Miracles and Hume's Reasoning about Testimonial Evidence

On his blog Dr. Bart D. Ehrman posted Michael Shermer's Foreword to my new anthology The Case Against Miracles. You can see teasers on his Facebook page (Dec. 22nd and 23rd). He has made contributor Darren Slade and myself temporary administrators, which is cool. Ehrman has three more selections to post about the book.

In the first one on his blog (not the one on Facebook) I got into a discussion with a believer, brenmcg. I think it went rather well, and helps clarify and expand on why we need objective evidence before we should believe any miracle tales. Enjoy.


With this line of reasoning we could discount all historic claims of miracles and arrive at the unwarranted conclusion that no miracles at all are possible.

If however we assume at least one miracle can occur the historical evidence for it being in 1st century palestine would then be pretty good.

Whether no miracles are possible or at least one can occur is for now unanswerable.

Loftus In reply to brenmcg:

What if miracles are indeed impossible? You must allow for this hypothesis.

Why must anyone assume anything about miracles?

Let’s let the objective evidence (or lack thereof) dictate what we can reasonably accept

brenmcg in reply to johnwloftus:

Yes for now we should allow both possibilities – that no mirackes are possible or that at least one miracle is possible.

If you have a method which enables you to discount all miracle claims you should be suspicious of the method. Because for now that question shouldnt be decidable.

johnwloftus in reply to brenmcg:

No one in my anthology, or David Hume, has said miracles are impossible. They may be impossible, if one asks whether an incorporeal spirit can act in the material world. Such a question is a metaphysical one. We’re asking epistemological questions.

brenmcg in reply to johnwloftus:

But someone rising from the dead is an epistemological claim. If someone rose from the dead in the past all we would have as evidence is eyewitness testimony. According to Hume’s reasoning every instance of these claims should be discounted.

This reasoning will guarantee we mis-characterize a resurrection event should it have ever occurred.

If we’re open to the possibility of at least one miracle occurring we shouldnt be satisfied with this method of reasoning.

johnwloftus in reply to brenmcg:

No! We can be open to the possibility a miracle took place without accepting less than objective evidence for it. But if no miracle rises to the reasonable requirement for objective evidence then so be it. What we would be left with is the possibility that a miracle took place but that we can’t show that it did.

That’s all a believer has, by the way. This means believers should honestly admit that even though they can’t show a miracle took place, they believe it did anyway.

brenmcg in reply to johnwloftus:

Using Hume’s method alone you may end up discounting an actual miracle.

johnwloftus in reply to brenmcg:

Yes, but there are no other alternatives except to believe any miracle tale simply because it’s accepted in one’s cultural religious history. Furthermore, being naively uncritical about miracle tales will allow any nefarious huckster to take advantage of you, such that he could take your wife, your children, your money, and your life. Surely a good god would not want to put you at risk like that.

If a reasonable god created us as a reasonable people then he should give reasonable people what they require. Otherwise, he would be condemning reasonable people to hell for not giving them what he created them to require before accepting the gospel tales of miracles.