Hume On Miracles
Hume’s two-part argument • Part I: Can there ever be sufficient evidence for a miracle? • Part II: Is there any case of some event that we must suppose to be miraculous? • The answer to both these questions is, according to Hume, “no”. • Q: what are we to make of, and what place are we to allow for such concepts as “spirituality”, “faith”, or “ the transcendent,” given the above?
How much trust should we place in any belief concerning matters of fact? • Reasoning concerning matters of fact is never infallible or incorrigible (because facts are not entirely constant or invariable); therefore, trustworthiness of such reasoning is a matter of degree (ranging from “highest certainty” to “lowest species of moral evidence”) • Warranted belief in any matter of fact is, therefore, proportionate to evidence (“proof” is “invariant experience”; “probability” is “the balance of experiences”; “disproof” is “contrary to experience”)
How much trust should we place in ‘testimony’? • The degree of reliability of any testimony (however necessary or useful) is the same as with any matter of fact. Q: what ‘matter of fact’ are we talking about here? A: that ‘human testimony’ or ‘the reports of witnesses’ conform to the facts (corroboration of testimony) • The reliability of a particular testimony is dependent on a) the kind of fact to which attests and b) the kind of report it is (and the supposed invariances involved); and can amount to ‘proof’ where the two kinds are invariant, or ‘probability’ where they are not
How much trust should we place in testimony concerning ‘unusual’ facts? • Since belief is supposed to be proportionate to evidence, ‘unusual’ facts will always be merely probable (proportionate to the degree to which that fact deviates from the usual), since probability = ‘the balance of experiences’ • The case is similarly restrictive for ‘extraordinary’ and ‘marvellous’ • The probability of testimony concerning such facts is, therefore, proportionately reduced (that is, it is less than the probability of the fact alone)
How much trust should we place in testimony concerning ‘the miraculous’? • Since a ‘miracle’ =dfn. ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, the probability of any miracle will necessarily be less than the probability of the law in question (even in the limiting case where we have ‘proof’ of a miracle, we would have proof vs. proof, and this would still be less) Q: what is a ‘proof’ of a singular event? • Therefore, the probability of any testimony concerning such facts must (given the very nature of a miracle) be less
What conclusion, therefore? • “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” • Q: How does this apply to actual cases of religious belief (or belief in the ‘para’ normal)? To what extent does religious belief depend on the miraculous?
4 Reasons Not to Believe: reason #1 • No actual case of a supposed miracle whereby the following were true: • Witnesses were immune from delusion • Witnesses were unimpeachable • Witnesses had nothing to lose or gain • Event or fact so public so as to render detection of falsehood unavoidable
Reason #2 • “The passion of surprize and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.” That is, there is a natural human tendency to give credence to the spectacular vs. the mundane. (the evidence for this is the popularity of ‘prodigies’) • This tendency is abetted by delusional, deceitful, or self-interested reporters, and aided by eloquence, rumour, and gossip.
Reason #3 • “It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations” That is, supposed cases of such facts tend to occur at some considerable distance, in time or space, from the hearers, and to originate in circumstances which militate against sound judgment • Q: what can be the reason for this pattern of occurrence?
Reason # 4 • The credibility of any miracle purporting to establish a particular sect undermines the credibility of miracles establishing competing sects (and therefore undermines the credibility of all miracles.) How? Miracle X (establishing religion Y) shows miracle Z to be false despite any and all testimony to the contrary (but miracle X is established via testimony) -- conversely, ‘exploding’ any supposed miracle undermines any other • This supported by: dismissal of ‘pagan’ miracles, dismissal of contemporary ‘christian’ miracles, exposure of fraud, hoax, or credulity
What conclusion, therefore? • “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any…system of religion.” • Miracles are adduced to support rational acceptance of religious dogma; yet, as Hume points out, they are insufficient for this. Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t require the miraculous (it is itself a miracle since it “subverts all the principles of…understanding, and gives…a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”) Q: what is meant by “faith” here?
Faith and reason; faith and philosophy • Hume’s claim is that ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ yield different conclusions, and that religion can only be founded on the latter. Q: does Hume mean the same thing by ‘faith’ as does Aquinas? • Consider the following: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical letter 14 Sept. 1998) Is it correct to say, as does the Pope here, that faith and reason aim at the same end -- truth?