DAVID HUME’S SELF-CONTRADICTORY REJECTION OF MIRACLES By the Rev. Colin Liske January 10, 2015
Many academics in our universities and colleges have rejected the reality of miracles as reported in the Bible. Their view is usually that all reality is ultimately reducible to physical things which are governed by the laws of nature. Further, they say that the laws of nature cannot be broken or suspended., as would be required by miracles.
Thus the laws of nature trump the existence of miracles. Alternatively, some of these academics may say that there may be two realities, one physical and the other spiritual, but the spiritual cannot have anything to do with the physical. Therefore, even here, because miracles undoubtedly would have to impact the physical world, miracles still cannot be real. They then further conclude that the miracles reported in the Bible were simply stories that must have been invented by human beings, especially by the earliest Christian communities.
Academics who these days almost universally hold to this perspective base it largely on an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher by the name of David Hume who in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ developed this idea in his epistemology, his theory of knowledge.
Over against these notions, it will be the position of this essay that David Hume’s own epistemology essentially refutes his rejection of miracles, and that his rejection of all positive testimony for miracles belies a faulty understanding or application of the traditional principles of historiography.
We might first of all recall Hume’s definition of a miracle and the manner in which he contrasts miracles and the laws of nature. In the ‘Of Miracles’ section in his ‘Enquiry concerning Human Understanding’ Hume says, ‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined (Allen and Springsted, Primary Readings, p. 158).
Thus Hume defines a miracle as a ‘violation of the laws of nature.’ We might object to the term ‘violation,’ because such an appellation would appear to cast a negative light on the issue. We might rather in a preliminary manner restate Hume’s definition of a miracle as a ‘suspension’ of the laws of nature. At least that would be a more neutral term.
But aside from that, a miracle may not necessarily be a violation or suspension of the laws of nature at all. One possibility might instead be that miracles on the one hand and the regularities of nature on the other could come from one basic activity or substance underlying both such manifestations in nature, expressed in two different ways. Thus it might be said that a miracle is one particular expression of the substance underlying nature, and the ordinary regularity of nature is a different manifestation of the same substance underlying nature. Thus miracles and the regularities in nature might be similar to the manner in which Spinoza suggested that substance manifests itself in two ways, mind and matter, without any contradiction between the two, yet having their dual manifestations rooted in one basic substance.
Theologically speaking, it might be held that miracles and the ordinary regularities in nature are simply two different manifestations of God’s one underlying creation and preservation of the natural world. There would then mean that there is no Newtonian ‘god of the gaps.’
But let us take Hume’s definition as he himself puts it, that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. According to Hume, miracles cannot occur because they purportedly run contrary to human experience and therefore contrary to the laws of nature.
Hume’s claim here is based on the role that experience plays in his epistemology. Hume says that knowledge is formed in three stages. First of all, every particular sense-perception that one has he calls an ‘impression.’ These particular impressions arise in our minds, and then as the second step, our minds create copies of these impressions which he calls ‘ideas.’ The difference appears to be that we can recall these ‘ideas’ after the particular sense impressions themselves disappear. We can, as it were, picture these ideas in our minds without the sense-perceptions or impressions themselves.
The third stage in Hume’s epistemology is that our minds then associate these ideas, one with the other. This he of course calls this the ‘Association of Ideas.’ This association occurs by way of three different kinds of activity of the mind, by resemblance, contiguity, and by cause and effect. (Allen and Springsted, Philosophy, pp. 143-144).
That one idea might resemble or be like another, and that our minds would notice this, is not particularly difficult for our understanding. This might indeed be the way that our minds have the capability of organizing things we perceive, giving general classifications to things whether they be people or sheep or houses. There are ways in which all persons more or less resemble others. The same is true of sheep or houses. Thus our minds are able to come up with the activity of associating one idea of a house or person with another house or person.
That our minds can also notice that one idea is normally contiguous to or next to another idea is something that is common to our everyday lives. It is often the case that a car and a person are in the same place, and thus it is common for us to conclude more generally then that the person has something to do with that particular car.
But the major issue for Hume is causality, cause and effect. We normally conclude that, just because one sense-perception or impression comes after another, that the latter is caused by the former. When I quickly move my foot toward and then touch a football, and the football then moves rapidly down the turf, then surmise that my kicking of the football has ‘caused’ the football to move so rapidly. Hume’s famous example of the impacting of billiard balls says exactly this. (Allen and Springsted, Philosophy, p. 144).
This kind of thing occurs again and again, and if this occurs often enough, repeatedly and without exception, we naturally and finally seem to conclude, not only that this happens regularly, but that it happens universally, that there is a ‘necessary connection’ between the kicking of my foot and the motion of the football, and that this occurs because of a universal law of nature.
But Hume objects that we never actually experience or have an impression of this presumed necessary connection. In another of his most famous examples, Hume says that the rising of the sun occurs regularly every morning, but we can never be totally sure that it will rise again tomorrow morning. While we can speak of a regularity in our impressions, we cannot speak of a necessary connection between those impressions because we do not actually have an impression of the necessary connection itself.
