Monday, 10 March 2008

It's not likely miracles happen, so they don't - Part 2

David Hume continues his discussion about miracles in the Portable Atheist by saying: is easy to show that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence. (page 36)

This is because of 4 reasons:

  1. A miracle hasn't happen in front of enough people with good sense to not raise some doubt, after all personal testimonies are unreliable next to your own natural experience (although when retelling your own natural experience your are then giving a personal testimony)

  2. We relates the things that we have no experience in with things that we do have experience with. We should take the things that are usual to us to over rule the things which seems unusual. (I have no idea how you learn new things with this framework)

  3. Miracles happen chiefly "among ignorant and barbarous nations" or if a civilized people believe them, its because of their "barbarous ancestors"

  4. "there is no testimony for any, even those which have not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the credit of testimony, but the testimony destroys itself" (page 39). I think this is fleshed out to mean that because one religion may discredit another religion's miracles they then are then discrediting their own miracles in their belief system. (The possibility of one religion being true is not considered at all.)
Hume then admits that miracles may indeed happen, just as long as they are not used for a religion:
I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. (page 42-43)

Hume says that if the records of history said that the world was dark for 8 days, and if everyone from around the world agreed, with no contradictions, then that event should be received as certain. But if all of history agreed that Queen Elizabeth came back from the dead on the 1st of January 1600 and ruled over England for another 3 years, that it should be discredited and Hume suggests that the people of that day were wrong in their testimonies and that her death must have been a fake.

I find Hume's closing remarks interesting:
...we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. (page 45)

Does this mean that if a reasonable person is a Christian, it must be a miracle. Therefore if you find a reasonable person who is a Christian then that is proof that miracles exist? I do think that for anyone to become a Christian, it is a miracle, an act of God. For we were all dead to God, but by God's grace He has made us alive, and for anything that was once dead to become alive is unnatural and a separation from the norm.

Hume reports that there is a struggle with trusting one report over another:
It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but substract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. (page 42)
He is right in saying that we have to make a choice. We must choose to believe one source over another. There is no sitting on the fence.

George Campbell wrote a book (A Dissertation on Miracles) against this chapter that can be downloaded here.


  1. Richard Swinburne also has kind of a response to Hume about miracles: