Virtue Ethics and Brexit

Update 17/03/17: I wrote this post last year before the EU referendum in response to a post in which someone tried to frame the choice as egoism on one side (Brexit) and selflessness on the Remain side. I thought this rather shallow.


At his site Peter Baron has interestingly looked at the politics of Brexit through the lens of moral egoism.

I thought it would be interesting to take a virtue ethics view of the EU question. Virtue ethics makes eudaimonia, roughly translated as flourishing, a key element of moral decision-making. Equally it emphasises character over duty or consequences. It is not surprising that most of the arguments for Remain or Leave are framed in terms of utility or consequence; basically what are the economic losses or gains if we stay or go, because utilitarianism is the default public discourse mode of moral decision making. And this is so probably because of the materialism and relativism of secular modernity.

It is my view that virtue ethics can do much to augment and invigorate such deracinated modes of moral reasoning. And taking a virtue ethics approach to the EU referendum seems refreshing. Where are the great narratives on both sides? Rabbi Sacks argues here that they are missing from this debate:

“The debate has been great and vigorous but what is it turning on? How much money will this cost us; will it make it easier or harder to control immigration.

“These matters … are important but in the long run the fact is that we have historical narratives that should have been spoken about and haven’t.

“One is the historical narrative of England, that extraordinary history that runs all the way through from Shakespeare to Elgar to Blake. The second is the other narrative, of Europe in the 20th Century, two world wars, tens of millions of deaths and the original vision … the people who really passionately believed and believe in Europe were people who came through the Second World War and vowed let us create a Europe where this can never happen again.

“There are two very powerful historical narratives, one for leaving, one for staying, but nobody has tried to do that and it tells you that it is very difficult to speak in these memory terms and narrative terms at all.”

If we try to speak in these narrative terms we will be attempting a telos-orientated interpretation of events. We will be rejecting Utilitarian modes of thought, but more than that, we will be rejecting the simplistic liberal reactions to Brexit that frame it in terms of egoism on the Leave side and superior moral insight on the Remain side. Here is the smug arrogance of the liberal elites at its worst.


To what extent has Augustine’s teaching on human nature caused more harm than good?

It is frequently claimed that Augustine’s teaching on human nature has caused more harm than good. In particular his view of sexuality, of the nature of the will, and the extent of human sinfulness are often asserted to be major elements of all that is wrong or has been wrong with western culture; imperialism, patriarchal dominator-culture, guilt and repression of sexuality, damage to the environment, and damaging gender stereotypes. Often, such claims are followed by further assertions that progress away from such backward attitudes is only possible by a wholesale rejection of the Augustinian current from Christianity, or more usually by a complete rejection of Christianity itself. Indeed, much of what is called the ‘New Age’ (an eclectic pick and mix of spiritualities and religious traditions), is founded on this very rejection, along with a quite sophisticated critique of the core ideas of Augustine. Equally, secular humanism finds much to criticise in Augustine. I want to show in this essay that although these critiques are very popular and are at the heart of progressive liberal thought, they are in large part based on misunderstandings and misrepresentation of the thought of Augustine. These misrepresentations of Augustine are what lead people to assume he has done more harm than good, when in fact he has not – there are other causes I would blame for the effects mentioned above.

Some have claimed that Augustine saw sex as the fundamental entry point of sin into human nature, and that he viewed it as only tolerable within marriage and then only for the purpose of having children, but the obsession with sex is actually more the problem of the modern critic than it is with Augustine. True, in chapter 6 of Confessions, Augustine talks about marriage as a remedy for concupiscence, and laments that his parents didn’t arrange an early marriage for him, as it would have directed his sexual desire to its proper end.But he doesn’t just single out procreation. He recognises that sexual desire finds its true end in love, commitment and procreation – surely a more positive view of marriage than many claim for him?

