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David Hume and Miracles.

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David Hume and Miracles Martin Dobson and Dominic Gibben Hume characterised 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 logical form: * 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 be of such a kind that its falsehood be more miraculous than the event it endeavours to establish'. ...read more.


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. ...read more.


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. ...read more.

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