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David Hume and Miracles

Hume characterized miracles to be ‘a transgression of the law of nature by a particular volition of the deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent’. His essay on miracles published within the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has long been the definitive text on miracles and as such has been attacked by numerous critics.

Part One of the essay is primarily concerned with a priori arguments. A priori literally means ‘from what comes before; hence arguments that can be known to be true or false without reference to experience. To establish the argument employed in Hume’s first part of his essay, it may be useful to state his argument in the logical form:

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  • Miracles are violations of the laws of nature.
  • A firm and unalterable experience has established these laws of nature.
  • Improbable events need witnesses of higher credibility than witnesses required for more probable events.
  • Miracles are improbable events.

Therefore: Miracles are the least likely event possible, and the most impressive testimony at most will counterbalance the unlikeliness of the event.

In each case where a witness reports a miracle Hume requires us to evaluate the evidence presented for and against the incident occurring and always reject the greater miracle. This quite clearly means that Hume is asking us a simple probability question. Which is more likely – that someone is mistaken, hallucinating, lying or even dreaming, all of which are common occurrences, or that a miracle has happened? The answer is plain; exceptional events are by definition unusual and improbable. Hume arrives at the conclusion that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its falsehood is more miraculous than the event it endeavours to establish. In this way Hume does not deny the possibility of miracles as such but by applying so stringent an axiom to them makes their probability very unlikely. However, Hume does manage to eliminate the possibility of miracles occurring in Part Two by introducing so complete a set of conditions to which the witnesses must confirm that in actuality (in Hume’s probable belief) no miracle can ever be believed to have occurred. But before we proceed to the second (and much larger) part of Hume’s discourse there are several criticisms of Part One that need to be discussed.

Part One Criticisms

Hume’s Part One of the essays has been criticized on several points. These are all based on Hume’s ambiguous choice of language. The first solecism Hume makes is in using the term unalterable in reference to the laws of nature. The laws of nature, being descriptive, not prescriptive, must be modifiable in order to comply with Hume’s empirical position. The dictionary definition of the laws of nature is ‘A correct statement of invariable sequence between specified conditions and specified phenomenon’. This raises a disturbing problem for the empiricist namely that if the laws of nature are by definition invariable the phrase ‘laws of nature’ becomes an unproductive part of the empiricist’s vocabulary – it is reduced to a resolutely mute peculiarity of the English language. The second solecism Hume makes is in the use of the word ‘probability with reference to miracles. Assuming God’s existence we can only maintain that an omnipotent God chooses when to perform his actions and does not necessarily conform to any pattern. Hence the probability of God performing a miracle is not (directly) dependent on the frequency of which God chooses to perform miracles but rather on his ability to perform them at his own discretion.

Hume then continues on this road of folly by equating evidence with probability. Hume implies that it is always more reasonable to believe the more probable event. Though it may be more reasonable or reliable to believe in the probable, in actuality, there are occasions where the improbable has to be believed. For example, when the duck-billed platypus was discovered the zoologists of the time questioned the reliability of the evidence for its existence (they thought it was fake!). But they were forced to alter their views. The platypus, unusual for its egg-laying abilities was an improbable addition to the mammalian family but the facts were irrefutable. Hume’s line of thinking is therefore fundamentally flawed due to an inclination not to believe anything which is unlikely.

Hume’s fourth error rests again with his use of the word ‘probability’, but it is not a linguistic mistake, it is a perspective mistake. The argument Hume employs can be interpreted in different ways depending on the perspective of the reader. For Hume and anti-theists, the improbability of the event pointed them to their logical conclusion that the event didn’t happen: while for theistic readers the argument merely enforces their belief in an omnipotent God whose performances of miracles is not limited by any natural laws. God is free to do what he wants when he wants. As the great Sherlock Holmes said ‘when you have excluded the impossible whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth’. Unfortunately, there is a disagreement as to what is impossible; to the theists and more specifically to God: nothing is – due to His omnipotent nature. Therefore the probability argument discussed here and earlier begs the question due to the circular nature of the argument if the question of God’s existence is not resolved.

Part Two

In contrast to Part One, which dealt with a priori experiences, Part Two deals mainly with a posteriori experiences. A posteriori means ‘after experience’. Hence a posteriori arguments are those that can only be known to be true or false by reference to experience, to the actual state of affairs in reality. Although the two sections differ in this manner there are some segments from his first part which are of fundamental use in the second part of his essay. In the second part of the essay, he considers what the criteria would be for a miracle to have actually occurred (in reality rather than in a hypothetical sense), using his two main conclusions from Part one.

