The Prophet Paradox

There’s probably a better term for this than the “Prophet Paradox,” but I often wonder if people like Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus) or Leonardo Da Vinci are really prophets. Even Biblical people like Ezekiel and Abraham come to mind. Did what they say come true? What if they never said anything? Obvious warning: This is not a normal tech post.

The paradox can be defined in three parts:

  • Was the prophesized event generic enough that many events could be tied to that prophecy?
  • Did the prophesized event cause someone to make it happen? A catalyst, if you will.
  • Would the prophesized event have happened if the prophet never said it?

The Barnum-Forer Effect

Anyone who believes in horoscopes should be warned that it is, in fact, fake. The Barnum-Forer Effect is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when people believe that vague, general statements about their personality or behavior are actually tailored specifically to them. This is because the statements are often so vague that they could apply to almost anyone.

My horoscope today reads, “Your mind is too restless to deal with the mundane this week when Mercury in Gemini squares Saturn in Pisces on Thursday. Tasks like cleaning and organizing might bore you because you want to explore the big, wide world. Let your mind wander, but don’t stray off the path.” The restless mind is a human trait. Everyone deals with this. Everyone can find tasks like cleaning and organizing boring, just as everyone can also find them appealing.

I’ll talk about Nostradamus in particular for a moment. He wrote a series of quatrains in a book called Les Prophéties. One of the quatrains describes a “blond beast” who will rise to power and cause great suffering. Many people tie this to Hitler, but given that Nostradamus lived in France, which is primarily white people with blond hair in the 1500s, there is a 1/100,000 shot he was wrong. Another quatrain describes a “great fire” that will “fall from the sky” and cause “great destruction.” Also known as meteors, which literally fall every day to Earth. Some of which can be destructive. Statistically, it’s not an anomaly. One of his most famous has been tied to the World Trade Center on September 11. He writes: “Two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis / The sky will burn at forty-five degrees latitude / Fire approaches the great new city / Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up / Within months, rivers will flow with blood / The undead will roam the earth for little time.”

The above translation is probably what you’ve read, but the reality is that was poorly translated. It actually reads: “In the City of God, there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb.” Sounds like a pretty bad thunderstorm while two brothers are fighting in a war. This has happened many times in history. It’s called medieval Europe.

Obviously, I could go through every prophet mentioned and apply the same Barnum-Forer Effect to all of their prophecies, but then this blog entry would be too long and I have other topics to discuss.

Did the events happen because of a prophecy?

In 1964, Star Trek released an episode named “The Cage” where a little device was first introduced called The Communicator. The device enabled the crew on the ground to communicate with people on the ship while also tracking their location. Was this a prophecy of the cell phone with instant communication and GPS? No, but did it inspire the cell phone? Martin Cooper of Motorola, the inventor of the cell phone, stated that his inspiration for the design was from Dick Tracy’s famous wristwatch communicator from the 1950s. Star Trek’s communicator popularized the wireless concept and a market opened for cell phones after the cell phone had been invented. However, The Communicator did inspire adding GPS technology to cell phones.

What about The Bible? A common prophecy people point to is Luke 21:20 where he states, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near”. Many people will attribute Luke’s prophecy to the Roman general Vespasian, who wiped out Jewish resistance in the area east of Jerusalem in 68 CE. Except, was it that time? There’s one problem: Luke 21:20 wasn’t written until about 70-90 CE. Let’s assume it was written much longer before, we have a lot of examples to choose from:

  • 586 BC: The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.
  • 538 BC: The Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Second Temple.
  • 168 BC: The Seleucid Greeks under Antiochus IV Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Second Temple.
  • 164 BC: The Maccabees, a Jewish revolt army, conquered Jerusalem and rededicated the Second Temple.
  • 63 AD: The Romans under the leadership of General Titus conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple.
  • 135 AD: The Romans under Emperor Hadrian conquered Jerusalem and renamed it Aelia Capitolina.
  • 1948: During the Israeli War of Independence, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan.

To which one does Luke refer? Historically speaking, it has been a trivial city that’s been at war since its early inception. Sometimes rulers are fulfilling the prophecy, using the Bible as the reason for doing so.

What if the prophecy was never told?

Many people attribute Leonardo Da Vinci as a prophet because of his designs like the flying machine, named the Ornithopter (pictured below):

The inventor of the helicopter, Igor Sikorsky, once stated that he wasn’t directly inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci when asked. Sikorsky stated that he was inspired by the Archimedes screw used to transfer water to higher levels nearly 1,000 years before Da Vinci was born. Sikorski thought that if he could use that same application in the air, he could make an aircraft. Below is an image of the screw:

The Sikorsky VS-300 Helicopter:

By the time he was born in 1889, however, people had already started flying in the skies. Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal is known as the father of flight. He invented the glider as shown below in a photograph from 1891:

What may surprise many people is that Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal was not aware of Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo Da Vinci only became popular in the recent century due to multiple thefts of The Mona Lisa. Otto and his brother were fascinated and inspired by bird flight. Otto’s design inspired the Wright Brothers who went on to create an aircraft.

While there are many stories like the above, this one was the most interesting to pick out. So, even if Leonardo Da Vinci never published his work, which most people didn’t see in the early discovery of flight anyway, the helicopter and airplane would’ve still been invented through natural progressions.


The prophet paradox simply states that there is no such thing as a prophet as every prophecy can be explained by answering one or more of the following questions:

  • Was the prophesized event generic enough that many events could be tied to that prophecy?
  • Did the prophesized event cause someone to make it happen?
  • Would the prophesized event have happened if the prophet never said it?