Analogical Argument on Genocides
October 26, 2009 — 19:56

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religious Belief Teaching  Comments: 31

Given dissertation and job applications and such, I’m pressed for time, so this post might be a little sloppy and quick. At the recent Pacific SCP, Wes Morriston presented on the problem of genocides in the Bible, and he presented what I took to be a very powerful argument that we should not believe that God commanded genocides in the Bible. I will extract one point from his talk, develop the argument, and hope that it creates helpful discussion.


First, some examples:

Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel … to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe’or, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Num. 31:8-18)

And Samuel said to Saul, “. . . now therefore hearken to the word of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish what Am’alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Am’alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'” (1 Sam. 15:1-5)

In the Number’s passage, some Midianite women had pulled away Israelite men from God, and these men started worshiping Baal. In the 1 Samuel passage, an earlier generation of Amalekites had caused destruction to Israel, so God was commanding Israel to punish the current generation of Amalekites.
There are a lot of interesting historical/cultural questions here as well as other potential moral problems in these passages I’ll have to skip over. I’ll jump right into an argument from analogy, heavily inspired by Morriston.
Suppose there is a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination whom you consider to be wise, spiritual, and very close to God. Suppose, uncharacteristically, he reports to his mega-church that God spoke to him and commanded him to tell the church that they must go kill all the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Plausibly, we ought to think that God did not tell the pastor that his church should kill all the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
By analogy, we ought to think that God did not tell Israel (or the relevant Israelite leader) to commit genocide. Just as we ought not to believe the pastor when he makes his claim about what God told him, we ought not believe the Bible when it makes a claim about what God told the Israelites. That’s the analogy.
It’s hard not to deny the intuition about the pastor. Suppose we add that the pastor had given the following reasons for committing the killings: “Young Mormon women have been pulling young men in our congregation away from salvation.” Or “Mormons of a past generation have killed many people in our church.” Suppose these things were true. Even so, we would still reject the pastor’s claim. Nothing of the sort of reasons we might think that God had to justify killing the Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites, and so on would make it so it is rational to believe the pastor.
It is hard to deny the strength of the analogy. Someone might say that the Bible is generally reliable and a good guide to life. We have experienced God through the study of the Bible many times. But that could also be the case for the pastor. The pastor might also be generally reliable and a good guide to life.
Lastly, I have said nothing about the inerrancy or infallibility or inspiration of scripture. I’d like to avoid discussion of what these terms mean and how to interpret them. Perhaps there is a way of understanding “inerrancy” according to which God did not command these things. I don’t know, and for this post, I don’t care. I’m just interested in knowing whether I’m rational in believing that God commanded these things, and this argument suggests that I am not.

Comments:
  • I would say the analogy is apples and oranges. God was interested in keeping the people of Israel separate from the surrounding cultures; God is not interested in keeping the people of said mega-church separate from surrounding people. You would be rational to believe that God was interested in keeping His chosen people separate, even by means we might consider extreme. In retrospect, we must understand that, if these were commanded by God, then;
    1) They were obviously effective. The Israelites maintained a distinct cultural and religious heritage ideal to a hypothetical Savior coming from whose identity could be bolstered by the contingent culture and religion (i.e. prophecies, an expectation of a Savior).
    2) These were commands of God who is also known to “Give *and* take away,” or alternately to “Shine and rain on whom He will.” If God is able to take the life of those to whom He has given, then certainly it is within His ability to accomplish these feats through instruments and also in a manner to the effect of (1).
    How does that seem to you?

    October 26, 2009 — 21:05
  • If one denies the absolute sovereignty of God, then one could grant the “argument” some plausibility. If one assumes the sovereignty of God, however, then the “argument” says nothing. So the question is, ultimately, theological, and cannot be wrestled with outside of the Scriptures entirely, for they provide the necessary backdrop to understanding each individual’s behavior. Without touching upon inerrancy etc, one can use the Scriptures to at least provide some context in which to evaluate the behavior of Samuel, just as one could one’s knowledge of contemporary history to provide the necessary backdrop for the pastor’s behavior.
    And this is where the analogy fails.
    1. On what basis would we disbelieve the word of the pastor?
    1a. Would we disbelieve Samuel for the same reasons?
    1b. Would the Israelites disbelieve the pastor?
    1c. If so, then why?
    2. Is the “intuitive” response based upon some inexplicable “gut-feeling,” or is it based upon preexisting notions of what a Christian Pastor’s behavior should look like?
    2a. With respect to worship, communal involvement, and international conflict, is Samuel’s religious role equivalent to the pastor’s?
    2b. Is the “intuitive” response necessarily correct? That is to say, on what assumed basis does one accept one’s intuitions over against a “word from God”?
    As one who believes in the absolute sovereignty of God, I see no problem with accepting the genocides as having been ordered by God.
    Yet because of my theological stance, I would not accept the pastor’s words as genuinely inspired.
    One’s theology decides upon this matter.
    – Jacques F.

