December 24, 2006
Hume's Miracle Prison: How They Got Out AliveBy James Arlandson
One of the great geniuses of the Enlightenment was David Hume (1711-1776). In his essay on miracles (Section X) in his book Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, he doubts that miracles have ever occurred and even can occur.
Hume's short analysis shakes believers (for our purposes those who believe in miracles) and theists (for our purposes those who believe that God exists and acts in his creation). But skeptics (those who say that miracles do not or even cannot happen) gladly accept Hume's verdict.
However, do Hume's arguments stand up under close scrutiny? Can we exclude miracles as a priori impossible (a priori means before investigation)? That is, should we reject miracles outright? But what if miracles can be investigated with modern technology? Do they happen today?
This article has a modest goal. It aims to keep the door to miracles open, even after Hume's assault on them. It uses the metaphor of prison and the legal system to illustrate their escape into the modern skeptical world. They seem to be in hiding, but sometimes they peek out and show themselves today.
What is a miracle prison?
In Part II of Hume's discussion of miracles in Section X, he is in the process of answering the question of whether miracles do or even can occur. Is there even one criterion that any reasonable person can use to affirm their occurrence? Apparently not, for two major reasons. Bulleted examples follow each reason.
(1) No witness for the defense is reliable enough.
(2) No testimony is strong enough.
Why is Hume so skeptical? Witnesses for the defense and their testimonies are not good or strong enough, but compared to what? Simple. All miracles violate our firm and unalterable experience that establishes the laws of nature.
Thus, no person, even if he has the utmost integrity and honesty, can overturn by his testimony the laws of nature established by firm and unalterable experience.
Hume uses, as it were, a two-sided scale, like the scales of justice on the outside of the Supreme Court building. On one side he places our firm and unalterable experience with the laws of nature; on the other he places the reliable testimony for miracles. The first side is always heavier or wins the contest. This is why he could establish the witnesses and testimonies (in the bulleted lists) with such confidence, proclaiming their veracity. But firm and unalterable experience establishing the laws of nature must by the very nature of the case always outweigh the testimonial evidence for miracles. "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence" (p. 110).
As for the hypothetical death and reappearance of Queen Elizabeth in 1600 (she actually died in 1603), Hume would still not believe the testimonies, despite the events being observed by learned and trusted men who testify to her death and burial for one month:
Apparently, the (hypothetical) learned and wise historians, physicians and courtiers, who witnessed everything with their own eyes (Elizabeth's death, burial, and reappearance), turn into fools and knaves, according to Hume. What a "miraculous" reversal for such reliable and impeccable witnesses. Apparently, their shocking, quick-change falsehood is not "more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."
Thus, miracles are locked up in Hume's prison, though they are innocent. Under his ironclad presuppositions, they cannot get out even on parole for good behavior. This is unjust.
See Craig, pp. 130-32, for the idea of the scale that Hume seems to have in mind.
No way out?
However, Hume's stacked deck against miracles begs the question or goes in circles. This fallacy means that the answer to a question is found in the premises or in the front end of the investigation. We assume the answer before we inquire into it. His super-high definition of a miracle does this (it violates the laws of nature established by firm and unalterable experience). He is trying to determine whether miracles can occur, but he slams shut the prison doors on them before they can make their appeal, not to mention while they were on trial.
The words firm and especially unalterable are the crux of the fallacy. How do we know that miracles cannot occur? Because they "violate" or "transgress" the laws of nature that are established by firm and unalterable experience. But why cannot our experience with the laws of nature be "violated" on occasion? Because that would be a miracle. And they don't happen because of our firm and unalterable experience establishes the laws of nature.
Next, Hume's definition of a miracle is so stringent that no historical or empirical investigation will possibly argue the case for miracles. To repeat the circular argument, why are no multiple honest and reliable testimonies in favor of miracles acceptable? Because the laws of nature are firmly and unalterably established by experience. The testimonies are ipso facto less accurate and less probable, no matter what. Therefore, no testimonies whatsoever for the defense will open the prison doors, because they are permanently locked in advance, no key existing to open them.
