Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.


The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.


Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:


“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”


My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.


Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”


My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.


Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.


And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?


7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?


Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”


My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.


However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:


A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( )


I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.


By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”


My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.


Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.


And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.


This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 


But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 


And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.


A lie is not a statement to be analyzed logically

This will begin a trilogy of thoughts on the problem of lying, one of which will, hopefully, appear on another, more general site (but if it is not accepted there, I’ll post it here). Hopefully, recurrent readers of this blog will recognize the relation between this discussion and a recent post on collective fiction making – (and other posts here concerning the fictive nature of much of our story-telling, rhetoric, and presumed knowledge).


After reading an article by Gerald Dworkin (  ), considering the possible ethical justifications for telling a lie, I realized that the Analytic philosophy tradition’s efforts to develop an adequate theory of the lie – as logically analyzable statement – is frankly rather impoverished.

From Dworkin: “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

This is the baseline definition of the lie, at least in Analytic philosophy. See James Mahon’s SEP article:

Unfortunately, this definition, while useful in a dictionary, is misplaced in an encyclopedia. It is woefully incomplete.

From Mahon:
“Consider the following joke about two travelers on a train from Moscow (reputed to be Sigmund Freud’s favorite joke) (reference: G. A. Cohen):

Trofim: Where are you going?
Pavel: To Pinsk.
Trofim: Liar! You say you are going to Pinsk in order to make me believe you are going to Minsk. But I know you are going to Pinsk.

Pavel does not lie to Trofim, since his statement to Trofim is truthful, even if he intends that Trofim be deceived by this double bluff.”

Actually, Trofim is correct, Pavel is lying. The problem with the Analytic theorizing over lying is that, despite needing to contextualize lying, especially when considering it’s moral or ethical justification in certain situations, it doesn’t really grasp the profoundly social underlying structure, which necessarily includes audience expectations and the liar’s manipulation of these. Pavel knows Trofim doesn’t trust him, and so effectively lies to this expectation (not knowing how deeply Trofim distrusts him, to the point that he reveals the lie as a truth). This sort of situation, wherein a sentence can be both truth in one sense, and yet lie as to audience expectation, is not accountable in most Analytic philosophy, where the matter should be decidable on the basis of sentential analysis, predicated on a justified true belief model of knowledge. Real lying is not about sentences, and it isn’t even about what anyone believes; it’s about social relationships and expectations. One can speak a lie without needing to believe the sentence spoken to be untrue – or indeed, without believing anything about it at all. (Pavel may not believe he’s going to Pinsk, he just wants Trofim to think he’s going to Minsk.) What’s important is the expectation of the audience within the context.

So: when considering the ethics of lying, one has to approach the matter on a case-by-case basis; otherwise, injustice will be done to those who behave in good will, or those who feel socially compelled. I’m not sure a sustainable universal or general theoretical statement on the matter is even possible, given the social contextualization of the behavior.

Those wishing to maintain the purity of the logical analysis of lies as statements seek to maintain a rigid distinction between the lie and other forms of deception. In practice, this distinction cannot be maintained. Elsewhere in the SEP article, Mahon writes:

“If it is granted that a person is not making a statement when, for example, she wears a wedding ring when she is not married, or wears a police uniform when she is not a police officer, it follows that she cannot be lying by doing these things.”

But I do not grant this; or, rather, I hold that its incompleteness trivializes it *. The notion that an unmarried woman wearing a wedding ring (aware of how others will perceive this, in a given cultural context) is not a kind of lie, is uninformed as to how humans communicate through non-verbal signification, and the complex ways that the verbal and non-verbal relate.

Now, is the woman wearing the ring engaged in cruel play on innocents for the sake of vanity? or is she protecting herself in a threatening social context? That depends on the context, and on the expectations others have for her.

(Which. BTW, also tells us a little something about the social usefulness of cosmetics and apparel, doesn’t it?)

* As a matter of social fact, everyone who is not a professional Analytic philosopher knows full well that fashion makes a statement.

Developed out of a comment made at:

God’s temporal dilemma



At his Asifoscope blog this week, nannus posted an interesting essay, “Omniscience and Creativity – A Note on Creationism” *, in which he points out the logical problems in assuming that the Abrahamic god is omniscient and creative (since an omniscient god already has all possible information available to him, and thus could not create any more; and a creator god would be bringing into being information not previously available as knowledge). In the part of his discussion concerning the nature of change between information states that god would have a difficulty with, he remarks “(An infallible god) would not even have a history. A history requires change.”

