Problems with Hume’s argument against miracles, part 1

Most people today who start from the premise that miracles don’t or won’t happen knowingly or unknowingly depend on the influence of Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).

Hume did not originate the key ideas in his essay on miracles; most are recycled from arguments of some earlier deist writers, as Robert M. Burns has demonstrated (The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume; Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1981). It was Hume, however, whose influence mainstreamed these ideas so that some subsequent thinkers simply took for granted that he had established the case. Many thinkers from his own time forward offered strong responses to his case, including more sophisticated challenges based on mathematical probabilities, but Hume’s reputation in other areas lent credibility to his argument on this one.

Today scholars have published major academic critiques of Hume’s work. Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne has been influential (The Concept of Miracle; London: Macmillan, 1970), and more recent critiques include J. Houston’s Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), David Johnson, Hume, Holism, and Miracles (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999), and John Earman’s Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Against criticism that Earman critiqued Hume’s argument because of Christian bias, Earman replied that he is not a Christian; he simply thought Hume’s argument was a poor one.

Violating Nature

Scholars reconstruct Hume’s argument in various ways, though Burns is probably right that we should fill the lacunae based on Hume’s assumptions of then-current deist debates. At the fundamental level, Hume’s argument is twofold: miracles violate natural law, and we lack credible eyewitnesses for miracles. In sum (acording to the most common understanding of Hume’s argument), miracles contradict uniform human experience.

The second part of his argument (the lack of credible eyewitness support for miracles) is probably meant to support the first part: lack of experience of miracles points to the ordinary course of nature (or, Hume would say, the uniform course of nature). Hume is trying to use induction to establish a negative, deductive argument—an argument that does not fit even his own normal approach. Hume normally did not believe that a finite number of examples could establish with certainty that something would always be the case—except when it came to miracles. (He could argue that it is improbable based on his circle of evidence, but his sample size proves too limited, as we shall see.)

Modern conceptions of natural law tend to be more descriptive than prescriptive, but Hume’s conception of natural law did not even fit the dominant paradigm of his day. Newton and his early followers were theists who affirmed biblical miracles; they did not regard God, the Legislator, as subject to his own laws. For Hume to argue that we cannot expect miracles because a God could not or would not “violate” natural law is an assumption, not an argument. It assumes without argument what no Christians believed anyway: a God subject to natural law. Defining miracles as “violations” of natural law lends the impression that God breaks such laws when he acts in nature; but this requires one to assume an uninvolved creator (as in deism) or no God at all.

A human who act in nature, by, for example, catching a falling object, does not “violate” the law of gravity; persons can act within nature without violating it. Why must God be less an actor than human persons? Moreover, most biblical miracles do not even fit a tamer definition of miracle that requires an action without nearer (as opposed to more distant) natural causes: when God used a strong east wind to blow back the sea in Exodus 14:21, the proximate cause was the east wind, and Moses and his rod functioned as agents, even though God was the ultimate cause.

No Credible Witnesses

The second part of Hume’s essay, probably meant to support the first half, is particularly problematic. To argue that uniform human experience absolutely excludes miracles, one must have comprehensive knowledge of uniform human experience. Instead, Hume argues that there are no credible eyewitnesses for miracles, but circularly uses the uniformity of human experience to challenge the credibility of witnesses. By almost everyone’s definition of miracles (as opposed to less conspicuous divine activity) they are not part of nature’s ordinary course; we don’t call them “miracles” when they are our common, easily predictable experience. But in some kinds of circumstances, what we consider ordinary is not ordinary: in black holes and cases of superconductivity, physical laws appear different than under many other conditions, inviting broadened definitions of overarching laws. If we do not a priori rule out the possibility of special divine activity, it would be rational to even expect special experiences during such activity.

Various subsidiary arguments inform Hume’s argument against reliable eyewitnesses. These arguments help him to narrow the field of evidence that should be acceptable, excluding testimony from nonwhite peoples and from antiquity. He excludes, for example, claims from non-Western and nonwhite civilizations. Hume considers such peoples “ignorant and barbarous,” fitting his ethnocentrism in his other work. One could elaborate at length on his ethnocentrism, e.g., his denial of any truly great achievements in Asian and African civilizations, his widely-used support for slavery, and so forth. See e.g., C. L. Ten, “Hume’s Racism and Miracles,” Journal of Values Inquiry 36 (2002): 101–7; Charles Taliaferro, and Anders Hendrickson, “Hume’s Racism and His Case against the Miraculous,” Philosophia Christi 4 (2, 2002): 427–41; and my “A Reassessment of Hume’s Case against Miracles in Light of Testimony from the Majority World Today,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 38 (3, Fall 2011): 289–310.

Since all religions claim miracles at the beginning, he mistrusts miraculous claims from the beginning of religions. Hume’s target here is fellow Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke, who used early Christian miracles as evidence for Christian faith. But Hume is not correct that all religions claim miracles at their beginning, nor would the claims of some religions automatically cancel out those of others, any more than the discrediting of one witness for a case would discredit all the witnesses. (Moreover, Hume merely presupposes, with some of his contemporaries, that religions’ claims are mutually exclusive, so that genuine superhuman activity could not occur in more than one.) Excluding testimony in religious contexts presupposes what it would hope to prove.

Continued in part 2, next week …


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