Quine wrote in his 1951 paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism":

"Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer [...]. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits."

This was intended as an illustration of the idea that all statements are theory laden - no fact is ever independent of linguistic (and therefore cultural) artifacts. It points to the difficulty of telling the difference between good science and bad science vs good science and non-science.

But then doesn't Quine imply here that the Homeric deities have some predictive power compared to physical models?

Can't someone refute Quine's argument by pointing out that Homeric mythology has zero predictive power, whereas physical theories, no matter how imperfect, do succeed at least at predicting somethings some of the time?

Or looked at from the opposite direction, the authors of "Harry Potter" and "Lord of The Rings" never claimed that their fiction ever had any predictive power. Many would consider Greek Mythology to be in same category as those two.

If Greek Mythology had 10% predictive power while modern physics had 70% predictive power, one could argue that physics and Homeric deities "differ only in degree and not in kind". But the fact that Homeric gods have 0 predictive power, compared to the predictive power of even the most outdated empirical physics model means that they are of different kinds, not just different degrees.

How does one interpret Quine in light of this reasoning? Does he seriously think that Homeric gods have some, albeit very small, predictive power? Or is the fact that some concepts are pure fiction (Home as story teller like Tolkien or Rowling) while others are empirically based irrelevant to his confirmation holism?

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    Why do they have exactly 0 predictive power? Even if I write a program that outputs random strings there is a non-zero chance of it producing a statement than turns out to be true. Surely Greek mythology was more successful than that. – Eliran May 31 '16 at 22:16
  • @EliranH Yes you are correct. By "0 predictive power" I mean better overall predictive accuracy than flipping a coin or using a random generator. Forecasting algorithms are generally compared against a random outcome, not against a 0% accuracy rate. – Alexander S King May 31 '16 at 22:21
  • But mythology is not completely random. It is guided by some intuition and as such I would expect it to be more successful than random guess. In any case, I think this example is used more for dramatic effect than anything, and Quine would have probably happily replaced it with something like Aristotle's physics. – Eliran May 31 '16 at 22:25
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    The issue is not with "predictive power" but in terms of "power of explanation": Homeric gods was very "effective" in terms of explaining and understanding facts: natural, social, etc. Only with modern scienctific worldview "prediction" become at least as relevant us explaining and undertsanding. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 1 '16 at 8:04

According to important voices from antique Greek culture Homeric Gods have "predictive power", i.e. that they have the capability to make prophecies. The most well known example is the Delphic oracle, an institution attached to the Olympic god Apollon.

Also Greek tragedies often attribute the tragic in their hero's life to a prophecy which has not been understood by the receiver, e.g., King Oedipus by Sophocles.

Of course, we cannot check whether Greek gods really exist and if yes, whether they actually have this capability. In addition, today there are no followers of Greek gods any longer, who would support the claim about predictive power :-)


  1. See the comment of Dave concerning contemporary followers of antique Greek gods.

  2. Quine's opinion concerning the predictive power of Homer's gods: Quine does not make any quantification of the predictive power of Homer's gods, notable he does not quantify the degree of their predictive power. He prefers physical theories to explain our expericence - but that's what everybody would expect him to do. And he states that both concepts physical object and Homer's gods are theoretical concepts.

  • But, of course, there are people who claim to worship the old gods bbc.com/news/magazine-22972610 -- there is actually an interesting quote about establishing a "quid pro quo" relationship with them; which if taken as being earnest does imply a belief in the predictive power. – Dave May 31 '16 at 21:11
  • My question was not whether the ancient Greeks themselves (or modern adepts of their religion) considered them to have predictive power, but whether Quine, given his confirmation holism, considered them to have any predictive power. – Alexander S King May 31 '16 at 23:51

Yes, from the context of Quine's remarks in Two Dogmas of Empiricism it seems clear that Quine thought then positing the Homeric Gods had some predictive power. It's difficult to say exactly why, because Quine did not elaborate on the Homeric Gods anywhere else, afaik.

Pure fiction is irrelevant here. Quine's essay is about real beliefs, within an empiricist framework. He does not touch pure fiction in this essay. So, the Homeric Gods are surely meant as real empirical posits, not as pure fiction.

Can't someone refute Quine's argument by pointing out that Homeric mythology has zero predictive power, whereas physical theories, no matter how imperfect, do succeed at least at predicting somethings some of the time?

Nothing really hinges on Quine's choice of the Homeric Gods for the example. At most one could say that Quine picked a bad example. Furthermore, the remark about the Homeric Gods is not part of Quine's main argument. The main argument is against the analytic/synthetic distinction, and comes earlier in the esssy. The Homeric Gods reveal themselves at the end of the essay, within the concluding remarks, after the heavy lifting has already been done.

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