Sunday, August 30, 2009

Harry Potter and Epistemic Uncertainty

I. Harry's Dilemma

No, the subject of this post is not the title of an ill-conceived Harry Potter sequel. Rather, I'd like to discuss a subtheme of the seventh Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) that is relevant to Jewish law and thought.

In the first half of the book, rumors and details about the recently deceased Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry's mentor and hero, begin to surface. A revealing biography is published and highlights are revealed in the press in advance of publication. As Harry learns these facts -- or alleged facts, because the sources are questionable -- he struggles over how to view the man he used to idiolize.

Click here for moreHarry admittedly had only some of the facts, and many of them were of questionable veracity, but the direction in which they pointed was clearly that Dumbledore was not as great a man as had been previously thought. Twice, in the book, he was advised to ignore the new revelations and retain a positive image of Dumbledore.

II. Choosing What To Believe

Here is the first discussion (pp. 152-153):

"Well, in that interview," Harry went on, "Rita Skeeter hinted that Professor Dumbledore was involved in the Dark Arts when he was young."

"Don't believe a word of it!" said Doge at once. "Not a word, Harry! Let nothing tarnish your memories of Albus Dumbledore!"

Harry looked into Doge's earnest, pained face and felt, not reassured, but frustrated. Did Doge really think it was that easy, that Harry could simply choose not to believe? Didn't Doge understand Harry's need to be sure, to know everything?
And here is the second exchange (p. 185):
[Hermione:] "Harry, do you really think you'll get the truth from a malicious old woman like Muriel, or from Rita Skeeter? How can you believe them? You knew Dumbledore!"

"I thought I did," he muttered.

"But you know how much truth there was in everything Rita wrote about you! Doge is right, how can you let these people tarnish your memories of Dumbledore?"

He looked away, trying not to betray the resentment he felt. There it was again: Choose what to believe. He wanted the truth. Why was everbody so determined that he should not get it?
Harry is advised that, absent conclusive information, he should ignore the preponderance of evidence regarding Dumbledore's hidden past. When the truth finally emerges, it turns out that while there was truth in the revelations, the facts were incomplete and distorted. What were really a fleeting, foolish endeavor and a tragic accident were turned on their head and made into a hidden agenda.

III. Inconclusive Evidence

This raises the question of what to do when you have inconclusive evidence. Should you follow the direction of the preponderance of evidence, even if you know that you are missing significant pieces to the puzzle? Should you remain without an opinion? Or should you choose whichever outcome you want, as long as it can somehow fit in with the evidence currently available? Harry was advised to maintain his original belief and assume that any new evidence is either incorrect or somehow explainable. Is this the right approach?

One area in which this dilemma arises in Jewish law is very similar to that in the story -- the rules of judging someone favorably (din le-khaf zekhus). If we hear gossip about someone, should we believe it? Should we assume that there are more details that we do not know that will somehow explain how the facts given are actually positive? Or should we just dismiss everything as unreliable?

There are multiple views about the details but, generally speaking, Jewish law teaches that if the gossip is about someone known to be wicked, we may believe it. If it is about someone who is average or is an extremely upright person, we should assume that it is either wrong or that there is a context that can explain the details in a positive way. (See this Hebrew article of mine: link - PDF)

IV. Belief

Another area in which this dilemma arises is that of belief in theological principles. For example, the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch. Evidence from biblical criticism and related fields indicate that the Pentateuch was written by different people. However, an honest observer will admit that the evidence is not completely conclusive, and perhaps can never be when discussing the authorship of a text thousands of years old.

If the current preponderance of evidence points to human authorship, must we accept that conclusion? Or can we choose which position to believe, since either can somehow fit within all the evidence? Or should we retain the traditional belief of Divine authorship and dismiss new findings as either incorrect or explainable?

The message of Harry Potter is that there is no reliable method. Until we have all of the information, even the preponderance of evidence might be misleading. There might be some significant mising piece of information that will entirely change the picture.

VI. Belief and Knowledge

That, the Beis Ha-Levi tells us, is the definition of belief (link). Where knowledge leaves off, that is where we have the opportunity to believe. Belief is, according to this approach, only relevant where there is no conclusive information.

Where does that leave us? Should we believe that vampires exist because they have not been conclusively proven to not exist? What about spontaneously generating lice? At what point do our beliefs become ridiculously irrational? What we have to say is that there comes a point, which cannot be objectively determined, when the evidence becomes overwhelming. We do not need 100% confirmation. At some point we have enough pieces of the puzzle that the conclusion is clear and we cannot ignore it.

Has the issue of human authorship of the Pentateuch reached a level of overwhelming evidence? I certainly don't think so, and I have written a number of posts on that subject. The message of Harry Potter is that when there is uncertainty then within the realm of rationally viable possibilities you are free to choose which to believe based on emotion (i.e. non-rational) reasons.

UPDATE: Dov Krulwich on the Harry Potter Torah blog points out that I missed the conclusion of Harry's dilemma, which has an important moral lesson: link

(Authentic Judaism)

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