Q & A on the Kuzari Principle

[Introduction: repeated critique by intelligent, well meaning critics has made it clear to me that my best efforts to explain my argument have not been completely successful. I say this because their critiques do not apply the argument as I mean it. I am not alone. The writings of certain thinkers contain much repetition for the same reason. Sometimes a change in the form of presentation, or a change in the vocabulary, will help certain readers. For that reason I am using the Q and A format to go over old ground with a somewhat different exposition in the hope that this will help some readers to follow the argument. My thanks to S.S and C.L.E. Whose critique prompted this writing.]

Q: You say that KP should prove that the revelation at Sinai is not a myth. I do not see how KP shows that it is impossible for a belief in Sinai to be formed the way so many other myths were formed - by the gradual transformation of the record of a natural event.

A: I do not say KP shows myth formation to be impossible for the belief in Sinai. Of course, mere possibility says very little. Something may be possible even though all our evidence is against it , and we therefore reject it. (When we say it is possible, even though it is against all our evidence, we mean that it is possible that somehow our evidence is mistaken in a way we cannot at present imagine.)

Q: Well then, you are saying that KP shows such an origin is implausible. Why?

A: Because the evidence for KP makes myth formation implausible for the belief in Sinai. In fact, that evidence shows myth formation to be extremely improbable as the origin of the belief in Sinai.

Q: So all the evidence can be against a position that is both possible, and was plausible? And in that case we should reject the position?

A: Exactly right. A position can start as possible and plausible, and then turn out to be against all the evidence, and then it becomes implausible, and should be rejected.

Q: Can you give some examples in which this has happened?

A: Sure. It is possible and was once thought plausible that the earth is stationary. Today it is against all our evidence and  is rejected. It is possible  and was once thought plausible that inheritance of features was via a blending of the features of the parents. Today that is against all our evidence and is rejected.

Q: OK. But why do you say that all our evidence is against myth formation as the source of the belief in Sinai? Surely we have no direct evidence at all about how the belief in Sinai was originally formed?

A: That is correct - we have no direct evidence.

Q: And don't we have a great deal of positive evidence in favor of myth formation - all the cases where we know it has worked to produce myths?

A: Yes, we have a great deal of evidence in favor of myth formation. But notice that now you have left out the phrase: "as the source of the belief in Sinai".

Q: So you are saying that we have a great deal of evidence in favor of myth formation, but we do not have evidence in favor of myth formation as the explanation of the belief in Sinai?

A: Now you have it! And more - we have a great deal of evidence against myth formation as the explanation of the belief in Sinai.

Q: But how can that be? You agree we have evidence that myth formation works and yet you deny that the evidence favors myth formation for the particular case of Sinai. Isn't that just special pleading?

A: Not at all. Evidence that a process works in some places does not always support the process working in other places. For example, if we know that sound travels at different speeds in air and in water, we will not use evidence of the speed of sound in air to predict its speed in other media, like solids. In general: if we have reason to think that the difference between condition A and condition B is relevant to the working of P, we will not use evidence that P works in A to support the belief that P works in B.

    Now let's consider an extreme case. For example, eating certain fats causes a rise in cholesterol. Imagine that in a certain population cholesterol is uniformly low. Then we have evidence that this population does not eat those fats. In general: if Process P produces a characteristic product D, and in condition A, D is completely absent, then we have evidence that P does not operate in condition A. That is: the evidence supporting P's operation in other conditions does not support P operating in condition A.

Q: OK. But I still don't see how that applies here. Sinai is just another myth. You are saying that myth formation producing a product, and that product is missing from a certain condition possessed by the belief in Sinai. What is the product and what is the condition?

A:  The condition of Sinai is this: it is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation. Let's call this NET [National Experiential Tradition] for short. Now I say that all the evidence for myth formation applies to beliefs that are not NET. And I say that we have strong evidence against myth formation applying to beliefs that are NET. The product is false beliefs. If myth formation applies to a belief, then of course the belief is not true. Myth formation shows how false beliefs arise. Now THERE ARE NO KNOWN FALSE NET BELIEFS. If myth formation worked in the NET category there should be many NET beliefs that are known false, but there are none. So the evidence that we have of myth formation working is limited to cases that are not NET. The evidence we have is against myth formation applying to NET beliefs since if it did there should be many known false NET beliefs.

Q: Well, your argument depends upon NET being a genuine category. After all, you cannot simply pick out beliefs that are not known to be false and then add Sinai to them to insulate Sinai against myth formation. You could do that for any myth not yet known to be false. And your example of the speed of sound supports my question. Once we know that sound travels at different speeds in different media, we know we cannot predict the sound of speed in a new medium. But why should we use the reliability of NET beliefs - which shows that myth formation does not operate in this category - to protect Sinai from myth formation?

A: Now you have lost me. You agree that myth formation does not operate for NET beliefs, and Sinai is an NET belief, and yet you do not see that myth formation does not apply to Sinai?  It seems to me that these very facts explain why myth formation does not apply to Sinai. But perhaps I can make this a little easier to understand. NET beliefs are distinguished by a particular resistance to mistake.  A national tradition about a national experience that would change the life of the nation does not easily go wrong. It is very public. It is a matter of national concern. Even the most severe critics of KP agree that, unlike many myths, an NET belief could not be simply made up by a charlatan and sold to a nation. Now the question is raised: what about a different method of producing a false NET belief. What about myth formation? Perhaps gradual transformation of a true belief can produce a false NET belief, in spite of the fact that a charlatan cannot do so? To this suggestion I answer: imagine myth formation worked in the NET category. In each case that myth formation produces an NET belief, that belief will be false. So if there are no known false NET beliefs, then all our evidence indicates that myth formation does not work in this category. That is: the unique resistance to mistake that is characteristic of NET beliefs does in fact succeed in protecting against myth formation.


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