Is it Stupid to Believe in Miracles?

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David Hume on Miracles: A Critical Analysis

There are few things in life that I dread more than relocating. I am sure I am not alone; humans are creatures of habit. The status quo brings a false sense of security with it. We naturally distrust sudden events. It is understandable for some to be wary of the existence of unusual events like miracles and label as “dim-witted” those who believe in them.

Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued against miracles and was extremely pleased with his logic;[1] but are his arguments sound? Is it reasonable to think that the identification of miracles is viable and possible? The answer is yes, and in this document I will analyze Hume’s critique against miracles and demonstrate that his arguments—while rhetorically brilliant—fail to achieve its purpose.

Miracles: Why do they matter?

The Christian worldview sits on the foundation of one particular miracle: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But if miracles are practical impossibilities or are—as Hume suggests—undetectable in spite of overwhelming evidence, then we have no way to know if Christianity is true. Miracles—in the proper context—would be evidence of God endorsing new revelation.

In his two-part essay “Of Miracles,” Hume seems to sit on top of an argumentative stronghold shooting cannonballs to obliterate all credibility on miraculous claims. To this day, those cannons still resonate in the circles of secular universities and are used to label the religiously inclined as “…a barbarous and ignorant people.”[2]

Hume did not attack the possibility of the occurrence of miracles, but the possibility of the identification of miracles. He concludes that “a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion.”[3] This conclusion is reached in 2 parts. The first part—also known as Hume’s “in-principle” argument—is concerned with showing that the evidence against the occurrence of a miracle far outweighs the evidence in favor of the occurrence. The second part—also known as Hume’s “in fact” argument—is concerned with showing that the evidence for miracles is extremely weak.

It is vital to understand if Hume succeeded to destroy the credibility on miracles, and all hope for Christianity to be a viable worldview.

Hume, Miracles and Ambiguity

Part of the problem we face with Hume’s essay is the ambiguity of some of his terms. Hume provides two definitions for miracles: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[4] and “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”[5] We can gain some clarity from philosopher of physics John Earman as to what is normally understood by a miracle as defined by Hume and why a better definition is needed for his argument to even take off:

[L]et us say that a law L expresses a law of nature if L is a law statement and it is true. A miracle statement M is a statement that expresses an exception to a true law statement L in the sense that M asserts the occurrence of an event or particular state of affairs, which assertion is incompatible with L. The conundrum should be obvious: If Newton’s ‘Second Law’ does in fact express a law, then the statement M that an apple jumped off of the table even though the net impressed force on the apple was zero is a miracle statement; but by definition, M cannot be true.[6]

At face value, Hume’s definition begs the question. Philosophers have attempted to somehow improve Hume’s definition to better characterize his arguments and avoid circular logic. This, however, runs the risk of misrepresenting Hume’s position. To be fair and leave Hume’s argument open for discussion in the most honoring manner, we will define a Hume miracle as a “violation of an apparent law of nature, or as Hume later says, of ‘the most established’ laws of nature.”[7] But even with a revised version of Hume’s definition for miracles, his arguments still fail to accomplish what he intended, as we will see.

Hume’s “In Principle” Argument

According to philosopher David Johnson[8], Hume’s main argument can be faithfully extracted from the passages below:

[I]n order to increase the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.

And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite

proof, which is superior.

[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.[9]

Hume uses brilliant rhetoric to seemingly demolish any hope of believing in miracles. One has to wonder, though, what exactly he means by “marvelous” and “proof”, but even without clearly defined terms, from these passages, we can deduct that, if a witness of impeccable character (for the sake of argument), sincere and reliable, claims to have observed the occurrence of a violation of an apparent and established law of nature, we must consider this as “proof”. On the other side of the scale, we also have “proof” based on “infallible experience” that has “established those laws.” Thus the scales are in perfect equilibrium and a “wise man” should not concede the claim as a miracle.

