Skeptical Scenarios

I promised to return to some of the issues discussed here. The current post addresses the implications of the sort of skeptical scenario considered by Alexander Pruss in the associated discussion. Consider his original comparison of physical theories and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

If we consider this in light of our analysis of form, it is not difficult to see that Pruss is correct both about the ordinary chair sentence being consistent with a large variety of physical theories, and about the implication that it is consistent with most situations that would normally be considered “skeptical.” The reason is that to say that something is a chair is to say something about its relationships with the world, but it is not to say everything about its relationships. It speaks in particular about various relationships with the human world. And there is nothing to prevent these relationships from co-existing with any number of other kinds of relationships between its parts, its causes, and so on.

Pruss is right to insist that in order for the ordinary sentence to be true, the corresponding forms must be present. But as an anti-reductionist, his position implies hidden essences, and this is a mistake. Indeed, under the correct understanding of form, our everyday knowledge of things is sufficient to ensure that the forms are present: regardless of which physical theories turn out to be true, and even if some such skeptical scenario turns out to be true.

Why are these situations called “skeptical” in the first place? This is presumably because they seem to call into question whether or not we possess any knowledge of things. And in this respect, they fail in two ways, they partially fail in a third, and they succeed in one way.

First, they fail insofar as they attempt to call into question, e.g. whether there are chairs in my room right now, or whether I have two hands. These things are true and would be true even in the “skeptical” situations.

Second, they fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat. In the straightforward sense, I do know this, because the claim is opposed to the other things (e.g. about the chairs and my hands) that I know to be true.

Third, they partially fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat in a metaphysical sense. Roughly speaking, I do know that I am not, not by deducing the fact with any kind of necessity, but simply because the metaphysical claim is completely ungrounded. In other words, I do not know this infallibly, but it is extremely likely. We could compare this with predictions about the future. Thus for example Ron Conte attempts to predict the future:

First, an overview of the tribulation:
A. The first part of the tribulation occurs for this generation, beginning within the next few years, and ending in 2040 A.D.
B. Then there will be a brief period of peace and holiness on earth, lasting about 25 years.
C. The next few hundred years will see a gradual but unstoppable increase in sinfulness and suffering in the world. The Church will remain holy, and Her teaching will remain pure. But many of Her members will fall into sin, due to the influence of the sinful world.
D. The second part of the tribulation occurs in the early 25th century (about 2430 to 2437). The Antichrist reigns for less than 7 years during this time.
E. Jesus Christ returns to earth, ending the tribulation.

Now, some predictions for the near future. These are not listed in chronological order.

* The Warning, Consolation, and Miracle — predicted at Garabandal and Medjugorje — will occur prior to the start of the tribulation, sometime within the next several years (2018 to 2023).
* The Church will experience a severe schism. First, a conservative schism will occur, under Pope Francis; next, a liberal schism will occur, under his conservative successor.
* The conservative schism will be triggered by certain events: Amoris Laetitia (as we already know, so, not a prediction), and the approval of women deacons, and controversial teachings on salvation theology.
* After a short time, Pope Francis will resign from office.
* His very conservative successor will reign for a few years, and then die a martyr, during World War 3.
* The successor to Pope Francis will take the papal name Pius XIII.

Even ignoring the religious speculation, we can “know” that this account is false, simply because it is inordinately detailed. Ron Conte no doubt has reasons for his beliefs, much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did. But just as we saw in that case, his reasons will also in all likelihood turn out to be completely disproportionate to the detail of the claims they seek to establish.

In a similar way, a skeptical scenario can be seen as painting a detailed picture of a larger context of our world, one outside our current knowledge. There is nothing impossible about such a larger context; in fact, there surely is one. But the claim about brains and vats is very detailed: if one takes it seriously, it is more detailed than Ron Conte’s predictions, which could also be taken as a statement about a larger temporal context to our situation. The brain-in-vat scenario implies that our entire world depends on another world which has things similar to brains and similar to vats, along presumably with things analogous to human beings that made the vats, and so on. And since the whole point of the scenario is that it is utterly invented, not that it is accepted by anyone, while Conte’s account is accepted at least by him, there is not even a supposed basis for thinking that things are actually this way. Thus we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that we are not brains in vats, just as we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that there will not be any “Antichrist” between 2430 and 2437.

There is nonetheless one way in which the consideration of skeptical scenarios does succeed in calling our knowledge into question. Consider them insofar as they propose a larger context to our world, as discussed above. As I said, there is nothing impossible about a larger context, and there surely is one. Here we speak of a larger metaphysical context, but we can compare this with the idea of a larger physical context.

Our knowledge of our physical context is essentially local, given the concrete ways that we come to know the world. I know a lot about the room I am in, a significant amount about the places I usually visit or have visited in the past, and some but much less about places I haven’t visited. And speaking of an even larger physical context, I know things about the solar system, but much less about the wider physical universe. And if we consider what lies outside the visible universe, I might well guess that there are more stars and galaxies and so on, but nothing more. There is not much more detail even to this as a guess: and if there is an even larger physical context, it is possible that there are places that do not have stars and galaxies at all, but other things. In other words, universal knowledge is universal, but also vague, while specific knowledge is more specific, but also more localized: it is precisely because it is local that it was possible to acquire more specific knowledge.

