Hume on Miracles
David Hume (1711-1776) argues that we never have any reason to believe any story of a miraculous event. He summarizes his argument for this conclusion like this:
‘It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and to make it a just foundation for any such system of religion’ (Enquiry, 87-8)
In more detail, the argument is this:
(i) The wise man proportions his belief to the evidence: he weighs the number of supporting instances against the number of conflicting ones.
(ii) The same applies to testimony: I only rationally believe what another tells me because I have found a general conformity between what people tell me and how things are.
(iii) [following on from (i)] There is, by definition, a huge weight of evidence against the occurrence of any miracle. For what makes it a ‘miracle’ is that it is utterly inconsistent with our normal experience.
(iv) [following on from (ii)] We never have strong reasons on the other side ie for thinking reports of a miracle are reliable. For we know that even under the best conditions people are not completely reliable reporters; and there are quite special problems in the case of reports of ‘miracles’.
Conclusion: The grounds (ie our uniform experience that things like that don’t happen) for believing that a reported miracle has not occurred are always stronger than those (ie a group of people tell me that it did) for thinking that it has. So religion is founded on faith, not reason.
Three comments on Hume’s argument:
- My knowledge of how nature normally operates itself comes largely from what people have told me. In trying to decide whether a miracle has occurred I am, then, weighing one set of testimony against another.
- This raises the question: How am I to decide whose testimony I should trust? Or more generally: Why should I believe anything anyone tells me? Hume’s answer: ‘The reason, why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is ….. because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them’ (75). First comment on this: there is something wrong with the ‘we’. Second comment: our system of beliefs is too thoroughly dependent through and through on what others have told us for beliefs derived from direct experience of the world to serve as an independent check on the claim that people generally tell the truth. The same points arise when I am asking: whose word should I trust? There is no position right outside human social life from which we can offer grounds for accepting these people as trustworthy in a particular area and those as not. Which people I accept as authorities depends, ultimately, almost entirely on non-rational factors. One who grew up within a certain religious culture will accept as authorities people and texts that maintain that the startling things some call ‘miracles’ do occasionally happen; and so it is not at all clear that, for this person, the calculation of what it is rational to believe happened will work out as Hume suggests. But while Hume is wrong on that, these considerations suggest that he could be right on something else: that reports of miracles cannot provide rational support for religion.
- Hume suggests that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature. (That may go with the idea that, to be worthy of the name, the occurrence of a miracle ought to be able to provide grounds for belief in God.) Given this understanding, in the light of modern science (which is fairly short on ‘laws of nature’) very few traditional ‘miracle’ stories may qualify as miracle stories. We may have to revise our understanding of what constitutes a ‘miracle’ – in a way that further brings out the sense in which acceptance that a miracle has occurred presupposes faith. As Hume expresses it: ‘Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason’.
A child riding his toy motor-car strays on to an unguarded railway crossing near his house and a wheel of his car gets stuck down the side of one of the rails. An express train is due to pass with the signals in its favour and a curve in the track makes it impossible for the driver to stop his train in time to avoid any obstruction he might encounter on the crossing. The mother coming out of the house to look for her child sees him on the crossing and hears the train approaching. She runs forward shouting and waving. The little boy remains seated in his car looking downward, engrossed in the task of pedalling it free. The brakes of the train are applied and it comes to rest a few feet from the child. The mother thanks God for the miracle; which she never ceases to think of as such although, as she in due course learns, there was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied. The driver had fainted, for a reason that had nothing to do with the presence of the child on the line, and the brakes were applied automatically as his hand ceased to exert pressure on the control lever.
(R.F. Holland, ‘The Miraculous’, in Against Empiricism 169-70)