David Hume on Miracles

I was recently directed towards a useful article on one writer’s assessment of the most influential philosophical principles throughout history. At number 6 was one of David Hume’s contributions, which the writer summarises as follows:

by DAVID HUME, 1771-1776

‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’ sounds like advice you know already. But it’s more easily agreed with than followed, and the results can be uncomfortable. No wonder David Hume felt the need to restate it. In his essay Of Miracles he says: ‘A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger’. Sounds obvious. But when it comes to the miraculous, has the testimony of any witness ever been stronger evidence than the testimony of all the rest of life, which tells us that nature’s laws do not admit exceptions? If not, says Hume, then anyone who claims to base belief on evidence can never believe in miracles.


I’ve come across this before, not least because CS Lewis makes mention of this in his book entitled ‘Miracles’, which is a favourite of mine. Lewis’ point against Hume is still a good one. He says the following:

The question, “Do miracles occur?” and the question, “Is the course of Nature absolutely uniform?” are the same question asked in two different ways. Hume, by sleight of hand, treats them as two different questions. He first answers, “Yes,” to the question whether Nature is absolutely uniform: and then uses this “Yes” as a ground for answering, “No,” to the question, “Do miracles occur?” The single real question which he set out to answer is never discussed at all. He gets the answer to one form of the question by assuming the answer to the other form of the same question.”

So, Hume dismisses miracles on the basis of uniform experience: We have had it confirmed ad infinitum that nature’s laws are consistent, therefore it is always more reasonable to believe that testimony of the miraculous is less reliable than these laws. Lewis’ major contribution to the discussion is to point out that Hume’s reasoning is circular: when we question the plausibility of the miraculous, we are questioning the uniformity of nature, and so we can’t take the latter as a given in our answer.

Perhaps Hume’s point is only to show that it is more reasonable (when the two are in conflict) to believe the consistent testimony of nature than the shaky testimonies of people. This holds true in general, I think. We would reject the testimony of someone who claimed to have seen a pack of Allosauri hunting on Table Mountain, simply because we have countless centuries of human existence without a single report of the re-appearance of the Allosaurus, Table Mountain is well explored, and of course everyone knows that Allosauri don’t hunt in packs. The crucial difference however, is that the existence of dinosaurs is a question of natural phenomena, whereas the miraculous is a question about the interruption of nature. Hume’s argument fails (in my humble opinion) when applied to miracle because of what miracles are.

As Lewis points out, miracles are puncture-holes in the uniformity of nature. Because a miracle is something outside of nature that flies in the face of our ordinary experience, this creates a problem for Hume’s maxim: ‘A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger’. Our ordinary experience simply cannot be offered as evidence against miracle, just as producing more intact fabric fails to be evidence that there is no hole elsewhere on the cloth. It doesn’t matter how many times I sink when I step out onto a body of water, my normal experience has nothing to say about whether or nor Jesus demonstrated his mastery of nature by defying normal experience.

This means that we remain at an impasse with respect to the possibility of miracles, seeing as we cannot philosophically demonstrate that they do or do not happen (unless we can prove the existence of a God who intervenes in the world, as Lewis tries to do). At least we can say that we need to judge each case on its merits. When it comes to the resurrection of Christ, that case is not as easily dismissed as skeptics make out. While it’s not the time now for an exhaustive case, here are some hasty thoughts on the matter:

Many of the easy-way-outs of the resurrection accounts comprehensively fail to deal with the actual data of the testimonies. For example, dismissals of the gospel reports as mass hallucinations are common enough, and yet mass hallucination occurs under certain conditions only, conditions that do not match most of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection that we have. Reasonable people should at least not dismiss evidence in a way that proves contrary to fact and sound thinking.

Positively, the most secular of Biblical scholars still date the composition of the Old Testament to sometime before the New Testament, and yet there is significant foretelling of the death and resurrection of Christ in those documents. Lest you’re ready to protest that Christ’s followers saw what they were expecting to see, Christ’s death and resurrection came as a surprise to them, as these Old Testament prophecies clearly did not feature as part of their expectation of the Christ. Even the religious leaders of the day thought that killing Jesus would be a good way of ending the belief that he was king, which would have been dumb if the king was expected to be betrayed, die and rise.

Jesus’ post-death existence was witnessed by many people in many circumstances and at many times. The proclamation of Jesus as raised began publicly in the place of his execution only 50 days after his execution. The earliest written account in the canon of scripture dates to about 50AD – twenty years after the events – and invites readers to seek out the many living witnesses of the events. I.e. there was ample occasion for fictions and inconsistencies to be exposed.

For these and other reasons, while we might acknowledge that a reasonable case against the resurrection can be made, the case for the resurrection is unusually strong and demands more than off-handed dismissals. It certainly demands a more reasonable response than Hume’s effective case that ‘the resurrection didn’t happen because resurrections don’t happen’.


2 thoughts on “David Hume on Miracles

  1. modalpontiff says:

    Hi Jordan. I find the post interesting, but it doesn’t quite take into account the full scope of Hume’s argument. I’ll make a brief comment here on where a see a flaw and direct you to the post I made today on Hume and Miracles (WHOA!) http://modalpontiff.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/who-gets-to-believe-in-miracles/

    The main problem I see is your suggestion that repeated exposure to certain incidents (like sinking in water or pulling out an unmarred sheet of fabric) does not count as evidence for believing the incident to continue. It seems to me that in both cases such exposure does count as evidence. We derive the law of nature “Objects more dense than a given liquid, sink when placed in the liquid” from such exposure. We believe Jesus Christ to be more dense than water, so we believe he ought to sink. Assuming the sheet of fabric is not infinite, as I pull out the fabric the probability that there will be a whole in it, decreases. So i have some evidence for thinking that the sheet of fabric will remain whole rather than holey. Perhaps the main thrust of your argument is that in the case of miracles, we are not talking about similar conditions to these cases. Jesus is more dense than water but he is also God, so who knows what will happen! If that is the case, then, according to Hume, I need more evidence for why I should expect such circumstances to occur or even be possible. But without experiencing a miracle, it seems I don’t have much evidence for believing in the possibility of such experiences.

    Personally I buy the argument, but one could always make a claim of faith. And, if one has read William James, we might come to think that at a certain point, faith counts as evidence. I’m inclined to believe so anyway, but that is something for a larger project.

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