    October 27, 2009 — 3:32
  • Joel

    Hi Andrew,
    How is this any different (in kind) from Kant’s discussion of Abraham (is it the Conflict of the Faculties?). Just as Abraham should have responded to “the supposedly divine voice” that he was much more sure he should not kill his good son Isaac than that the voice was God’s, so also we should be more sure God would not command such genocide than that any text alleging him to do so is correct.
    Joel

    October 27, 2009 — 10:34
  • Gordon Knight

    The problem can be raised even if one does not rely on moral intuitions, but on what scripture says about God.
    Plausibly, scripture says God loves all people (this would include the Amalekites)
    Genocide is a prima facie case of unloving behavior.
    Therefore, there is a prima facie case that God did not command genocide.
    I don’t think we should ignore moral intuitions (how else can we even understand waht is meant by “God is good” or undestand God to be worthy of worship) but the argument can be constructed using scripture against itself

    October 27, 2009 — 11:29
  • A nice analogy.
    Here are some thoughts:
    1. We in fact live in New Testament times, a time of the Gospel of life, a time where our relationship to our enemies is supposed to be different, where we are not supposed to stone adulterers, etc. In particular, the pastor’s command is contrary to the need to preach the Gospel to the Mormons.
    For the following, discount point (1), maybe by imagining that we’re in a 1st century BC mega-synagogue and our rabbi is telling us this.
    2. This may be a place where justification needs to be context-sensitive. When I hang around epistemologists, they sometimes talk about theories that let you do that. If so, this is the right place for such a theory. To believe the preacher will likely lead us into genocidal action. The evidence needed for belief in circumstances like that is extremely high. But the biblical story is not supposed to be action-guiding for us, so the evidential standards are lower.
    3. St Thomas More, in one of his treatises written in prison, considers similar issues. One of his conclusions is that if you claim that God tells you to go and kill somebody (e.g., yourself), I should nonetheless try to stop you. For God hasn’t talked to me. If God has in fact told you this, and you know that he has, then maybe you had better do it–but that’s your business, while my business, barring a divine revelation to me, is to try to stop you. (Thomas tells an amusing story of a man who wanted his wife to crucify him on Good Friday so he’d be like our Savior. His wife–clever woman!–told him that Jesus was scourged before he was crucified, so she started beating him until he changed his mind about the whole thing.)
    Now, here is a plausible suggestion which Thomas doesn’t, as far as I remember, make: I ought to try to stop you even if I assign a high epistemic probability to your being in fact guided by God. One might try to strengthen this as follows. Unless it is impossible for me to doubt the command, I ought not act on it or permit another to act on it. However, in the case of the ancient commands, there is no question for us of acting on it, since they are not directed to us or anyone now alive, so this rule is beside the point. We might ask whether the people historically involved followed this rule–whether doubt was impossible for them–but that’s a historical question to which we do not have an answer.
    4. The evidence for the inspiration of Scripture is better than the word of one pastor.

    October 27, 2009 — 11:33
  • Gordon:
    Sure, there is a prima facie case that God did not command genocide, but testimony–whether by fallible or infallible witnesses–often defeats that which there is a prima facie case against. Indeed, much that we have testimony to is such that its antecedent probability was low.