One question that Hume does not seem to address here is how the very notion of cause and effect or necessary connection can arise in the mind as an ‘idea’ at all if there is no impression of the necessary connection in the first place. If all ideas are rooted in impressions, and there is no impression of a necessary connection, how is it possible for the idea of a necessary connection to be formed ? Yet we do have this idea of causality or necessary connection in our minds.
It would seem that, following on all this, one might then suspect that Hume himself ought not to believe that laws of nature actually exist. But this does not seem to be the case. Hume does, after all, in his definition of miracles speak of the laws of nature. Thus Hume seems to think that there are indeed laws of nature, but he simply cannot prove that there are laws of nature because he is not able to prove that there is a necessary connection between our impressions. (Allen and Springsted, pp. 146-147)
But it seems that if Hume were to be consistent here, his own epistemology ought actually to prevent him from concluding that miracles are not possible. If he cannot prove that there are laws of nature, including the necessary connection of cause and effect between impressions, then by his own definition of miracles, it follows that he cannot prove that there are no miracles because he cannot prove that there are laws of nature which can be violated. If he cannot prove that there is a necessary connection of cause and effect between appearances, or impressions, then he also cannot contend that miracles are impossible.
Exactly the opposite is true. For Hume, one appearance simply follows after another, and the fact that there is no necessary or causal connection between these impressions means that miracles may indeed be possible. The fact that Hume cannot prove the existence of the laws of nature must lead to the conclusion that miracles may indeed occur. There can be no violation of laws of nature that cannot be proven to exist. This is our first criticism of Hume on miracles.
Thus Hume realized that he could not prove the existence of a necessary connection between impressions, and that he therefore could not prove that laws of nature actually exist. One wonders why Hume himself does not appear to have further realized that he could therefore also not deny miracles on the basis of this lack of a necessary connection, and that in fact his own epistemology therefore contradicted his notion that miracles cannot occur.
In any case, Hume turns to another approach to substantiate his denial of miracles. He simply speaks about regular human experience in the present and throughout history, and the notion that this regularity of human experience implies that miracles are not probable and therefore do not occur.
In Part II in ‘Of Miracles’ Hume notes that ‘. . . in our reasoning as historians all we have to go on are our experiences of today. In our experience nature operates with regularity. Because of the common course of nature, it is always more likely that reports of miracles in the past are not correct than that they are.’ (Allen and Springsted, Philosophy, p. 147).
We of course might wish to ask how Hume would know that reports of miracles in the past are more likely incorrect than not. How does Hume know that there are no unique events in the past? This is circular reasoning, or the logical fallacy of petitio principii, that is, begging the question. Hume here sets out to prove that which he already assumes, namely, that events in the past never included miracles. Hume did not have the capability of checking every event in the present or in the past to see if there were any miracles or not. He is simply saying that there are no miracles in the past because there have never been any miracles in the past.
Hume goes on to present four basic arguments for the probability that miracles cannot occur. We now present some of the basic elements of these arguments here. Firstly, he says that ‘there is not to be found, in all history, 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; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable. All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.’ (Allen and Springsted, Readings, p. 160).
Hume’s argument here is illogical because it is fundamentally an ad hominem argument. He claims that there simply is no sufficient evidence in the case of any reported miracles by upstanding men to guarantee that we would not be misled by them. But he does not tell us exactly what the qualifications for their education, standing, etc., would be, or how many such men would be needed. Nevertheless, he does claim to know that there are no situations where there are such trustworthy men who might be believed about miracles. He seems to conclude that most people are untrustworthy.
One wonders what Hume thought about the appearance of the risen Christ to over 500 people at one time In I Corinthians 15:6, including finally an appearance to one as educated as St. Paul.
Secondly, Hume argues that ‘The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasoning, is that the objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.’ (Allen and Springsted, Readings, p. 160).
But how does such a criterion assure us of what is possible in the occurrence of past events? Hume here denies the possibility of the unique in history. We might ask how Hume could know that there could not be anything unique in history, that there could not be miracles in history. To apply the historian Von Ranke’s dictum in a manner in which he likely did not intend, we might ask how Hume would know by definition that miracles cannot happen and instead that the occurrence of a miracle might in fact be ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen war,’ ‘ how it actually happened.’
One of Hume’s mistakes here is that he argues from the probability of miracles instead of addressing the matter of the possibility of miracles. It is of course generally true that miracles are not probable. By definition, miracles would be extraordinary and unique occurrences. Thus the fact that miracles do not normally occur in our human experience does not mean that they could not occur in certain cases. The real issue is the possibility of miracles as unique or possible occurrences in history, not the probability of miracles.
Hume then in the last part of this second section and in the third section of Part II in his ‘Of Miracles’ goes on to indict those who testify to miracles as people who are emotional, influenced by surprise and wonder, and who generally are ignorant and barbarous. His argument here is essentially that the presumed universal experience of human beings against miracles far outweighs the questionable testimony of easily influenced human beings who claim in particular cases to have experienced or witnessed miracles. (Allen and Springsted, Primary Readings, pp. 161-163).
