Assessing the Reliability of Prophecy


A review of Knowledge by Way of Prophecy, by Dani W. Rabinowitz.

Dani Rabinowitz offers an original argument to the effect that prophecy is not epistemologically safe. Drawing on the work of Moses Maimonides and Timothy Williamson primarily, the aim is to “undermine any presumption in favor of prophetic beliefs as a whole being safe” (p. iii). This investigation is justified on the basis of the clear reliance upon prophetic revelation in the monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Given the traditional attribution of approximately “two-thirds of the Old Testament” and the entire Koran to prophecy, the question of its status as a “knowledge acquiring method” goes right to the “epistemic foundations of those religions” (p. 1). In short, Rabinowitz is taking up the bold challenge of assessing the reliability of prophecy.

The originality in this study lies both in the selection of texts for consideration and more broadly in being the first to take up this topic in modern English-language philosophy of religion. Rabinowitz begins by offering a “critical elucidation” of the work of Williamson on the safety condition for knowledge (p. 3). Drawing on many publications spanning fifteen years, Chapter 1 lays the contours of the safety condition of knowledge out in detail. Rabinowitz opens this chapter with a review of recent relevant work in epistemology, including that of Robert Nozick on the “sensitivity condition” of knowledge, which is contrasted with that of Williamson’s “safety condition” (pp. 7-8). There follows the explication of Williamson’s view proper. “Knowledge,” we are told, “requires avoidance of error in similar cases” for Williamson (p. 9). The essential point, therefore, is that one knows something only if one is safe from error on that subject. That is, “there must be no risk or danger” that one might be wrong in a “similar case.” While he offers several specific formulations of the concept, a useful one runs as follows: “For all worlds W, times T, subject S, belief-episodes B, and propositions P, S knows P at T in W as far as B goes only if B expresses a true proposition in every possibility that is close at T in W” (p. 9). Rabinowitz goes on to spell out what is involved in the constituent components of the concept, namely, what counts as a closed world, time, reliability, and methods (pp. 10-16). The first chapter ends with a lengthy discussion of the place of Williamson’s safety condition vis-à-vis recent alternatives and an example of its application to a hypothetical epistemic context.

Given the silence on this topic in the work of William Alston and Richard Swinburne among others, Rabinowitz looks back to a great medieval theory of prophecy. The second chapter offers an interpretive account of the “prophetic methods” in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. First, Rabinowitz places this theory of prophecy in philosophical context by discussing Maimonides’ cognitive psychology and epistemology. Given the relative lack of a clearly presented epistemology in the Guide, this chapter wisely draws upon parallels in Aristotle and his Islamic interpreters Alfarabi and Avicenna to help round out our understanding of what Maimonides likely intended. Next comes a review of the Jewish theological constraints on Maimonides’ theory of prophecy. Essentially this amounts to the notion that all prophecy, with the exception of that of Moses, occurs in either a dream or a vision. Mosaic prophecy, on the other hand, is not thus limited and is therefore superior as well (p. 34). Rabinowitz takes from Maimonides’ agreement with this basic teaching of the rabbis the “epistemically relevant conclusion that” a prophet cannot “perform the critical part of prophesying when awake” (p. 35).

Prophecy is, for Maimonides, defined thus; “the true reality and quiddity of prophecy consists in its being an emanation emanating from God . . . through the intermediation of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty” (p. 35). On this basis, Rabinowitz takes the prophetic method to consist in the non-corporeal action of God via intermediary Intelligences and the Active Intellect on the perfected rational faculty of the prophet which yields a rationalized emanation in the intellect of the prophet. That emanation is then adopted by the perfected imagination to yield rationalized impressions during a dream or a vision. The memory of these rationalized impressions is then taken up by the waking rational faculty to produce, finally, a belief which the prophet takes to be the result of self-disclosure of God. Thus, belief formation occurs only at the end of a long process of reception and reflection on the part of the prophet. These steps along the way are often hidden by the pedagogical methods used to present the prophetic revelation, but for those who know, according to Maimonides, scripture clearly reflects this broadly Neoplatonic method. Moreover, as Rabinowitz is keen to stress, God never actually “speaks” to the prophet. In fact, “God’s role in Maimonides’ model is . . . rather limited” (p. 57).

The third chapter takes up the confluence of Maimonidean prophecy and Williamson’s safety directly. Through extensive argumentation Rabinowitz shows that “the prophetic method, as found in the Guide, contains much room for error” (p. 92). With the exception of the first, emanation via the Active Intellect acting upon the perfected rational faculty of the prophet, every component of the prophetic method is shown to be prone to error. Unlike perception, which Maimonides thinks is on an epistemic par with prophecy, the prophetic method is “an example of a high risk method” (p. 92). However, Rabinowitz makes clear that the “risks identified” in the prophetic method are general and not necessarily applicable to each instance thereof. For this reason, the “significance of the results” of this analysis lies in the “denial of any presumption in favor of prophetic beliefs being de facto safe.” That is, “the output belief p may nevertheless count as safe despite there being close worlds in which the prophet falls into error on his way to believing p” (p. 92).

Finally, in the fourth chapter Rabinowitz explores the use of “non-standard semantics for ‘knows’” with regard to prophecy (p. 93). The importance of this treatment lies in the “role knowledge ascriptions play vis-à-vis prophecy as a religious phenomenon” (p. 93). Focusing on David Lewis’s contextualism and a similar form of Lewisian sensitive invariantism, this final chapter elaborates on how these theories “interact” with Maimonidean prophecy. Most importantly, Rabinowitz shows that Lewis’s “rules are open to manipulation by self-serving agents who have a vested interest in whether or not the prophet knows” (p. 117). This leads to what Rabinowitz calls an “uncomfortable tension” between the competing desires to “stabilize the prophetic phenomenon by embracing invariantism or . . . learn[ing] to live with the instability generated by Lewisian contextualism and sensitive invariantism” (p. 117). Neither option is particularly compelling in Rabinowitz’s judgment.

Rabinowitz’s study offers a fresh, and badly needed, look at a major religious topic that has been strangely neglected by philosophers. As such, advanced students and scholars in the philosophy of religion and theology will find much to appreciate in this important work.

Derek Michaud
Department of Philosophy
University of Southern Maine

Primary Sources
Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed.
David Lewis, “Elusive Knowledge” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74: 549-67.
Timothy Williamson, Knowledge and its Limits. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dissertation Information
University of Oxford. 2013. 134 pp. Primary Advisor: John Hawthorne.

Image: A page from a 14th-century manuscript of Maimonides’, Guide for the Perplexed. Wikimedia Commons.

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