1. No testament is sufficient to establish the truth of a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.

2. In all cases we must balance the opposite experiments where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater number in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

Hume opens his second part by suggesting that we have been a ‘great deal too liberal in our concessions’ in Part One, and he now intends to increase the criteria which need to be met for him to concede that a miraculous event has indeed occurred. He does this in four ways:

The first sentiments of Hume’s second part of the essay deal with the lack of incidents that have satisfied the criteria set down by Hume for his belief in the incident to be a miracle. The stringency of his criteria is most apparent in its reiteration. Hume firstly requires there to be a substantial amount of witnesses. He does not specify exactly how many would be sufficient. The individual reader is left to guess. These witnesses must be of unquestionable sanity and educated to a standard that Hume decides not to establish again. Adding still more criteria it becomes apparent that Hume is not particularly keen to admit that a miracle has ever occurred.

Secondly, Hume thought that human nature was such that it tended to believe in the unusual, the paranormal or the downright unprovable. Equally, the emotions of surprise and wonder are particularly palatable to the human mind. Hence miracle stories are suspect.

Thirdly Hume noted that miracles chiefly occur amongst the ignorant and the barbarous. This, Hume maintains, forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations.

Hume’s fourth point is that miracles form part of the base of many religions. If then these religions have an equal claim to the incident of miracles as part of the foundations of their faith, this causes severe problems according to Hume. Primarily, most religions accept the existence of one God, but these Gods are not necessarily and in fact not likely to be the same God. This leads Hume to the conclusion that if all religions report individual miracles then these reports are self-cancelling.

Hume goes on to exemplify his rules by giving examples of some miracles and describing how his rules would relate to them. The first miracle that Hume reports is an incident, recorded by Tacitus, where Vespasian cured a blind man and a lame man in Alexandria. Hume was munificent in his praise for this account largely because the report came from Tacitus who in Hume’s opinion satisfied many of the criteria laid down. He was a great historian who consistently maintained an impersonal and unbiased view of events. Vespasian also had a lot to lose if it was later discovered that the miracle was actually faked. In addition to the recorder of the events, the public nature of the facts would suggest that there were numerous eyewitnesses. Despite ninety percent of the criteria being satisfied, which Hume readily admits to, it does not prevent him from naming it ‘so gross and so palpable a falsehood. Hume’s personal criteria would appear to be even more stringent than those he published.

The second miracle that Hume feels deserves our attention is one related by Cardinal de Retz who was fleeing into Spain to avoid persecution. As he was passing through Saragossa he sought shelter in the cathedral where he was shown the previously one-legged doorkeeper who had served the church for seven or possibly twenty years and was well known throughout the town for his disability. His limb however as Cardinal de Retz testified was most definitely attached to the person in question. This supposed miracle was also witnessed by the canons of the church and the entire population of Saragossa the capital of Aragon. In this case, again the relater of the event (Cardinal de Retz) was a contemporary historian of repute and also a great genius according to Hume. This miracle is particularly noteworthy because of the proliferation of the witnesses. However shortly after the event, when the Cardinal was relaying it to his notebook he accords the event no credence. Hume first uses this as a reason to take the event more seriously than one relayed by a fanatic or zealot. However, in the concluding sentence of the paragraph, he uses this same evidence as the sole reason to ignore the event as possibly miraculous. Hume’s inability to recall what he had written only a couple of lines previously is proving a severe hurdle to the effectiveness of his use of logic.

For Hume’s third example in contrast to his second, he chooses circumstances where the miracles instead of the witnesses are numerous. The Abbe Paris miracles, so-called because they were performed to the grave of Abbe Paris, a Jesuit, of some standing. The miracles were many and varied with a substantial amount being immediately proved upon the spot before judges of unquestioned integrity attested by witnesses of credit and distinction in a learned age. Thus most if not all of Hume’s criteria were satisfied by his own admission.

Needless to say, Hume needs a cunning and subtle escape route. This he finds in his sagacious statement ‘and what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events which they relate? And this surely in the eyes of all reasonable people will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation. Hume’s inability to find a serious refutation is concerning. Most people will agree if criteria are set and subsequently met it is ridiculous to ignore the conclusion by stating that the event cannot happen, as you must by definition be stating that your criteria are incorrect or at least not fit for the purpose they were constructed to perform. After Hume’s three examples he concludes that ‘it appears that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less a proof; and that even supposing it amounted to proof, it would be opposed by another proof derived from the very nature of the fact that it endeavours to establish.

