Hume’s understanding and rejection of miracles

Hume thought that the realist understanding of miracles accurately captured the theological belief in miracles held by Christians. However, he argued that we are never justified in believing that realist miracles happen. Hume is an empiricist, meaning he thinks our beliefs should be based on evidence and experience. Throughout our life, we gain an understanding the laws of nature through such experience. A miracle for Hume is ‘a violation of the law of nature’. Hume argues that there are various reasons to doubt testimony of a miracle:

  • Miracles are rare and thus belief a miracle has occurred more likely mistaken than not.
  • Miracle stories tend to come from ignorant and barbarous nations rather than people of good sense and education.
  • Humans have a tendency to believe wonderous things without justification.

Hume’s argument from evidence and probability 

Our evidence for a law of nature is evidence that a miracle which violates that law did not occur.

When judging what to believe, we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence. So, the evidence we have for the miracle (testimony) must be weighed against the evidence for the law of nature (scientific experiments). Only if the evidence for the miracle outweighs the evidence for the law of nature is the evidence for the miracle is stronger. It seems very difficult for the evidence of testimony to outweigh the evidence for a law of nature gained by scientific experiment, however. Hume concludes:

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 endeavours to establish” 

“When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probably that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not til then, can he pretend to command my belief”

For Hume, anyone who claims to have seen or heard about a miracle has to ask themselves a simple question – what is more likely, that a miracle really did occur, or that they are mistaken? According to Hume, a miracle by definition goes against our regular experience of how the world works, which means the evidence for the miracle must outweigh the evidence for the regularities in order for believing a miracle to be proportioned to the evidence.

Swinburne’s response: Hume is wrong to think that the only evidence for a miracle is personal testimony from eyewitnesses. There could also be evidence of physical traces left by the miracle. Scientific experiment could in principle discover such evidence and the amount of that evidence could increase to huge proportions, just like the evidence for the natural laws. In that case, in principle Miracles could be justified through evidence.

Scientific evidence of medical miracles could be an example of Swinburne’s point.

Arguably Hume’s view is unempirical. If we followed Hume’s logic we would reject all new evidence that hadn’t been experienced before if it contradicted our current understanding of the natural laws since it’s simply ‘less likely to be the true’. However, it may well in fact be true. Empiricists should not be closed to that possibility otherwise knowledge would never progress. We could never gain new knowledge. Also, while the laws of nature may indeed be fixed, our knowledge of them is not. How could we possibly improve our understanding of the laws of nature if we simply rejected any contrary new evidence as unlikely to be real?

Hume on the low quality of testimony for miracles 

There is no miracle witnessed by multiple people who were of good sense, education, integrity and reputation. Instead, miracle stories come “chiefly” from ignorant and barbarous nations and when found in civilised people, they tend to be inherited from ignorant and barbarous ancestors.

“The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events … with what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, the descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures … But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist … may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause”

It is human nature to feel drawn to surprise and wonder, which makes us likely to believe strange and unusual things despite the belief not being justified.

Swinburne argued for the principles of testimony and credulity. The principle of credulity argues that you should believe what you experience unless you have a reason not to. The principle of testimony argues that you should believe what others tell you they have experienced, unless you have a reason not to. Swinburne is an empiricist who argued that an experience of a miracle should count as evidence towards belief that it occurred, although it doesn’t constitute complete proof.

Swinburne argued that whenever we gain some new evidence, we can’t dismiss it for no reason – that would be irrational. It is only if we have other better-established evidence which contradicts that new evidence that we may rationally dismiss it. This is the rationale behind the principles of testimony and credulity. Experiencing a miracle is evidence, unless we have some other evidence to justify dismissing the experience.

Naturalistic explanations are always a reason not to believe. Any supposed miracle could be explained by mental illness, epilepsy, random brain hallucinations, fasting, drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, etc. So, we will always have a reason not to believe any religious experience.

Defence of Swinburne: We could defend Swinburne by pointing out that we could check for the presence of physiological and psychological causes of people’s experience of miracles. If none are present in a particular case, then we have no reason not to believe the experience in that case. Although we cannot rule out random brain hallucinations or unknown medical causes of religious experiences, but we have no evidence for those explanations and therefore must accept such cases as evidence for God.

