Hume’s Error on Miracles

After his comparison with the idea of the Real Presence, Hume continues by saying that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence for them:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that contrariety of events, which we may learn from a diligent observation. All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. Some events are found, in all countries and all ages, to have been constantly conjoined together: Others are found to have been more variable, and sometimes to disappoint our expectations; so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

While Hume is right to say that convictions should in some way be proportionate to the evidence for them, we can already see here the cause of a serious error. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Hume does not have a developed mathematical theory of probability. Hence his talk of how one should “deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.” If one takes this literally, this would suggest that something with no experiments supporting it has a force of 0; something with 35 experiments supporting it and nothing against has a force of 35; something with 40 experiments supporting it and 5 against has the same force; and so on. All of this, of course, is evidently absurd.

He then brings up the example of the testimony of witnesses:

To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.
And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable. There are a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgements of this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in our judgements, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of argument as in every other kind of evidence. We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.
This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.
Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive à priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.
I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a proverbial saying in Rome, even during the lifetime of that philosophical patriot. The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority.
The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.

While we might disagree that someone would be reasonable in refusing to accept testimony concerning the effects of frost, Hume’s general points here are fairly reasonable.

But when he attempts to apply to this miracles, he basically attempts to reason from the invalid mathematical points in the previous text:

But in order to increase the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

There are various ways to read this, but each way leads to problems. Hume has told himself that he believes that he has found a conclusive proof that accounts of miracles should never be accepted; and this implies that he must be saying that his condition, that the testimony should “be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish,” can never be satisfied.

But there is no reasonable understanding where this condition can never be satisfied. Hume seems to be equating “more miraculous” with “less probable,” but there is no degree of probability that could not be established by witnesses in principle. Even if each witness has only a small chance of telling the truth, multiple independent witnesses could in principle establish any degree of probability whatsoever.

The basic problem here seems to be Hume’s mathematically incorrect understanding of probability. If something has never been seen to happen, he says, this is a full proof that it cannot happen. Thus he seems to imply that there is a 0% chance of it happening. But this is evidently unreasonable. In reality, of course, we often see particular things happen which never happened before. And similarly, it is simply not true that a miracle is only called a miracle because it “has never been observed in any age or country.” There have been many reports, in many ages and many countries, of dead people coming to life again. So the only way Hume could say that a dead person coming to life is a miracle in this sense, is by assuming that all of these reports are false. This is simply to assume what he is trying to prove, and in any case we think that resurrection is a miracle whether or not these reports are true. In other words, to say that resurrection is a miracle is not to say that these reports are false, but that if they are true, they are reports of miracles.

Taken in another way, Hume seems to be saying, “A miracle requires a suspension of natural laws. But false testimony does not. Therefore if we have the choice of believing that there was a miracle or of believing that there was false testimony, we should always choose to believe that there was false testimony.” The problem is that, again, if you evaluate this in terms of probabilities, the suspension of natural laws might well be more probable than a particular possibility which does not suspend natural laws. If someone predicts the result of a coin flip 100,000 times in a row, it does not violate natural laws to think that this happened by chance, with a fair coin. But it is much more probable that natural laws were violated, than that this happened by chance with a fair coin.

While it would only relate to Hume personally, we might also note that according to Hume, induction cannot even establish a probability, let alone a necessity.  So according to his position, the experience of dead people remaining dead does not make it improbable that one would rise, let alone excluding it as impossible.

Hume himself seems to sense that there is something wrong with his position, even if he cannot quite work out what it is, again probably on account of the lack of a mathematical theory of probability. Consequently he adds a number of arguments:

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.
Secondly. We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resembles those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.
With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgement to canvass his evidence: what judgement they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations, their credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers their credulity.
Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch is seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions.
The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?
Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.
It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enough of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.

Hume is making some reasonable points here. But note that all of these things are contingent. They could have been otherwise in general, and they might well be otherwise in particular cases, even actual ones. Consequently they cannot possibly amount to a full proof that miraculous accounts should not be accepted. The fact that Hume feels the need to point to these contingent facts shows that at some level he is aware of the fact that his argument is not conclusive, although he wishes it to be.

