Prophecy in Harry Potter

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[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I'm working on a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Philosophy and Harry Potter on the topic of destiny, and one of the things I'm trying to do in the chapter is distinguish between different metaphysical analyses of prophecy. I've come up with three, and I'm inclined to think that it might be exhaustive enough for the purposes of a popular-level work like this, but I'm curious if anyone here can think of any others.

Here's what I've got (and how I'm presenting it in the draft I'm writing):

1. They involve mere likelihoods. No one has access to the actual future, but someone might have magical access to information that's derived from what's likely. Given what's true about the various people involved, it's very likely that a certain outcome will happen. That means prophecies, even the ones Dumbledore is inclined to call genuine, are not infallible. They can turn out get it wrong.

2. They do not derive their content from the actual future. Rather, they make the future happen. When a genuine prophecy occurs, it influences those who hear it in such a way that they end up doing things that will fulfill the prophecy. This kind of prophecy is self-fulfilling in a very literal sense.

3. The seer has some intuitive connection with the way things will really happen, such that the words of the prophecy are true about a future that really will be that way. If it's a genuine prophecy, it can't be wrong, because its origin lies in the very future events that it tells about. In the same way that a report about the past can bring knowledge about the past only if there's some reliable connection with the actual events in the past, a genuine prophecy in this sense must derive its truth from a reliable method of getting facts about the future.

My understanding of J.K. Rowling's view of prophecy, judging by this interview and my sense that the Albus Dumbledore character represents her views when he discusses this issue with Harry Potter, is that she wants to treat Professor Trelawney's two genuine prophecies as the first kind, a kind of prophecy an open theist could accept.

There are hints in at least two of Dumbledore's conversations with Harry that he thinks something like the second kind is going on, but it's clearly not a reduction of prophecy to what happens in #2, because the characters in question (mostly Lord Voldemort) still make free choices and aren't simply caused by the prophecy to do anything the way some ancients thought Laius was caused by Apollo's prophecy to do what he did that led to Oedipus eventually killing him.

My argument at this point is that there isn't really a way for Dumbledore to distinguish between Trelawney's two genuine prophecies and all her vague predictions that can often be interpreted as coming true unless the genuine ones are of the third kind (because the pseudo-prophecies are of the first kind, and the genuine ones can't be completely explained by the second kind). Rowling doesn't seem to want to accept that, and Dumbledore is clearly with her, so there's a consistency issue here both for the character and the author. But my argument depends on the options I've listed being exhaustive. Is that true?


Surely there are other possibilities if we allow for almighty beings. But first consider this prophecy: "I will be in church on Sunday morning". Is that your #1? I accept that it is not 100% certain as something may intervene, or I may change my mind. Is it #2? No, because the prophecy is dependent on my previous decision rather than vice versa. The distinction between this and #1 is clearer if the prophet, or the one providing information to the prophet, is an almighty being (at least, almighty within the relevant domain) and also a faithful one which rules out changing one's mind. So suppose this being says "I will come again". That is not #1 because it is certain, nothing can stop this being doing what it has decided. Nor is it #2. But it is not necessarily #3 either because the details of how and when the being will come again may remain open.

This new category may not be relevant to Harry Potter, but surely it is to open theism, in which there is an almighty and faithful being but not a future predetermined in all its details.

I'm not sure if I'm remembering Dune incorrectly or if I'm being influenced by Atlantis' multiple worlds story arc but isn't it possible that the prophecies are dipped from the plethora of multiple worlds so even though they don't derive their content from an actual future or resort to merely likelihoods but to the branches of alternate realities. I think you hit that with 3 but the nature of multiple worlds is not so much about events that will be but about the branches of events that are.

Okay I confused myself for a second there so I'll sit down now.

I just thought, Dumbledore still wouldn't be able to distinguish even with multiple worlds since multiple worlds would consist of every possibility, not only the likely ones.

