The New Atheists frequently will appeal to Saint David (Hume) in their rejection of miracles. In this article, in brief, I will present why I find Hume’s On Miracles to be fundamentally flawed on numerous levels. More can be said on Hume than what I present here however so please, if you have any questions leave them in the comment section and I will do my best to reply in a timely manner.
1. His primary argument relies on what he has already said is impossible in the first half of On Miracles, that is, the logical use of induction. Hume spent the first half of On Miracles refuting the notion of induction only to turn around and use it (and a pretty vague concept of it at that) to attempt to disprove miracles.
His basic argument against induction is that there is no guarantee that the future will be like the past. Partly due to his thoughts on causality, Hume says that just because every time the cue ball hits the billiard ball in the past and the billiard ball moved, we do not know that such a causal correlation will occur in the future. Maybe tomorrow when they collide, the cue ball will be turned into an egg. Every morning when we get out of bed our feet land on solid flooring. But maybe tomorrow our floor will be viscous and we will sink right through it. We can see more clearly Hume’s problem with induction by looking at a simple argument:
P1) Every jelly bean I have eaten from the jar tastes like licorice.
P2) Therefore all the jelly beans in the jar will taste like licorice.
The question is, can we ever be justified in positively or certainly claiming P2? Hume despairs and says no.
Now, I actually think that defenses of induction are possible and disagree with Hume that we can never make inductive claims like P2, especially considering that I think one of the main differences between induction and deduction is varied degrees of certainty. So I think induction can be reframed such that the conclusions are not statements of certainty but rather something like P3 “Therefore it is plausible (to a varied degree) that all the jelly beans in the jar will taste like licorice.”
Here we can also bring in things like justification. What if there are 5000 jelly beans and P1 is true, but I have only eaten 5. Would I be justified in asserting P3? Not really. But if I ate 3000 then maybe or if I ate 9 out of only 10 then probably yes.
One of the inductive problems for Hume however is that he does deny induction. And yet when he begins to discuss miracles, one of his arguments is that we have the universal experience of no miracles occurring and therefore we should conclude no miracles will occur in the future. Yet this is only possible if we say something like,
P1) No miracles have occurred in the past.
P2) Therefore no miracles will occur in the future.
Besides the fact that this is not really even a syllogism where the conclusion is drawn from true premises, it would rely on some principle of induction in order for it to work. Something Hume has already said we should not allow.
Another inductive problem is that another one of Hume’s arguments, that miracles cannot happen because they violate the laws of nature, assumes that natural laws have been or will always be the same. Think of the billiard ball. If Hume wants to deny induction by saying that the billiard ball isn’t guaranteed to move simply because it has always behaved that way in the past, then how is he able to say that a natural law cannot be violated in the future because they have not been violated in the past? One possible recourse would be to say that laws of nature just are things that are inviolable. Yet again, all he is doing is assuming that because natural laws have been the kinds of things that are inviolable in the past that they are guaranteed to be inviolable in the future.
And before you go on to say that these are facts that can be observed through science, you have to realize that you are still only appealing to induction – science has lead to true knowledge in the past, therefore it will lead to true knowledge in the present and the future. It is still circular and still relies on induction.
Now, you may resolve the issue by simply agreeing with me that Hume is wrong on his rejection of induction and therefore be free to make his argument against miracles. However, it must be stated explicitly which position you will take. Do you deny the 1st half of On Miracles or the 2nd? Do you deny his arguments against induction or do you deny his arguments against miracles? We simply cannot have both.
2. The next problem is that of the utter circularity of the probabilistic argument against miracles. Basically he says that we can know that miracles do not occur because we have the universal experience of no miracles occurring. Yet can he know such universal experience? Well we can only know that there is universal experience of no miracles occurring if we know that all the reports of them are false. But we can only know that they are all false if we know that no miracles have occurred. The syllogism would be as follows,
P1) We know that miracles do not occur because we have universal experience of no miracles occurring.
P2) We know that we have such universal experience or no miracles occurring because we know that all reports of miracles are false.
P3) We know that all reports of miracles are false because we know that no miracle has occurred.
That is a circle of the most vicious kind.
Ok, those are the obvious problems. The next ones become a bit more complicated.
3. Next is Hume’s assertion that miracles are impossible because they just are violations of the inviolable natural laws. We have already seen that this poses a problem for his objection to induction, but now we will see that it also presupposes the truth of naturalism – which is his intended conclusion.