    October 27, 2009 — 11:42
  • I don’t think that the two situations are analogous for several reasons.
    For a start, the modern day situation takes place in 21st century western society, which is individualistic and highly stable. The *Samuel situation* took place in the Nation of Israel in the ANE (Ancient Near East). ANE culture was thoroughly collectivist and the needs of individuals were often easily trumped by the needs of society at large.
    As far as I know, societys in the ANE, especially nomadic ones like the nation of israel, were constantly on the borderline of anarchy and they rarely acheived the social stability we are so used to today. The slightest upset in the status quo could spell disaster for the people group. Following after gods that were not your own was seen as an act comparable to treason, and thus threatened the status quo of the nation.
    In the two “genocide cases” you mentioned, the status quo of the nation of Israel was under threat, firstly by men being led to commit the ancient day equivelent of treason, and secondly by potential attackers.
    We also have the benefit of hindsight, in that we know how significant the nation of Israel was in God’s great redemption plan. The propering of the nation was necessary if His plan was to unfold correctly.
    So we have some plausible contextual reasons why God may have commanded genocide in these verses, reasons that are not anywhere near present in the modern day situation. Therefore, the two situations are far from analogous, therefore the argument fails.

    October 27, 2009 — 13:16
  • Andrew Moon

    thanks for the comments everyone! unfortunately, because of the busyness referred to above and my knowledge of how blogging zaps away my time, I’m going to refrain from saying much in response, but I am reading these comments, and these thoughts are helpful. I’ve already started to rethink my view. Alex, I thought your second point about context-sensitivity was especially interesting.

    October 27, 2009 — 14:17
  • Wes Morriston

    Andrew,
    Maybe you can read one more post? Try giving your “preacher” a 19th century setting. Let him convey a divine command to massacre some of the early Mormons. Let him be the one behind the Haun’s Mill massacre of Mormons that actually occurred on Oct. 30, 1838. Now this preacher’s message certainly isn’t “action guiding” for you. So do you really think we should lower our epistemic standards for his claim that God wanted this massacre to take place?

    October 27, 2009 — 17:17
  • Andrew Moon

    Wes,
    Yeah, I started to realize something like your point as I thought about it today. I think your example blocks Alex’s second consideration about context-sensitivity. Good point!

    October 27, 2009 — 23:09
  • “The problem can be raised even if one does not rely on moral intuitions, but on what scripture says about God.”
    If the argument is based on what Scripture says about God, then why aren’t God’s sovereignty, holiness, omniscience and justice taken into consideration?
    “Plausibly, scripture says God loves all people (this would include the Amalekites)”
    Plausibly, God does love all people. However, distorting the full Scriptural presentation of who God is – by excluding His sovereignty guided by His holiness, exercised in judgment (exhibiting His omniscient knowledge of the intentions of men, etc) – is precisely to not make a Scriptural argument at all. God’s love, sovereignty, holiness, omniscience and justice are, Scripturally speaking, inseparable.
    “Genocide is a prima facie case of unloving behavior.”
    Humanly speaking, yes; Divinely speaking, according to Scripture, no.
    “Therefore, there is a prima facie case that God did not command genocide.”
    Only if we misunderstand, or misrepresent, the character of God as given in Scripture via the distortion of one of His attributes. In this case, it is the distortion of the Biblical presentation of God’s love for humanity.
    “I don’t think we should ignore moral intuitions (how else can we even understand waht is meant by “God is good” or undestand God to be worthy of worship)”
    Our moral intuitions are fallible. Moreover, strictly speaking, moral intuitions don’t provide the basis for understanding the goodness of God or why God is worthy of worship, Scripture does. This isn’t “Biblicism”, it’s simply Theology. “Goodness” is one of God’s many attributes. How is God good? Read Psalm 136, et al.
    Similarly, God is worthy of worship for a number of reasons that are clearly given in Scripture (cf. Psalm 135, 150, et al).
    “…but the argument can be constructed using scripture against itself.”
    The argument can be made only if one distorts the Scriptural data via decontextualization.

    October 28, 2009 — 0:57
  • Gordon Knight

    Briefly, if genocide is not unloving behavior, then I don’t know what “love” means when applied to God. Its just a sound, devoid of meaning.
    Reading the psalms etc does not help, it just gives us more words. I take it for granted that the biblical authors were not using words in a strange new sense, but using them in the ordinary way.
    I think if we understand love in anything like the ordinary way then the case against God commanding genocide is very strong indeed. If we choose to not understand “love” in this way, then we need an account of what the new meaning is. My guess is that any such account would not make sense of worship.
    So my argument was that either ones gives up the idea of God as loving each individual person,or one gives up the idea that God commands genocide.
    I said “prima facie” which was not quite the right word. genocide is a paradigm of evil. But as Alex points out, we don’t know what God knows, and it is logically possible that the genocide that God supposedly commanded was an act of love given not a different conception of love, but different knowledge of the facts.
    I just think that possibility is extremely unlikely.

