Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed. Discuss.

“Hume’s Understanding Of Miracles is Flawed” Discuss (35 Marks)

The general definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws”. However it is often disputed whether these events should be attributed to some sort of divine agency or just be deemed coincidences. Stories of miracles have been around as long as humans have lived in communities and have caused many theists to believe that miracles are an example of God actively making a difference in the world, confirming their faith. This is evident in Christianity where Jesus is seen healing people and calming storms and Moses is seen to turn a staff into a snake. Similarly, in modern times, the statue Nandi in a Hindu Mandir has been seen drinking milk. Philosophers like David Hume have aimed to disprove the existence of God through the falsification of miracles. In this essay I will analyse Hume’s theory and use Richard Swinburne’s counter argument to confirm that Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed.

David Hume was a famous 18th century atheist philosopher. According to Hume, a miracle is “ a violation of the laws of nature”. To him the laws of nature were fixed, rigid statements that describe how the world works. Hume also puts forward two separate but closely related arguments against miracles.

The first argument is inductive is taken from his maxim “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”. This means that the probability of miracles actually happening is so low that it is irrational and illogical to believe that miracles do occur. From this, Hume then goes onto suggest a process for looking at miracles; when investigating a miracle evidence can be collected, for example a witness testimony, laws of nature appear to be fixed and unvarying, for example as we know it, gravity is the same throughout the universe, miracles appear to violate the laws of nature and therefore we should conclude that it is more likely that the report of a miracle happening is incorrect that the laws of nature being violated.

A criticism of this argument is that the fact that something is more probable is not, on its own proof that it didn’t happen. This is true for detectives who often solve a case by showing that evidence proves that what is improbable is actually true. To add, another criticism of this argument is that you cannot attribute the actions of an omnipotent God to the word “probable”. As God by definition is all powerful, only he can choose when to perform an action and does not have to conform to any pattern that we, as lesser beings, would deem ‘logical’. Thus, the probability of God performing an action is not directly dependent on the frequency at which He does them, but in His ability to perform them at His own discretion. To add, Hume’s first argument is tautological as an atheist following his maxim will automatically believe that the miracle never happened due to its improbability. However a theist responding to Hume’s argument could state that the miracle did happen because the omnipotent God performs them at his own discretion and in an unpredictable manner. This therefore means that the question of the existence of God remains unresolved.

Richard Swinburne also comments on Hume’s argument and agrees that natural laws are based on people’s experiences of observing the world. However, contrastingly, he states that Hume does not recognise that laws of nature are simply generalisations as they only communicate a general picture of how the world functions. Additionally he claims that Hume fails to recognise that laws are “corrigible”. The law of nature is the best description of how the world works, as we currently can understand it but there may be soon be new discoveries that mean the “laws of nature” must be modified. This is shown in the fact that pre- socratic philosophers believed the world was flat but due to technology we know this to be incorrect. Swinburne also states that Hume is incorrect in saying that no evidence is reliable for us to say that miracles can happen as there are ways of collecting reliable evidence.Namely, through the testimonies of other people about their miraculous experiences, the understanding of modern science and knowledge of what is impossible, by means of memories of witnesses and through physical evidence i.e medical examinations.

On the other hand, the fact that Hume’s inductive argument can be challenged does not mean he is wrong. Instead the question is raised again of whether based on experiences of the world, the occurrences of miracles are improbable or not.

Hume’s second argument is that of practicality. He stated that often miracle accounts are taken from those who have a lack of education. This means stories can be exaggerated as gossiping is a part of human nature. Additionally Hume claimed that miracles only occur amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”. He argued that if you look at the histories of many countries, their earliest stories are full of miracles and visions, but, as the nation develops and becomes more civilised and educated, these kinds of stories disappear. This is a logical argument as it is true that newspapers of the 21st century do not tend to report many cases of miracles happening. In this argument, Hume also went on to say that reports of miracles happening in different religions contradict each other. He wrote that of one religion claims that a miracle proved their religion true, the value of their statement is cancelled out by the fact that other religions also claim the miracles that happen to them, confirm their religion.