Another misrepresentation of Augustine, based on a shallow reading of his work, is that he blames everything on lust or concupiscence and forgets about other sins. In the Confessions Augustine draws a connection between his sexual activity and his freedom of will. He found himself unable to give up his involvement with sexual pleasure and felt trapped, in a state of moral paralysis. In Book 8 he says:

” The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a compulsion. “

As we can see here, his desire for sex is the point of his resistance to the will of God, and his analysis is that the root of the problem is actually weakness of will, rather than lust itself. This weakness of will is perhaps best understood as a lack of charity (caritas), which would have enabled him to love God wholeheartedly, and an excess of cupiditas (self-love) which made him only serve himself. Augustine characterises this conflict using the words of Paul as

“The lust of the flesh against the spirit”

These two lusts or wills were at war deep in his (and our) heart. But Augustine does not identify lust purely with sexual desire. There are actually many forms that the ‘lust of the flesh’ can take such as greed, pride or acedia (spiritual boredom), and he actually thinks that sexual desire is not the most dangerous of these lusts or sins. For instance, because pride is far more subtle than sexual desire, it can do more unseen damage and is harder to root out.

With this understanding, we can now see that the critique of Augustine blaming him for sexual repression and guilt related to sex in Western culture is misplaced. However, it is possible that his interpreters laid too great an emphasis on the sexual element, and that this interpretation actually did some of the ‘damage’. But it should also be considered that this kind of critique derives a great deal from Freud, and therefore needs to be handled with caution, given his now widely criticised research methods, and his reductionist view of the human being.

However, Augustine’s view of human nature is considered to have had a negative effect in other ways. Perhaps the other main way it is seen to do this is in its fatalism about the ability of the will to bring about any real change on its own, without God’s grace, and of God’s electing some people for salvation and passing over others. This fatalism, more accurately known as the doctrine of predestination in Augustine’s thought, seems to me a more profound problem than the sexual guilt accusation, and to a certain extent, it is possible that Augustine’s view has had far-reaching sometimes negative effects. On Augustine’s account, Original Sin has so distorted human nature that it is for him an ontological condition of human existence. In other words, we don’t just do sinful behaviour now and then, sin is part of the very fabric of our existence. We might expect to see this played out in western Thought as a kind of pessimistic paralysis of the will, whereby humans are believed incapable of achieving anything and so in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they don’t. It is almost impossible to say if this is true. Maybe scientific progress would have been quicker, but then again, without the religious background to European culture, as Freud pointed out, the fundamental impetus behind science, that an invisible world with its own specific laws was waiting to be discovered, might not have surfaced.

I would say the doctrine of predestination has made some too obsessed with legalistic notions of right and wrong, and perhaps a disregard for the pain of this world has engendered a certain coldness and cruelty in some, whilst in others it might have provoked an impractical idealism which fails to live in an embodied present. This might have contributed to some of the ills of modernity such as environmental degradation, crony capitalism, and other problems. However, it is worth stating that there are many different causes posited for these ills. Some blame Descartes with his division of the world into mind and body, others find different thinkers and their influence to be crucial. I will briefly look at some of these later.

Most modern criticism of Augustine’s view of human nature relies on a secular account of the world whereby we become more free, happier, and able to pursue our goals to the extent that we are able to drop the superstitious shackles of religion. For instance, Steven Pinker says that the ‘humanitarian principle’, that we should help others because it is in our own best interests, and not from any religious notions, is the way to progress to an ever more tolerant, enlightened and happy future. Culture needs to free itself from religious myths.

However, cultural historian Christopher Dawson argues that “culture consists in a common set of values which serve to unify the various activities of the group. Such values find expression preeminently…in a society’s religious beliefs.” Dawson believed religion to be the key to history, because it is the key to culture. A religion is not simply a theology. Religion must be expressed in sociological ways as well for it “can never escape the necessity of becoming incarnated in culture and clothing itself in social institutions and traditions, if it is to exert a permanent influence on human life and behavior.” The manner in which religion becomes embodied in temporal society establishes the form of a culture.

A people may also lose its religion and become secularized. Without a religion, however, a culture cannot long survive. Secularization is inevitably a sign of “social decay;” since religion provides the principle of inner cohesion for a society, a secular society will sooner or later disintegrate:

“The loss of the historic religion of a society is a sign that it is undergoing a process of social disintegration…We cannot…assume the possibility of a culture continuing to preserve its unity and to persist indefinitely without any religious form whatsoever. When the process of secularization is completed, the process of social dissolution is consummated and the culture comes to an end.”

Rod Dreher claims the Christian West began to lose its way in the fourteenth century, when the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham pioneered the theory of nominalism, which held there is no inherent order or purpose encoded into the material world. This was a radical departure from the philosophy of theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, who believed God’s intention for the material world is inscribed into nature itself, and can be discerned with human powers of reason. The split divided the “enchanted world” philosopher Charles Taylor describes medieval subjects as inhabiting from the disenchanted, meaningless world we now inhabit as post-modern, liberal subjects. We look around us and try to find some sense or meaning in things and events, but agree that meaning may differ depending on the beholder; the early Medievals bore no such burden.