    October 28, 2009 — 11:46
  • Mike Almeida

    Briefly, if genocide is not unloving behavior, then I don’t know what “love” means when applied to God. Its just a sound, devoid of meaning
    What’s ‘unloving behavior’? Would it be an example of unloving behavior that someone slices you open with a scalpel without your consent? But then of course you might be under the scalpel of your surgeon wife who is trying to save your life, right? So that S exhibits unloving behavior to S’ does not entail S does not love S’. Whether what counts as unloving behavior evinces a lack of love depends not just on the facts God knows but also on what God’s intentions/motives might be. Commanding something indiscernible from genocide is like commanding something indiscernible from slicing someone open with a sharp knife. Whether it counts against the morality of the agent depends on what the agent intends and what his motives are.

    October 28, 2009 — 12:18
  • Gordon Knight

    Mike,
    I think if you read the rest of my post I allow for such a possibility.
    It might be like the movie Fail-safe, in which NY is nuked in order to prevent full scale nuclear war. It *might* be like that. The question is what are the odds of it being like that
    Of course if you know that God made the command, and you know God is good then it follows that the command was justified morally. But that pressuposes what is supposed to be proved.

    October 28, 2009 — 14:58
  • Mike Almeida

    I think if you read the rest of my post I allow for such a possibility.
    I did read the post, Gordan. My point was that two indiscernible actions–each of which we would describe as unloving–might differ importantly in their relations to the agent. I don’t know what the probability is that God had good motives in requiring an action that is unloving; I don’t know what the probability is that his intentions were good. There is no easy way to assign probabilities to certain motives/intentions obtaining. If one has high priors for God existing, then yes, the motives are probably good. If one has low priors for God existing, then no, it is not likely that God had good motives (since it is not likely that he exists at all).

    October 28, 2009 — 16:28
  • Andrew,
    I haven’t read all the comments, but I wonder if the analogy proves too much. Plausibly, if a holy pastor held up a book and said “this book is the sole rule of faith” we would disagree. Plausibly, if the pastor said “You must believe God is triune, on MY authority” we would disagree. By analogy, we should disagree when Scripture makes these claims. Any Christian sect is going to claim that Scripture has the power to make a claim which, if made by any non-Scriptural source, would be plausibly if not necessarily false.

    October 28, 2009 — 17:01
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Joel,
    It’s good to hear from you, and thanks for the comment.
    It’s not as obvious to me that Abraham should’ve responded the way you said, given his strong evidence that God was in fact speaking to him (via miracles and their past together), God had a strong track record of being faithful to his promises to Abraham (e.g. when he led him to Canaan), and the fact that God had promised Abraham that Isaac would, in the end, live (since Isaac would have to be alive in order for Abraham to have the descendants God had promised him through Isaac).
    Even if you disagree with this, the verdict on Abraham is not as clear as any intuitions about the pastor case, in which it is clear to almost everyone that we should not believe the pastor.

    October 29, 2009 — 1:58
  • Gordon Knight

    Mike, I am sorry, I guess I thought that my admission of our epistemic limits included intentions, etc.
    I wonder if one’s reaction to this topic is related to how one views the skeptical theist response to the argument from evil.
    The Skeptical theist says that given our epistemic limits its likely that there are apparent evils which really are not evil or which are necessary for some greater good.
    This looks weaker than: Given our epistemic limits it is likely that God will command an action that strikes us intuitively as morally monstrous.
    But you don’t need to say that its likely in itself, what you would need to do is say that it is not so unlikely that we should disregard the testimony of scripture.

    October 29, 2009 — 7:38
  • Gordon Knight

    sorry for the double–I should be preparing for class so of course I must procrastinate>
    But would the case be different if it was you (or me) who had the divine vision.
    Its well known that people who have near death experiences, for example, or almost always persuaded of their veracity (which is not to say that they are veridical).
    So suppose that I have an experience with equivalent psychological power, but I don’t dismiss it as merely psychological–I believe (rightly or wrongly) to be justified in taking the experience to be genuine.
    What I take the experience to be is this: God is tellin me to murder one thousand people.
    I like to think that if this occured, the morally outrageous character of the vission would lead me to doubt my confidence in its veracity.
    But this case seems to one in which my evidence is stronger than simply reading about someone else who claimsm that God commands (what looks like) a heinous act.

