Monday, 11 February 2008

It's not likely miracles happen, so they don't - Part 1

The second article by David Hume that appears in the Portable Atheist is of miracles and is broken up into two parts. In this post I am just looking at the first part. At the end of last year I picked up the whole book from where this chapter came from, but like some books I read, I didn't end up finishing it.

David starts off explaining the issue:
It is acknowledged on all hands, says that learned prelate, that the authority, either of the scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of his senses. But a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger; ... (page 32)

He defines miracles to be as follows:
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....There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior. (page 35)

And then, after defining miracles to be non-existent because our definition of nature is that it is uniform, so any reports that nature isn't, must be wrong, Hume goes on to say why he discredits miracles:
"That 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; ..." When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (page 35-36)

Hume sets out the conditions for which human testimony can be disregarded:
This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony. (page 34)
My question is, what happens if the testimonies do withstand those conditions? Matthew, Mark (and Peter), Luke, John, Paul and James seem to all agree about Jesus.

Luke was a doctor who compiled other eye-witness accounts together, James was Jesus' brother, and it's not very likely that someone would consider their older step-brother to be God after growing up with them... Paul first hated the Christians and set out to kill them. It is only a miracle that he then decided that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Paul even challenges the Corinthian church to seek out the 500 people that were first hand witnesses to Jesus coming back from the dead.

And what interest do these people gain from their testimony? Death (well except John, who apparently was boiled in oil, didn't recant and got exiled to Patmos for the rest of his life). The Apostiles "who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour" didn't really have much to gain for their accounts. Why doesn't the fact that they all gave a consistent testimony despite being faced with been stoned, flogged, beat up and killed proof that their testimony about Jesus is true?

You can read the whole chapter and book here.

1 comment:

  1. This has always bugged me as well. People tell me at work that Christianity is all about getting money. Yet you look at what these people have gone through in the past, or look to a true Christian, and they aren't "made of money" the majority is given back to God for his work in one form or another. The list of Pauls trials for the Gospel (starving; beaten; robbed; shipwrecked; etc) --> These aren't things that people aspire to. Yet they think it is all mae up.

    It makes no sense.