If Dreher is right then this would also free Augustine from the burden of bearing responsibility for harm with his view of human nature. Instead, it is actually when medieval theologians start to deviate from Augustine that the problems of modernity are laid down. Enlightenment ideals of progress then compound the problem by themselves indulging in new myth-making where the faith in a glorious future, which is slowly being attained step by step, actually overrides any evidence to the contrary. This is very clear from Pinker’s analysis, in which he present evidence for progress by pointing to fewer instances of things such as torture, war and so on. It seems highly implausible that such things are actually decreasing, and aside from a veneer of progress of civil and other rights in the West, some would argue that we are actually experiencing an age of barbarism that the so-called barbaric Middle Ages never reached.

In conclusion then, I would say that to the extent that it is possible for any thinker of late antiquity to cause harm which has affected the modern world, then there are just too many plausible alternative sources of such harm, and the direct responsibility that Augustine’s ideas are meant to have, as I have shown, is based on a lack of understanding of what Augustine really thought.

Find out more in my new book for AS Religious Studies (OCR new specification!)

The Little Onion

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

New OCR AS Spec – Augustine on Original Sin

Original Sin and its Effects on the Will and Human Societies

The will was profoundly marked by THE FALL. It is divided and therefore weak. Augustine sees the rebellious state of the will as a direct result of Adam’s sin of disobedience.

Adam’s SIN OF DISOBEDIENCE was the cause of the state in which we find ourselves – that of Original Sin. This is a hereditary stain with which we are born as a result of Adam’s sin.

Romans 5:12 is a key text:

“It was through one man that guilt came into the world; and, since death came owing to guilt, death was handed on to all mankind by one man.”

ORIGINAL SIN only deprives man of those Divine gifts to which his nature had no right; humans have not lost the possession of their natural faculties such as reason. Some of the effects of Original Sin are:

  • CONCUPISCENCE – this is the privation of the complete mastery over the passions which was a DIVINE GIFT. In other words man is no longer able to control his appetites, including his libido (sexual desire). This does not mean that the body is evil – the body is created good (see Genesis), but the will is weak and divided, and this means that the appetites can dominate – therefore the body can be overrun by gluttony, love of money and power, and sexual desire
  • DEATH OF THE BODY – Romans is clear that this is one of the results of Original Sin
  • PRIVATION OF SANCTIFYING GRACE – Death of the soul. Not only the body dies as a result of Original Sin, but humans are deprived of grace – this is holiness, and holiness is union with God. Grace is not any particular good act, but a permanent tendency towards God as we shall see. Without grace the soul cannot live, as vices grow stronger and choke its life

PRIVATION OF THE VISION OF GOD in the next life. Without the effect of grace, it is impossible to see God, as the soul’s vision is distorted by the appetites. The beatitude says:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5)

This was an excerpt from my forthcoming revision guide for Developments in Christian Thought – if you would like more material please leave an email address and I will put you on a mailing list.

‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)


Here is my attempt at doing this question. I have to say, if a question on voices came up, I think a lot of students would avoid it, as the text-books have very little to say on this topic. It is tempting to just fall into a generic template for or against religious experience, but the topic of voices has some issues specific to it. For instance, and I didn’t say this in the essay, voices are usually linked to prophetic apparitions such as those of Fatima. The prophetic element is obviously explained by the need to convey a message. One of the strangest examples of voices is that of Pope Leo XIII on October 13 1884, 33 years to the day before the Fatima visions, hearing two voices – one kind and gentle, the other guttural and harsh, conversing. The conversation was supposedly between Christ and the devil, over how much time would be given to the devil for him to do his work in bringing down humanity.

Voices or locutions (from the latin locutio – speech) are a common aspect of certain types of religious experience, and are seen by the Catholic Church as a supernatural communication to the ear, imagination or directly to the intellect. They are supernatural in that the locution is meant to have its origin in a spiritual realm either heavenly or demonic. In most examples of this type of experience the voice is only heard by one person or a few individuals. Occasionally though, the locution does come from sound waves travelling to the ear, and thus has an external source Often, voices are accompanied by visions, but not always. A clear example of this is the revelations of the Virgin Mary to the three children Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima in Portugal in 1917. The children saw a lady who showed them visions, for instance of hell, and they were also instructed by her as to the meaning of the visions. However, only Lucia and Jacinta heard and saw all that was revealed, whilst Francisco just saw the visions but did not hear the speech.