    October 29, 2009 — 7:44
  • Joel

    Hi Andrew,
    I agree that the pastor case is stronger. The point was that the two cases seem to be illustrations of the same point – that we must rely on our independent moral knowledge to discern whether or not God is the author of some command.
    On Abraham: I don’t see how the additional information to which you point much helps the situation. Indeed, it makes it more confusing. If I really believe that GOD has promised me something entailing that my son will not die for some time, how can I genuinely attempt to obey the command to kill him now? We are into the realm of attempts to do what one knows to be impossible.

    October 29, 2009 — 12:32
  • Hey Joel,
    On your first paragraph, I got you. On the second paragraph, yeah, it is confusing, and there’s much more to be said (Eleonore Stump’s done some good recent work on this), and a whole lot has been said, but it’d be too much to go into here. As you know, there’s a lot of literature on the Abraham/Isaac stuff, stuff I don’t know about.

    October 29, 2009 — 12:36
  • Andrew Moon

    (ackh! trying to keep blogging to a minimum!)
    James,
    That’s a helpful point that I’ll have to think about and that might help nuance the discussion… I’ll think about it.
    (haha, so I kept this comment short!!!)

    October 29, 2009 — 12:43
  • DL

    If I really believe that GOD has promised me something entailing that my son will not die for some time, how can I genuinely attempt to obey the command to kill him now?

    Hebrews 11:17-19: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son (to whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called); accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead.”
    In other words, Abraham not only trusted in God in the sense of being fully obedient, but also in trusting that He had complete control over the universe. As far as believing that such a drastic command could come from God, Abraham surely accepted that God had authority over life and death; but also he would have been familiar with the practice of sacrificing children to the gods from the surrounding cultures, and I think at least part of the point of the story is God’s way to emphasize that He is not like other gods.

    October 29, 2009 — 16:23
  • One possible rejoinder here would be as follows: According to an important line of Protestant thought, God does not directly communicate in a prophetic manner after the time of the Apostles. Prior to the closing of the Canon, God communicated through dreams visions, prophecy etc but after the apostles the final and full revelation has been received in the written apostolic testimony.
    Now if one took this line of argument there would be an important reason for rejecting the Pastors claim that would not apply to Moses or Samuel (assuming for now the exegesis put forward which I am not entirely convinced of)one could dismiss his claim on the grounds that God does not communicate in this way today.

    October 30, 2009 — 6:37
  • I have been pondering this analogy and I wonder if there is the following dis-analogy. In each case what’s your basis for thinking that the purported command was from God? In the Pastor case it appears to be the Pastors say so, as you describe it “he [the pastor] reports to his mega-church that God spoke to him” Now turn to the Moses and Samuel case in this case the ground for thinking that God issued the command is that scripture affirms it. It seems then for the two cases to be analogous one would have to view the testimony of ones pastor as epistemically on par with the testimony of scripture.
    Now whether this is the case would seem to depend on how one views scripture if scripture is taken to be simply some human testimony about God then arguably the two cases are on par. On the other hand, if scripture is supposed to be the word of God then the two cases are not on par. To be on par you would need a case where you were convinced that God told you that the pastor received the command to kill the Mormons.
    In light of this I wonder if there is something dialectically circular going on here. In order for the analogy to work one needs to presuppose that scriptural testimony is on par with merely human testimony. But if this is the case, how can you use the analogy to argue against inerrancy? Have you not already assumed a denial of inerrancy as a tacit presupposition of the analogy in the first place.

    October 30, 2009 — 20:08
  • Wes Morriston

    It is indeed important to get the dialectic right. But to accept the testimony of scripture is to put your faith in the work of a long chain of mostly unknown persons: those who spoke or wrote the original words, those who thought them worthy of preservation, as well as those who combined them into larger and larger units. Last, but not least, we must remember those persons who decided which books belonged in the canon and which did not. Divine inspiration is possible at any of these points, but so – obviously – is human error.
    Consequently, I don’t see why the principles that govern the evaluation of purported “revelations” in the present should be deemed irrelevant to the Bible on the ground that it is “scripture” rather than human testimony. I don’t see anything “circular” here. The burden of proof is on those who would have us believe that the writers who ascribe these horrific commands to God knew what they were talking about.