In a similar way, more specific metaphysical knowledge is necessarily of a more local metaphysical character: both physical and metaphysical knowledge is acquired by us through the relationships things have with us, and in both cases “with us” implies locality. We can know that the brain-in-vat scenario is mistaken, but that should not give us hope that we can find out what is true instead: even if we did find some specific larger metaphysical context to our situation, there would be still larger contexts of which we would remain unaware. Just as you will never know the things that are too distant from you physically, you will also never know the things that are too distant from you metaphysically.

I previously advocated patience as a way to avoid excessively detailed claims. There is nothing wrong with this, but here we see that it is not enough: we also need to accept our actual situation. Rebellion against our situation, in the form of painting a detailed picture of a larger context of which we can have no significant knowledge, will profit us nothing: it will just be painting a picture as false as the brain-in-vat scenario, and as false as Ron Conte’s predictions.

Neither Will They Believe if Someone Rises From the Dead

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

It is ordinarily understood that Abraham is blaming the men for refusing to believe Moses and the prophets, and indeed, for refusing no matter how strong the reasons given for believing them.

While one should refrain from judging people subjectively, it seems reasonable to think that such an absolute refusal is morally blameworthy. In this sense, Hume’s refusal to accept the fact of a miracle on any testimony whatsoever is morally blameworthy. But this is not limited to people’s rejection of religious beliefs or testimony in favor of them. In a similar way, without remarking on his subjective situation, Kurt Wise’s refusal to accept the fact of evolution, no matter how much it is supported by evidence, may be morally blameworthy.

But Abraham’s statement in the parable may be true in a more general way, one which is not relevant to praise or blame. It can be understood as a general statement about the relationship between testimony and external support such as miracles. If someone is a credible witness, a miracle may support his testimony. But if someone is not a credible witness, he will not suddenly become credible because a miracle happens.

In May 1990, Bishop Pavao Zanic published a statement, “The Truth about Medjugorje” (text here, pp. 45-63). This text contains the following:

16. The “seer” Ivan Dragicevic. Regarding the “great sign”, Vicka mentions this 13 times in the diaries, it is mentioned 14 times in the Parish chronicle, 52 times on the cassettes, and on numerous occasions in talks with the bishop. In the spring of 1982, I asked the “seers” to write everything they knew about the sign without making the “secret” public. The way I suggested they do it was to write down information on paper in duplicate. Then this would be sealed in an envelope and one copy would remain with them, and one with the bishop. Then, when the “sign” occurs, we would open the envelopes and see whether or not the “sign” was predicted. Father Tomislav Vlasic, pastor of Medjugorje at the time, told the “seers” to say that Our Lady had told them not to write anything down for anybody, and so they did not. Ivan Dragicevic was in the Franciscan minor seminary at Visoko, Bosnia at that time and he wasn’t informed of this on time. Two members of the first commission, Dr. M. Zovkic and Dr. Z. Puljic (now bishop of Dubrovnik), went to visit Ivan in Visoko. They gave him a sheet of paper which was somewhat greenish in colour with questions typed out on it. Ivan wrote down the content of the “sign”, dated the document and signed it in their presence without a word or any sign of fear. A few years later, Father Laurentin wrote that Ivan told him personally that he wrote absolutely nothing down on that sheet of paper and that he tricked the two members of the commission. On 7 March 1985, three members of the commission went to ask Ivan if what Laurentin writes is true. Ivan said it was true, and that they could freely go ahead and open the envelope in the chancery office because in it they will only find a white sheet of paper. They came back to Mostar where the commission was having a meeting and before all the members, they opened the envelope. In the envelope on a greenish sheet of paper they found written the content of the sign:

Our Lady said that she would leave a sign. The content of this sign I reveal to your trust. The sign is that there will be a great shrine in Medjugorje in honour of my apparitions, a shrine to my image. When will this occur? The sign will occur in June. Dated: 9 May 1982. Seer: Ivan Dragicevic.

“There will be a great shrine” is intended to mean that one will be miraculously created, without being built by human beings. And although in principle it is possible to take “the sign will occur in June” ambiguously, namely that it will occur in June of an unknown year, it is plain enough that Ivan was writing about June 1982.

Needless to say, this did not happen. And the consequence is that Ivan Dragicevic is not a trustworthy witness to the truth. He is not trustworthy because of the false claim that there would be such a sign, and he is not trustworthy because of the false claim that he wrote nothing on the paper.

And the fact that he is not trustworthy will not be changed simply by external support. His testimony is not credible. And it remains that way even if rosaries turn to gold, and would remain that way even if someone were to rise from the dead.


