Prophecy in Harry Potter
August 7, 2008 — 9:39

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Divine Foreknowledge Divine Providence Free Will Molinism Open Theism Theological Fatalism  Comments: 12

[cross-posted at Parableman]
I’m working on a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Philosophy and Harry Potter on the topic of destiny, and one of the things I’m trying to do in the chapter is distinguish between different metaphysical analyses of prophecy. I’ve come up with three, and I’m inclined to think that it might be exhaustive enough for the purposes of a popular-level work like this, but I’m curious if anyone here can think of any others.
Here’s what I’ve got (and how I’m presenting it in the draft I’m writing):
1. They involve mere likelihoods. No one has access to the actual future, but someone might have magical access to information that’s derived from what’s likely. Given what’s true about the various people involved, it’s very likely that a certain outcome will happen. That means prophecies, even the ones Dumbledore is inclined to call genuine, are not infallible. They can turn out get it wrong.
2. They do not derive their content from the actual future. Rather, they make the future happen. When a genuine prophecy occurs, it influences those who hear it in such a way that they end up doing things that will fulfill the prophecy. This kind of prophecy is self-fulfilling in a very literal sense.
3. The seer has some intuitive connection with the way things will really happen, such that the words of the prophecy are true about a future that really will be that way. If it’s a genuine prophecy, it can’t be wrong, because its origin lies in the very future events that it tells about. In the same way that a report about the past can bring knowledge about the past only if there’s some reliable connection with the actual events in the past, a genuine prophecy in this sense must derive its truth from a reliable method of getting facts about the future.
My understanding of J.K. Rowling’s view of prophecy, judging by this interview and my sense that the Albus Dumbledore character represents her views when he discusses this issue with Harry Potter, is that she wants to treat Professor Trelawney’s two genuine prophecies as the first kind, a kind of prophecy an open theist could accept.
There are hints in at least two of Dumbledore’s conversations with Harry that he thinks something like the second kind is going on, but it’s clearly not a reduction of prophecy to what happens in #2, because the characters in question (mostly Lord Voldemort) still make free choices and aren’t simply caused by the prophecy to do anything the way some ancients thought Laius was caused by Apollo’s prophecy to do what he did that led to Oedipus eventually killing him.
My argument at this point is that there isn’t really a way for Dumbledore to distinguish between Trelawney’s two genuine prophecies and all her vague predictions that can often be interpreted as coming true unless the genuine ones are of the third kind (because the pseudo-prophecies are of the first kind, and the genuine ones can’t be completely explained by the second kind). Rowling doesn’t seem to want to accept that, and Dumbledore is clearly with her, so there’s a consistency issue here both for the character and the author. But my argument depends on the options I’ve listed being exhaustive. Is that true?

  • As I recall, the most significant prophecy in the Harry Potter series has a disjunctive form: either Harry dies and Voldemort lives, or vice versa. In that case, the prophecy as a whole could be guaranteed to be true, even though the future isn’t fixed.
    I think that the role of prophecy in the Harry Potter series tends to be to make clear what the significant choices that people face are, while leaving them to take the decision. We are destined to face certain temptations, and the consequences of each decision are fixed, but when the time comes, we choose freely.
    Anyway, I must rush off. I have to speak to Curley about the new highway.