In the end, Hume’s argument does not establish anything, but only expresses his own incredulity, as in this example:

There is also a memorable story related by Cardinal de Retz, which may well deserve our consideration. When that intriguing politician fled into Spain, to avoid the persecution of his enemies, he passed through Saragossa, the capital of Arragon, where he was shewn, in the cathedral, a man, who had served seven years as a doorkeeper, and was well known to every body in town, that had ever paid his devotions at that church. He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs. This miracle was vouched by all the canons of the church; and the whole company in town were appealed to for a confirmation of the fact; whom the cardinal found, by their zealous devotion, to be thorough believers of the miracle. Here the relater was also contemporary to the supposed prodigy, of an incredulous and libertine character, as well as of great genius; the miracle of so singular a nature as could scarcely admit of a counterfeit, and the witnesses very numerous, and all of them, in a manner, spectators of the fact, to which they gave their testimony. And what adds mightily to the force of the evidence, and may double our surprise on this occasion, is, that the cardinal himself, who relates the story, seems not to give any credit to it, and consequently cannot be suspected of any concurrence in the holy fraud. He considered justly, that it was not requisite, in order to reject a fact of this nature, to be able accurately to disprove the testimony, and to trace its falsehood, through all the circumstances of knavery and credulity which produced it. He knew, that, as this was commonly altogether impossible at any small distance of time and place; so was it extremely difficult, even where one was immediately present, by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery of a great part of mankind. He therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.

This is a distorted account of the miracle of Calanda. Ironically, Hume’s position is actually supported to some extent by the errors contained in his own account of the miracle: we cannot “trace its falsehood,” in the sense that we cannot determine whether the account has been distorted by Hume himself, by the Cardinal, by the residents of Zaragoza, or by others, or some combination of these, but it is easy enough to determine the fact that it has been so distorted. Nevertheless, Hume is not proving anything here, but simply asserting that he would not believe in a miracle no matter how good the testimony brought in its favor.

This is not a reasonable attitude, but sheer stubbornness.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.

Sola Me

Just as the Protestant doctrine that the ultimate authority in matters of revealed truth is Scripture alone is referred to as sola Scriptura, the idea that I am personally the ultimate authority regarding the content of revelation could be called sola me (credit for this name goes to Michael Bolin.)

The idea that faith implies absolute subjective certitude turns out to result in such a claim of absolute personal authority. For example, suppose someone holds this doctrine regarding faith, and also happens to believe that it is a matter of faith that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. Thus in effect he holds that the probability that women will be ordained in the Catholic Church is 0%. According to the rules of evidence, therefore, he can never admit that women have been ordained, no matter what evidence he observes, e.g. even he reads on the Vatican website that the Pope has ruled that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was mistaken; he reads news reports about bishops all over the world ordaining women; he sees women celebrating Mass at his parish and at other parishes; and so on. If he ever admits that the Catholic Church has ordained women, then he would have to admit that he was mistaken in the first place to claim that he had absolute subjective certitude.

This does not imply that in such a case he would denounce the Catholic Church and lose his faith. On the contrary: someone who claims that he has absolute subjective certitude of such a thing is claiming that it is impossible for him to lose his faith, no matter what happens, not even if he observes such evidence. In practice, in a case like this, this would result in the person adopting sedevacantism or a similar position, namely one implying that his observed evidence is not really relevant to the Catholic Church, but to something else. The result is that the person in effect holds the doctrine of sola me: he claims to possess absolute authority to judge about what is revealed, and his personal authority, being absolute, must take precedence over everyone else in the world. Richard Ibranyi is a good example of the extremes to which this can be taken.

It could be objected that this only happens if the person is mistaken about what is revealed. If it is actually revealed by God that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church, then in fact they cannot be, and the evidence described will never be observed by anyone, and thus the bad consequences of this position can be avoided.