Miracles and Multiple Witnesses

A fairly frequent claim, often in connection with the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, although not only in that connection, is the claim that rosary chains have changed to gold, or become golden plated. Thus for example Fr. Francis Marsden makes this claim in a letter published in the Tablet on May 26, 1990:

Leaving for Medjugorje after Easter 1989, I decided I would take my own ordination pair of rosary beads (received from the Vatican in 1984). I had seldom used them but kept them as a memento. As I put them in a little cloth bag in my trouser pocket, I checked that they were silver. “If it does happen, I’d like it to happen to this pair”, I thought.

They remained in my pocket untouched down to Heathrow, and out to Zagreb, Split and Medjugorje, from Saturday night through to Monday lunchtime. Five of us priests were on top of Krizevac, the Hill of the Cross. I took out the rosary to say the Glorious Mysteries. To my shock and near-disbelief, the links by the medal glittered gold in the sunshine. Inspecting further, I found that all the links touching either a bead or the crucifix were now golden. “My God, it’s happened”, I thought, much moved.

The extra links separating the decades remained silver. The message for me was, “It is prayer which changes things”.

Later I checked the inside of the little cloth bag. The lining was clean. There were no signs of any metal having rubbed off. I also asked a priest friend with an identical Vatican silver rosary to try rubbing off the silver. He told me that after a long time scraping with a coin, he began to get a very slight dull bronze tinge to the silver. That degree of abrasion was impossible in my pocket.

Fr. Francis is here giving reasons for supposing that the change was not natural. Continuing in the same vein, he says:

So Mr. Falkiner’s theory fails to explain all the observed facts. Undoubtedly he is correct in some cases in suggesting that prolonged, sweaty use will cause tarnishing. But in my case and many others there has been no “hard use”. Nor has the trans-coloration been over all the links, but selectively and with a beautiful subtlety. I have seen several other patterns to the transformation.

Does air travel at 30,000 ft produce the change? Do some Medjugorje locals steal pilgrims’ rosaries from their pockets at night and spray them? Is it psychological wish-fulfilment? If so, please instruct me how to harness this power and, like Midas, I will try it out on some of our silver chalices and patens.

One Jesuit priest told me how he actually saw his rosary change colour. He and a friend were walking up Krizevac, joking about the phenomenon. taking 10p and 20p coins out of their pockets: “Has this one changed yet, Bernard?” “No, let’s have a look at this one . . .”. And as he was holding his rosary in his hand, he saw the golden colour come over it.

He has given some reasons for supposing that the change was not natural, but one could object that there is no external proof of the change. But in various cases people say that they experienced such a change, and confirmed it later by external testing. For example, William Simon says in his autobiography, A Time for Reflection,

After our first Mass at Medjugorje, I remember telling my son Billy, “That is the closest I’ve ever felt to heaven on earth.” I then pulled out the old, inexpensive rosary beads that I had bought about ten years earlier, and noticed that the chain was glittering in the sun. That was strange. The chain was just some cheap, dull alloy, yet it suddenly appeared radiant and golden and vibrant and remained so. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and upon my return brought the rosary to a jeweler for an appraisal. He confirmed that the chain, inexplicably, had turned to solid gold. I can’t explain the transformation, either of the rosary  or of my own life, except as a sign of divine intervention, and accept it as such.

The total number of people who have claimed to have observed such cases is probably at least many hundreds, or more likely many thousands. I have seen one such rosary myself and can confirm that it appeared a golden color when I saw it. And while most people do not appear to have had any specific tests done, a number did do this, like William Simon in the above quotation.

Like reports of meteorites in the 18th century, these reports should be taken seriously. However, note that although we have multiple witnesses, the witnesses are not all to the same event, but to different events, and this can make a significant difference.

Suppose we took one such rosary, and passed it from person to person, each of them taking it and having it tested, and each confirmed that the metal of the chain had actually changed. If several dozen people confirmed this without exception, without bias in the selection of persons, including persons that had no interest in such a miracle, such as Jews and atheists, there would be no reason to doubt that the rosary chain was now gold or golden plated. It would be quite wrong to follow Hume’s advice and to dismiss this as risible rather than a matter of argument.

However, the argument in reality is much weaker because in fact these witnesses are testifying to separate events. If we have the situation described above, where dozens of witnesses confirm the same event, without a bias in the selection of witnesses, then if they are all wrong, something very unlikely has taken place: either they are all lying, their tests were all mistaken, or some combination of these things. This would be very unlikely indeed, in the situation described, and could easily be made more unlikely to whatever degree one desired, by renewed testing.

But suppose that in the actual case of multiple witnesses attesting to multiple events, no rosary chain has actually undergone such a change. This still implies that all of our witnesses are mistaken or lying. But it does not imply anything extremely improbable: there may have been people who tested their rosaries, and confirmed that nothing had changed, but there was no reason for them to publish the matter. Instead, only those published who were willing to lie, were mistaken, or who received mistaken results from their jewelers or chemists.

Thus it is very possible that the latter situation is the actual truth, and it would be a mistake to reject this possibility simply on the grounds that it is distrustful of human testimony.

But it is also possible that some of these chains have in fact changed to gold or become gold plated.