This reminded me of a moment in my own thinking that finally closed all doors to belief in such a god, leaving not even the trace of a doubt that the ‘god’ idea was at best incoherent, at worst simply rubbish.  (If what follows reads as though occasionally self-contradictory, please understand that the self-contradictions come with the presumed beliefs – that’s the whole point.)

The problem of an infallible god without history that still somehow brings forth the history of creation, was not unknown to the Father’s of the Church. Augustine, the brightest mind among the Fathers, attempted to resolve the problem by arguing that god existed outside of time itself, that ‘time’ is an aspect of created existence, which thus gives us the spiritual history of god’s relationship with his creation – which, by the way, comes to an end at Judgment Day. (In this schema, ‘eternity’ is not eternal; as a temporal qualifier, it belongs to the realm of creation and cannot be ascribed to the creator. Eternity itself therefore comes to an end on Judgment Day.)

This argument has held forth throughout the history of Christianity, and is, unsurprisingly, recurrent in Judaic and Islamic thought as well. God, among these religions, is considered so ‘outside’ of anything that no human qualifier should be able to describe him, but only hint at his divine qualities.

Well, maybe. But if we remember we are discussing qualities of existence per se, and not any particular existing being, infallible or not, then our inherited image of the Almighty begins to shimmer out of focus, like a cgi figure on a monitor suffering pixel decay.

A basic problem with Augustine’s argument is that it conflates time and history. History is the knowable path of entities in motion; but the baseline of time is simply motion per se. If an entity follows a path from point A to point B to point C, it has a history, whether that motion changes the entity or is simply a pathway of points of existence. But any motion at all will deliver an entity from moment A to moment B, even if this is a slight shimmy in place without any change in points.

This, I suspect, is one reason Kant came to hold that, along with space, time was a necessary form of sensible intuition, without which it would be impossible to say whether any entity existed or not. Even should we stare at an entity seemingly stationary in space, or hold in our imaginations such an entity, time would be necessarily attached to these activities; for while the entity itself be motionless, our minds are not; we would be aware of time, have some sense of it, however distorted by the unusual concentration of the activity.

And of course at the level of quanta, we know that no entity, whatever its appearance, is strictly motionless. And any entity that moves has a temporal aspect to its existence. Thus every entity we know – any we can know – will exist ‘in time.’ Time is thus a fundamental category of existence. The mechanical reversibility of time presumed in classical mechanics and its descendents doesn’t change that. In certain processes time can be reversed, but it cannot be removed or denied.

So here’s god’s problem:

In order to be outside of time first, in order to create temporal existence, and then to have complete knowledge of it, god has to be completely motionless. This means he can’t even think, since thinking is an activity – thoughts are in motion. So he can’t know anything, either, since knowledge necessitates thought. Nor can he create temporal existence, since that too is an activity, and thus the act of creation is necessarily part and parcel of temporal creation. So, we are left with the possibility of a god outside of time, incapable of doing anything (and thus, just by the way, utterly powerless), or a (presumably all-powerful) creating god that must exist within time and thus cannot be separable from his creation.

If god created the universe, he must be part of the universe; if he is not part of the universe, then he cannot have created it.

Once this dilemma is spotted, the coherence of the ‘god’ idea quickly falls apart. For instance, an ‘all powerful’ god should indeed have the power to place himself out of time; but he can’t, because power – the ability to move or shape reality – is itself temporally bound – to have power means, in part, to be able to do something in time.

And of course if god cannot get himself outside of time, he can’t have foreknowledge in the way that the Abrahamic religions have insisted since Augustine – by being outside of time, god supposedly sees all the history of his creation at once. But ‘seeing’ is an activity, and thus temporally bound; if god acquires foreknowledge of history thereby, he effectively becomes a part of that history, and this ‘seeing all at once‘ is clearly a moment of god’s own history. (And this history assures us that god cannot even be said to be ageless, since aging is a inevitable function of history.) Unless god wants to abandon the claim to foreknowledge, in which case he cannot be all-knowing.

This is where we at last see the intersection of the problem of temporality with the problem of history. If god does have any power at all, in order to do something, this ‘doing something’ will have its history.

Which returns us to nannus’ point, according to which god can be all knowing and not have a history (and thus cannot create) or he can have a history (including creation), and then can not be all knowing.

The point I add is that omniscience would still embed god into his creation’s history, and that to be free of history, – outside of time – god would have to know nothing and be completely powerless.

So is god omniscient and therefore without a history of his own, yet completely embedded in creation’s history? Or is he powerless and unknowing, yet somehow the origin of all creation, even time itself?