This attitude is prevalent in society today. It is “unwise” to believe any of this miracle “gibberish” without much thought or investigation of the alleged evidence, but that is precisely what provides insight to human experience; the very same experience that Hume assumes as “infallible”. I remember reading an article[10] recently about meteorite accidents and insurance policies. It made me think about the first time humans witnessed a meteorite crash. Such an event, however improbable and outside of the realm of “uniform experience”, according to Hume, should never be believed. This includes other isolated and improbable events in science like the big-bang, the discovery of the Higgs boson or the advent of the first biological life-form. In fact, human knowledge and discovery would halt if limited to past experience. Hume’s objection seems—if not unscientific—anti-science. Simply put, if human intellect is capable of discerning highly improbable and previously unknown events in nature then it is also possible for humans to identify a miracle—given enough evidence and adequate context—with a reasonable degree of confidence. The fact that an event may occur, but we are never justified to believe it, is not axiomatic; it needs evidence and support to be sustained.

Hume also appears to commit to the idea that even if a miracle did occur, we are not justified to believe it. Since, for example, “death occurs over an over and resurrection only on rare occasions, he simple adds up all the deaths against the very few alleged resurrections and rejects the latter.”[11] Here, Normal Geisler correctly points out that Hume has committed the consensus gentium[12] fallacy.

If God exists, then miracles are possible—even if improbable—and the evidence for each has to be analyzed even if the skeptic may, a-priori, discard any miraculous claim as nonsensical purely on philosophical basis or even personal bias.

Much could be said about probabilities and miracles in Hume’s context. Earman dedicates tree chapters on probabilities in his published work as well as an appendix on the subject.[13] Timothy and Lydia McGrew also argue convincingly against Hume’s logic on probabilities.[14] After careful analysis of probabilistic theory “we must recognize that and argument based on probabilities can never be more than that—a probabilistic argument. While it can provide a rule of thumb that tells us how the plausibility of one explanation compares with another, it surely cannot provide and absolute guarantee of where the truth lies.”[15] After all if miracles were highly probable events we would include them as part of the laws of nature as they would cease to be singular events. We would just miss them altogether!

Hume’s “in-principle” argument begs the question[16] if taken at face value, or simply relies on fallacious argumentation. For a better perspective on the treatment of extraordinary events—including miracle claims—we have to agree with Earman when he writes:

I acknowledge that the opinion is of the kind whose substantiation requires no philosophical argumentation and pompous solemnities about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proofs, but rather difficult and delicate empirical investigations…into the details of particular cases.[17]

Events of this kind are better left in the hands of historians. We need to shed philosophical presuppositions and bias to focus on the mere facts.

Hume’s “In Fact” Arguments

In the first part of his essay, Hume admits to “have been a great too liberal” in his concession that “there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.”[18] In the second part of his essay Hume presents four objections based on psychohistorical grounds, that, in his mind, should be sufficient to show that the evidence for miracles is in fact extremely weak and incredible: First, no miracle has been witnessed by enough educated and honest men in an important part of the world.[19] Second, humans crave for the supernatural and will accept nonsensical miraculous stories in contradiction to their conventional wisdom. Third, miracles mainly “abound among the ignorant and barbarous nations”[20], and fourth, reports of miracles in all religions end up cross-canceling each other, leaving all religious believes mutually unsupported and equally false.

None of Hume’s maxims—individually or taken together—form a strong case against miracles: The first clause can only be true if all alleged miracle witnesses of all times have been taken under scrutiny and found not only uneducated and dishonest but also false witnesses. Being uneducated and unlearned does not necessarily make a witness “a-priori” unreliable. This is just a bare assertion devoid of evidence.

As for the second clause; even if humans crave for the supernatural, it does not follow that all will accept miraculous claims without evidence, even if some people do. This point makes nothing to undermine the historicity or miraculous events.

Third point: I was raised in a third-world country. I have to agree with Hume that miraculous stories indeed do abound in “barbarous” nations; but again, this point does not undermine historical research, for even in under-developed countries—if God exists—he can act if he wants to, and all alleged miracles can be sifted through a historical mesh of research. Dismissing the uneducated as unreliable is arguing ad hominem.

Hume’s fourth point (that miracles happen in many religions, thus cancel each other) has some merit. Hume here implies that not all religions can be true—and he is right—but that does not necessarily mean they are all false. “Counterfeit currency does not negate the existence of the genuine.”[21] Defeaters come in handy in this case. In our legal system, when witnesses provide conflicting testimony, lawyers do not simply throw up their hands and go home. They try to overpower the opponents’ testimony—known as a rebutting defeater—or to sabotage and raise doubts on the rival’s evidence—known as undercutting defeater. Both of these defeaters are relevant in miracle assessment of different religions and can be used actively in historical research.[22] Ancient documents claiming miracles can be subjected to textual criticism, dating, archeology and general reliability as potential defeaters.

