believes except by consulting a machine that scans his brain and tells him what, in fact, he believes.

5000 B.C. does not give any special attention to Christianity; if anything, Smullyan is more fascinated by Eastern ideas such as monism. However, since the book darts rapidly around the entire philosophical landscape, it inevitably touches on Christian ideas from time to time. Chapter 4, for instance, quotes Meister Eckhart as defending the view that the inclination to sin is actually a good thing as long as it is resisted:

Surely, if a person could wish such a thing, he would not wish to be rid of the impulse to sin, for without it he would be uncertain of everything he did, doubtful about what to do, and he would miss the honor and reward of struggle and victory. Because of the impulse to evil and the excitement of it, both virtue and its rewards are in travail born.

Against this, Smullyan then cites Benjamin Franklin, who argues that self-denial is not the essence of virtue, and that someone who is not even tempted to a vice is in fact maximally virtuous. This is a rather interesting, and practical, debate that I have rarely heard discussed.

In Chapter 9, Smullyan discusses death. Characteristically, he does not put on a grim and somber face at this point, but remains bold and lively. He mentions

Bertrand Russell’s story of the man at a banquet who was asked what he thought would happen to him after his death. He seemed very uneasy and tried to avoid the question. But the questioner persisted and finally the man said, “I suppose I shall enter paradise and enjoy total bliss for all eternity, but must we talk about such unpleasant subjects?”

I had to laugh at this because it does capture beautifully the way many Christians I know view death. Surely, one would think, all Christians must have squarely confronted their own fear of death and conquered it, since Jesus Christ’s victory over death is the cornerstone of the gospel. But paradoxically, this is far from the case in practice. As I read through Smullyan’s searching discussion about our feelings towards death, I felt sure that many of his questions were ones that most Christians either avoided thinking about, or that they were afraid to discuss in public.

There are plenty of other examples of interesting insights into religious topics from the book that I could cite, but suffice it to say that 5000 B.C. is the product of a brilliant mind, and everyone is sure to find some fresh takes on old subjects in it. For Christians, I think one of the principal benefits of the book is that it presents several issues that we ought to grapple with, but often don’t.

Posted February 2012

Back to Christian Stuff