“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

suspensio legis naturae


a. We haven’t thanked the people who have been sending us money for this site. Recently, two readers shuffled LI two hundred and fifteen bucks, which is the equivalent of four NYT special services fees. We are touched. Sorry we took so long to acknowledge your generosity.

b. On the editing front, we’d also like to thank readers who emailed us with suggestions about improving our site. A couple have told us that they will use send our letter to people they know who require editing/writing/translating, etc. We are going to insert that letter, in its various forms, every week on LI, to keep it visual.

c. Finally, a correction. Our last post incorrectly implied that I was the only member of the dopamine cowboy movement. Our correspondent, T., in NYC reminded us he is a dopamine cowboy. Actually, we meant to say that the whole LI collective, with branches in Washoogle,Washington and New York City and Barcelona, are members of the dopamine cowboy movement.

The Welt article we wrote about yesterday cited some figure for the revenues of the gambling industry in the U.S.A that was supposed to show that gambling is bigger than the entertainment industry and – I forget, three other sectors. There was no source for the figures, although since they are the same as those in a Time Magazine article this summer (which is similarly unsourced), we presume that they were quietly lifted from the latter.

LI finds it a very ponderable fact that, in the same nation where an arguable majority rejects the idea of Darwinian evolution, so much is spent on games of chance. The argument against Darwinian evolution almost invariably proceeds from the idea that chance can’t explain life. But since this antipathy to chance coexists with the compulsion to stake sums upon it, one wonders how the two impulses are intellectually reconciled.

Which, of course, brings us to Aviezer Tucker’s article, MIRACLES, HISTORICAL TESTIMONIES, AND PROBABILITIES in this season’s History and Memory. Tucker’s thesis is that Hume’s famous essay on miracles, which is usually read in terms of Hume’s philosophy, should be read in terms of Hume’s historiography. Tucker contends that Hume’s essay makes two blunders:

a. Hume gives an anachronistic definition of “miracle.” According to Hume, a miracle is an event that violates physical law. According to Tucker, however, the ancient Greek and Hebrew idea of miracle is something on the order of divine weightlifting.

“Given the absence of a concept of universal law of nature prior to the seventeenth century, Hume’s definition of miracles is clearly anachronistic, ahistorical. A cursory search in the library of rabbinical literature does not divulge any conceptual connection between miracles and scientific laws prior to the twentieth century. A similarly cursory examination of Catholic theology reveals the consideration of miracles as suspensio legis naturae, but only in the twentieth century.

It is extremely unlikely that anybody could have associated miracles with scientific laws prior to the seventeenth century. Perhaps Hume and his eighteenthcentury contemporaries on either side of the debate wanted to say that the world is governed either by God or by natural laws, but not by both, as a metaphysical reflection of the Enlightenment political conflict between religion and science. So if miracles are not divinely produced violations of the laws of nature, what are they? A definition of miracles that fits all the paradigmatic cases mentioned above and the Bible would be something along the line of “divine feats of strength.””

b. Given this idea of the miracle, those miracles in the Bible that Hume examines should not be considered in the light of violations of the laws discovered by the physicists, but rather, in light of the sources of historical fact. What are we to make of testimonies to divine feats of strength (making the sun stand still, for instance, over a battlefield)? Tucker’s example is a little less cosmologically complex:

“Philosophers have been trying to assess the posterior probability of concrete miracle hypotheses, for example, that Moses parted the Red Sea (actually this should be the “Reed Sea,” as the original King James translation had it correctly before a fateful typographical mistake “miraculously” transmuted the shallow Bamboo Sea into a deep Red Sea). Hume and his Bayesian explicators 10 examine the posterior probability of a miracle hypothesis, given the evidence (most notably testimonies), background knowledge, and theories in isolation from alternative competing hypotheses that explain the same scope of evidence.”