It is noteworthy that, after postulating his four points against miracles, Hume does not analyze the evidence for miracles in the Gospels or even the resurrection. Instead he focuses his attention in favor of other less-known miracles from Vespasian that he expects his reader to find credible (ironically) in order to nullify the Gospel miracles. It is unlikely that Christianity’s miracles slept his mind, since, in the beginning of his essay, he clearly states that the authority of scripture or of tradition “is founded merely in the testimony of the Apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Savior.”[23]

Apparently Hume attempts to discredit Christianity and the resurrection, by proxy, confronting miracle against miracle to make each other null. Timothy and Lydia McGrew here identify two unspoken premises from Hume’s reasoning:

1) that the evidence for these alternative miracles is in every way equal or superior to that for the resurrection, and 2) that the events thus reported are not worthy of credit. Hume’s rhetoric does, indirectly, suggest that he wants to endorse both claims, though he never supports either with a direct argument, and it would be impossible without supporting the first without considering the evidence for the resurrection directly.[24]

Hume could have spent the rest of his essay refuting the Christian miracles with the known facts directly rather than exercise a trial by proxy, trying to give credence to the miracles of Vespasian as reported by Tacitus—which can be easily discredited on historical grounds.[25]

These four points carry some weight, “but the fact remains”, Craig adds, “that these general considerations cannot be used to decide the historicity or any particular miracle.”[26]

Final Thoughts

We have to thank Hume for giving us fair warning against being gullible and to the dangers of believing untested and improbable accounts without further analysis. He had the gift to identify important problems and to dissect them in provocative ways. But the arguments he presented, fell short to accomplish the goal he had in mind when analyzed under a clinical eye and stripped of all rhetorical brilliance and ambiguity. Hume warned us that “Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason and reflection: but addressing itself entirely to the fancy of the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding.”[27] In this respect, Hume was right, but he should have listened to his own warning before writing “Of Miracles” instead of flattering himself prematurely.

[1] “I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.” David Hume. “Of Miracles,” in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, of The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. Adam and Charles Black, vol. IV (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1854), 125.

[2] Ibid., 149.

[3] Ibid., 146.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 12.

[7] David Johnson, Hume, holism and miracles, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), 17.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, 130.

[10] Victor Luckerson, “If a Meteorite Hits Your Home, Are You Insured?”, Time Magazine Online, http://business.time.com/2013/02/15/if-a-meteorite-hits-your-home-are-you-insured/ (accessed March 28, 2013).

[11] Normal L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind: A defense of Biblical Miracles (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2012), 24.

[12] Something is true because most people believe it.

[13] Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure, 75.

[14] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, ed., “The Argument from Miracles”, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 640-50.

[15] Nicholas Humprey, Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation (New York: Copernicus, 1999), 77 (emphasis added).

[16] “Now of course we have to agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we already know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in circle.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 162.

[17] Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure, 61 (emphasis added).

[18] Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, 132.

[19] Paraphrased from Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 135.

[21] Michael R. Licona, The Resurection of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 146.

[22] Paraphrased from R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, ed., “Miracles in the World Religions”, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 200.

[23] Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, 124.

[24] Craig and Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 654.

[25] “The two cures mentioned seem to have been suggested by two [to be] reported in the Gospel of Mark; in particular, the use of spittle to anoint the eyes of a blind man bears a striking resemblance to the cure at Bethsaida recounted in Mark 8:23. If so, the whole affair supports the ancient tradition, found in Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome, that Mark published copies of his Gospel at Alexandria. The publication would have had to be at least a few years prior to Vespasian’s arrival there ca. AD 69. Thus Hume’s example turns under his hand in a way that he could not have anticipated. The very similarity between the cures attributed to Vespasian and those of Christ lends additional support to the claim that the Gospel accounts were published much earlier than skeptical biblical scholarship would like to allow.” Ibid., 656.

[26] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 277.

[27] Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, 134.

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