Philosopher David Hume on miracles Summary
SECTION X: Hume's view on miracles
What is a miracle? What was Hume's belief in Miracles?
"An extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency."
"miracles" definition from Oxford Dictionaries
What does Hume think about miracles?
"a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."
86. It is acknowledged that the authority of scripture and tradition is founded on the testimony of apostles, eyewitnesses to the miracles of our Saviour through which he proved his divine mission. For us, this authority diminishes in the passing, and no one can give his own experience as authority. The evidence for the Christian religion is less than the truth of our senses. It is therefore contrary to the rules of reasoning to give our assent to it. This argument is decisive and silences arrogant bigotry and superstitions and frees us from their impertinent approaches.
87. Our experience is our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; but it, itself, is not infallible. We expect better weather in June than in December but we can be mistaken. But the fault would not be our experience or diligent observation because these should warn us of uncertainty. An infallible experience would be proof that the future would follow the past. Otherwise one proceeds with caution based on one's number of experiments providing degrees of probability.
88. Our general maxim has been that no objects have any discoverable connection but only, at most, regular conjunction. We ought not to make an exception for human testimony which itself has no necessary connection with any event. It is experience that gives us whatever confidence we have in human testimony: a tendency to remember, an inclination towards truth, and a provoking of shame when falsehood is detected. Yet we frequently hesitate to accept the reports of others: when witnesses contradict each other, when they are but few, when their character is questionable, when they can benefit from what they affirm, and when they speak with hesitation (or are too assertive). And there are other examples that diminish or destroy the force of any argument from human testimony.
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89-90. The more unusual and extraordinary the fact proposed by the testimony, the less acceptable. For our experience of the usual is contested, and one destroys the other with the superior one remaining. A proverbial saying in Rome during the time of the philosopher Cato was: I should not believe such a story were it told to me by Cato. Even so great an authority was invalidated by the incredibility of a fact. What then if the fact being affirmed is not only marvelous but is actually miraculous? Here there is proof against proof and the strongest must prevail.
Because a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, the proof against it is as complete as any can be from experience. Why must all men die; why must lead fall; why must fire consume wood and be extinguished by water? Answer: because they are agreeable to the laws of nature.
If someone told me that he saw a dead man restored to life I would have to ask whether this person is deceiving or whether he is deceived. Both are miracles. If his falsehood would be more miraculous than the event he relates, only then could he pretend to persuade me in belief.
Part II : Hume on Miracles
92. Reasons why there never has been a miraculous event established on the evidence of testimony:
First, in all history there never has been a sufficient number of people of unquestioned good sense, education, learning, reputation and undoubted integrity to persuade us that they were not deluding themselves or deceiving others. Full assurance in testimony depends on this.
Second, we readily reject any incredible fact which is contrary to our past experience and observations and we ought to reject the authority of those who have the desire to believe in miracles which reward their passion for wonder and offer them delight in exciting the admiration of others. By joining himself to the love of wonder, a religionist rejects common sense and its human testimony for the sake of a holy cause. Their eloquence captivates the willing hearers, minimising their reason and subduing their understanding. Such enthusiasm touches not the best passions but the most vulgar ones. The extraordinary and the marvelous ought to give birth to suspicion, but they do not always do so. Two young people do not need to see each other twice but the whole neighbourhood has them joined together. With great vehemence are religious miracles reported.
Third, supernatural and miraculous stories chiefly are initiated by ignorant and uncivilised people. With such embellishments are the first histories of all nations written. Battles are divinely won and omens and oracles obscure natural events. But in a later enlightened age we find that nothing mysterious or supernatural happened. And one says, "Nothing like that ever happens in our day". Unfortunately, too often the learned merely deride the absurdity rather than inform themselves and others of the facts by which refutation can be made.
Fourth, many other witnesses can often be found who oppose the story, and testimony destroys itself. In religion, whatever is different to another tradition is contrary to it. The religions of ancient Rome, Turkey, Siam, and China cannot all be established on a solid foundation. Every supposed miracle is used to establish that particular tradition and therefore is an indirect attempt to destroy the credit of other religions. The miracles oppose each other in the same way as the testimony of witnesses at a trial may have their credit destroyed by the testimony of two others who show that the defendant was far away from the scene of the crime at the time it was committed.
96-97. One of the best ever attested miracles was that of the historian Tacitus reporting that Vespasian cured a blind man at Alexandria by means of his spittle, a lame man by touching his foot, and both of them were acting in their obedience to a vision of the god Serapigrave's to come before the Emperor. Another story was related by Cardinal de Retz concerning a man who was the doorkeeper to the cathedral in Saragossa and was well known to everyone in that town. The miracle: he had lost a leg but recovered it by the rubbing of holy oil on the stump. The whole town believed in the miracle. But the cardinal gave no credit to the story and considered it a subject of derision rather than of argument. Another story is that of the tomb of Abbe Paris which became the place where supposedly the sick were cured, the deaf given hearing and the blind given sight for the favour of the Jesuits. Here there were many stories and all were corroborated. Yet the Jesuits rejected all of them. This often happens: the passions of a reporter cause him to tell of miracles to magnify his country, his family, himself or his religion. And the populace receive it greedily and without examination in order to enhance their superstition and promote their wonder.
98-99. No testimony for any miracle has ever amounted to probability, much less to proof. Even if it had, it would be opposed by another proof. Experience, which assures us of the laws of nature, alone gives authority to human testimony.
No miracle can be a just foundation for any religion. If all English historians claimed that, upon her death, Queen Elizabeth was seen by her physician and her court, and that her successor was proclaimed by parliament, and a month later she appeared, resumed the throne and governed England for three years, I would have no inclination to believe this miracle. And even should this miracle be ascribed to a new religion, all people of sense would reject it. Violation of truth in testimony we compare, from past observation, with violations of the laws of nature by miracles.
100-01. Let us examine those miracles related in scripture and, confine our attention to the Pentateuch. We find them presented not as the word or testimony of God but as the production of a mere human writer and historian. Here we are to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of its origin. We find miracle after miracle, from creation, to fall, to destruction by a deluge, and the arbitrary choice of one people as the favourite of heaven -- a people who are the countrymen of the author. And then comes the miracles of their deliverance from bondage. I ask anyone in honesty to decide whether the falsehood of that book supported by such testimony be more miraculous than all the miracles it relates.
What has been said of miracles can also be said of prophecies. Today it takes a miracle for any reasonable person to believe in the Christian religion. For this requires more than reason. It requires Faith. But any one who is moved by Faith into such belief must be aware of a continuing miracle within him.
Hume was writing before the middle of the 18 th Century about the basic rudiments of literary scholarship applied to the Bible. This "Biblical Criticism" is rejected by Christian Fundamentalists (they make up 25% of the population of the United States) and who reject all the scholarship that has followed for now more that two and a half centuries.