This is again the same ad hominem argument. While it might certainly be true to say that there are some people who might be easily influenced and are rather gullible, it is surely unwarranted to paint almost everyone with this brush. (Allen and Springsted, Readings, pp. 161-163).
Finally, Hume argues that, if the miracles recounted in Christianity are to be accepted, the miracles recorded in other religions must also be acknowledged. But how does he know this? Again, he assumes that reality must be the same everywhere, that if miracles occur in one religion, then they must also occur in another. This again disregards the possibility of the uniqueness of miracles.
Hume goes on to claim the witness of history (Allen and Springsted, p. 160), but he betrays a lack of knowledge of the traditional criteria of historiography. John Warwick Montgomery in his book ‘Where is History Going?’ indicates that there are traditionally three basic criteria that must be followed in writing history. The first one concerns bibliographic or documentary evidence, that is, reference to and giving a fundamental priority to the received texts from history, to the primary sources. The number of such documents and their closeness to the events described must be taken into account.
The Bible is one such set of documents, and in particular, a set of documents which report a number of miracles, and especially the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. (Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 44ff.)
Montgomery indicates that there are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 earlier versions. There are over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and some 13,000 copies of portions of the New Testament.. Among others the major codices of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the Vaticanus, the Sinaiticus, and the Alexandrinus are perhaps the most important of various texts in Greek, and there are many papyri as well, such as P52 and P66 which come from the second century A.D. P52, the John Rylands papyrus, a portion of John 18, is acknowledged by most scholars to be the earliest extent manuscript, dating from around 125 A.D.
However, in addition to this, it is still important to consider P64, the so-called Magdalen or Jesus Papyrus, more recently redated by Carsten Thiede to sometime prior to 70 A.D. or earlier. (Carsten Thiede, The Jesus Papyrus.150). In addition, the scholarly community still awaits publication by the Green Scholars Initiative of an apparently recently discovered manuscript of a First Century Gospel of Mark. (Earliest Christianity website).
The second criterion of doing history is that the traditional historian must respect the internal evidence of these texts, that which the document itself claims to be. Citing Aristotle’s ‘Art of Poetry,’ Montgomery reminds us that the ‘benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself. This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.’ (Montgomery, Ibid., p. 46). Thus the historian cannot legitimately put his own criticism of the documents forward regarding what the text says of itself unless he can prove that there are errors in the text.
A practical application of this fundamental criterion of doing history would be to regard what the Bible says about miracles and the miracle of the resurrection of Christ as indeed historical unless it can be proven otherwise. St. Luke tells us in 1:1-4 that he is reporting the things in his Gospel on the basis of ‘those who from the first were eyewitnesses of such things,’ as also does the Apostle John in I John 1:1, where he says, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched –this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.’ Hume does not give the internal evidence of the Bible this sort of respect.
The third criterion of doing history is that the historian must also pay attention to the external evidence for the claims of the documents under consideration. External evidence may also be called ‘secondary sources.’ Such external evidence for the Bible is the documents written by the Early Church Fathers, as well as various pagan sources at the time.
There are many such secondary sources or external evidences in history which report to one extent or another on the evidence about Christ from the Scriptures, including the resurrection of Christ. Among those from the Early Church are Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Quadratus of Athens, Aristides the Athenian, and Hegesippus. External evidence regarding Christ from outside of the church is to be found in Suetonius, Tacitus, Celsus, Pliny the younger, Lucian , Serapion, Josephus, and the Talmud and other rabbinical documents.
Thus there is in history, in the Bible and in the Early Church, a considerable amount of evidence which points to the reality of miracles, and especially of the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ in particular fits these criteria of historiography exceedingly well. The documentary evidence is especially close to the events, and the number of such documents is vast, when one considers other ancient events and their documentation by comparison. The documents of Scripture by way of internal evidence themselves claim that these miracles actually occurred, and there is considerable external evidence from the earliest church as well, both from within and without the church, including hostile witnesses.
Is it not very odd that a miracle as profound as that of Christ’s resurrection has such great historical evidence for it? If one does not exclude miracles by definition, the historical conclusion must be that the miracle of the resurrection of Christ has indeed occurred.
We therefore conclude against Hume that a proper application of the traditional criteria of doing history to the Bible and the Early Church shows that miracles may indeed occur, albeit they may be unique or few in number.
We also conclude against Hume that the general regularity or probability of our experiences of nature does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Miracles by definition are not probable. Hume argues in a circle. He contends that miracles are not possible because they are not probable, and they are not probable because we do not have regular experiences of miracles. But much like he cannot by his own epistemology prove the laws of nature to exist, so also he cannot prove that the unique, miracles, do not occur in history.
We also conclude that Hume’s epistemology itself not only does not point to the rejection of miracles, but in fact on the contrary must be open to the possibility of miracles. Because Hume cannot demonstrate any necessary connection or causality in nature, there is in Hume’s epistemology no empirically provable laws of nature for miracles to violate. Because Hume cannot prove the existence of the laws of nature, miracles are therefore actually possible.