Was David Hume's Argument "Of Miracles" Original? The Role of Ridicule.

If you're here from following a link in my anthology, "The Case against Miracles", thanks so much! You now have an edition of the book that's been thoroughly checked for typographical errors. As of 6/1/20 the book is probably 99% error free. To read updates and further discussions about the book click on the following tag: Case against Miracles.


Previously I have justified compiling an anthology on miracles, and Hume's towering influence over us right here. Some would say there's nothing let to say after David Hume's chapter "Of Miracles". If so, we might as well just throw up our hands and complain that the ancients have stolen all of our ideas since new arguments are hard to come by too. ;-) There hasn't been a book length treatment of miracles like this written by atheists in forever, so it's long overdue. It's also a major defense of David Hume.

In my dedication to the book The Case against Miracles I wrote: "This volume is dedicated to the legacy of David Hume, considered to be the greatest English-speaking philosopher who ever lived." Then readers will find this quote from Hume:
I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument...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. – “Of Miracles” by David Hume (1711-1776).
No one likes an arrogant person. No one likes to be ridiculed for what they think either. What if Hume didn't say this? What if he played nice with believers? What if he had toned down his rhetoric? What we know is that no one likes to be taunted, belittled, or called ignorant, or delusional. Yet this is what Hume did. Doing so brings people out to debate, and debate Hume they did, and still do. It's as if what Hume said had a self-fulfilling effect to it.

John Earman has viciously criticized Hume in his essay, "Hume's Abject Failure, The Argument Against Miracles". One of his claims is that "Hume's famous essay on miracles is set in the context of the larger debate that was taking place in the eighteenth century about the nature of miracles and the ability of eyewitness testimony to establish the credibility of such events. Hume's argument against miracles is largely unoriginal..." He says, "'Of Miracles' is often treated as if it were a genuinely original piece of philosophy. But although it does contain some original insights and is cast in Hume's characteristically forceful prose, it is in fact a largely derivative work." [Chapter 1, Section 7].

While some of the arguments Hume made were, loosely speaking, floating around in his day, it hardly goes to say that his particular argument in "Of Miracles" was made by anyone else. That's the point. Earman finds that John Locke had his influence on Hume, but only suggests that some others may also have had an influence on Hume, without providing any direct evidence. Hume doesn't really say he came up with his argument. He merely says he "discovered" it, although it's clear he's taking ownership of it. Sometimes the way an argument is expressed makes it more powerful. Other times it matters who makes the argument. People were eventually forced to pay attention to Hume, known to "the wise and learned" as a great philosopher and a great historian. For he became widely known for his massive 6 volumes series on The History of England, published from 1754 to 1762. When readers of Hume's history learned he ridiculed believers for believing in the impossible, it's his arrogance and ridicule that most likely thrust what he argued into the spotlight like nothing else, and it still does for anyone who wishes to believe.

Hume knew the effect of taunting believers who disagreed. At the end of his chapter on miracles he wrote:
So our over-all conclusion should be that the Christian religion not only was at first accompanied by miracles, but even now cannot be believed by any reasonable person without a miracle. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its truth; and anyone who is moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person—one that subverts all the principles of his understanding and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.
Then at the end of Hume's Enquiry itself, he concluded:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
Whew. Them's fighting words! And believers have been fighting with Hume ever since. Now I've written a lot to justify the use of ridicule. Hume used it. He was also being arrogant. But he knew the effect that inflammatory rhetoric and ridicule would have on believers, when most everyone else thought it was better to engage them with nothing but respect.