Home > Religion > What's so great about not understanding David Hume?

What's so great about not understanding David Hume?

So I mentioned that I have a copy of Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great about Christianity? D’Souza probably doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously, but what the hell. I read chapter sixteen, which is about why miracles are possible. This is an issue that is fairly complex, given that you have to define a miracle and figure out how that interacts with your understanding of the laws of nature and if we even know those laws. D’Souza sets up the argument against miracles as such (pg 185):

The strongest argument against miracles was advanced by philosopher and skeptic David Hume in his book Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume’s argument is widely cited by atheists; Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens both invoke it to justify their wholesale rejection of miracles. Hume argued that

1. A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature.
2. We know these laws through repeated and constant experience.
3. The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws.
4. Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.

He goes on to say that according to Hume, we can’t really know the laws of nature, so violations of our laws are possible, and miracles are therefore possible by Hume’s own logic!

Neat, huh? Except for one thing. David Hume’s argument is more accurately called an argument against the justified belief in miracles. Here’s what he says:

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. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation….

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘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.

The core is the oft-quoted line from that passage: “…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….” Hume’s skepticism doesn’t contradict his argument against miracles, because his argument is against belief in miracles. I don’t have Dawkins’ book on hand, so I can’t say for sure if he mangles Hume’s argument in the same way, but I don’t believe he does.

I don’t necessarily disagree with D’Souza’s claim that miracles are possible. I don’t really care. There’s an interesting discussion of all of this here. I do believe that for us, when considering the miracles of the Bible, Hume’s maxim is a good argument against believing them.

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