Hume On Miracles Essay, Research Paper
Hume On Miracles
It is evident in David Hume’s writing of “An Equity Concerning Human Understanding” that he does not believe that miracles take place. Hume is a man of logic, who believes in experience over knowledge. Of course it is hard for such a man to believe in extraordinary claims without being there to witness them. Especially when such events require a lot of faith.
In order for an event to be deemed a miracle, it must disobey the laws of nature. However, it is these same laws that disprove almost any miracle that has ever been reported. He writes that some events that people report as miracles truly are not. For example, it is not a miracle, that fire burns wood, or that a healthy man dies, because both of these are within the laws of nature. If a person does seemingly commit a miracle, they must do something that obviously defies the laws of nature and be able to do it repeatedly, as to prove that it is not a fluke. Hume strongly depends on the laws of nature to disprove miracles because it is something that he knows will hold up through experience. Even if something happens that is extremely rare, for example, snow in June, we can disprove this as a miracle because it has been our experience in life that the weather is never constant and under extreme conditions we can get very cold weather during the summer.
He is so skeptical against miracles, that he says he cannot even believe someone claiming to have witnessed a miracle, without first examining their reason for making such a claim. In order to believe their trust he must first learn the purity of their intentions. By this I mean he must first consider whether or not the person’s judgment was deceived by their senses and next why the person is telling him about the miracle and what they have to gain by trying to deceive him. In order for him to consider the possibility of a miracle actually occurring would be if a person publicly made a claim to have witnessed the miracle and if them telling about it would jeopardize them more than if they had not said anything. Then and only then would he be able to be sure that a person was not motivated by any other force when claiming that what they saw was actually a miracle. In so many words, Hume wrote, “that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony is of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” (pg. 674, col.1). He then goes on to say that at no time has there been “any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves…” (pg. 674, col.2). His point being that no scholar would ever back such an obsurd story because of the risk of being ridiculed by his piers.
He says that miracles are further disproved by the fact that most of them are reported by ignorant, barbarous people of past generations. Some of the things that these people have reported as marvelous are common among later generations, so their mysteriousness has been lost and they are no longer miracles. If you are wondering why stories like these do not originate today, Hume says they do, but we rule them out as lies. According to him, people have always had tendencies to stretch the truth and elaborate stories to gain fame and popularity. Even the fact that some of these stories have been past through generations means little to Hume. He believes that the stories have been drilled into the minds of people by their ignorant ancestors and people have just come to accept them over time, whether they believe in them or not.
Hume uses this approach to give his views on the truth about religions. He says that religions were written by primitive people in order to give their views about the origin of civilization. In each religion an oppressed people are freed from bondage because they are viewed to be God’s chosen people. He says that it is their attempt to gain favor over other civilizations by making it seem, as they are the ones above all others. Their journeys are filled with miraculous events in order to embellish this claim. In fact, each religion is filled with miracles. Each one trying to outdo the other in order to establish itself as the true religion. However, no religion could provide proof of or defend logical arguments against such miracles. It is this same competitive nature that gives Hume even more doubt against miracles, because he says that each religion tries to be better than the other and it turns out that they all disprove each other. It is Hume’s opinion that no person can logically look back at such claims made by primitive people and accept them without questioning them with today’s knowledge. He says that it is because of this that religions are based on faith and not truth.
All in all, Hume’s view of miracles reflects his fear of being deceived. He relies on sense-experience to form his opinions and not on what he is being told or by what people what he has learned. This is extremely evident when dealing with the laws of nature to disprove miracles. Hume makes a strong argument against miracles, which is hard to ignore especially with all of the knowledge about science that we have today. I wonder what he would have to say with the genetic breakthroughs of today?