Rey, I think the multiple worlds interpretation would still be in category 1, since you're then dealing in likelihoods. It's a different basis for the prophecy than Trelawney's (although maybe some of hers do magically come from possible worlds if there really are possible worlds that aren't just sets of propositions about the way the world could be, which means it's like 3 in one respect but not in the most important one).

Peter, I think you're on to something. I do need to account for prophecies of the sort where some aspect of it is determinate but others are not. Such prophecies, which open theists are fond of thinking a lot of the biblical prophecies are like, cannot derive their reliability from the events they are about, at least not on the usual open theistic views. So the prophecy's truth has to be grounded in something else, something available now. I think the only way to do it would be to have the prophecy grounded in something deterministic (because the events now guarantee the future), whether because of a divinely-determined will that nothing can interfere with or because some processes in an indeterministic world are still predetermined such that nothing will be able to interfere with them once they reach a certain point (perhaps because no free beings are nearby or whatever it might be).

It is actually relevant to Harry Potter. I think Ben Murphy made basically the same point (coming from a different direction) on the cross-posted version of this at Prosblogion, and his objection came right out of one of the key prophecies in the Potter books. So I think I definitely will have to discuss this as a fourth kind of prophecy. I explain in the other comment thread why I don't think Rowling (or Dumbledore) would be happy with this interpretation for that particular prophecy, but it is an interpretation of what's going on in prophecy that I need to include.

Here's another way of framing things. I think this is much better, but I want to make sure I've included everything. Am I still leading anything out, or should I separate or combine anything here?

1. fallible prediction based on human observations through the ordinary five senses
2. fallible prediction based on magical access to possible futures, none of which is guaranteed to happen (or through time travel if time travel can allow for the changing of the future)
3. fallible prediction based on a limited understanding of deterministic natural processes, an understanding that can come through science, magic, or knowledge of someone’s character (so there may be a fixed future, but the seer has imperfect access to it through the signs of what contributes toward bringing it about)
4. fallible prediction based on limited magical access to the future, which can be misinterpreted and may present partial and misleading information, but there’s one fixed future, and this is a connection with the only future that will happen
5. to any of the above may be added: the ability to influence people’s actions by means of presenting something as a prophecy, which may narrow the possibilities because of how you expect someone to be likely to respond
6. an infallible prediction based on complete understanding of deterministic processes that will guarantee one outcome (this would need to come from an omniscient being or some magical forces that themselves also either (a) are determined by these deterministic process or (b) are among the determinants of those processes
7. an infallible prediction based on infallible access to the actual future (either by magic or by contact with some being who has direct contact with that future, perhaps a divine being or someone in or from that time)
8. a combination of fallibility and infallibility because you have access to some determinate fact about the future and either imperfect access to some other fact or as much access is possible to what is not yet determined

What about the Minority Report style prophecy in which the prophecy is certain to come true unless you use the content/knowledge of the prophecy to subvert the prophecy? This is something of the reverse of your original #2. They are based on the actual future and they are certain except that instead of being self-fulfilling they have the potential to be self-defeating.

These prophecies are infallible in that if no one knows about them, they will certainly come true. They are fallible in that someone who knows the prophecy can use that knowledge to change the future so that the prophecy doesn't come true.

As far as I can tell, that doesn't fit into your categories. But it is also pretty clear that the prophecies in HP are not of this variety. But if you want to be exhaustive, you'll need to account for it.

They can't be getting it from the actual future if the future they get it from might not be the actual one that happens. It must be based on a possible future that, if things don't get interfered with, will happen. But then when things get interfered with, it turns out not to be the actual future. So I'm not sure how this is any different from the possible futures account, with the self-fulfilling prophecies allowing the prophecy to contribute toward which future will occur.

I wouldn't say these are infallible in any sense. They're fallible even in the case where no one finds out about them, because there's still a possibility where someone does find out and change something, even if it doesn't actually happen. That fits the definition of 'fallibility' exactly. It's possible for it to be in error, even if it isn't actually so. So I'd say they're true if know one knows about them to change them, but their changeability if someone finds out makes them fallible, even if they're not changed.

