Friday, March 18, 2011

Two points on reason

First, I was thinking about Hume on the experience of "miracles" the other day and how his point ought to be generalizable. This is the crux of his criticism in Of Miracles:

"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” When any one tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."

It seems to me that this has applications beyond experiential evidence to logical evidence as well. Often logical evidence is put on a pedestal - particularly in some of the circles that I engage with on this blog. Frequently it is assumed that the critic must find a flaw in the argument - that the burden of proof is on them. To make matters more challenging "the argument" is usually nothing more than a premise, a conclusion, and a citation of Mises, which doesn't give the critic of the conclusion much to work with. I would never deny the burden of proof placed on the critic (usually I'm simply not interested in crafting a disproof), I just wonder to what extent it is uniquely borne by the critic. This is where Hume comes in. Hume's critique of those who have claimed to see the miraculous is that they should ask themselves "is it more likely that what I see is correct, or is it more likely that I am deceiving myself?". I think this sort of self-interrogation should be done more, particularly by heterodox rationalists who derive conclusions that are apparently lost on lots of other intelligent people. I am no logician and I have never read Mises and I am not motivated to disprove Mises because I'm not all that swayed by the imperatives of a purely a prioristic science in the first place. In other words, my criticism is not a very good test to put your ideas to if you do take the imperatives of a purely a prioristic science seriously. But in the absence of a disproof, I think those who are tempted to take Mises and others as indisputable should take Hume to heart - what is more likely, that the failure to see a disproof implies the absence of a disproof, or that there is a disproof and your own logical faculties simply fail you? In other words - knowledge is not innocent until proven guilty. Knowledge is always probabilistic. And the content of the knowledge itself is not the only factor in play - your ability to scrutinize and digest that content is also a factor.


Chris Perridas - an H.P. Lovecraft blogger - points us to a piece about Lovecraft by Erik Davis that I think has some interesting things to say about Lovecraft and reason. One of the things that is often noted as being unique in Lovecraft is that his horrors and monsters are not supernatural at all. In that sense, Lovecraft was not a part of the Romantic tradition. Indeed he identified himself with the Critical Realists of the early twentieth century. What's different about Lovecraft's monsters is that they are not presented as a suspension of reality or a flight into fantasy - they are presented as a reality we simply weren't aware of. Davis writes:

"For Lovecraft, it is not the sleep of reason that breeds monsters, but reason with its eyes agog. By fusing cutting-edge science with archaic material, Lovecraft creates a twisted materialism in which scientific “progress” returns us to the atavistic abyss, and hard-nosed research revives the factual basis of forgotten and discarded myths."

Insanity is a potent theme in Lovecraft, but the insanity comes as a result of the reality of the monsters. Monsters aren't a function of insanity; insanity is a function of the monsters.


  1. In Erik Davis' piece, we see claims of how some tiny minority of people practice actual occult based on Lovecraft.

    It's amazing how good enough fiction can spur people's imaginations. "Such a thing is too specific to be true!" No, it never is.

    Joseph Smith's magnum opus was still most likely fiction and not revealed to him by an otherworldly entity. One may point to how extraordinary it is that a barely educated young man could fill a book with his fantasies and ideas. It is extraordinary, but it is perfectly possible. (Apologies to any Mormon who visits this blog) Same for Credo Mutwa's The Reptilian Agenda - a rambling 6 hour series of detailed anecdotes, all of which may be completely made up.

    Erik Davis is also right in pointing out Lovecraft's dislike of supersition and spiritualism. He showed those cultists in his stories as mere madmen, even though there may be a hint of truth in what they believe, the rest badly distorted.

  2. Ya - I disregarded the occult stuff in that piece. From reading his letters, I don't think there's a shred of evidence Lovecraft himself bought into any of that. But people will believe anything...

    I thought the interesting point of the piece was the idea that Lovecraft is effective precisely because he writes his monsters as a realist would, not as a romanticist would. There's nothing "otherworldly" about them - that's the whole point. They're part of this world. The stories happen in Massachusetts, not some fantasy land.

  3. Which is to say Lovecraft was a realist and a fiction writer, which is a stark contrast with (1.) nuts who have taken him to be a realist and a non-fiction writer, and (2.) prior writers who were romanticists and fiction writers.

  4. His best point was about Dreams in the Witch House.

    This was a story dealing with the fourth dimension in physics and integrating it with New England witch tales from the 17th century.

    If I went to a Hollywood producer with his idea, he'd think I am crazy for proposing something that falls between Dexter's Lab and Excorcist. But the actual story, it works.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.