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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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I am Not Napoleon
In my feverish state in Boston I got to thinking about David Hume and miracles. I read his essay on the subject decades ago, and it's only just occurred to me what's wrong with it - or perhaps how I'd misunderstood it. As I see it now, it's not really an argument against the existence of miracles at all (though I've heard this said); it's an argument against believing in miracles; or rather, it's an argument against believing in any particular miracle. None of these things is quite the same.

As I remember it, Hume argues that the evidence for any miracle - defined as a violation of the laws of nature - is always going to be less persuasive than the evidence for the alternatives (illusion, delusion, deception, wishful thinking, etc.). All the latter are commonplace, whereas miracles are by definition rare, so why wouldn't we believe the more obvious, common and therefore likely explanation of events?

That's a good argument for disbelieving each and every individual miracle, and since the entirety of the set of miracles is made up of all the individual instances we might infer that it's an argument against believing miracles altogether. But wait - said my feverish brain. Supposing that when Napoleon lost Waterloo, instead of sending him to St Helena they had clapped him in an asylum for the insane, along with 99 lookalike prisoners, all of whom were suffering from the delusion that they were Napoleon? Suppose that all these prisoners had obsessively researched Napoleon's past and character, and knew enough about him to be as convincing in the part as the general himself? Any visitor to the asylum would have excellent reason to disbelieve the protestations of each and every prisoner that they were the former emperor of France - after all, it would be 99/1 against - but nevertheless, one of them really would be Napoleon. Here - and surely also with miracles - an argument against accepting any and every individual instance of a class is not an argument that there are no instances of a class, and indeed it may be compatible with believing that there are such instances.

Possibly Hume actually anticipated all this: I can't remember, and I'm not going to check right now. But he's frequently cited as arguing against the existence of miracles in general, and by that I'm unconvinced.

Having said all that, I don't believe in miracles, at least as Hume defines them, because I'm not convinced by the whole "laws of nature" thing, which seems an unwarranted literalization of a metaphor borrowed from human jurisprudence.

The problem with that argument is the fact that the allies didn't actually have a lockup with 99 insane Napoleon lookalikes capable of being as convincing as the general himself. That is an entirely implausible scenario, perhaps on the same order of implausibility as a miracle itself, and the same skepticism which Hume brings to miracles themselves is equally applicable to this scenario designed to prove that the class of miracles is, not merely hypothetically possible, but worthy of rational belief.

My feverish brain was being picturesque, but it's easy to come up with more plausible versions. Only one lottery ticket in a million will win you the big prize, and you're entirely justified in disbelieving me if I give you a random ticket - or even a million random tickets in succession - and tell you each time that this is the one. But that doesn't imply that there are no winning tickets.

But a winning lottery ticket is not a Humean miracle. It's a verifiable event that happens regularly.

I think the argument holds whether or not the thing in question is actually true. (Though I'm sure there are people who deny that big lottery wins exist, much as with the moon landings.)

No, I don't think it does, because the argument you appear to be making in the post is to discuss whether disbelief in any particular miracle is reasonably generalizable into disbelief in miracles in general. Disbelief that any particular ticket is the winner isn't generalizable into disbelief in winning tickets in general because winning tickets are verifiable events that happen regularly. But that's not true of the class of events that Hume describes as miracles, and that is the whole difference. We don't disbelieve that there is a winning ticket. Whereas we disbelieve that Napoleon is hiding among a hundred insane Napoleon impersonators because a hundred insane Napoleon impersonators are as implausible an idea as that Napoleon is hiding among them. Similarly, Hume disbelieves in miracles in general because miracles in general are no less implausible by his philosophy than any given miracle.

A hundred insane Napoleon impersonators aren't as implausible as all that. It's a less common form for a psychosis to take than believing that one is, say, Christ, but it does happen. And there are enough people who believe they are Christ that in between-the-wars Germany there was actually a convention held of them, where they all got together and tried to determine which one was really the Messiah. (In my opinion, the winner was the Surrealist artist who obtained a press pass, used it to charter a plane, jumped out of the plane, and literally descended from the heavens right into the middle of the convention. He also literally believed he was Christ, mind you, but he was being very intelligent about it.)

So, while we might be hard put to it to find a hundred people who believe they are Napoleon at the moment, it does not seem that implausible to me that at the time when Napoleon was the biggest and most life-disrupting news in Europe it would have been doable, with money and effort.

This is not to speak to the larger rhetorical point you are making-- mostly it's just to say no, people can be really impressively nuts.

The crazy person who thinks he's Napoleon - specifically Napoleon, not somebody else - is a stock comedic figure. Yet I have never encountered a report of such a person actually existing. You are not obliged to provide evidence of their commonality, but, in its absence, like Hume with miracles, I will politely decline to believe you.

