In Defense of David Hume On Miracles

I'm researching Hume's arguments against miracles in chapter ten of his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, to be read here.

Christian apologists unanimously think Hume's argument in Part I fails. See Richard Swinburne in his books, The Existence of God, and The Concept of Miracle, along with other apologetical works by C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, and others too many to name.


What surprised me is that some significant atheist philosophers also think Hume's argument fails, like Michael Martin (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, pp. 194-196), Michael Levine (The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, pp. 291-308), and Graham Oppy (Arguing About Gods, pp. 376-382), who strangely says "Hume's argument against belief in miracle reports fails no less surely than do the various arguments from miracle reports to the existence of an orthodoxy conceived monotheistic god" (p. 381). Agnostic/atheist John Earman thinks Hume's argument is an Abject Failure (as seen in his book by that title). And while J.L. Mackie defends Hume against some objections, even he thinks Hume's argument needs "improvement" (p. 25) by being "tidied up and restated" (p. 17) due to "inaccuracies" (p. 27), with one part he calls "very unsatisfactory" (p. 23).

I'm finding that only three atheist philosophers think Hume's argument in Part I succeeds, Antony Flew, Evan Fales and Nicholas Everitt (see his chapter 6 in The Non-Existence of God). As I study this issue out, I agree with them.


In Part 1 Hume is exclusively talking about probabilities, never certainties. First there is observation and experience, which are basic, yet still to be thought of in terms of the probabilities:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.
Hume turns to the testimonies of others as an example of observation and experience. If our experiences are subject to doubt then how much more should we doubt the testimonies of others regarding ordinary mundane events:
To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators....We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist. This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.
When it comes to a non-miraculous extraordinary event the probability of testimonial evidence is diminished even further:
Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual.
When it comes to an alleged miraculous event the probability drops very significantly:
But in order to encrease 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, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.
Then Hume states his proof by summing up so far where his argument has led:
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.
This is the key sentence that's used to discredit Part I of Hume's argument. It's claimed Hume defined miracles in such a way as to beg the question, or that Hume is saying it's impossible that miracles occur, or that Hume is a priori (before the facts) rejecting all evidence that a miracle could occur because nature's laws preclude them. None of these things are the case. At all.

Evan Fales argues exegetically that Hume could not have intended to say miracles are logically impossible, "for granting it would have made the path to his conclusion in 'Of Miracles' much easier--even trivial. And Hume clearly intended a much more substantive result." (Debating Christian Theism, p. 299). The late Christian apologist Ronald Nash agreed, saying,

Hume could not have been arguing that miracles are impossible. Instead of attacking miracles metaphysically (by arguing they are impossible), Hume's challenge turn out to be epistemological in nature. That is, he argues that even though miracles could occur, it is never rational to believe that any alleged miracle took place. Hume develops this epistemological attack on miracles in two stages. In Part I of his essay, he argues on philosophical grounds that the evidence that might be thought to support belief in a miracle will normally, by the nature of the case, be less than the evidence against belief in the miracle. The evidence against the alleged miracle will typically outweigh the supporting evidence. In part II, Hume presents several subsidiary arguments that are more evidential than philosophical; he attempts to show why in practice the evidence against any alleged miracle will always outweigh the putative supporting evidence. (Faith & Reason, p. 228).
The real clue that Hume was always talking about the probabilities is in reading the surrounding text, both prior to and after this proof of his.

Consider the concrete examples Hume provides just after stating his proof. Surely these examples are what Hume bases his notion of laws of nature, and nature's laws on. See how firm they are embedded in human experience such that we have no good reason to believe otherwise. Just ask what kind of testimonial evidence would make you believe against the regularities in nature that they occurred:

Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. 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.
Hume ends this section by sharing the consequential result of his argument in Part I, and it's all about the probabilities, stated in a general maxim (thus admitting the possibility of exceptions):

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no 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 endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
There's more later...

0 comments: