Hume Miracles Essay, Research Paper
TREATMENT OF MIRACLES DAVID HUME
AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING
Miracles are upheld by subjective sense perceptions of past experiences. They are described from the standpoint of an individual s own reality, and perhaps influenced by religious beliefs. In the strict sense a miracle could be described as a violation of nature caused by a supernatural power. In the loose sense it could be described as any wonderful and surprising event that makes us feel glad and grateful. Hume is most interested in the strict sense definition of a miracle as he interprets or defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, an event perceived abnormal to mankind. Hume elucidates this point when he states, Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it has ever happened in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man seemingly in good health should die on a sudden. Hume states that this death is quite unusual, however it seemed to happen naturally. He could only define it as a true miracle if this dead man were to come back to life. This would be a miraculous event because such an experience has yet to be proven possible. Hume critiques and discredits the belief in a miracle primarily for the reason that it acts adjacent to the laws of nature. Hume defines the laws of nature to be what has been uniformly observed by mankind, such as the laws of identity and gravity. He holds that society is quick to label an event as a miracle, and that often events as mis-catogorized as such. He illustrates four ideas to support his argument in defining a true miracle. Hume s four considerations in defense of his skepticism are as follows: Lack of credible witnesses, human gullibility, miracle reports coming mainly from ancient and barbarous nations, and stories of miracles supporting varied and inconsistent religions.
Hume s preliminary reason in refuting a miracle is based on the notion that throughout history many miracles have not had adequate credible human witnesses present, and then spoke of it. He also questions the soundness of claims made by those who had experienced or witnessed a miracle. Hume noted that a person s reputation was a factor in their credibility, and those holding great integrity may have surpassing testimony. Hume is persistent in asking for empirical proof to support miracles. Hume wonders whom to trust for empirical evidence. For example, he asks who is qualified and who has the authority to say who is qualified. As he asks these questions we can see there are no real answers, in which case, it tends to break the validity of the witnesses to the miracle.
Another reason Hume refuted the validity of a miracle is that he views all of our beliefs, or what we choose to accept, or not accept, through past experience and what history dictates to us. Furthermore, he tends to discredit an individual by playing on a human beings consciousness or sense of reality. He notes that humans have rapacity for miracles, and achieve excitement and wonder through them. Even the individual who cannot enjoy the pleasure immediately will still believe in a miracle, regardless of the possible validity of the miracle. Also recognized is that many people do not analyze the miracles validity, empirical evidence, or additional information. Various miracles are provoking to consider for a variety of reasons. They may claim to bring happiness, prove the unknown, or they are tempting on other grounds. Miracles can lead to such strong temptations, that humans may lose sense of their own beliefs of fantasy and reality, as humans have a fascination with the unknown. Through emotions and behavior Hume tends to believe there has been many forged miracles, regardless if the information is somewhat valid or not.
An additional argument Hume presents in discrediting the belief in a miracle is testimony versus reality. Hume asserts, It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous events, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous ancestors; or if civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from these barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend perceived opinions. Hume might proclaim that the miraculous events, which happened in past history, would not be considered a miracle in today s world, or at any other time in history. The reality most people believed at that period, as a result can be considered lies, exaggerations, or misinterpretations. Also, their misunderstanding could have been due to a lack of scientific or other knowledge. Hume also discredits some miracles based on the time period in which the miracle took place, taking into account the mindset and social status of the people at that time. Hume connotes that during considerable times in history texts accounts of many travelers. Because we as individuals love to wonder, there is an end to common sense, and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority.
One of the final bases Hume gives to discredit the validity of a miracle is that there must be a significant number of credible witnesses to validate the miracle and create solid empirical evidence. Ideally, each of the witnesses would have similar accounts of the experience so that they could be described as consistent. Hume finds intricacy in the belief or integrity of any individual, and the obscurity of detecting falsehood in any private or even public place in history.
Although, Hume holds that human testimony is never enough to prove a miracle, or at least has never been sufficient thus far. Hume makes two key claims in defending his position on this. His initial claim is that there is a tremendous burden of proof on anyone claiming to have experienced or witnessed a miracle. Secondly, he notes that no human testimony has ever been sufficient to meet this burden. It is unclear whether Hume feels that meeting this burden of proof is impossible, yet he clearly views it as improbable. Hume holds that there is a uniform experience in all miracles. That is, there will always be a grave burden of proof on the person making the assertion. Hume s greater miracle test recommends that we should ask ourselves which would be the greater miracle . That is, we must decide between if the witnesses are lying or mistaken, or if the miracle actually occurred, and then reject the greatest miracle. In other words, Hume would say, by definition a miracle violates the laws of nature. Additionally, laws of nature rest on uniform experience, and uniform experience amounts to a proof. Therefore, you have mutually contradictory proofs that cancel each other, according to Hume.
Purtill makes an interesting objection in defiance of Hume. Purtill wonders what it is that we have a uniform experience against. Is this to say that there is a uniform experience with all unique or unprecedented events? Hume seems to be begging the question of whether or not miracles are observed to happen. It is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation . It seems Hume is making the assumption that no human has ever been seen alive after having been seen dead, when in actuality some consider it is a possibility. In addition, there have been reports in the Bible of such occurrences. (Granted, the soundness of the Bible is in question.) Given Hume s assumption that this could never happen he creates an erroneous and misleading circle for his arguments. A classic example of a human rising from the dead is when Jesus was resurrected in the Bible. It is unfounded to dismiss this report simply because we do not know of such an event to be possible. Merely because this type of event has not been observed does not close the door to the possibility of a resurrection taking place. We cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen unless we already know that all the reports in the Bible are mistaken, which is not the case. As mentioned previously, Hume argues that human testimony is never enough evidence to prove a miracle, due to the tremendous burden of proof. It could be argued that under Hume s guidelines it is possible, under idyllic conditions, for human evidence to outweigh disproving evidence for a miracle. That said, it might be possible, in principle, for a miracle to pass Hume s greater miracle test, even if it required grave difficulty.
Hume protests in the conclusion of his arguments that Christianity cannot stand up to the test of reason, and that it would take a miracle to prove it. Further, he notes that Christianity does not need to pass the test of reason given its nature of being a religion founded on faith not reason . Hume s conclusion seems crassly ironic, and he seems to stand unconcerned whether or not the stories contained in the bible are fabricated. Since it is the word of God, it does not need to pass any exceptional tests or be subjected to the burden of proof.
Hume s argument against miracles appears to depend heavily upon the premise that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature . However, when his text is more thoroughly considered it seems that he may have decided a miracle to be otherwise. Perhaps he meant to characterize a miracle, in some epistemological sense, as contrary to the ordinary course of nature (Rather than a violation of the laws of nature)? It can be argued that miracles are not violations of laws of nature, since laws of nature are not meant to describe events with supernatural causes (Only those with natural causes). When an event has appeared to have a supernatural cause it becomes exempt from natural laws, therefore it cannot violate them. If this argument is correct, it would seem that Hume s premise a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature becomes invalid, or at least loses some integrity, which would make his entire argument in opposition to miracles a bit weaker.