Harry Potter and Epistemic Uncertainty

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by R. Gil Student

I. Harry’s Dilemma

No, the subject of this essay 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 idolize.

Harry 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? There must come 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 repeatedly 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 emotional (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

(Adapted from an August 2009 post)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. I don’t understand why you think “the preponderance of evidence” supports human authorship of the Torah. I honestly don’t get it.

    • I agree with you. The preponderance of evidence has been long lost to history. Critics today are just picking up crumbs and building theories based on them.

      • Not exactly what I meant. I don’t think of that stuff as evidence. If we don’t have it, I mean. I’m saying that I don’t think the preponderance of what we do have supports human authorship of the Torah.

  2. iirc r’ybs said dan lkaf zchut is applicable for thinking about the past, kavdeihu vchashdeihu (i.e. you should exercise greater care) for the future.

  3. Joseph Kaplan

    Isn’t there a threshold question — how can you mandate belief?

    Let’s take Divine authorship of the Torah. Assume one is a scholar and has gone through all the evidence available and, while she admits that it is not “conclusive,” it appears pretty solid. So what is she supposed to do. Say she believes in Divine authorship even though in her heart of hearts — or perhaps more accurately, her mind of minds — she’s pretty convinced by the evidence? You can require her not to teach or write that the DH is correct; you can mandate that she continue to learn all the traditional sources about it; you can even forbid her to read or listen to anything about the DH. But since you can’t unring the bell, how can you require her to believe in something that her mibnd tells her may not be true?(Similar to the question about commanding to “love God.”)

    I understand this is an old question; just wonder if anyone has a good answer.

    • Isn’t that precisely Harry’s question? He went through all the evidence and was convinced. People told him not to believe it but he couldn’t understand how. Then he eventually learned that the evidence available at the time led to the wrong direction.

      People who are convinced by the current evidence should realize that we only have a small amount of evidence. Kind of like the blind men and the elephant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

    • This is the problem, I think. No one is talking about mandating belief. No one ever had an issue about what people think. It’s what people publicize.

      Do you think it’s hypocritical for someone to refuse to publically state that they disbelieve in Torah miSinai if they don’t believe it? I don’t.

      English is a little weak in this area. You can say “I believe this”, and you can say “I don’t believe this.” The first one is clear, but the second one isn’t. It could mean that you don’t possess belief in something, but it can also mean that you believe it is untrue. And those aren’t even remotely the same thing.

      For example, I don’t believe in UFOs. It isn’t that I believe all UFO sightings are fake; I’m just unconvinced. But for most people, saying “I don’t believe in UFOs” puts them in a position where they’re on the record as saying there’s no such thing as UFOs.

      The same is true here. It is objectively (from a Torah POV) wrong to state publically that the Torah was not given at Sinai. Anyone who disagrees with that basic premise simply isn’t an Orthodox Jew. A person can struggle with things. Hell, we all do that, all the time, about one thing or another. We aren’t zombies. But I’ve heard OO folks (including Lopatin and Farber) claim that “struggling” somehow justifies publically stating kefirah. And that’s just wrong.

  4. On Quora last week, someone asked about “interesting or shocking things Americans believe about themselves or their country”.

    One of the answers included this little tidbit:

    I asked him what it was from his point of view that made Americans different from everyone else.

    “You Americans,” he said — not quite accusing, but emphatic — “You believe there is a solution to every problem.”

    I have to say that answer kind of stunned me. After he said that I found myself thinking something like “as opposed to what?”

    That’s part of the problem, I think. It’s a cultural thing. In Judaism, we can have a teiku. We can say, “We don’t currently have a comprehensive answer”. In Western culture, that’s not acceptable.

    There’s a quote I like that I found in a book once by a guy named John Dayton. “It’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” It seems relatively innocuous until you start thinking about it and consider how widely the converse is ingrained in the western mind.

    People would rather have a concrete answer based on flimsy evidence than no answer at all. It reassures them. It makes them feel safe.

    Revelation is inherently unknowable. It’s something we can’t analyze. We can’t write papers about it. We can’t come up with cool chiddushim that we can publish in journals. I mean, chiddushim, sure. But not the kind that people in the universities will care about. Biblical criticism, though… that’s a rich field. You can do a lot with it. But it’s all absolutely predicated, like a house is predicated on its foundation, like matter is predicated on the elements that make it up, on the essential premise that revelation didn’t happen. If revelation is for real, biblical criticism is a bunch of kids’ games.

    Not all biblical criticism. I mean, see Rabbis David Fohrman and Yitzchak Etshalom for examples of Torah-oriented biblical criticism. But the stuff that comes out of Bible departments? It needs revelation to be fiction. Otherwise it is fiction.

