23 December 2011

Of Miracles.

DAVID HUME is perhaps the greatest thinker to write in the English language, or so everyone says. I've been looking at his 1748 essay Of Miracles [1] which is very readable and couched in English not too different from my own. I think it is still relevant to the kinds of discussions that religious people still have about unusual experiences. The crux of the argument is this:
"...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish..." (p.32)
Hume begins by establishing how we make decisions about reported facts. He argues that when we hear a report about something we weight it against experience. So if I tell you that I met an elephant on the road, you might immediately be doubtful because their are very few elephants wandering the streets of Cambridge. If I add that I was India at the time, my report becomes more credible because India is the kind of place on might expect to meet an elephant on the road. (It was in Kushinagar)

One of Hume's great insights is that we do not see causation per se. If we roll two billiards balls toward each other, they collide and continue on in different direction. The inferences we draw about the nature of their interaction is not based on observing causation, but "...are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction." In other words the collision of two balls has a predictable sequence. Hume is not, of course, the last word on this observation - probably Kant had the last word (to date), but Hume's is a very important observation. We do not see causation, we see a sequence of events, and it is the regularity of our observations which gives rise to the idea of causality.

However none of us will only believe things that seem likely. Unlikely things do happen. People win billions-to-one lotteries, are struck by lightening, etc. But, Hume argues, we do require stronger evidence in order to establish the veracity of and extraordinary claim. It is reasonable to entertain doubts about unlikely events. Hume sums up the reasons why we might doubt a report:
"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." (p.28)
So we must weigh up evidence when deciding whether what some says is true, or whether they have been deceived, or are trying to deceive us. With regard to miracles, these are all extraordinary because they defy what Hume calls the "laws of nature". Hume is not using this phrase in the scientific sense; nor, notice does he absolutise the idea by capitalising the words. He means such things as are observed with universal regularity:
"that... all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water". (p. 31)
This might these days be seen as a quaint definition, but in fact it still carries a lot of authority. We might quibble with the notion that the sun rises everyday - by saying that actually the earth turns; or that the sun will die in 5 million years; or by saying that it does not rise in the high Arctic during winter - but in everyday life the sun is observed to return each day by everyone on the earth, and the exceptions are do not deny the regularity of the observations of billions over thousands of years. The sun always rises. A miracle, according to Hume, is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent". The example he uses is the raising of a man from the dead. It would be extraordinary for a healthy person to drop down dead. But it would not be a miracle because we know that such things have been observed in the past, and that it breaks no law of mature. But the opposite, the raising of a person from the dead into life, does break the laws of nature. Hume probably chose this example to directly irritate Christians whose religion centres on the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected, and that they themselves will have everlasting life after death.

But note that Hume is not denying that miracles can happen. What he is doing is trying to establish the basis on which a reported miracle might be credible. And in Hume's mind a miracle would only be credible if other explanations were less believable, less consistent with experience, than the miracle itself. In the case of a dead Jesus being reanimated the report is scarcely credible at all, and is most likely false. At least there is no evidence presented which outweighs the breaking of the laws of nature. In which case Christians have most likely been deceived in the first place, and are deceiving us when they insist it happened.

Hume sets the bar for credibility rather high. And this will be a difficult bar for Buddhists, let alone Christians to reach. One of the ways we escape it comes from the psychoanalytic movement. We can see miracle stories as allegories for how our mind functions. Dreams, and fantasies need not obey the laws of nature. In stories we can do whatever we like. But traditionally religieux have taken miracle stories as literally true, and this modern view, while rescuing us from literalism is not necessarily one that was available before Freud and company. In any case Hume hoped:
" [this argument will] ...be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures; for so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane." (p.25)
I would say that after 263 years the argument has stood up well to the test of time.


  1. Hume, David (1985) Of Miracles. Illinois: Open Court. [first published 1748]

For a slightly chaotic, but none the less fascinating introduction to Hume try listening to the BBC's In Our Time podcast. A more thorough online introduction can be found in the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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