Part Two Criticisms

The second half of Hume’s discourse has attracted since its publication a lot of heavy criticism mainly due to Hume’s peculiar grasp of logic. Essentially Hume seems to avoid any difficult problems by appealing to common sense and by doing so produces a myriad of inconsistent conclusions. The first criticism of Hume’s Part Two of his essay is his ignoring of the effect of miracles on the relevant environment/individuals. For instance, the doorkeeper in the Cardinal de Retz reported miracle would have acquired a new limb. This undoubtedly is physical evidence in favour of the miracle’s occurrence, and this surely provides stronger testimony than any witness could ever supply. Hume didn’t mention this in his essay. The reason for its absence is unclear as we have already mentioned Hume was the last of the great empiricists which makes this ‘oversight’ even more of a blunder.

Hume was a man with convictions and occasionally you can see them represented in his writings. The text contains several examples of Hume’s intellectual integrity being violated by his ideological bigotry. The primary example within this work is his complete inability to admit to even the possibility of miracles occurring. This is best demonstrated in his denial of the miracle at the tomb of Abbe Paris where even though by his own admission all his criteria are met, he maintains that miracles cannot occur quite simply because they cannot! He refuses to alter his presupposition that miracles cannot occur.

In his example miracle of the eight days of darkness, he advises the philosophers of the time to not refute the miracle but instead to establish a cause. But when faced with an analogous situation – that of the Abbe Paris which as we have previously said satisfies all of Hume’s criteria – instead of seeking a cause of the miracles he refutes their miraculous nature. He believes himself exempt from his own guidelines. Hume’s criteria are stringent to the point of lunacy. His four written criteria are so strict as to make their true nature self evident – ensuring that no miracles, or as few as possible, are ever taken seriously. Hume also appears to have several criteria he did not see fit to commit to paper (the existence, though not the exact content, of these criteria, becomes evident when you observe his refutation of the existence of the miracles at the tomb of Abbe Paris): when all the written criteria are met the other criteria come into effect to provide an extra layer of resistance so that no miracle is ever, in Hume’s opinion to be taken seriously. Hume appears to believe that religious people are by their nature either deceivers or the deceived.

This view has raised indignant criticism, especially from the religious believers as they quite rightly point out that some of their numbers may also have been/are skeptics by nature. Hume manages to contradict himself in this implication by the inclusion within his essay of the respect he held for Cardinal de Retz (an eminent historian) and religious personage, but Hume’s respect for him is chiefly because of his ability to analyze critical situations with a skeptic’s eye. Hume does not appear to fully appreciate the increase in a testimony’s worth when two or more individual witnesses’ testimonies correlate.

This is partly contained with his evaluation of evidence in Part One, but it never fully expands along these lines. Hume said that miracles of opposing religions cancel each other out in effect but Hume had clearly not thought this through. He made the presupposition that there is only one God and hence only one religion is true. The possibility of polytheism or one God being all things to all men escaped Hume. In a polytheistic universe, there would be many gods all free to interact, perform miracles and basically do what they want.

This would be entirely consistent with numerous religions having one or more gods, including the dualistic concept of God and the devil both performing their supernatural roles. The theistic solution would be to have a supernatural being who is capable of interacting with humanity. Of course, Hume does not have to be correct that all religions would cancel out all other religions if the evidence for one religion was particularly strong. If for instance, this one religion was the religion with genuine miracles, it may be able to withstand the destruction of all other religions without itself being obliterated.

Hume’s status as an empiricist is once again used to highlight an inadequacy within his text, namely that in keeping with the definition of an empiricist Hume’s philosophical outlook predisposes his rejection of the supernatural world. Therefore it is folly to talk of miracles with a supernatural originator as it is apparent that Hume by nature of his empirical stance will not be able to discuss these phenomena without bias.

Given Hume’s questionable methodology and logic, he perhaps displays the intellectual trait of entering the argument with presuppositions yet exiting without some of the questions in his mind fully answered.

Bibliography

Miracles and the Critical Mind by Colin Brown (Eerdmans: 1984)

Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Brian Davies (OUP: 1993)

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume.

The Miracle of Theism by J. Mackie (OUP: 1982)

Gospel Perspectives Volume VI, by David Wenham. (JSOT: 1986)

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