Revelation informing reason

 We can know the future only so far as we can see into causes, which in turn requires the claim that these causes will act uniformly throughout time. But such a claim is not based on insight and cannot be confirmed, making it by definition prejudice.

But what will be – whether in the course of nature or the will of God – makes a difference to what we are now. It is very different to work on the scientific assumption of a uniformity of causes than on, say, the Islamic last judgment or the glyphs of the Hopi prophecy rock. But depending which we are working from, we get totally different answers to the questions like what am I and what is the significance of the world and what happens in it? But these are pretty clearly questions that touch on everything. 

So what then? From the point of view of human reason, we’re stuck having to choose among irreducible prejudices. As far as reason can tell, choosing to believe in the uniformity of causes is just as much of a prejudice as choosing to believe in anything else that is neither based on insight or able to be confirmed. All reason can do is wait and see, but it still has to act now. 

In the face of this, we can only choose the prejudice of the uniformity of causes if we view our own reason as the best option, which means either that it is all we have or all we can know that we have. This still does not make it reasonable: a prejudice is no less what it is for being the only one we have. For action to be reasonable and actually based on insight we need a revelation of the structure of history, given by someone in a position to know. The rational need for this will, of course, give rise to a whole history of wishful thinking, guesswork, self-deception and outright lies about what the historical structure is, and this does make for complications in someone looking for the true revelation. There will be continual and perhaps intractable debates over what sort of criteria we need to establish the true revelation, along with debates of what God needs to do to have gone far enough to have revealed anything. But the fact remains that we are not spectators to teh problem – our whole nature is bound up in it and the necessity of answering the question, and the adequacy of the answer we have given, is always being pressed on us. 

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3 Comments

  1. August 21, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Couldn’t someone respond, however, that his/her prejudice is reasonable to hold due to past experience? Religious prophesies of tradition X have come true in the past; therefore we can trust they will in the future. Causes have acted uniformly in the past; therefore we can expect them to in the future. I think both claims may run into problems of how probability actually works as well as confirmation bias based on post hoc narratives, but I’m not sure that someone couldn’t find a way to make either claim (or both) stronger.

    • August 21, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      While I don’t agree with all parts of his proof, Hume is basically right that we neither have insight nor rational confirmation for the uniformity of nature. A new heaven and a new earth are always a possibility for tomorrow, and may happen or not.

      This is perhaps the grue/bleen problem applied to apocalyptic thinking.

      Religious prophesies of tradition X have come true in the past; therefore we can trust they will in the future. Causes have acted uniformly in the past; therefore we can expect them to in the future.

      I would add something to this: at least in the Christian tradition, when we are speaking of prophetical foretellings coming true we are invoking an intelligence in a position to know what he is talking about. This is not the case for the hypothesis of the uniformity of nature. Human reason is not in a position either to have insight or confirmation of such an axiom. The only “confirmation” we get is after the event is a fait accompli. But, then again, every belief about the future could claim such a confirmation. If the Hopi glyffs are fulfilled, we’ll have confirmation of them.

  2. August 21, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Yes, I thought of Taleb’s Black Swans (which to some extend is basically a rehash of Hume on this point). People thought that all swans were white until they went to Australia and saw a black swan. In the same way, past experience is less a reliable predictor of future occurrence than we tend to be willing to admit, and after any given Black Swan, people tend to prefer to modify their narratives to include it rather than acknowledge their own epistemological or predictive limits. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And sometimes what we do not see and cannot predict is far more consequential than discovering that literal black swans exist.

    The difference you outline above between revelation and causation is important, but I wonder if it could be sharpened by making both a form of revelation: one special, one natural, respectively. This might just reinforce your original point but sharpen it for the atheist naturalist.


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