Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Probability Game

Miracles are things people do not commonly encounter.  Because of this miracles are improbable.  Does this improbability of miracles mean they cannot occur?  So goes an argument most commonly associated with David Hume.  But does this position really hold up?

Hume himself admits that, under his logic, a man who lived all his life in India would be reasonable not to believe in snow because he had never seen it.  Once someone admits their position leads to conclusions that are contrary to known facts, should we continue to entertain it?  Many historically known facts seem contrary, not only to our known experience, but general historical experience.  Is it believable that thirteen backwoods colonies would win their independence from the superpower of the time? Does it seem probable an obscure monk of relatively low rank named Martin Luther would spark a revolution that would change the theological and political map of Europe?  Nor if we turn to science will we fare much better.  According to science, if an object is moving at near the speed of light relative to me, I will see it shorten, become more massive, and time there pass more slowly.  Though a person on the object would notice no difference there, but see me as shorter, more massive and slowed down.  It is possible, according to science, for something to be a wave and a stream of particles at the same time. There is a measurable probability that a particle will go through anything less than an infinite barrier. None of this fits our normal experience.  In fact, under Hume's theory, science becomes impossible because every scientist must redo every experiment in order to believe it.  The bottom line is that while our past experience is one factor to use in measuring the truth of a thing, it is not the sole criterion.

Now Hume's theory is based on the rejection of cause and effect.  He does this based on how difficult these are to define (often it is the simplest, most obvious things that are hard to define).  Now, as Hume admits, the logical result of this is that we cannot know anything.  But Hume finds this inconvenient. But instead of reconsidering, Hume decided that, while a lot of scepticism was bad, a moderate amount of scepticism was a good thing.  But he gives no proof to support this. Now Hume claims we customarily act as if cause and effect is true in everyday life, so it is appropriate to continue to apply it there based on custom.  But in his view, it should not be applied to ultimate reality.  But if this is a good custom, it should reflect reality all the way up.  And if it is a bad custom, then it should be rejected across the board.  But the idea of rejecting miracles based on an argument that also rejects large portions of other knowledge and originates in the idea we cannot know anything seems dubious in the extreme.

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