    August 7, 2008 — 11:27
  • Jeremy Pierce

    There are several lines in the two prophecies that Dumbledore considers genuine that take a determinate form, even if some could be taken in multiple ways.
    For example, Neville was born at the end of July the same year as Harry, and his parents also thrice defied Voldemort. So the prophecy could have referred to either one (which on view three means it did metaphysically refer to one but epistemically could have referred to either, and on view one it really metaphysically could have been either, which is how Dumbledore takes it).
    But it’s unequivocal about the Dark Lord marking whichever of the two it refers to. So even if there’s an issue of which one it is, there’s no issue of the Dark Lord marking him. According to the prophecy, that will happen, and if Voldemort had not marked Harry or Neville then the prophecy would have been false (but of course, on view three if the prophecy was real then it wouldn’t have predicted that event if it wasn’t going to happen, so there would have been a different prophecy or no prophecy).
    Also, the prophecy about the loyal servant going back to his master that evening could only have been about Wormtail, even though Harry assumed it was about Sirius, thinking Sirius was the loyal servant. That’s a pretty definite prophecy.
    More generally, let’s think about cases where there are two ways a prophecy can be fulfilled, and either one can happen (in the sense of the future not being fixed that open theists mean). That means there’s no truth about which thing will happen, but one of them must happen. This is already too fixed for Dumbledore, who says that even the first genuine prophecy didn’t have to be fulfilled and wouldn’t have if Voldemort hadn’t decided to go after Harry. The prophecy had two ways of being fulfilled if it would be fulfilled but didn’t have to be fulfilled at all. Isn’t this really just an example of class 1, then, except that if it can be fulfilled then it’s going to be done by one of two ways, neither of which is necessary (since there are options besides those two anyway)?
    But I do think you’ve presented a fourth category, because someone not taking Dumbledore’s line could hold that a prophecy must be fulfilled, and there’s no way it’s avoidable, but it gives two options, and either is possible and neither fixed. So there’s no truth about which way it will go but definite truth that there are no alternatives besides the two options presented. My question about this fourth category is what enables someone to know this truth? In the Harry Potter world, presumably it’s magic, but how is the magic connecting the seer to the truth? With a fixed future, there can be a causal connection between the future facts and the seer’s access to them. With no fixed future, what’s the truth-maker? It would have to be something available in the present, presumably, and then it seems as if it’s more a matter of just accessing the truths that determine that there is only one way it can go, and then it seems as if the prophet is just accessing what deterministic facts there are (i.e. the things that are predetermined even in an indeterministic universe). Does that sound right? Prophecy would then only be able to get at things that are already determined now. This isn’t what Rowling wants anymore than she wants the third account, but I think it does mean I haven’t eliminated all the options yet.

    August 7, 2008 — 12:31
  • Dear Jeremy: I’m not sure whether this needs a separate category to itself.
    If for some segment of future history there are a finite number of possibilities, each of which has some probability of happening, and magic gives one access to these probabilities, then the prophet could either predict the possibility that has the highest probability, or could lay out all of the possibilities and say ‘One of these is what will happen.’
    In other words, I think the same metaphysical picture could be used to support both the first and fourth views of prophecy, and we could understand why prophecy takes these different forms. For example, if it is 99% certain that Voldemort’s faithful servant will return to him, the prophecy predicts that Voldemort’s faithful servant will return. But if there is a 50% chance of Voldemort killing Harry and 50% of Harry killing Voldemort, the prophecy reflects these finely balanced probabilities.

    August 7, 2008 — 13:31
  • An interesting case that you don’t mention (a case of apparently genuine prophecy that is dismissed by Dumbledore, apparently wrongly) is Trelawney’s predictions on the basis of the tarot deck in HBP, which are reasonably specific and are right in each case of which we are aware, sometimes (as in the case of the repeated drawing of the Tower, the symbol of imminent catastrophe and change) resoundingly so; and, unlike most of her other predictions of disaster, aren’t inflenced by her melodramatic motivations (she rejects them once as absurd herself, and gets consistent results in the Tower case). It’s possible that she was just lucky with the tarot deck, but if it is taken as genuine, it can’t be a case of #2, because they are not self-fulfilling. (It’s more plausible to take them as instances of #1, because they are the reading of signs, but could perhaps also be interpreted as #3.) If it’s genuine, it’s also a case where Trelawney is a Cassandra, predicting correctly but not believed by Dumbledore, who can’t tell the difference between these and most of Trelawney’s other predictions.
    It seems to me that one of the markers for the definitely genuine predictions is that they can’t be things that are simply made up by Trelawney herself: there is reason to think they are imposed on her independently of her will. And thus the positive reasons for dismissing most of Trelawney’s predictions — that she is melodramatic and clearly inclined to make things up for effect — are not in play at all. If the tarot cases are genuine, then it may be that part of their importance is that they can’t be simply made up by her — her interpretations are constrained by what the deck yields.