    And as long as they can write peer reviewed journal articles on the subject, they can (in theory) come closer and closer to analyising it down to the bedrock. Something that will never be possible with revelation. And that’s anathema to the western mind.

  5. The classical definition of “knowledge” is Plato’s; knowledge is a (1) true, (2) justified, (3) belief. Philosophers today have problems with that definition, but it’s a decent starting point. And since we’re not going to have a full theory of epistemology developed in a comment chain, let’s stick with the basics.

    The Beis haLeivi’s distinction isn’t that emunah refers to unjustified belief, but that the justification is in our trust in the source. In contrast to yedi’ah, which refers to knowledge that rests on proof from earlier principles. Emunah is personal; yedi’ah rests on pillars easily shared with others.

    The “HP and Torah” blogger writes: “ We can debate belief all we want, but there are also times that we have to act, and need to choose our actions based on their own right-ness even when in principle we’re not certain about the beliefs.

    But no one said anything about emunah being less certainly held. Or even less justified.

  6. Very interesting post.
    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.

    The preponderance of evidence has been long lost to history. Critics today are just picking up crumbs and building theories based on them.

    People who are convinced by the current evidence should realize that we only have a small amount of evidence.

    This sounds like an “Divine author in the gaps” argument.
    Questions without answers: Would one carry out some of the Torah’s prescribed punishments based on “a small amount of evidence”? Or even just force someone to dissociate from the community for their beliefs? Is a charitable attitude towards others in these matters warranted?

  7. The problem is: how can it be Emes to assume that the uncertainty in the evidence ALWAYS breaks in your favour (or even always against you)?

    When the Pew Report came out it was glaring to me how everyone who found potential fault in the methodology always assumed that sampling error resulted in errors detrimental to their perspective. Nobody ever considered that the errors went to other way and understated the problems/overstated the strengths of their community.

    We know that (fictional) false rumours about Dumbledore notwithstanding, such uncertain rumours have actually long-circled molesters and pyramid-scheming fraudsters that have gone on to do continued damage while the (real-life) Harry Potters ignored them.

    Isn’t the responsible action in the face of credible-but-uncertain evidence to aggressively pursue the truth while adjusting our actions to best hedge against either outcome?

  8. one lesson from harry is that the truth we believe is NOT the whole truth – although the ultimate judgement of Dumbledore is bien adam leatzmo. there are no perfect “gedolim” who don’t make mistakes and are not tempted by the “yetzer”. our “emunat chachamim” should be taken with caution.

  9. “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.”

    I just want to point out that for those who think that there is otherwise sufficient warrant to believe in Divine authorship, there should subsequently be a significant epidemiological obstacle against challenge on faith.
    Doesn’t Devarim (13:2-4) explicitly say that G-d may test us with suggestions arising from empirical evidence?
    כי מנסה ה’ אלקיכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אוהבים את ה’ אלקיכם בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם
    See also Sifre ad loc.:
    “אמר ר’ יוסי הגלילי ראה עד היכן הגיע הכתוב סוף עובדי עבודה זרה ינתן להם ממשלה אפילו על חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות, אל תשמע להם, מפני מה, כי מנסה ה’ אלוקכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אוהבים. אמר ר’ עקיבא חס ושלום שמעמיד המקום חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות לעובדי עבודה זרה, הא אינו מדבר אלא במי שהיו נביאי אמת מתחילה וחזרו להיות נביאי שקר”

    • Based on the evidence you posted here, this interpretation seems like a stretch. The Pesukim indicate that a prophet will produce a miraculous sign to prove his “authority” and then encourage people to worship of foreign “gods”. The Sifre poses the obvious question: how will he be able to produce such signs if he is not a true prophet. R. Yose maintains that God will allow this to happen in order to test you. R. Akiva maintains that this is impossible and this must be talking about a true prophet who produces signs and then later “converts” to another religion and tries to use his previously established authority to induce you to follow.
      I think that the Rambam makes this fairly clear:
      אם יעמוד איש בין מן האומות בין מישראל ויעשה אות ומופת ויאמר שה’ שלחו להוסיף מצוה או לגרוע מצוה או לפרש במצוה מן המצות פירוש שלא שמענו ממשה או שאמר שאותן המצות שנצטוו בהן ישראל אינן לעולם ולדורי דורות אלא מצות לפי זמן היו הרי זה נביא שקר שהרי בא להכחיש נבואתו של משה
      I don’t see what this has to do with empirical evidence. That is not an argument from “authority”.

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