C. S. Lewis describes the circularity:
However, miracles are matters of perception and therefore investigable. They exist, if they do, in the realm of matters of fact. To laugh out of court all exonerating testimonies, regardless of how strong and reliable they are, is prejudicial. Miracles do not get a fair hearing; they never did get a fair trial. They got a bum rap in Hume's court, and now in his prison.
The circular reasoning keeps going round and round, in favor of skeptics.
Minimum security prison?
It is possible that scholars would suggest that I am not being fair to Hume here. It is not clear that he is begging the question. If he simply claims that since the evidence for the laws of nature is always greater than the evidence for a miracle, and since the two bodies of evidence inevitably conflict, then we are never justified in accepting reports of miracles.
Norman L. Geisler refers to Hume's "softer" argument that focuses on the (un)believability of reports about miracles, not their (im)possibility. The evidence for the rare event-or singular event-is weaker than the evidence for the regular event, so the wise person believes in the regular event ("Miracles and the Modern Mind," p. 75). We also cite the argument by Benjamin F. Armstrong to defuse the accusation of unfairness to Hume. To continue our prison motif, miracles are in a minimum security prison, but they still cannot escape.
(1) Hume speaks of "uniform experience" against miracles. Thus, he either still begs the question or he engages in special pleading. Geisler writes:
Then Geisler explains how Hume engages in special pleading, which is a fallacy that ignores unfavorable evidence. But Geisler counters: "If, on the other hand, Hume simply means by ‘uniform' experience the select experiences of some persons . . . then this is special pleading. For there are others who claim to have experienced miracles" (p. 76).
In addition, after explaining modern Humeans and then quoting Hume himself ("No means of detection remain save those which must be drawn from the very testimony itself of the reporters"), Armstrong says:
In short, Armstrong says in these two excerpts that to investigate reliable reports on miracles fairly, which (allegedly) take place in the realm of perceptions, no one can escape the charge of begging the question, if one uses the laws to preclude those reliably reported miracles. After our investigation, it may be the case that "there is no particular stock of nomologicals" that completely enjoy "epistemic primacy" to rule out miracles or resurrections, to use Armstrong's example. (Epistemic pertains to knowledge or knowing.)
Armstrong is right, for the key is to investigate and then to formulate laws accordingly. Can we say absolutely that a miracle cannot happen? Sometimes reports, especially in the Age of Science, confirmed by CT scans and even videos, may be so reliable that to shut them out leads to prejudice and obscurantism. How much evidence would it take if a CT scan and the oncologist's own eyes detected cancer, but immediately after prayer the cancer vanished? It is absurd to rule something out that actually happened, no matter how rare.
(2) Geisler says that Hume adds up the evidence against miracles, instead of weighing it in favor of them. But Geisler disagrees: "Rational beliefs should not, however, be determined by majority vote. Hume seems to commit a kind of consensus gentium fallacy, an informal fallacy arguing that something should be believed to be true simply because it is believed by most people." (p. 79). Further, sometimes the exceedingly rare event happens. For example, a perfect bridge hand has been dealt, though the odds against it are 1,635,013,559,600 to 1.
(3) Hume proves too much. If a miracle really happens, then should we disbelieve it, regardless of whether the evidence is overwhelming? Geisler explains:
Geisler is right, as noted in our analysis of Armstrong's argument (see the first point in this section). The key is to investigate them without prejudice, in case the evidence shows overwhelmingly that an extremely rare event has indeed happened. Geisler goes on to relate two more arguments against Hume's softer version (or minimum security prison), which seemed at first glance to have avoided the fallacy of begging the question, but these three suffice for now. Hume does not avoid that fallacy, and he commits others.
Believers would not want to relinquish the regularity of the laws of nature. Miracles are much rarer than strictly rare natural events, even though anomalies happen. But skeptics seem to wield, even with their "softer" arguments, the laws against miracles as if the laws are the judge, prosecutor, jury, and executioner. That is unfair. So we reach the same conclusion as noted before and reaffirmed later in this article: miracles may go free after they are investigated and put on trial; their reality must be a live option. If not, then this begs the question always in favor of naturalism.
Five ways out?
Maybe Hume, surprisingly, leaves five small ways out for miracles from their false imprisonment. Maybe this allows him to escape from the accusation of begging the question or circular reasoning. Again, here are his definitions of miracles.
