In Defense of Hume, Part 3: Hume's Maxim On Human Testimony to Miracles as a Foundation for Religion

David Hume's Maxim and its defense comes from chapter 10 of his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It's stated in these words:
"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. #91
Later Hume tells us the only reasonable conclusion one can draw from his maxim: "Therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion." (#98). The fact that a miracle requires extraordinary evidence over and above the fallibilites of ordinary human testimony is not an unreasonable demand on Hume's part. It's the nature of the beast. The consistent workings of the natural world preclude miracles from happening. This natural world order is known with as much assurance as anything that can be known. It's so well established that natural laws have been derived from it's regularity and used daily in our laboratories and factories. That human testimony is fallible is also known with a great deal of assurance, especially with the discovery of a great many cognitive biases. So we need more than just human testimony to accept that a miracle happened. Human testimony alone isn't enough to overcome what is known about how the world works. Given the nature of the world and the fallible nature of ordinary human testimony, we need sufficient objective evidence over and above human testimony (hence, called extraordinary evidence) to corroborate that a miracle occurred.

All you need to consider is what you'd think if someone testified that his amputated limb regenerated itself, or if a woman testified she gave birth to a baby deity as a virgin! Would you believe their testimony? What if a few others said the same thing? Here's the kicker: Human testimony, second- third- and fourth handed human testimony in the ancient pre-scientific world, where miracle claims were abundant without the means to discredit them, is all we have when it comes to the miracles we find in the Bible and the religions founded on it.

You can read Hume's Maxim in context below (#99-100). Upon doing so let's be done with the claim that Hume's argument is an a priori one that admits of no possibility of a miracle. It's one of probabilities all the way down. It's about human testimony to miracles in a world that precludes them as the foundation of a religion. And the kind of human testimony considered to be extraordinary in nature just does not exist! It could exist. That it doesn't is not Hume's fault.

The problem with Hume's argument therefore, is that miracles just don't happen. For if they did believers wouldn't object to it. It's precisely because believers want to believe that they try to find a way around it, even if it requires an intellectual sacrifice. Say it isn't so! Otherwise they would agree with Hume's reasonable demand then go on to present sufficient corroborating objective evidence showing the miracles of their religion really did take place. The fact that corroborating evidence does not exist is why believers must object to Hume's rock solid maxim. So Christians have a choice to make. Either 1) biblical miracles did not take place, so there's no reason to believe them, or 2) miracles did take place, but there's still no reason to believe them. Given that Christians only have the evidence of human testimony in the Bible, this is the choice forced upon them. So choose. In doing so, don't go nutty on us as some others do.

David Hume:
Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but substract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this substraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.
He goes on to imagine a scenario whereby human testimony could establish a miracle. The problem with it is that "it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history."
I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.
Hume offers this final statement on the matter, which is his own particular conclusion, based on his maxim:
As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered.