Observation vs Authority

As David Hume puts it: It’s more likely if you see the laws of nature being suspended, that you are under a misapprehension than that the laws of nature have actually been suspended. — Christopher Hitchens (source)

I’ve been watching some theist/atheist debates recently, and this comment from Christopher Hitchens stood out to me. In fact, I find the comment rather alarming.

Besides the fact that this seems out of place with what I’ve read of Hume, who famously said that we can’t know for certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, I am deeply concerned that he seems to be saying that we should trust authority over our own observations of the World around us.

Let’s consider a thought experiment. Consider a hypothetical young boy named Fred. Fred is like other children, except that he, in all observations, perceives acceleration due to gravity on Earth under ideal conditions as 9.7 m/s. He eventually meets a physicist who shows him experiments to try and convince him that the acceleration in 9.8 m/s, yet in each one, he perceives 9.7, even though the physicist perceives 9.8. To us, it is clear that there is something wrong with Fred’s perception, but what conclusion should he come to? Should he trust the authority of the physicist around him over the clearly contrary evidence in front of him?

Should Jane, born in the Middle Ages and surrounded by people who all believe in God, accept his existence because everyone says it’s true, Mr. Hitchens?

The reproducibility of results is foundational to science.

Coincidently, the following quote from Kant would be a reasonable substitute that avoids the problems associated with the given answer:

Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: “That I ought not kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God — of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven.”

I should also mention that it’s worth keeping in mind that Hitchens gave this answer in front of a camera and didn’t have time to think it through. Public speaking and debate is tremendously difficicult and I am cognisant of that.

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3 Responses to “Observation vs Authority”

  1. anonymous Says:

    I think Hitchens is thinking more along the following lines:

    Fred drops a ball in order to measure the time it takes to fall to the ground.

    “The ball has vanished – it is a miracle”.

    The authority figure walks over and picks the ball up from behind the boy and hands it too him.

    “You’ve recreated the ball”, says Fred. “You must be God.”

    Observations that get viewed as violations of the laws of nature are inevitably simply errors – ones that the observer in their haste to see a violation of nature laws of nature simply overlook, passively or actively.

    Yes – an observation that appears to violate a law of nature should be viewed with caution – it is easy to be fooled, easy to fool one’s self.

    That does not mean that it must be wrong, only that it probably is wrong. Some will attempt to determine the truth of the observation, others will simply give up and declare it a miracle. Those that see a violation of the laws of nature are usually looking at a single observation that cannot be reproduced.

    • christopherolah Says:

      > I think Hitchens is thinking more along the following lines …

      The video has been taken down, and I can’t seem to find another copy, but I remember this being Hitchens answer to the question “what would convince you that God exists?” Hitchens answers that nothing would, because if he observed miracles he would consider himself to be under a misapprehension.

      He saying that there is no observation that could shake his belief, which means this quote (judging by its context, what Hitchens would have said if he hadn’t been speaking on the spot is another matter) is precisely as bold as it sounds: he would discard any observations that violate natural law (which is, in fact, his understanding of natural law…) because he thinks it more likely that he is suffering a delusion than natural law being broken.

      I, for my part, am not so confident in my understanding of the world to take such a stance.

      > Yes – an observation that appears to violate a law of nature should be viewed with caution – it is easy to be fooled, easy to fool one’s self.

      > That does not mean that it must be wrong, only that it probably is wrong. Some will attempt to determine the truth of the observation, others will simply give up and declare it a miracle. Those that see a violation of the laws of nature are usually looking at a single observation that cannot be reproduced.

      Very true.

      Really, this is a specific instance of a more general principle: when one sees something that clashes with their understanding of reality, and if the issues involved are of any significance to them, they should respond not by ignoring it, but by investigating deeper.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I think what is important here is what is ‘more likely’. That is not to say that events cannot violate the laws we use to describe the universe. The problem of induction clearly highlights that current science may have incomplete, wrong or inaccurate descriptions of the universe. If indeed observation repeatedly contradicts the current descriptions science has, the description should change. The problem here lies in the ability to deduce that natural laws have indeed been violated. It does not follow that miracles can be proven given that the natural laws we know are the ones we use to prove natural phenomena. Unless it is the case which natural law already encompasses the anomaly. In which case if the event is described as a ‘miracle’ it would be synonymous with ‘rare’.

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