But this is the point. Something revealed by God cannot be wrong. This is objective certainty. But this is not the same as subjective certainty precisely because the individual can be mistaken about what is revealed. Thus Muslims are mistaken in believing that Islam is a divine revelation. Nor can it be said, for example,  that Muslims are wrong about what is revealed, but Catholics are not wrong, and consequently it is right for Catholics to claim absolute subjective certitude. For Catholics also disagree about what is revealed. Thus many Catholics claim that it is revealed in Genesis that human beings were not produced by a process of evolution, but were directly created by God, while other Catholics deny this. Thus Catholics (and likewise any other individual, holding any religion whatsoever, or no religion) can be wrong about what is revealed, and consequently cannot have absolute subjective certitude regarding such matters.

Someone could object again, essentially in a way suggesting that even in terms of internal disagreements, his own position is true and the position of others is false. Thus in regard to the creation of man, someone could say that it is a question of fidelity to the Magisterium, which has taught that the idea of human evolution is acceptable, given certain conditions. One problem with this is that it assumes that those who hold the direct creation of man to be divinely revealed are unfaithful to the Magisterium, and if they claim to be faithful to it, they must be lying. For if they are honestly trying to be faithful to the Magisterium, then such fidelity does not exclude being mistaken about what is revealed, and thus one cannot have absolute subjective certainty about the content of revelation based on such fidelity.

And so it goes on. Someone can continually add conditions, reasons why he himself is correct about what is revealed and why others are mistaken. But it is clear what is happening here: even if the person happens to agree with someone else about the entire contents of revelation, there is no guarantee that this will continue to happen. And if a disagreement ever comes up, the person will need to provide a reason why he is right and the other is wrong. And since he is claiming not only that he happens to be right, but that he is absolutely certain to be right, he holds the doctrine of sola me, just as much as Richard Ibranyi: he claims that he alone in the world is the ultimate judge of what is revealed by God.

Edward Feser on Naturalism

Edward Feser, discussing David Hart on natural law, says, “For Darwinian naturalism, as Hart points out, gives us a view of the mind on which it floats entirely free of truth.  Any belief or argument whatsoever could seem absolutely indubitable even if it were completely wrong, if this were conducive to survival.” He takes this as an argument against Darwinian naturalism, which means that he thinks the claim, “Any belief or argument etc.” is either false or implausible.

It is not entirely clear why he thinks this, given that either he agrees, or at least does not disagree, with the biological theory of evolution. However, it may be that, holding that the intellect is immaterial, he believes that it is not subject to the process of natural selection. But this cannot be true. It is evident that whatever the exact relationship between the mind and the body, there is certainly some relationship, and the null hypothesis is basically always false. Consequently, whether or not the intellect is immaterial, there will be bodily causes that influence a person’s tendency to be certain or uncertain about things, with the result that the claim, “Any belief or argument whatsoever could seem absolutely indubitable etc.”, will surely have at least some truth.

It is also clearly true from experience. For example, in Muslim societies, most of the population are extremely convinced that Islam is true, even though this is completely wrong, but very conducive to survival, since even in the present day the death penalty continues to be used against apostates from Islam.

Obviously Islam has not existed long enough for natural selection to have much effect here, however, so in fact this particular case is probably part of a more general situation where agreeing with the people around is “conducive to survival”, both in the literal sense, and in the sense of producing economic and social advantages.

Nor does this imply that the mind “floats entirely free of truth”, since in most cases wrong beliefs about the world are harmful, and true beliefs helpful. If there is a pit of spikes in front of me and I believe that there is not, this is not conducive to survival at all. It does imply that the mind is not perfect and that there is a need to reflect on its work and frequently correct it. The possibility of self-reflection provides possibilities for progress in truth, even given the existence of such mental flaws.

100%

Given that probability is a formalization of subjective degree of belief, it would reasonable to consider absolute subjective certainty to correspond to a probability of 100%. Likewise, being absolutely certain that something is false would correspond to assigning it a probability of 0%.

According to Bayes’ theorem, if something has a probability of 100%, that must remain unchanged no matter what evidence is observed, as long as that evidence has a finite probability of being observed. If the probability of the evidence being observed is 0%, then Bayes’ formula results in a division by zero. This happens because a probability of 0% should mean that it is impossible for this evidence to come up, and indicates that one was simply wrong to claim that there was no chance of this, and a different probability should have been assigned.

