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.