On Miracles and David Hume (part 2)

Again, David Hume’s argument against miracles can be broken down into two parts.  Part 1 being the ‘in principle” or philosophical argument and part 2 being the “in fact” or historical and evidential arguments. The focus of this post is on part two of Hume’s argument. The basis of his argument is that if “in fact” a miracle is claimed to have taken place in the past and we wanted to actually weight the evidence and not use probability (see part 1) then we still should not believe the claims of the witnesses for a few different reasons. 1) We cannot trust the reliability of the witness because people who report these miracles tend to be uneducated, uncivilized, and even barbaric. 2) It is the nature of humans to gossip and exaggerate. 3) There are conflicting religions that claim miracles, so they in turn cancel each other out.

As stated in part 1, Hume tries to evaluate the credibility of a miracle, not by weighing the actual evidence, but by probability or the number of testimonies. Francis Beckwith gives a good analogy of this in his article History and Miracles. He gives the example of a woman being charged with murder, and there are five upstanding citizens who were eyewitnesses. Now the defense attorney who is a proponent of Hume’s logic, goes out and gets 875 people to testify that, not only did they not see the murder, but they can’t even imagine this woman doing something like this because in the past they have seen that she is an upstanding person herself. The defense attorney then asks the jury to make their decision based on the fact that 875 testimonies say they have never seen her murder anyone (but did not see the event in question) verses five who say they saw her do it. It is clear that just because 875 people had never seen her murder anyone nor even think that she would do something like that, does not mean she didn’t do it. It is at this point that Hume brings his “in fact” argument into play. He proceeds to say that the witnesses are not trustworthy because they are uneducated, uncivilized, and even barbaric. On top of that, people have the tendency to gossip and exaggerate so they probably made up the story without any real evidence because it is what they wanted to believe.

What Hume does, is say that whenever there is miraculous claim there is always plenty of reason to question the witnesses education, reputation, and integrity. The problem is he never sets any kind of standard for what an educated man who lives in a civilized society looks like. Colin Brown points out that maybe educated and upright men, are men who do not believe in miracles and follow suit with Hume. Anyone outside this description is obviously uneducated and uncivilized.

Hume’s lack of listing qualifications of what a civilized educated person is, leaves the door wide open to say every time a person claims to be a witness to a miracle, this person must be uneducated. Clearly this statement by Hume does not do anything to prove that all witnesses to miracles have been both uneducated and uncivilized, but is merely a statement of his personal prejudices.

The next statement that Hume makes is that it is so pleasurable to tell a piece of news and be one of the first ones to spread it, leads people to gossip or exaggerate the claim without any evidence. Hume also adds that this is especially true in religious cases because people want to support their case. A wise man, in Hume’s mind, should never believe any of these claims because of this principle.

Francis Beckwith makes a point that when it comes to believing in the historicity of a miraculous event; it does take more evidence to believe it than it would a non-miraculous event. He gives the illustration of receiving a report that your friend’s father, who had passed away, came back to life and went to lunch with your friend. You would obviously need more evidence to believe that report then you would need to believe your friend went to lunch with his father who never passed away and lives in the same house that he does. You would need more evidence, but the fact, that as a general rule, many people have the propensity to exaggerate does not mean that your friend’s report is not true.

If we cannot believe anything out of the ordinary because people tend to exaggerate in order to strengthen the case for their belief system, then it seems Hume fails his own test. He states that no miracles have ever occurred and that all witnesses to miracles are not credible. By his own rule I should not believe until I have further evidence, because he could be exaggerating just to support his own belief in naturalism. After all, it is a pretty miraculous claim to say that you know throughout history that every witness to a miracle was uneducated and uncivilized.

Hume also forgets about witnesses to miracles that do not want to believe what they see because it represents everything they are against. Saul of Tarsus is a good example of this. He was on his way to persecute Christian when Jesus Christ, who had been crucified and resurrected, appears to him. It would have not been in Paul’s best interest to report this miracle. Also, he had absolutely no reason to exaggerate this event because it could only do damage to his cause.

The final section of Hume’s “in fact” argument is that if two competing religions both claim that they have miracles to support their religion, then they must cancel out each other. For example if Christians claim that their God became a man, died, and was resurrected, and the Muslim’s claim the same thing, then these miracles must cancel out each other. Ron Nash states that this is probably Hume’s strongest point in the “in fact” argument. Nash then proceeds to state, that when it comes to the core miracles of the faith like the resurrection, there are no other religions that claim and event like this so they do not cancel out each other. There may be other types of miracles like healing that seem to cancel out each other, but this does not mean that at least one or maybe even both of them actually took place. Nash also points out that God’s goodness is not restricted only to believers and that there is no reason why God could not reveal His power and glory to an unbeliever, even if this person belonged to another religion.

In conclusion Hume’s “in fact” arguments does nothing to prove that miracles have not taken place. The only thing it really does is warn us to be careful when looking at the claims of a miracle, but this is something most people already knew.

-Doug Eaton-

2 thoughts on “On Miracles and David Hume (part 2)

  1. Hume is not simply warning us to “be careful when looking at the claims of a miracle,” but rather that it contradicts reason and natural law to do so. If this is something most people already know, then the people who still believe in miracles are indeed unreasonable. When Hume says that these people are uneducated and uncivilized, it is not based on personal prejudice, but rather on the fact that these people are overly credulous. While the miracles described in the Bible may have actually happened, Hume simply says that there is no reason to believe them based only on human testimony. He never claims that these miracles did not take place, but only that they can not be believed by rational people other than by pure faith.
    “Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity; and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” -Hume


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