Thursday, April 24, 2014

The King of Siam Meme

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 4.15.5 (1690):

If I myself see a man walk on the ice, it is past probability; it is knowledge. But if another tells me he saw a man in England, in the midst of a sharp winter, walk upon water hardened with cold, this has so great conformity with what is usually observed to happen that I am disposed by the nature of the thing itself to assent to it; unless some manifest suspicion attend the relation of that matter of fact. But if the same thing be told to one born between the tropics, who never saw nor heard of any such thing before, there the whole probability relies on testimony: and as the relators are more in number, and of more credit, and have no interest to speak contrary to the truth, so that matter of fact is like to find more or less belief. Though to a man whose experience has always been quite contrary, and who has never heard of anything like it, the most untainted credit of a witness will scarce be able to find belief.

As it happened to a Dutch ambassador, who entertaining the king of Siam with the particularities of Holland, which he was inquisitive after, amongst other things told him that the water in his country would sometimes, in cold weather, be so hard that men walked upon it, and that it would bear an elephant, if he were there. To which the king replied, Hitherto I have believed the strange things you have told me, because I look upon you as a sober fair man, but now I am sure you lie.

Thomas Sherlock, The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus (1730):

Taking the observation therefore in this sense, the proposition is this: that the testimony of others ought not to be admitted, but in such matters as probable, or at least possible, to our opinion. For instance: a man who lives in a warm climate, and never saw ice, ought upon no evidence believe that rivers freeze and grow hard in cold countries: for this is improbable, contrary to the usual course of nature; and impossible according to his notion of things. And yet we all know that this is a plain, manifest case, discernible by the senses of men, of which therefore they are qualified to be good witnesses.

Joseph Butler, Analogy of Religion, Introduction (1736):

So, likewise, the rule and measure of our hopes and fears concerning he success of our pursuits; our expectations that others will ct so and so in such circumstances; and our judgment that such actions proceed from such principles;—all these rely upon our having observed the like to what we hope, fear, expect, judge; I say, upon our having observed the like, either with respect to others or ourselves. And thus, whereas the prince,* who had always lived in a warm climate, naturally concluded in the way of analogy, that there was no such thing as water becoming hard, because he had always observed it to be fluid and yielding: we, on the contrary, from analogy, conclude, that there is no presumption at all against this; that it is supposable there may be frost in England any given day in January next; probable, that there will on some day of the month; and that there is a moral certainty, that is, ground for an expectation, without any doubt of it, in some part or other of the winter.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X (1750):

The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.

Anthony Ellys, Remarks on An Essay Concerning Miracles (1752):

Yet this Author intimates plainly enough, that very strong Testimony might justly have engaged the Prince's Assent to these Accounts of the Effects of Frost: For though they were not conformable to his Experience, yet they were not contrary to it. The last Expression, as it came from Mr. Hume, has, indeed, a little different Turn, but is, in effect, the same with this. And his Observation is certainly right; for the Prince neither had had, nor could have, any Experience that Water could not be frozen to Solidity. All that his Experience amounted to, was, that Water had never been actually solid, within his Knowledge or Observation; but this was no Proof from Experience that it could not ever have been so. There was no Experience in this Case that could be Opposed to the Experience for the Credibility of human Testimony. And therefore such Testimony, when strong, as it ought to be, in Proportion to the extraordinary Nature of the Fact related, must have remained in its full genuine Force, and was therefore justly credible, and capable of rendering the Fact related credible to the Prince. Now as Mr. Hume saw the Justness of this Reasoning in the Case before us, so he ought to have seen it, with regard to the Credibility of Miracles upon sufficient human Testimony. For the Reasoning is exactly the same in both. There is no more Experience to any one against Miracles, than there was to the Indian Prince against the Effects of Frost. And since there is no such Experience to be Opposed to that Experience, upon which the Credibility of human Testimony is grounded, that Testimony ought to have its full Force in the Proof of Miracles, as well as of any other Events.

Lady Mary Shepherd, Essays on the Perception of an External Universe (1827):

There may be no perfect analogy in nature, unless it be that there arise exceptions to hitherto universal experience in all classes of things, with which we are acquainted.

The tale of the Indian Prince, who refused to believe a natural occurrence which passed the limits of his own experience, may be told of ourselves ; — we deem some limited observation we make, the measure of an universal fact; — we draw general conclusions from particular premises ; until extended knowledge acquaints us with exceptions, and sometimes with single and most important exceptions to otherwise universal facts.

(There are others, of course, who discuss it. In particular, almost everyone who discusses Hume's essay after the second edition -- the story was not in the first edition, so was added for some particular purpose, probably to address criticisms that Hume by that time had received or foresaw receiving -- at least mentions it.)


  1. Malcolm the Cynic10:54 PM

    We can also use Lewis's method of discerning truth, as seen in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe":

    1) Is the person delivering the information trustworthy?

    2) Is the person delivering the information sane?

    3) Is the information being presented something that cannot be easily misinterpreted by a trustworthy, sane person?

    If all three of the former premises are true, then it follows that we have good reason to believe such a person no matter how fantastical a claim they might present to us. Thus, Lucy did indeed see a foreign country inside a wardrobe.

  2. Malcolm the Cynic10:57 PM

    ...And thus, our Siam King is, in fact, being unreasonable!

  3. branemrys11:04 PM

    Well, the post is mostly concerned just with this particular example of the King of Siam / Indian Prince; it has an interesting history in its own right.

    But you're right that that is a possible response to the situation; it is very, very similar to Lady Mary Shepherd's response to Hume, in fact.

  4. Enbrethiliel8:10 AM


    Now that C.S. Lewis has been mentioned, I recall something similar from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy (I think!). It was about why he believed in ghosts and it basically boiled down to finding the witnesses of ghostly encounters trustworthy.

  5. branemrys7:58 PM

    I'll have to see if I can find that.

  6. Enbrethiliel12:38 AM


    I found it in Chapter IX: " The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they
    for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or
    wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open,
    obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when
    she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old
    apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain,
    popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost
    exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord . . ."
    (It goes on.)

    I actually borrowed this line of reasoning when talking to a friend who prided herself on being very scientific, and was impressed that she couldn't answer it.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.