However, according to Teresa of Avila, voices should be tested to see if they have a natural or supernatural source. If natural they should be rejected as the result of an overactive imagination. If they are supernatural it is still to be discerned whether they are from God or the Devil. The only way this can be decided is in the effect it has on the person. St Teresa describes some of the effects of true locutions: they have a sense of certainty, power and authority, they bring calm and tranquility, and they are remembered for a long time. On the contrary, voices from the devil produce agitation or over-excitement in the recipient and make him fall prey to pride and other sins.

The issue that is often raised in connection to voices is the possibility of a non-supernatural origin, indeed skeptics would say that there is always a psychological explanation for this kind of religious experience. This is particularly the case with voices as they are very commonly reported by people suffering from certain kinds of mental illness such as schizophrenia or other psychotic episodes. The most common psychiatric explanation for psychosis is that part of the conscious mind of the person becomes overwhelmed by unconscious contents and seems to take on its own significance over and against the conscious ego-centre of the individual, such that they feel powerless to control it, and experience the psychosis in the form of voices or hallucinations which are usually unpleasant and which interfere with the autonomy of the mentally ill person.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gives a psychological explanation for voices which seems at least sympathetic to this view. Firstly, he outlines the passivity of someone undergoing a religious experience, so that it seems to come from the ‘other’ and the receiver can do nothing about it. This would seem to echo the psychologist’s understanding of what happens in psychosis. Secondly, in James’ discussion of what he calls the ‘sick soul’, he explicitly draws parallels between a certain religious type, and certain kinds of mental illness in which voices occur. For instance, he describes the melancholy temperament of John Bunyan, who was ‘sensitive of conscience, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms…these were usually texts of scripture, which…would come as if they were voices and fasten on his mind…’.

James goes on  to link the crisis that often comes to the sick soul type, and how they can become ‘twice-born’ ie. flooded with a newfound conviction in God, after much despair, and he says that these conversions are often linked to voices and visions. He relates how many religious founders or important figures such as George Fox or John Wesley heard voices because they were of ‘exalted sensibility’. He leaves open the question of whether these ‘incursions from beyond’ have their origin in the unconscious mind, or whether they have an ultimately supernatural origin.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a purely reductionist view of religious experiences, and locutions would have been for him a psychotic or neurotic manifestation of unresolved trauma from childhood.

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

It seems to me that St. Teresa could very easily be updated for modern times to critique Freud. What she called voices from the devil, could be seen to be the voices that mentally ill people hear, as their effect is usually disconcerting and negative. Whereas if we apply her and James’ criteria of positive emotional and behavioural impact on the believer we have a way of easily distinguishing ‘real’ voices from false ones.

Freud’s disciple Jung claims that the divine reality cannot be a ‘nothing-but’ – voices have important psychological benefits which can lead to the integration of the personality – a wholeness that the conscious mind usually resists at its peril.

Equally, Swinburne argues we cannot just dismiss voices and other religious experiences with an automatic skepticism, indeed, his principles of credulity and testimony turn the tables on the skeptic and challenge him to take voices seriously.

In conclusion, it cannot be stated that voices are evidence of psychological neurosis, as this is a blanket statement, assuming a reductive materialism which ignores the epistemological problems with all experience, and which doesn’t do justice to the ‘fruits’ of the experience of the voices in the life of the believer. Clearly, there are many cases of voices being heard in neurotic episodes, but as stated above, and as James attests, unlike voices in religious experiences these do not lead to an integrated, stable, compassionate and insightful individual, capable of ministering to others and organising practical matters such as St. Teresa or John of the Cross (who both founded and led religious orders), but rather to individuals who sadly are unable to function well in society.

However, just because voices are not always evidence of psychological neurosis, by no means proves that they are from God – and it may be that there is some depth psychological explanation which is the best explanation for them. Both Jung and James thought that if there was a divine reality on the other side of the experiences of the mind, then it can only be known through that experience, and both remained essentially agnostic (with some qualification) on the matter.


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.