In evaluation of Hume’s second argument, he wrote at a time where the support for miracles came from word of mouth. However, today, miracles are supported by unbiased, scientific evidence. This is shown at Lourdes, a place of Christian pilgrimage, where 68 carefully arrested claims of miraculous healing have occurred. The documents provided in support of their claims have been given by doctors whose evidence is incontrovertible. Furthermore, another criticism of this argument is that Hume sets so many criteria for the acceptance of miraculous events that he is not keen to allow himself to say that any extraordinary event could be miraculous. To add Hume ignores the significant effect that miracles have on their environments and those affected. For example Cardinal de Retz saw someone physically grow back a new limb- surely this would be a convincing account.

Richard Swinburne further criticises Hume by saying that he provides no method of recognising when one has a suitable large group of educated people and does not state which level of education is required for their intelligence to be sufficient. Swinburne considers what counts as “ignorant and barbarous” and suggests that it could mean a lack of familiarity with science. This gives more problems for Hume as many educated people claim to experience miracles. Additionally, Swinburne question whether miracles in different religions cancel each other out. He states that because most miracles concern God helping someone they are not about proving one religion’s beliefs correct and proving another religion’s beliefs wrong. To add Swinburne is a sceptic and automatically rejects stories about miracles without considering the evidence.

Swinburne then goes on to give his own definition of a miracle as “an occurrence of a non- repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”. This means a miracle is an event that does fit in with the laws of nature as we understand them, but equally, the event on its own is not enough to prove the law of nature inaccurate. He ensures that laws of nature are good general descriptions of how the world works but that does not remove the possibility of a miracle occurring. He then goes on to state the process in which you should devise an argument for a miracle; having identified the reliable evidence in any debate you must assess the evidence and deduce a conclusion. Swinburne’s process for dealing with claimed miracles that happened in the past is to devise a main argument, then subsidiary arguments. For the main argument you must accept as many sources of evidence as possible. The more evidence, the stronger the probability of the miracle happening. For the subsidiary arguments, different sources should be consistent and supportive of each other. Additionally, the value you place on a particular piece of evidence should depend upon its “empirical reliability” i.e of the witness is a known liar, similarly you should avoid rejecting, without good reason, evidence that may be relevant to the said miracle.

In conclusion I believe a miracle can be defined as a violation of the laws of nature as we know them which subjectively can be attributed to a divine agency. Overall, I believe that Hume’s argument is weak as it is tautological, generalises the term “laws of nature” and in being sceptical, fails to recognise the unchanging nature of science as we being to make new discoveries. I have used the support of Swinburne for my evaluation of Hume’s argument as he convincingly denotes Hume’s argument as being limited in its methods and unaware of the miracles experienced by intellectuals. For this reason I am more likely to favour Swinburne’s criteria for an argument in favour of miracles as it is logical and takes into account the profound effects that miracles have on people.


My comments:
A-grade essay.

Hume’s argument should be seen as a whole – so many criticisms seem to separate the two parts of his argument but they actually make much more sense together. Given that he says in part one that a sensible man weighs the evidence, and given that the evidence from the nature of miracles is going to be as entire as possible (because a miracle is by its very nature a one-off compared to the usual experience to the contrary), then a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. And if the evidence is a one-off testimony – from a suspect source – then that testimony is really not worthy of consideration. The clever thing here is that the testimony cannot be considered apart from where or who it comes from, so that part one and two of the argument really need to be considered as a whole.

The second thing to say is that Swinburne seems to want to have his cake and eat it in your essay. If laws of nature are generalisations and corrigible, then what was thought to be a miracle isn’t really one, as it fits in with a revised law. But Swinburne makes other points. He does say that the laws of nature are statistical rather than prescriptive, but he also examines the possibility of ‘non-repeatable counter-instances of a law of nature’. This would prevent the miracle from being explained by a future revision of a law of nature.

I think then, in general it would be worth doing a little more of the AO1 explanation for both Hume and Swinburne, so that the examiner can see you clearly understand the argument.

2 thoughts on “Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed. Discuss.

  1. Pingback: A2 OCR Philosophy of Religion Predictions 2016 | Philosophy of Religion

  2. Pingback: A Level (A2) Predictions 2017 – OCR Philosophy and Ethics | OCR Religious Studies A Level

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