None of this is making sense; the very idea of god is simply incoherent. None of the ascriptions of qualities he is said to have, thought through reasonably, hold up as propositions proper, once linked to logical implications of other asserted qualities. And time is the wrench that undoes the whole works. Because none of the active qualities ascribed to god can be realized except in time – and god is supposedly outside of time. But if this were so, his existence would be completely moot.

Time is thus the irreducible absolute of existence, the inescapable necessity of fundamental ontology, that undoes the whole of the ‘god’ idea, revealing it as a portmanteau of ancient myth and uninformed metaphysical speculation, patched together from the fabric of human hope and suspicions concerning the unknown. Its a superstition transmuted into an ideal , the re-assuring parent in the sky who will love us despite our flaws, and receive us into his embrace after we have survived all the tests he has given us.

I can hear the protests of theistic believers – ‘You don’t understand, god is beyond our comprehension entirely!’ If so, then he is also beyond our caring or concern. A god we cannot talk about is a god that has no relevance for us – a mere hope, a mere suspicion, a mere sense of re-assurance that may help one get through the day, I suppose, but provides no adequate ground for belief.

(The graphic above is borrowed from nannus’ post; it’s from wikimedia.)

Everything or nothing blog (Conspiracy Theory 1)



We blog because we must, because if we don’t, we don’t.  Why not?  Be honest!  Be joyful! Be real!  Whatever that means.  OR be nothing at all.  So, accordingly, I have decided, for the nonce, to not pretend being a somewhat skeptical inquirer into the nature of things, and instead accept my absolute certainty concerning everything.*  Really, it is patently absurd to presume not to know practically everything there is to know, when the fate of the entire planet, and the many human species inhabiting it, depend upon my keen insights into the basic ground of absolute being. So pay attention people, and heed the TRUTH. This theory (which is mine, which is a theory that I have) is not just a Theory of Everything, this is the FACT OF EVERYTHING.

Being: Being is all that is being and there isn’t anything that is not being, except those things that aren’t. Now you know.

And this Being is made up, not of sub-atomic particles or energy fields, but strings – shoe strings from another universe – the fourth from the left as you enter the 9th dimension. Everything that is has been worn on the foot of an nth-dimensional alien who suffers from mycotic toe-nails. It is the fungi spores in these second-hand shoe-laces that finally gave rise to life on favorable planets in our own universe. Yes, now we know the truth about life – it is fungus. This intelligent fungus called human must therefore be under an illusion, imagining itself some form of mammal with consciousness.

Indeed, what is consciousness? Tiny little fleas with flashlights have burrowed deep into our fungus-gray-matter and are shining flashlights on our neurons. They have hypnotized us to respond to stimuli in a pseudo-mammalian way – salivating every time we see a fast-food commercial, and getting randy about the letter “L” – Limburger, lightning, luminosity, lexicon, laundromat – feel the tingling in your groin? that’s not lollypops, that’s the letter “L” – yes, Sesame Street reveals the secret code – brought to you by the letter “L” – WAKE UP, FUNGI!

So now I must solve all the problems our presumed humanity faces – but isn’t it obvious? WE MUST EAT EACH OTHER!

Edible others are the only Other we need to know, as our epistemologically savvy taste-buds warrant!

POWER TO THE ‘SHROOMS! We must organize ourselves into giant lunch-baskets and dive in! Eat hearty and party! do be a glutton – it’s what you always wanted, admit it – that nice succulent buttock you’ve been eying – that’s not lust you’re feeling, it’s hunger – so get started – take a bite!

Eventually, there will only be two people left in the whole world – and one will eat the other – then there will be peace.


There’s the manifesto. The logic of it is quite plain – it is digitally encoded – dit-dit-dit-dat-dit-dat – you can listen to it on the magic radio your mother bought for you that horrible Christmas when Doctor Who regenerated into Peter Capaldi and started swearing foul-mouthed at the Impossible Girl. (You remember that because I told you it would happen!) But enactment of this great project will require stamina. We must begin training now! Send me all your money and I will write the book explaining how. ***

* This is also me at last revealing myself as the fount of all wisdom – and then some. Upon my receipt of all your cash, You will become my faithful follower – you will laud every word I say – when the book is published, be sure to pour thousands of words of praise onto Amazon reviews and blog comments everywhere. Chastise all who disagree! You were born free – but now I have released you from that terror and you must support me at every turn. give up the will to live – prepare to be eaten!