    October 31, 2009 — 20:18
  • Wes, I am not sure what your exact point is here. But I am inclined to think a lot depends on the dialetical context. There seem to me to be at least two options: The first is where a person already accepts that scripture is the infallible word of God, accepts Andrew’s ( and yours) exegesis of the passages and the analogy is proposed as a defeater for this belief.
    The second is where a person is agnostic about the status of scripture and is considering which position to adopt, in this context the analogy is being used to argue he should not accept the view that scripture is Gods infallible word.
    It seems to me the argument would be dialectically circular in the first context. It may not be in the second.

    November 1, 2009 — 18:22
  • Gordon Knight

    what is “dialectically circular” I thought the argument was a reductio, which works against both those holding a belief and those who are just wondering whether they should hold it.
    As long as one does not hold that teh belief that scripture is infallible is, itself, infallible.

    November 2, 2009 — 7:04
  • Gordon,
    A reductio starts by assuming the position of ones interlocutors for the sake of argument and then showing absurdities follow from this assumption.
    My point is that the analogy assumes that “scripture says God said X to Y” is analogous to “a human pastor says God said X to Y” however this would only be plausible if one denies infallibility.
    Hence the argument does not start by assuming the opponents position is true for the sake of argument, it actually assumes it is not true is a tacit premise.
    It seems to me then that the argument cannot be a valid reductio. I may be missing something having not read Wes’s full article, but it does seem to me the analogy assumes epistemic parity between scripture and the claims of a mere human being from the outset.

    November 3, 2009 — 20:40
  • Gordon Knight

    Matt,
    Well it follows trivially that if scripture is infallible then whatever scripture says about God’s commands are true.
    But presumably the belief that scripture is infallible is not itself infallible.
    Likewise if the pastor’s religious experience is veridical, God really did command the genocide the Pastor is claiming.
    Wes’ argument, as I understand it, is simply to point out that any such Pastor would be viewed as crazy.
    What this shows is that the antecedent probability of God commanding genocide is tiny, or to put the point positively, The antecedent probability of God not commanding genocide is extremely strong (so strong that in ordinary life we take it to be a certainty)
    So to counter the argument you would need to hold that your belief in the infalliblity of scipture is so great that it outweighs this strong antecedent probability of God not so commanding it.
    I don’t know if this is Wes’ actual argument, but it seems to be in the spirit of it

    November 4, 2009 — 9:42
  • What about this kind of a view?
    1. For any actual situation S, the probability that God commands genocide in S is miniscule.
    2. The probability that God commands genocide at some time during the history of Israel is small, but not miniscule.
    In that case, it’s not unreasonable to think the Bible’s report is right, even though what was reported had miniscule antecedent probability.
    Compare to a lottery where a million people play and there is a 95% chance that nobody will win. For any player, the probability that she will win is miniscule–one in 20 million. But the probability that some player or other will win is small, but not miniscule.
    Now one might argue against the accuracy of a newspaper that it prints that Patrick Jones won this lottery as follows: it is antecedently very unlikely–one in 20 million–that Jones won this lottery, so it is more likely that the newspaper is lying than that it is telling the truth. But this is mistaken, because we need to break the newspaper’s report into two stages: first the claim that someone won, and second, given that someone won, that it is Patrick Jones. The first claim has a 1/20 antecedent probability, so it’s reasonable to trust the newspaper on that one. But given that someone has in fact won, while the likelihood that it was Jones is one in a million, nonetheless we have reason to trust the newspaper. Why? Because the probability of them incorrectly reporting that it was Jones is much less than one in a million–if they’re going to report incorrectly, they could equally well incorrectly report any of the other players, or for that matter any non-player, as the winner.
    Things aren’t so neat in the Biblical case, but the analogy still applies, I think.
    The same criticism can be made of Hume’s argument against miracles. The antecedent probability that a miracle should happen at t is miniscule. The antecedent probability that a miracle should happen at some time or other is not miniscule–or at least Hume hasn’t successfully argued that it is. (Has this criticism been made? I haven’t seen it, but the ground has been covered very thoroughly.)
    There may even be an application to the problem of evil. The antecedent probability that God would permit George to suffer total paralysis is very small. But the antecedent probability that God would permit somebody or other to suffer total paralysis is not very small–it is antecedently extremely unlikely that George is such that a total paralysis would on balance be good for him, but not antecedently extremely unlikely that someone is–or even a number of people are–like that.

    November 4, 2009 — 11:02