Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hume on miracles

More shooting from the hip, but it seems to produce interesting results (at least for me) and this is only a blog after all.

The last time I discussed Hume on miracles with other real philosophers the majority of the group seemed to think his argument was pretty hopeless. I think that view goes something like this:

Hume says it's irrational to believe in miracles because, by (his) definition, a miracle violates a law of nature. But Hume of all people shouldn't be saying that it's rational to believe that laws of nature are never violated! The evidence for each alleged miracle is some kind of testimony, the evidence against, he says, is universal experience. But experience does not tell us that what usually happens must always happen, nor even that it probably always happens. So the evidence against is very weak, perhaps even non-existent.

The Bible says that the Red Sea parted. Evidence for this being true: the Bible says it happened. Evidence against: seas don't part. But, according to Hume, it is not rational to believe that seas don't part. It is only rational to believe that  observed seas don't part (and not because they are observed). Or even: observed seas with the possible exception of the Red Sea on one occasion don't part. But that tells us nothing about what the Red Sea did when none of us was there to observe it. Hume has blundered!

I don't think that's right. For one thing, if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and there are no laws of nature, then there cannot be any miracles. If there are laws of nature but it is not rational to believe in them, then it is also not rational to believe in miracles thus defined. No laws of nature violated without laws of nature. This might be cheating, but it isn't a blunder.

Secondly, although Hume does not believe it is rational to believe in laws of nature he does think it is normal, natural, and pretty much inevitable (for human beings, at least). So we can take laws of nature as given. Once we do this miracles are possible after all. But is it ever wise to believe in any given miracle? That is his question. We have some evidence in favor of each alleged miracle, namely the allegation or claim that it happened. Against this we have not so much evidence that it didn't as a kind of posit or presupposition that it could not have happened. Can it be wise to reject this dictate of human-nature-plus-experience? Hume thinks not.

As he sees it we cannot help but think inductively, so belief in the violation of a natural law is almost impossible. If it is possible, it comes at a price. Wittgenstein asks whether we would still stay in the saddle no matter how much the facts bucked (his love of Westerns showing through?) and Hume's concern is with something like staying in the saddle, holding on to our natural common sense. If miracle stories are facts then they are bucking facts, and it cannot (he thinks) be wise to let them unseat us.

It seems to me that Christians might agree with this. Some of them accept that their beliefs are not prudent or strictly rational. Kierkegaard and Chesterton, for instance, are more passionate than that. Hume is presumably teasing when he talks of faith in miracles as a miracle, but believers might say that this is exactly what it is.        


  1. Whoa, flashback. Remember when I wrote a paper on Hume & Chesterton on miracles? Feels like a lifetime ago now.

    I'm sure if you read that it would all become clear. I'll dig it up after dinner.


  2. I do remember. Maybe I'm just channeling it now.

  3. "if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and there are no laws of nature, then there cannot be any miracles."

    That's an interesting point.

    I agree with your way of putting his question, as whether it is wise to believe in miracles.

    I've sometimes thought about comparing Hume to what Wittgenstein says about "seeing the world as a miracle" in the "Lecture on Ethics," but of course there W isn't using "miracle" in the way Hume does. Seeing the world in this way isn't something to be weighed against seeing it from a "scientific perspective."

    I think it's useful here--and the example aligns with W's use of the term more than Hume's--to think of ordinary ways the term miracle is used, such as in "the miracle of childbirth." This is a way of seeing childbirth. And childbirth clearly violates no laws of nature. Probably, one needs to articulate what exactly this "way" of seeing is, but it has something to do with wonderment, awe, and something of being confounded by an occurrence that is, in many other ways, a plain fact. (Perhaps like what Diamond calls a "difficulty of reality"...)

  4. Yes, Hume himself says that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence," so he's clearly concerned about what is wise, and he of all people surely knew that rationality in his rather limited sense is not really at issue, since it isn't rational to believe in laws of nature in the first place in that sense of rational. Yet some of his critics seem to want to read him as making that mistake. Maybe I have misunderstood them.

    And I agree very much that Hume's conception of a miracle is questionable in just the way you say. Wittgenstein does talk about highly unusual events, such as someone's head turning into that of a lion, but he also thinks in terms of the very existence of the world being a miracle. I think Hume is right that it is generally wise to be skeptical about reports of unusual events, but he just ignores the other sense of miracle. And that is a shortcoming.