The fact that logical consistency requires a probability of 100% to remain permanently fixed, no matter what happens, implies that it is generally a bad idea to claim such certainty, even in cases where you have absolute objective certainty such as mathematical demonstration. Thus in the previously cited anecdote about prime numbers, if SquallMage claimed to be absolutely certain that 51 was a prime number, he should never admit that it is not, not even after dividing it by 3 and getting 17. Instead, he should claim that there is a mistake in the derivation showing that it is not prime. Since this is absurd, it follows that in fact he should never have assigned a 100% probability to the claim that the number was prime. And since there was subjectively probably not much difference between 41 and 51 for him at the time, with respect to the claim, neither should he have claimed a 100% probability that 41 was prime.

Absolute Subjective Certainty

Any conclusion at which one arrives after a long process of reasoning will have a possibility of error, just as I said about mathematical arguments. Consequently if we want to find some absolute subjective certainty, it will need to be something either without a process, or with a minimal one; something very basic.

First principles such as the principle of non-contradiction and the like are one possibility.

Another would be immediate apprehensions such as “I exist”, “I am thinking”, “I am awake”, and so on.

Still another would be facts of immediate experience such as “I am currently working on a blog post.”

We might come to a different result depending on whether or not we include the content of the assertion as well as the mode of apprehension. If the mode of apprehension is considered alone, “I exist,” cannot be said to have such absolute certitude if it is possible for someone to be certain in exactly the same way of the claim, “I do not exist,” and it seems to me that this might be possible. This is even more likely to be possible in the case of the claim about being awake; a waking person can believe that he is asleep and dreaming.

If we include the content of the assertion, this kind of certitude is not fully distinct from objective certitude, and there will surely be at least a few cases such as the claim about existence. Thus someone who believes that he exists, cannot fail to exist, not so much because of the certainty of his belief, but because having a belief includes existing.

External facts of immediate experience, such as the fact that I am currently writing this blog post, or that there is a computer on the table in front of me, are not infallible even including both the content and the condition of my certainty, since we are often wrong about such things, e.g. “I know my glasses were there on the table, I just saw them,” but they were not.

Overall the situation is not entirely clear. Absolute subjective certainty, including the content of the assertion as well as the mode, is possible, as in the case of the claim about existence, but it is not clear that it is possible if the content is not included. In any case, whether or not the content is included, such certainty could only refer to immediate apprehensions, and at most only to a few such apprehensions.

One other case which is sometimes proposed is the case of faith in divine revelation. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie.” It seems likely that in reality this refers to objective certitude: one who believes something revealed by God cannot be wrong, because God does not reveal things that are false. Such an objective certitude would not imply absolute subjective certitude, for the same reasons that mathematical demonstration does not imply such a subjective certitude. However, some believe that the Catechism refers to an absolute subjective certitude. I will consider this idea in another post.

Absolute Certainty

If I say that I am certain of something, this can mean that I personally do not have any doubt that it is true. Naturally, this does not ensure that the thing is in fact true. The fact that I do not doubt it, does not prevent it from being false, and people are frequently sure of such things.

But asserting that I am certain can also imply that the thing cannot fail to be true. As discussed in the previous post, this could mean that the thing cannot fail to be true on account of the objective nature of my conviction, or on account of its subjective nature.

As an example of the objective nature of the conviction, someone can say that he has a demonstrative argument for a conclusion, based on first principles. Given this kind of conviction, the thing cannot fail to be true, because something that actually follows from first principles will always be true. Thus I can prove in this way that 13 is a prime number. The objective nature of the conviction here is mathematical knowledge, and given that I have mathematical knowledge of a thing, the thing will always be true.

However, it would be either rare or impossible to have a subjective apprehension of my own knowledge such that I infallibly recognize my own possession of mathematical knowledge, and therefore can judge about the truth of the conclusion infallibly. I consider my knowledge and say, “This is a valid mathematical demonstration,” but my apprehension of this fact is not itself infallible. This was illustrated earlier with the example of a mathematician claiming that there is a flaw in a proof. If my apprehension of the fact that something is a demonstration is infallible, then I will know through this infallible knowledge that his claim is mistaken. But this does not happen in reality, and thus my knowledge is not subjectively infallible, not even when I have a valid mathematical demonstration for some conclusion.

To be continued…