In order for this objection to work, we must accept two of Hume’s definitions, neither of which I think we should. The first is the definition of a natural law as inviolable. This seems a bizarre stance to take in modern times considering that most scientists and philosophers of science would define natural laws merely as descriptions of the normative behaviors of the natural world. All of science, and indeed natural laws, function on the assumption of “caeteris paribus” or “all things being equal.” Science and natural law are only descriptions of what happens when nature goes about its merry way without any interruption, injection of new information, or exertion of some other force, natural or otherwise.
This is where C.S. Lewis’ famous example of arithmetic comes in. I do not say the bank thief who robbed my bank broke the laws of arithmetic because the ledgers do not balance, but rather the laws of California. The laws of arithmetic have not been violated, new circumstances arose. Not all things were equal.
In fact I noticed something quite ironic a while back. This exact defense is used by evolutionists against creationists who assert that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics makes evolution impossible. They claim that because evolution is the tendency toward increased complexity and that the 2nd Law is that all nature tends toward entropy, that evolution violates the 2nd Law and is therefore not possible. Besides that this is not the best understanding of either evolution or thermodynamics, evolutionists often point out the same response we should give to Hume. Evolutionists quite rightly point out that other factors are at work that lead to less entropy. That is, the 2nd Law is not violated, it is superseded. The influence of outside actors can override the normal operation of the natural world. Like before, it is not all things being equal.
This leads us to Hume’s definition of a miracle just as a violation of a law of nature. Why must we accept that definition? Why can it not simply be the influence of an outside actor overriding the normal operation of the natural world. We can think of resurrection as an example of this. Many anti-theists seem to have a love affair with calling it a “zombie” apocalypse but that is really just a deficient way of understanding it. Imagine that I died of cardiac arrest right now and was rushed the hospital. The doctors would try CPR and defibrillation on me and hopefully my heart would suddenly start again. Now, do we say that the doctors have violated the law that dead bodies stay dead? (There is no actual natural law to this effect but I think it is a common enough belief that dead bodies stay dead.) Well no. We recognize that if I was truly dead (and not just swooning or something), and all things being equal, no one did anything I would have stayed dead. But there was the intervention of an outside actor, the infusion of new information (in the form of energy), etc. The law was not violated, the circumstances simply did not remain “caeteris paribus”.
Yet if we allow for doctors to revive patients dead for a short period of time, why is it logically impossible (for that is Hume’s contention) that a being like God could not simply do something of the sort for people dead for a longer period of time? It would not be the violation of natural law, but merely the intervention of an outside actor inserting new information into the system.
The only recourse to deny this as logically possible, is if one is already precommitted to naturalism. That is, that no such being or action can possibly exist. But then one is arguing from the premise that no such action can possibly occur to the conclusion that no such action can possibly occur. It simply begs the question. Therefore this argument of Hume’s fails.
4. The final argument I would like to look at is his argument from probability – “that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish”.
Firstly, it should be pointed out that this is not actually one of Hume’s arguments. It is set up in Part 1 of the book as the ground work for his later argument. It is not an argument against miracles (as many try to cast it now) but rather is a contention about the kind of evidence that should be permissible in the demonstration that miracles do or do not occur.
“(T)here is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of Men of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to serve us against all delusion in themselves; of such undaunted integrity as to place themselves beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood, and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world as to render the detection unavoidable...”
Well one could argue that it has been found that there is in history an event which was attested by a sufficient number (what counts as sufficient for Hume?) of eyewitnesses, who give no sign of lack of good sense, education (how much is needed to know – “Hey… he was dead and entombed… and now he is eating fish with us”), we have no reason to think that they intentionally deceived others (especially since they gained nothing from their testimony and did actually “have a great deal to lose incase of their being detected of any falsehood,” and were even more disadvantaged in some brutal ways for even asserting it. Not to mention that they did assert it publically and allowed for contradiction even though none came.
In fact Hume states,
“There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person, than those which were lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abbé Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were everywhere talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulchre. But what is more extraordinary, many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all. A relation of them was published and dispersed everywhere; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrates, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? 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.”