** See:

*** If you have no money, body parts will do. I’m hungry.



ejwinner says: Sir: Follow you? I’d rather drink the Bob Jones kool-aid. What is this monstrous fantasy you think you “know?” It flies in the face of everything science has taught us in the past 400 years.

Let’s analyze the ‘logic’ of it: ‘IF dit-dit-dit-dat-dit-dat, THEN we are all really fungi.’ Does this make any sense at all?

I’ve read saner ‘manifestos’ written by lizard-alien conspiracy theorists.

I think you are just trying to develop an esoteric excuse for your recent penchant for cannibalism. Look, you’re addicted. Give it up. Just get into rehab; there’s no shame following a twelve step program. “Just for today, I will not eat my little sister.” Oops, I forgot, you already et her. And they say you have no taste for family values….

Frankly, I suspect you are engaged in a giant scam, and I will have no part of it.


Hi ejwinner,

you slimy bucket of shit! Insanity is what comes out of your mouth after you drink piss while eating live worms! The drivel you puke up as commentary here reminds me of your mother’s farts – while I was boffing her! If you had any sense of decency you would dunk your head into a pool of toxic waste and keep it their until you drown, you pedanditic piece of fried fungus-doo!



ejwinner says: Sir, have no sense of decency? I have tried to engage you in civilized debate, simply reminding you that sucking on blood is a major source of infection of the brain, and offering you suggestions about seeking help for such urges. You needn’t be contentious, this is simply a matter of polite conversation between equal intellects.


Hi ejwinner:

You couldn’t be equal with my butt-hairs! You can take your fucking pretentious offers of help and shove them up your ass – one by one, each wrapped in sand-paper! I don’t need help, I need money – oh, and virgins – the consumable kind – baked in a pie, like the 21 blackbirds, only with mushroom gravy!



ejwinner says: Sir; it is quite clear that intelligent conversation is not to be had on your blog. I will leave you to your frankly disturbed fantasies, and seek enlightenment elsewhere. I only hope you get the help you need, or get arrested, whichever would be in the best interests of the community.


Hi ejwinner:

Good riddance, get outa here, we don’t need mudfucking syphilitic dipshit bastards like you in MY community of disciples, followers, sycophants, and lichen! I can use help, alright – a helping of virgin’s menstrual blood – with salt and garlic powder, yum yum!



AnonymousUserWithAmusingPseudonym says: Ejwinner, so when you say, “It flies in the face of everything science has taught us in the past 400 years,” I take it you mean that you hate science? Please explain where I am wrong; but Africans were brought here as slaves 400 years ago, so clearly the time-line indicates a bias. Have you evidence otherwise? Please link to sources.

OP, I couldn’t agree with you more. My check is in the mail. If it bounces, please accept my left leg.

Thanks for graciously reading my insignificant comment on your most excellent blog!


Hi AnonymousUserWithAmusingPseudonym:



Doubt truth to be a liar


Suppose we were to put a lawyer on retainer; and in the process of agreeing to a verbal contract with this lawyer, she were to say to us, “everything I do will be in your best legal interest; unfortunately, exactly for this reason, I may find it occasionally necessary to speak dishonestly to you in the future.” Well? Do we finalize this contract? Can we trust the lawyer will do everything in our interest, as contracted? But even so, do we not now know that any correspondence from her may be false? This is no paradox, but it is certainly a dilemma. Do we trust the lawyer’s expressed intentions? If we do, can we live thenceforth with the uncertainty concerning what she has to say?

In Hamlet, Shakespeare has the melancholy Dane send this rather odd note to the woman he supposedly loves:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

What’s odd about this verse is that the first two lines, in order to be properly comprehended, require a knowledge of the then recent debates in astronomy. We all recognize the reference to the sun’s movement, a remnant from the geocentric model of the universe. But it may be missed that the knowledge assumed in the first line depends on the assumption of the knowledge of the heliocentric model of the universe that displaced the geocentric model. (In the geocentric model the sun was not a star, and so stars needn’t be composed of the same stuff as the sun, and were frequently thought to be ice crystals in the ‘firmament.’ It was only with the coming of heliocentrism that at last it was recognized that the other objects in the sky were also suns, or planets like our earth. And if the stars were suns, they also burned.) So Shakespeare has Hamlet asking Ophelia to doubt both models, which effectively would leave her clueless as to what to justifiably believe – to know – about the heavens.