Tucker’s program, in this article, is to claim that miracles have a place in historiography insofar as they are attested to by witnesses. But it is here that something goes a little wrong with his argument:

"Likewise, it is not reasonable for people to relinquish their faith in particular miracle hypotheses until better explanations of the evidence are proposed. As Salmon and Sober have argued, it is neither realistic nor interesting to examine one isolated hypothesis, in our case the literal truth of the evidence for a miracle, without comparing it with its alternatives.14

It has been recognized at least since Roman law that multiple independent witnesses increase the posterior probability of what they agree on: testis unis, testis nullus. The reason is the low likelihood of agreement between false independent testimonies. To borrow Laplace’s example, if one number is randomly drawn in
a lottery from the first one hundred numbers, the likelihood of any given number being reported falsely by a deceptive witness is 1:99. If two independent witnesses report the same number, the likelihood of this coincidence given deception is (1:99)2; if three witnesses agree, the probability of deception is (1:99)3;
and so on.”

The problem with this argument, to LI’s mind, is that it turns, below the surface, his argument that miracles are intensional – dependent on a belief of the testifiers – rather than extensional, as Hume mistakenly believed, back to Hume’s own interpretation of miracles. If one clears the space by claiming that miracles are only feats of divine strength, then the historical interest in the claim that a miracle has occurred is what would make the witnesses move to the intensional stance of calling event X a miracle. The probabilities, here, shift to the beliefs of the testifiers (given a random set of Egytians and Hebrews, for instance, how many would be inclined to call the parting of the Reed sea a miracle) rather than the factuality of the thing testified to. In fact, by pursuing the question as though it were a question about the event X rather than belief about the event X, Tucker undermines his notion that Hume’s anachronism consisted in seeing event X as a violation of natural law. Granted, physical law in the Newtonian sense didn’t exist for the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, the idea that a miracle requires many witnesses seems to indicate that the belief about the test of divine strength is itself dependent on beliefs about how events occur.

“The case for multiple independent witnesses of miracles was articulated philosophically by the Spanish-Jewish philosopher Judah Halevi in his twelfth-century, Arabic-language, Platonic-style dialogue The Kuzari. In this dialogue Halevi listed the criteria for independence of evidence for belief in miracles: Miracles, intercourse between God and humans, must take place “in the presence of great multitudes, who saw it distinctly, and did not learn it from reports and traditions. Even then they must examine the matter carefully and repeatedly, so that no suspicion of imagination or magic can enter their minds.”17 Halevi presented the revelation on Mount Sinai as fitting these criteria.”

Now, in one way Tucker’s idea fits in quite nicely with the idea that the revelation at Mount Sinai is evidence of divine strength in competition with other gods. That would explain the first commandment, and Moses’ problem with the dancing about the golden calf. But Tucker can’t help but continue to pick at the idea that a miracle is about the probability of the event. Tucker seems a little blind to the contradiction in his own account, with his ultimate point (that historians operate rationally by including miraculous events in a true historical account, contra Hume) begs the question of his dependent point (showing that miracles are possible, thus acceding to the general lines of the argument as Hume has shaped it). Our point is not to harp on the antinomies in Tucker’s article, but to get back to the beliefs of the set of people who describe certain events as miracles. I imagine that this set of people, in America, would include both those people who subscribe to the divine design theory of the earth and life upon it, and those people who think that certain lottery numbers are lucky, or that they have developed a system for betting at roulette. Luck, in this belief system, can be good or bad. It can also be earned.

From this perspective, Darwinian evolution is extremely anxiety making. The luck of the survivor isn’t ultimately earned – but is a new piece of the old luck, the mutation that simply happens to be advantageous given the circumstances of a certain ecological niche. The luck of the human and the luck of the dodo are the same kinds of luck. One is merely not presently extinct. Living beyond Good and Evil is relatively easy, compared to living beyond good and bad luck.


Anonymous said...

