On Miracles and David Hume (Part 1)

David Hume in his article “Of Miracles” has made what appears to be a strong case against miracles. His article is continually read on college campuses and is still held as one of the strongest arguments against miracles. Almost all the arguments against miracles that were to follow are merely restated versions of Hume’s arguments. In fact, David Hume touted his own argument as the definitive argument that will be used by all wise and learned men as long as the world endures. This argument can be broken down into two parts, the “in principle” argument and the “in fact” argument.

Part I, the “in principle” argument, is the argument that is philosophical in nature. It deals with the repeatability of an event and the laws of nature. The argument can be broken down as follows.

1). A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
2). Firm and unalterable experience has established these laws.
3). A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence.
4). Therefore, the proof against a miracle is as complete as any argument from experience can be.

Part II, the “in fact” argument deals with the historical and evidential nature of a miraculous claim. Hume does this through 1) questioning the reliability of any witness of a miracle by looking at his lack of education and/or his uncivilized environment, 2) appealing to the nature of humans to gossip and/or exaggerate, and 3) having claims of miracles from competing religion cancel out each other.

The “in fact” argument will be explained in greater detail and critiqued in a second post on this topic. The main focus of this post will be to critique the “in principle” argument set for by Hume.

When looking at the four part “in principle” argument as cited earlier. Norman Geisler sites two possible interpretations, the hard and the soft. The hard interpretation could be broken down as follows. 1) Miracles by definition are violations of natural law. 2) Natural laws are unalterably uniform. 3) Therefore, miracles cannot occur.

Looking at it in this way Hume simply begs the question. The question to which we are seeking an answer is can a violation in a law of nature occur? Hume says no because they cannot be violated. Hence he is begging the question. It is doubtful that this is the argument that Hume was trying to make so the softer view is probably more realistic. The softer view can be broken down as follows. 1) Miracles are rare. 2) Natural laws are regular occurrences. 3) There is always more evidence for the regular than the rare. 4) A wise person will always go with the greater evidence. 5) Therefore a wise person would never believe in a miracle.

When looking at Hume’s argument in this light, miracles are not ruled as impossible, instead, they simply cannot be believed in even if they do occur. This argument is based on what is know as the “repeatability principle” which says that evidence for something that occurs repeatedly will always outweigh the evidence for those events that do not repeat regularly. To refute this argument, I will summarize four refutations given by Norman Geisler.

1) The assumption of uniform experience- Hume uses uniform experience against miracles claiming that natural laws have not been broken in the past, but he would need to have a form of omniscience in order to understand all the laws of nature and know that they have not been broken. Since he does not have this knowledge, he cannot say they’ve never been broken. Maybe he was only speaking of the uniform knowledge of a person who has never seen a miracle, but this rules out the experience of someone who has seen a miracle. Either way Hume gives no reason why we should believe the experience of uniformity over those who claim to have experienced a miracle.

2) Adding evidence verses weighing evidence- Really what Hume is doing here is stating that people should base their belief on probability rather than evidence. For instance, he says that it is more probable for a man who died, to stay dead, than it is for him to be resurrected, so we should believe the higher probability even if a resurrection did take place. But if we use this kind of logic we could never believe a rare event if it was within the laws of nature. For example, suppose we have a shopping center with a staircase, and it is said to be the safest staircase ever made. Thousands of people walk up and down it everyday, and no one has ever fallen down it. If we extend Hume’s reasoning to this scenario, and one day we heard the testimony of many eyewitnesses say someone fell down the staircase, we would not be wise in believing it because more people have walked up and down the staircase without falling then those who have fallen. We should not believe the story of someone falling, because it goes against the probability of regardless of the evidence.

3) Evidence for the past cannot determine the present- Hume is telling us that a wise person will believe that miracles will never happen. If there is someone who is trying to show evidence for an alleged miracle, the wise person should come with the presupposition that the claim is false, based on the evidence of the past which is infallible. This type of reasoning is fallacious because even in science things that are repeatable could alter in the future. We are not guaranteed that the sun will rise tomorrow simply because it always has. Sure the probabilities are high that it will, but it is not a guarantee, and if we were to notice a 48 hour period without seeing the sun rise. We would not be unwise to think that something had altered the normal rising of the sun, simply because every other day of our lives it rose. There are also anomalies in nature, which have no supernatural connotation, so to state that a person should never believe an exception to a repeated event hurts Hume’s case.

4) Confusing the basis of knowledge and the object of knowledge- Hume also confuses the basis of knowledge with the object of knowledge when he says that the evidence for what is repeatable is always greater than the evidence of what is rare. For example, we will use a great piece of art to show this type of confusion. We realize that a piece of art is great because we have seen many great pieces of art by many great artists. This is the basis of knowledge. We also know that the production of great art is a repeatable event, but this is not the object of knowledge. The object of knowledge is a single piece of work (e.g. the Mona Lisa). This single piece of work will never be repeated, it is a one-time event. When we have evidence of something being miraculous, we must not confuse the basis of knowledge with the object of knowledge. The basis of knowledge for a miraculous event is when we see something take place outside the laws of nature, and we realize that some higher or more intelligent force caused it. This is the repeatable, but the object of knowledge is the single miracle, which will never be repeated.

After careful review of Hume’s “in principle” argument, we see that he did not prove that miracles cannot take place, but he actually helps us define what a miracle is.

-Doug Eaton-

Click here for part 2

3 thoughts on “On Miracles and David Hume (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: On Miracles and David Hume (part 2) « Christian Theology

  2. How would Hume explain an exorcism without believing in miracles? the evidence is there to prove they happen and have a repeated outcome. Why would a wise man not believe that an exorcism is a miracle? opr is there some sort of physical way of proving how an exorcism works?


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