And his audience would have had good reason to think he was correct to do this. The geocentric model of the universe had actually been falling apart for some time; errors in seasonal predictions, star-charting, and naval navigation dependent on astronomy were accumulating. But although it produced fewer such practical errors (which is not to say none), the heliocentric model of the universe itself had a number of logical problems. For one, if the stars are also suns to other planets, then our own sun cannot be at the center of the universe. If our sun is the center of the universe, then the other stars cannot be suns to other planets. If the stars are not suns, then there’s no reason to assume they are composed of the same stuff as our sun; hence ‘doubt the stars are fire.’

Of course the solution is clear to us now, and forms a foundation of modern cosmology – technically, the universe has no center. So the sun can be a star, and other stars can be suns to other planets, and we’re all one big happy family of stuff. But Shakespeare’s audience wouldn’t know that . As far as they were concerned, the ‘natural philosophers’ of their day, such as astronomers, were busily demonstrating the probability that nothing could be known about earth, sun, stars, or universe.

This may be why Hamlet begins his fateful turn towards passion by reminding Ophelia that she is at liberty to suspect that everything false may yet be true:

Doubt truth to be a liar

– or is it the other way around? The grammar here seems somewhat unclear. Shakespeare may be playing on the classic ‘liar’s paradox, “I always lie,” the truth value of which is indeterminable (if true, it’s false, if false true). The liar’s paradox is in fact resolvable contextually; why is this person saying this, to whom, in what situation?

(‘Where’s that five bucks you promised?’
‘Oh, I always lie.’
‘So, we’re not going to the ball game like you said we would?’
‘There’s always an exception.’
Implication: Please forget that promise I didn’t want to make, but let’s go to the ball game anyway.)

In other words, one has to read it, not grammatically or logically, but rhetorically.

And the rhetorical usage here is clear, now. Obviously, Hamlet wants Ophelia to surrender logical judgments on what could be known. Even his grammar is a convolution making meaning difficult to read.

But Hamlet’s reassurance, expressed presumably ‘from the heart,’ certainly reads as clear, direct, final:

But never doubt I love.

Yet – why not? What assurance can Hamlet give Ophelia here? In the remainder of the letter, he says he is rather poor at verse (“number,” as he calls it, in reference to traditional metrics; but also perhaps as oblique admission that he does not himself fully trust the developments of the mathematically based new sciences) – but his logic is keen, and from that, Ophelia ought to have recognized the need for caution. (The line is clear and final – but it is not unambiguous in its application; one need not doubt Hamlet is capable of love without wondering about the object, the extent, the depth of it. It sounds deep, coming after the sweeping skepticism concerning metaphysics and truth itself, but that’s just set up. Taken by itself, it should lead to questions.)

Instead, we later find this exchange, When Ophelia is sent by her father to ascertain Hamlet’s mental state:

Hamlet: I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.

Obviously, the question, whether Hamlet actually did love Ophelia or not, has been batted about (perhaps to death) by literary critics for more than a hundred years. We will not pursue it. What concerns us here is the condition of truth as Hamlet presents it to Ophelia (and which he draws from the science, teh logic, and the approved grammar and rhetoric of his era). In his letter to Ophelia, he insists that his love is more certain than truth itself. Yet (when he suspects she is being used by her father), he renounces this previous assurance, dismissing Ophelia’s earlier acceptance of it, as the one truth she could be certain of – as no more than deluded belief. Another belief shattered, in an world filled with uncertainties.

Understandably, her confrontation with such mobile manipulation of ‘truth’ and belief contributes to her eventual madness. Hamlet has learned how to live in a world of uncertainties, how to suspend belief when presented with new knowledge claims, tentative and contingent discoveries in science, unstable social conditions. Not completely (or there would not have been any play at all), but enough to learn how to survive, to respond to possible threats and disappointments. Of course that will not protect him from the poisoned sword-point at the end; but no one lives for ever.

Ophelia, on the other, still lives in the house of later medieval scholasticism and early renaissance poetry – where knowledge was certain; love her purpose in life; eternity supposedly guaranteed.

Hamlet, despite his pretensions, remains sane, because he can distinguish between the rhetoric of what is said as separate from the logic that one knows, or even the intuitions that may “supasseth show.” For Ophelia, her trust that it is all one, prepares her to be broken into madness when confronted with the diversity and uncertainty of the world she lives in, and of the personality of the man she has come to love.

Now – as the audience to Shakespeare’s play, where do we find ourselves – 400 years later, in a world still more uncertain, still more complicated, its contingencies ever more tentative. Whose position do we find ourselves in, with respect to this play, in responding to it or learning from it, when we walk away from it into our own living in the world? Are we in Hamlet’s situation? Or Ophelia’s?