This is just one of several examples that he gives where all of his criteria have ostensibly been met. And yet he goes on to say he would "still reply that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena" that he would rather believe that it was a conspiracy than a miracle. So, ironically even Hume basically admits that his standard is so high that even in his most modern time if all the criteria were met, that he would still reject it! Why? Because it’s just impossible. It just has to be wrong and that his just saying so should “be regarded as a sufficient refutation” to “all reasonable people.” Well that’s not an argument. It’s mere presumption and circular reasoning.
John Earman's principle in his book Hume’s Abject Failure is much the same as my own: "An epistemology that does not allow for the possibility that evidence, whether from eyewitness testimony or from other sources, can establish the credibility of a UFO landing, a walking on water, or a resurrection is inadequate." Basically, there is the appearance of reason in the standard but when it is examined it is intentionally set up so as to be impossible to appease. The standard itself is on principle that no evidence could ever meet the requirement and thus no fact could ever be brought to bear against the truth of naturalism.
No eyewitness will ever be credible enough. No experiment that has the outcome of a miracle would ever be more likely than conspiracy, etc. It is not reasonable, it is presumptive. It is the empiricist equivalent of a fanatical conspiracy theorist riddled with confirmation bias. Now, I am skeptical about a great many things. I think skepticism is healthy. But skepticism that is so extreme, almost Cartesian, cannot be helpful in anyway. Try to convince someone who has their mind made up that we are living in the Matrix that we are not and you will be frustrated indeed. There is nothing you could ever point to in this world that would prove otherwise because everything will be infused with the air of conspiracy. Everything would simply be a part of the construct.
To illustrate this, let us imagine that we live in a universe where miracles have in fact occurred. If we accept Hume’s epistemological standard then we would have set up a standard, by assuming naturalism, whereby we could not only not know a fundamental fact about the universe, but where we would actually be positively irrational if we believed what was actually true. It seems to me that any standard where by true knowledge = irrationalism has a fundamental flaw somewhere contained within its assumptions.
Another problem is one that even Hume’s contemporaries noticed. They gave the example of a Prince from a tropical land who had never seen ice. By Hume’s line of reasoning, the Prince would be just as validated in not believing in ice as the skeptic is for not believing in miracles. Hume tried to counteract this by saying that just because the Prince might be reasonable for denying the existence of ice, there were other humans who did experience ice and therefore it is reasonable for them to believe in ice (and indeed for others to take their word for it.) The problem here is that this just reduces down to a subjective argument from experience – a kind of argument skeptics are loathe to endorse. If we accept this principle, then the atheist must accept the Christian’s statement of belief based on religious experience as a reasonable means of knowledge. They might have no experience of God, but others have. The prince had not experienced ice, but others had.
It is further undermined by Earman who responds by saying that if this is so, then if homo sapiens arose in Africa, "there was a stage in human history where the total collective experience of the species coincided in relevant respects" with that of the prince who lived in a tropical climate. This means that we could literally echo Hume’s argument that we have the universal experience of “no ice” and therefore any testimony about ice existing in the future are more likely to be false.
Hume then went on to attempt to argue that for the prince, the existence if ice could possibly be deduced by analogy to something else. He stated that the Prince could come to believe in a solid form of water simply by a positive analogy from other phase changes in water. Earman makes a good point in one of his footnotes: "If one sees a positive analogy for a solid form of water in other phase changes, why not see a positive analogy for resurrection in near death experiences, catatonic states, and the like?"
I will end with Earman's summary which is important as a critique even in the midst of him praising Hume for at least identifying an important problem and dealing with it in an interesting manner:
“In 'Of Miracles,' Hume pretends to stand on philosophical high ground, hurling down thunderbolts against miracles stories. The thunderbolts are supposed to issue from general principles about inductive inference and the credibility of eyewitness testimony. But when these principles are made explicit and examined under the lens of Bayesianism, they are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice...[Hume] was able to create the illusion of a powerful argument by maintaining ambiguities in his claims against miracles, by the use of forceful prose and confident pronouncements, and by liberal doses of sarcasm and irony...I find it ironic that so many readers of Hume's essay have been subdued by its eloquence...No doubt this generous treatment stems in part from the natural assumption that someone of Hume's genius must have produced a powerful set of considerations. But I suspect that in more than a few cases it also involves the all too familiar phenomenon of endorsing an argument because the conclusion is liked. There is also the understandable, if deplorable, desire to sneer at the foibles of the less enlightened -- and how much more pleasurable the sneering if it is sanctioned by a set of philosophical principles!”