If there were other, universally-agreed ways to verify (or falsify) miracles then Hume's argument would be superfluous - though I don't think its validity would be affected.

But what do we mean by verify? Verification isn't something that can be done outside Hume's argument - its nature is what the argument is about. For many of Hume's contemporaries, and indeed many of ours, a miracle can be verified simply by noting that the Bible tells us it happened. Conversely, there are millions of people who disbelieve in the moon landings - despite their apparent verifiability. For them, the idea of getting human beings to the moon is less plausible than that a government in the middle of a cold war with the Soviets should spend vast sums faking it. (Perhaps Hume would have been of their mind.) It's because there's no universal standard for verifying these things that Hume makes his argument in the first place.

You've heard of the fallacy of the excluded middle? This is the included middle. The fact that events exist along a scale of verifiability does not falsify the existence of ends to the scale. The existence of winning lottery tickets is not in dispute. On the other side of the coin, a person who disbelieves in the moon landings is not obliged to recant on the grounds of either 1) moon landings are frequent, everyday events, or 2) one moon landing has been verified, making the others more plausible.

Aside from the regularity, much depends on your standard of verification. We can't predict when a bunch of superstitious peasants are going to report a shooting star and bring in an ordinary looking rock that they claim was hot when they found it where the star fell.

The Roman Catholics have spent a lot of investigation and study on which events they consider verified miracles.

much depends on your standard of verification.

Well, the topic wasn't verifying particular miracles, which typically requires close technical examination, but in whether to believe in them. And the existence of winning lottery tickets requires no verification; the existence of 99 ideal insane Napoleon impersonators does not need consideration.

The existence of meteorites was adequately verified a long time ago, and requires no special belief now; previously, skepticism was reasonable.

Sometimes lately, the term 'sceptic/scepticism' refers to believing X is not possible. Of course, 'there are no rocks in the sky' and 'there is no way that homeopathy can work' are on a somewhat different level than 'violation of the laws of nature is by definition impossible.'

As I see it now, it's not really an argument against the existence of miracles at all (though I've heard this said); it's an argument against believing in miracles; or rather, it's an argument against believing in any particular miracle. None of these things is quite the same.

Didn't C. S. Lewis's book Miracles have a chapter on Hume?

[...] I'm not convinced by the whole "laws of nature" thing [....]

Unpack? This sounds like a level of scepticism worthy of a Jaina monk, or a Charles Williams character.

The idea of laws implies a lawgiver, and possibly of sanctions should the "laws" be disobeyed or broken. None of that seems scientifically necessary, when all the so-called laws actually do is describe (not prescribe) the way nature is observed to behave. Also, since we have only had a chance to see a tiny bit of nature, over a small stretch of time, to extrapolate those observations into universal "laws" seems a bit silly. I prefer to think of nature as having - shall we say, habits? Preferences? A style? If it were to behave uncharacteristically, which is how a miracle would manifest itself, then I would be inclined to think that a new facet of nature had been revealed, rather than invoke an agency from beyond nature itself.

Any event sufficiently unfamiliar, will be indistinguishable from miracle?

A nature with habits, preferences, style -- seems rather more anthropomorphical than a watchmaker who stands outside a mechanically consistent watch. Not that I see any reason offhand why a watchmaker, or a lawgiver, would be necessary to keep water running downhill.

I don't see 'law of nature' as implying a 'lawgiver'. I see it as a label for some principle such as gravity or momentum, which as you say is a set of observations of consistent behavior which can be described mathematically. When an odd thing is reported, I'd expect it (if true) to be some combination of natural effects which we have not yet explored. We don't know enough to pronounce anything impossible even on that level.

As for interference from a higher level, we can't eliminate that either in theory. I think you've got it right, that we need to be very sceptical of any particular claimed miracle, without applying that to the whole category.

It would be rather interesting to write about a time-traveling person with a conviction that they're some historical figure. (Probably been done, though.) After all, someone who thinks he's Napoleon and can be proved to have done so since before Napoleon was famous would be -- well, what?


This takes me back to the medieval argument that miracles don't go against nature because God is backing them but that the work of demons does, for they are rebels and disobey God's will. The argument does include the proviso that one should not rely on miracles, for they're God's favour and not to be assumed. This latter is what your post links to - if it isn't exceptional and unpredictable, is it a miracle?

This latter is what your post links to - if it isn't exceptional and unpredictable, is it a miracle?

Yep, this is precisely why my mail-order company, Wonders-R-Us ("Miracles or your money back!") folded so quickly...

Like P.T. Barnum's company selling "cherry colored cats", when it was noticed that they were all black?

Lewis's book at one point had a definition of 'miracle' which would include, in every brain, each separate thought that followed intelligent logic instead of mechanical habit. Ie, mind over matter, raw intelligence moving the physical thingys in the brain.

[ETA for clarity]

Edited at 2013-07-22 04:26 pm (UTC)