So isn't this just #2 in the second list?

I suppose it is #2 on the second list. My issue with it is that the movie presents the predictions as infallible except when using the prediction to thwart the prediction. There is a real sense of determinism in the prediction that is not captured by #2 list 2. The fact that the predictions can be thwarted, while technically enough to qualify as fallible, does not capture the sense of "this will happen unless we stop it".

So while it really is a #2 list 2 prophecy, it feels to me somehow different. #2 list 2 seems like a "any of a number of possible futures has a decent chance of occuring" wheras MR is more of a "this future will definitely happen unless specific people take specific pains to make sure that it doesn't"

But reading over all of this, it mostly looks like I'm quibbling, so I'll stop now.

Now that I think about it, I think this is really #3 in the second list because it involves determinism. That's why it's really different from #2. I think that's one thing that you're seeing as feeling different. But I think Minority Report cases are actually just like the other kinds of cases I list in #2, such as viewing the future magically (which might in turn affect what happens) and going to the future and coming back, which then "changes" which future "will" happen. If this happens in a deterministic world, you end up with no one changing anything. It was predetermined that you'd go or see the "future", but it turns out the future you saw wasn't the predetermined one, because to think of it as predetermined requires ignoring crucial facts about what will happen (i.e. what will happen given the glimpse of what turns out to be a non-actual future). Events that occur all have to matter in a deterministic calculation, and you can't ignore ones that have to do with people seeing a possible future.

The difference between these kinds of #3 in the second list and the ones I had in mind when I wrote it is that the information you ignore has to do with the prophecy being partially self-unfulfilling, whereas the #3 cases I was thinking of just involve imperfect access to any old information. So if the information in the prophecy itself is the crucial information the prophecy ignores, then you have this feeling of "the way things would have been otherwise" that you don't get in standard #3 cases. But since it's deterministic, and the receiving of the prophecy is part of the set of pre-determined events, the prophecy's role in "changing" the future away from what was foretold is actually part of the deterministic process, and the resulting "change" is actually what was going to happen all along. So it does have a different feel because of this, but I don't think it's technically a different category. It is a different category from #2, though, which is what you were saying. I was wrong to put it in #2 if it's really deterministic.

I have just thought of another kind of prophecy, or at least statement about the future, which is infallible but which does not fit any of your categories above. That is a statement which is true by definition or declaration, by someone with sufficient authority, such as a president or a pope. A pope can infallibly predict the date of Easter next year (at least for Roman Catholics) because it is in his power to declare it. (I don't believe popes are infallible in any other way!) A president (or at least a dictator) can declare a certain day to be a public holiday and this will be infallible. I suppose one might quibble that they could change their mind, or die and have their declarations reversed by their successors, but at least in some cases such decisions once made are irreversible. Of course if the world ends before that day the point becomes moot, but it is still an infallibly true prediction that "If 12th April 2009 ever happens it will be Easter Sunday". So I think there really is here a class of infallible statements about the future which do not involve omniscience or access to the future.

I don't think performatives like these are really relevant to the chapter I'm working on, but that's certainly an interesting point (to a philosopher, anyway; I won't speak for the average person, who probably would find this whole conversation boring). There are other ways this can happen, too. A doctor can wait a few minutes until midnight before completely the C-section and bringing the child out in order to make the child's birthday be the next day, and it has a similar effect. We can certainly make things be true about the future that wouldn't otherwise be true about the future, and one way to do it is by saying things. But I really am interested in methods of figuring out information about the future that would otherwise be inaccessible rather than just methods of making something be true yourself. Every time I do anything I make something true. It will be true for all future time that I submit this comment when I do, but that's not very interesting. The whole point is to get at questions about destiny, and these kinds of things aren't really important for that.

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