    August 7, 2008 — 13:33
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Ben, the way you’re telling it it’s part of category 1. The way I was telling it would be a fourth category, because what I had in mind was something that really is definite but whose details could go either way. That’s none of the three categories I gave. If it’s only 99% likely and then equally likely in the two options for the details, then you’re right that it’s still category 1.
    But it’s shown me that there really is a fourth option. The reason I naturally took it that way is that this is what a lot of open theists think God does in predicting certain things that God will ensure but without planning all the details out to allow for free beings to respond however they choose. Peter Kirk presents exactly that view in the comments on my cross-posted version of this.
    Brandon, I do actually mention one of those cases in the chapter draft I’m working on. When Harry is hiding behind the statue and she walks by, she says, “A dark young man, possibly troubled, one who dislikes the questioner.” It actually fits the scenario exactly, but she herself dismisses it, because she doesn’t think anyone is there, and even when she later runs into Harry, she doesn’t know that he dislikes her, so she doesn’t connect it.
    I use that as part of my discussion of where she does get things right without going into the trance even though no one thinks she’s legit, which is a sign that she at least has category 1 abilities some of the time with her ordinary methods, despite most of the Hogwarts teachers (or at least the two most senior) not thinking those methods amount to anything. I’m thinking about coming back to it later as an example of the best kind of category 1 statement, where there’s no way she’s making it up and thus it would have to be by magic somehow, and yet it doesn’t seem as if we could ever rely on those methods to be 100% reliable.

    August 7, 2008 — 18:43
  • That sounds like a good line of argument.
    One of the interesting things about the case with the Tower card, which is the one that strikes me most, is that it puts in sharp relief the question of how someone like Dumbledore, given what he knows about Trelawney, could possibly recognize that something like this is genuine rather than just melodrama as usual.

    August 7, 2008 — 21:35
  • Dear Jeremy: I did indeed have in mind the Open Theist picture you were suggesting. What I was wondering was whether a single metaphysical picture could explain two kinds of prophecy.
    Suppose that certain things about the future are fixed, and some are indeterminate. Of the indeterminate things, some are more likely than others.
    The more likely an outcome, the more clear it appears to the sage, who can in this way make some judgement about relative probabilities.
    So, the sage sees Harry living and Voldemort dying and vice versa as equally clear. (I’m supposing that visual experience is involved, based on Trelawney’s talk about an ‘inner eye’, but perhaps that is just part of her melodramatic persona). There is no possiblity at all of both surviving, so that future simply doesn’t appear. Some faithful servant is returning to Voldemort, but the face is blurry, because many people could play that role.
    Now one would expect a divine prophecy to be completely accurate: God would only give a description of future events that is bound to happen, and God knows just how much determinacy to give. But having a human seer complicates things further: she might report something as 100% reliable although it is not, through inattention.

    August 7, 2008 — 22:28
  • How about the following 4th possibility: the seer can’t be wrong (as in your 3rd option), but not because of a mystic connection with the future event itself, but through a knowledge of the current conditions and laws of nature that will definitely bring about that future event. So, basically, a Laplacean omniscient intelligence, but one that need not be *omniscient,* just have the knowledge required for the prediction at hand.
    Your option 2 might actually be a subset of this, with the difference being that in option 2 among the things the seer knows are that she’ll utter the prophecy and what its effects will be.
    Also, you paraphrase Dumbledore as follows: “This is already too fixed for Dumbledore, who says that even the first genuine prophecy didn’t have to be fulfilled and wouldn’t have if Voldemort hadn’t decided to go after Harry.” Couldn’t lots of icompatibilists agree that the following could be the case of some event E, that’s brought about by V doing A:
    (i) it was causally determined that E would occur;
    (ii) it wasn’t necessary that E occur (it “could have been otherwise”);
    (iii) if V hadn’t decided to do A, E wouldn’t have occured.

    August 7, 2008 — 23:20
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Ben, that does sound fine, but I think once I do what I’m about to do in response to Tim, it might sort out the categories so that this is just one among a larger number of approaches.
    Tim, I think what you’ve identified is a problem with how I’m framing things. There are several factors that I’m not keeping separate. One is whether the source behind the prophecy is infallible (and thus leads to certainty), another is whether the prophecy is merely true or just likely (which depends in part on the first factor), and a third is the specific kind of source (a magical connection with the actual events, divine atemporal knowledge from being present at all events in time, being able to access the truth through present events that will causally determine the future, intentions of an omnipotent being that can’t be interfered with, observing general tendencies the way Trelawney imperfectly does or an open God does a lot less imperfectly but still not in an infallible way). So I should think about perhaps just making these issues separate.
    I guess I have to think about whether the first two of the three issues need to be distinguished, though. Infallibility will always go along with truth, although it could be accompanied with fallibility about some aspects. Fallibility could go along with truth if it’s just epistemic infallibility because the seer is partially ignorant about fixed events, but it couldn’t if it’s because the future events aren’t fixed. It would be because of things like that that I might need to distinguish the issue of fallibility from the issue of fixed truth. I was planning to get into the fixity of truth of future contingents later on, but maybe it’s just best to get it in there early. I’ll have to think about the best way to do that.
    As for your last point, I’m not sure what you’re saying. By (i), do you mean that it was always causally determined for E to occur, or do you mean that once Voldemort made his decision it was causally determined from then on? If Voldemort made the decision freely, then (i) is false if it’s taken absolutely, but it could be true if it’s meant to cover the time since he made the decision provided that no other indeterministic events could interfere with the result once his decision was made. But that’s not what (i) would usually mean in this context. It’s the only way I can think of for a libertarian to put all those things together, though.