(1) In the first definition, Hume says that our firm and unalterable experience has established the laws of nature. It seems that Hume returns to his theory about the foundation of human knowledge concerning matters of fact (e.g. the sun rises; salt dissolves in water), as opposed to relations of ideas (e.g. proofs in geometry). The foundation of human knowledge about matters of fact is experience with cause and effect, he says (e.g. speaking or talking produces [causes] sound [effect]). And the foundation of this is the accumulation of many experiences with cause and effect. And the foundation of this is mere custom or habit (Hume, pp. 25-47).
If our experience is built on such a weak foundation as custom or habit, can our experience rule out miracles altogether? Granted, miracles may be rare, but impossible? How can any court claim in advance that they are impossible when the court is investigating whether they may occur? Therefore, to investigate miracles, their reality must be a live option and a real possibility, not a fake one. However, it seems that Hume wants things both ways. Our knowledge about matters of fact is (a little) unstable. But when it comes to miracles, which are in this same empirical realm, our experience militates against them because it is unalterable. A little unstable or unalterable. Which is it? There seems at the very least to be an inconsistency. Geisler agrees that Hume is not being consistent with his own epistemology (how we acquire and define knowledge).
If this analysis is true, then it leaves the prison doors open to miracles.
Also see Robert A. Larmer, Water into Wine? pp. 36-37.
(2) In the second definition Hume assumes the existence of God. If he works a miracle, then the terms "violation" or "transgression" of the laws of nature are wrong. By analogy, if the prison warden allows a concert in chapel, then he commits no violation or transgression of the rules because he permits it within the limits of his own authority. But if a lone guard does this for his own purposes and without permission, then this would be a violation or transgression because he does not act as a rightful authority. The existence of God lifts the analogy beyond the human level. More than a warden, God does not violate or transgress anything of his creation when miracles occur, because he is the final authority over it.
See Kreeft and Tacelli, pp. 111-12, who use the metaphor of a high school principal and a gym teacher.
Lewis writes wisely about how nature naturalizes the immigrant or miracle, so it is not a violator, but a welcome guest. The regularity of nature says, if A (cause), then B (effect). But a miracle introduces a new cause and effect: if A2, then B2, and the new situation conforms to all the laws.
(3) Hume says that no miracle can be proved as it relates to the foundation of a religion (again begging the question, though we let that pass). But other miracles found in less important contexts may be possible.
Despite Hume's concession, he still believes that he has a watertight case against even non-foundational miracles because they are mentioned only in recorded history. And such history is unconvincing, for the more remote it is, the less reliable it is (p. 109). Incidentally, this means that the Christian religion, founded by the miracles of Jesus, notably his Resurrection, have no reasonable foundation (p. 130-31). Finally, Hume already stated that miracles did not happen in his modern times and enlightened society (pp. 119-20). It seems, then, that he has once again shut the prison doors on non-foundational miracles, so his concession is empty. Nonetheless, we should take what we can get from Hume and his super-high, cannot-lose definition of miracles, so maybe the prison doors are left a little ajar. This is all the more true if we move forward from an investigation into past history and towards miracles today.
(4) Hume says that probability, not a full proof, may be a criterion for determining the veracity of witnesses for non-foundational miracles (p. 127). Maybe this probability (or perhaps strong possibility) is all that an open-minded person needs in order to move in the direction of belief.
(5) Hume may allow another way out of his prison. He says that "if a person claiming divine authority should command a sick person to be well . . . which immediately follow upon his command, [this] might justly be esteemed [a miracle]" (p. 115, note 1). He also lists other miraculous events, but they do not concern us here because in the linked article Do Miracles Happen Today? (see below), we limit the testimonies to recovery from physical ailments. Has anyone recovered immediately after words of prayer or even commands of healing have been spoken?
What about today?
What if today miracles happen that have been verified by the science that examines cause and effect in the human body? It is one thing to rely on an ace up your sleeve-no one can find sufficiently reliable historical records, and miracles simply don't happen in the Age of Enlightenment. But what about miracles we can see with our own eyes, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in the Age of Science? Technology may render testimonies in defense of miracles probable and exonerative. Unfortunately, Hume lived before these modern times so he could not avail himself to confirmatory, high technology.
Part one in this series on miracles may be read here.
James Arlandson is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.