Hume’s multiple claims argument

Any testimony for a miracle has the problem that similar testimony exists but by people in other religions. However, all religions cannot be true because they make conflicting claims. Hume argued this means that testimony for miracles “destroys itself”.  Any miracle claimed to occur in a religion and thought to “establish” the truth of that religion, thereby aims to destroy the truth of other religions, including the testimony of miracles in other religions. The testimony for miracles is full of conflicting testimony from different religions and we have no basis to decide which testimony is more accurate. So, testimony cannot be a valid method for justifying belief in miracles.

One could reply with pluralism – the view that all religions are just different cultural manifestations of the divine, therefore all are true. This view is held by William James and Hick. James thinks that mystical religious experience occurring in all religions shows that they are all true. Hick argues that the different religions of the world are like blind men each touching a different part of an elephant. They each report they are feeling something different, yet that is because they are just too blind to see how they are really part of the same thing.

Swinburne’s response to Hume’s multiple claims argument:
“If Hume were right to claim that evidence for the miracles of one religion was evidence against the miracles of any other, then indeed evidence for miracles in each would be poor. But in fact evidence for a miracle “wrought in one religion” is only evidence against the occurrence of a miracle “wrought in another religion” if the two miracles, if they occurred, would be evidence for propositions of the two religious systems incompatible with each other. It is hard to think of pairs of alleged miracles of this type. If there were evidence f or a Roman Catholic miracle which was evidence for the doctrine of transubstantiation and evidence for a Protestant miracle which was evidence against it, here we would have a case of the conflict of evidence which, Hume claims, occurs generally with alleged miracles. But it is enough to give this example to see that most alleged miracles do not give rise to conflicts of this kind. Most alleged miracles, if they occurred, would only show the power of god or gods and their concern for the needs of men, and little else. 

My main conclusion, to repeat it, is that there are no logical difficulties in supposing that there could be strong historical evidence for the occurrence of miracles. Whether there is such evidence is, of course, another matter.” – Swinburne

Swinburne arguably fails to respond to Hume’s argument. It seems Hume is arguing that a miracle supposed to come from, e.g. the Christian God is evidence for the proposition “The Christian God exists” being true. Similarly, miracles in ancient Greece might have been supposed to be evidence for “Zeus exists”. It is the feature of a miracle that it was done by a particular God which is the evidence against miracle stories from other religions, since they are taken as evidence for the existence of different God(s).

For example, the resurrection is the central miracle of Christianity – as St Paul said, ‘If Christ is not raised, your faith is pointless”.

R F Holland: contingency miracles

Holland argued that miracles are nothing more than an extraordinary coincidence that is interpreted in a religious way. Holland gives the example of a boy stuck on a railway track with a train approaching. The train driver faints, causing the train to stop which saves the life of the boy. The boy’s mother sees it as a miracle, even though she understands that there is a naturalistic explanation as to why the driver fainted which had nothing to do with the boy on the tracks. Therefore, for Holland miracles depend on interpretation and a sense of divine purpose and significance.

‘A coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle’

If miracles are confined to descriptions of subjective perceptions in our mind, then they become subject to the same criticisms as religious experiences. They could just be naturalistic phenomena such as random brain hallucinations, drugs, fasting, sleep deprivation, mental illness etc.

Essential tenants of Christianity require a realist view of miracles. The resurrection of Jesus was a miracle. Without a realist view of miracles, a Christian couldn’t believe that that miracle really happened.

Anti-realism has a point, however, that miracles, being the actions of God, are beyond our understanding and thus we cannot judge whether they are real or not and should instead focus on their subjective meaning.

The point of faith is to accept on trust revealed truths about God that we would be unable to know by ourselves. As St Paul says: “If Christ is not raised, your faith is pointless” (1 Cor 15:17).

Some liberal Christians do view the resurrection of Jesus as purely symbolic, however. Anti-realism combined with a liberal approach to the Bible would work.