    August 8, 2008 — 6:15
  • Aaargh– ‘icompatibilist’ above is supposed to be ‘compatibilist.’ (Preview is my neglected friend–I mistakenly typed ‘incompatibilist,’ noticed it, and then deleted just the ‘n’ when I thought I had deleted both.)
    Anyway, the point is pretty simple, and maybe even pedantic. Yeah, I meant causally determined all along. I was just pointing out that (from your paraphrase) what Dumbledore was saying seemed to me neutral between libertarian and compatibilist views of freedom: lots of compatibilists would be happy to say (of causally determined acts and events) that E wasn’t necessary, that it wasn’t inevitable, that the person who did A had the ability to do otherwise, and that what will occur depends on our free choices.
    Of course, for a pop culture and phil book, you need to be careful not to get too far into the weeds, and there might be pretty clear evidence elsewhere in the HP books that Dumbledore has a libertarian understanding of freedom. But accepting PAP need not commit one to a libertarian view of freedom, and accepting (i) above need not commit one to thinking that an agent didn’t act freely.

    August 8, 2008 — 8:25
  • Jeremy Pierce

    I’ve had the same reservations about Dumbledore and Rowling’s own words. Every time I read them, I hesitate, because you could technically be a compatibilist and affirm them, but it always seems to me as if a compatibilist would want to say more so as not to give the impression that it’s an expression of libertarianism. Dumbledore several times tells Harry that the prophecy could have failed to be true, which technically may just be a point about a low epistemic status and not about truth of future contingents, but you’d think he’d say that the future is determined but we can’t access it rather than leaving the impression that most people get from it, which is that he doesn’t think the future is determined yet. Rowling says clearly that she doesn’t like the idea of destiny, and the character of Trelawney reflects that. She never says what destiny is, so maybe she’s just denying some kind of fatalism and she’s really a compatibilist, but I’d be surprised that she’d leave it where she did if that were so.
    Some compatibilists accept that you could have done otherwise. In fact, I do. But I wouldn’t say that I accept PAP the way libertarians do. The proposition they accept is that I could have done otherwise consistent with the past and the laws of nature, and I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s what PAP really is, though, as libertarians use it. Otherwise it would be fallacious to use it to argue against compatibilism, because compatibilists are indeed perfectly capable of saying you could have done otherwise, where ability is cashed out in terms of being possible given some set of factors (even if it’s not possible given the entirety of the past and the laws of nature).

    August 8, 2008 — 9:21
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Here’s another way of framing things. I think this is much better, but I want to make sure I’ve included everything. Am I still leading anything out, or should I separate or combine anything here?
    1. fallible prediction based on human observations through the ordinary five senses
    2. fallible prediction based on magical access to possible futures, none of which is guaranteed to happen (or through time travel if time travel can allow for the changing of the future)
    3. fallible prediction based on a limited understanding of deterministic natural processes, an understanding that can come through science, magic, or knowledge of someone’s character (so there may be a fixed future, but the seer has imperfect access to it through the signs of what contributes toward bringing it about)
    4. fallible prediction based on limited magical access to the future, which can be misinterpreted and may present partial and misleading information, but there’s one fixed future, and this is a connection with the only future that will happen
    5. to any of the above may be added: the ability to influence people’s actions by means of presenting something as a prophecy, which may narrow the possibilities because of how you expect someone to be likely to respond
    6. an infallible prediction based on complete understanding of deterministic processes that will guarantee one outcome (this would need to come from an omniscient being or some magical forces that themselves also either (a) are determined by these deterministic process or (b) are among the determinants of those processes
    7. an infallible prediction based on infallible access to the actual future (either by magic or by contact with some being who has direct contact with that future, perhaps a divine being or someone in or from that time)
    8. a combination of fallibility and infallibility because you have access to some determinate fact about the future and either imperfect access to some other fact or as much access is possible to what is not yet determined

    August 8, 2008 — 10:05