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’. 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 conform 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 essay has been criticised 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 solicism 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.

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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 ...

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