Tucker's article is in the current issue of History and Theory, not History and memory.
More significantly, the article does not advocate including miracles in the accounts of historians. Rather it presents historiography (the writings of historians) as the best among competing explanations of the evidence. One possible such explanation is that a miracle in the biblical sense of feats of strength (the reference is to Festivus, the holiday that was introduced by George's father in Seinfeld) indeed occurred. Much better explanations are usually available, e.g. that the texts involved were written centuries after they were supposed to take place for contemporary political reasons.

dm said...

Washoogle,Washington applauds you.

roger said...

Anonymous, thanks for the correction. Of course, History and Theory.

However, I'm think we disagree about what Tucker is doing. I'm not sure what "including miracles in the accounts of historians" means, but if it means that it is rational for historians to consider miracle stories, that is precisely what Tucker is advocating. However, it is hard to know what this means, since, as I point out, Tucker both takes the line that Hume's account of miracles is anachronistic and the line that miracles are to be interpreted in terms of probability, which is a line of thought that goes back to Hume. My point was that a feat of strength is not as different from a violation of physical law as Tucker contends, which is why the objection to Hume shades into a variant of discussing miracles in terms of probabilities, and that Tucker shifts between how an event may be believed to be a miracle and what a miracle is. And this is why Tucker is not totally clear when he writes "Hume’s definition of miracles as breaking the laws of nature is anachronistic. The concept of immutable laws of nature was introduced only in the seventeenth century, thousands of years after the Hebrews had introduced the concept of miracles. Holder and Earman distinguish the posterior probability of the occurrence of a particular miracle from that of the occurrence of some miracle. I argue that though this distinction is significant, their formulae for evaluating the respective probabilities are not useful. Even if miracle hypotheses have low probabilities, it may still be rational to accept and use them if there is no better explanation for the evidence of miracles."

roger said...

Oh, and a big shout out to all the gravediggers in Washoogle Wash this cool morning

roger said...

First let me say I liked your article, and I think that the idea of the miracle as a divine feat of strength has a great deal going for it.

Second -- your readings of the miracle at the battle of Givon all work within your general framework, in which the God of the Joshua is triumphing over other Gods. But -- I am not sure that this sense of miracle carries over into the Christian sense of miracle. Before Hume, I think that the Christian sense drops the competitive feature of the miracle. Which would take us to

Three. A miracle like the resurrection of Jesus. Here, I think the idea that the miracle is only a feat of strength is strained. This is why I think that the miracle story (and other miracle stories in the New Testament) make such a point of emphasizing witnesses. And this, I think, is not as far from Hume's account as you suppose. There might be a tiny anachronism in assuming that Hume's notion of the laws of nature is as Newtonian as Laplace's -- while Hume genuflected verbally to Newton, there is little evidence that he was very conversant with Newton. I think Hume simply assumed that what Newton said was identical with Hume's own sense of cause and effect.
So - in conclusion -- I don't think Hume's definition of the miracle distorted the concept as much as you would have it. Rather, I'd say the distortion -- the dropping of the sense that a miracle is a feat of strength -- occured much earlier, and was part of the Christian interpretation of miracle.

roger said...

I put the above comment up as a response to Aviezer Tucker. For some reason, he took down his comment. Too bad, it was interesting to me.

roger said...

Aviezer, talk about miracles -- really, you didn't take your comments off? Damn, somebody has been stealing my comments! I don't exactly know how to get them back, either. Comments theft -- a whole new kind of crime. Or vandalism, or something.

I know that Voltaire had made the points about Jesus' miracles as magic, and that this was an Enlightenment trope. But I think, from Hume's perspective, Jesus' miracles count as the kind of miracles he is writing about. Or don't they? In fact, the account of the miracles in the gospels does add up to a meta-miracle, insofar as they all confirm prophecies made earlier.

I'll have to think about all of this.

I hope the comments thief doesn't steal your comments.

roger said...

Whoever is stealing A. Tucker's comments, please return them. And explain to me exactly how you are doing it. I thought I was the only one who had control over the comments delete button.