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In Defense of Miracles

It has been written that David Hume's criticism "of Miracles" in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding "is without a doubt the most influential work written in defense of the position that belief in supernatural occurrences is not reasonable."1  In his celebrated work, Hume presents two arguments against the reality of miracles: the first, an argument from the nature of miracles, and the second, an argument from the nature of historical witnesses.  This treatise will concentrate on the first of these two with the expressed purpose of proving Hume's first argument not only inadequate, but faulty.


Hume provides the core of his argument in the following passage:

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...There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.  And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle;  nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.2    


Though there are several crucial issues involved in this passage, Hume's argument can be reduced to the following three-line syllogism:

1.  All things identical to miracles are things which go against uniform experience.

2.  All things which go against uniform experience are things which cannot be proved.

3.  All things identical to miracles are things which cannot be proved.

This syllogism captures the essence of Hume's argument.  For Hume, "all ideas stem from sensations or from reflection on other ideas."3  Therefore, proofs  consist in "such arguments from experience as leave no room for doubt or opposition."4    According to Hume, the laws of nature become a proof, having behind them all the evidence of uniform experience.  

The crux of Hume's argument, then, is simply that if a miracle should occur, it would have to go against all the evidence of nature, which constitutes the soundest proof available, since it is established by the "firm and unalterable experience" of our everyday observations.  Thus, for a miracle to be proved, there must be more proof for a miracle than there is for the laws of nature; but, such would be impossible because a miracle is by  definition unique and rare, and, in essence, a violation of the laws of nature.


While on the surface Hume’s argument seems strong, there are problems with it.  "A number of thinkers have made the observation that Hume's argument begs the question."5  Although, perhaps, it is not as obvious in the syllogism offered above, there definitely is circular reasoning involved.  As C. S. Lewis observed, "if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience' against miracles, if in other words they never happened, why then they never have."6  But that is exactly the question.  Thus, Hume commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii.  


The problem, therefore, lies in defining the expression "uniform experience."  If this means "reality" then the circularity of Hume's reasoning is very vicious, for he would be saying miracles are not real because they cannot be proved, and they cannot be proved because they are not real.  If, on the other hand, Hume means a natural law that cannot be violated (lest it cease to be a natural law), he perseveres in his circle by disguising it.


The problem with this later interpretation of Hume's argument even becomes clearer when we consider a specific example.  Since resurrection (specifically the resurrection of Christ) is foundational to Christianity (the main focus of Hume's argument), let us examine it specifically.  The first premise of Hume's argument would be:

1.  All things identical to the resurrection are things which violate natural law.


There is a serious objection to be made to this first premise.  Hume has given miracles a definition that is not exactly true.  More precisely, miracles involve three criteria:  1) It is an event for which God is immediately responsible (otherwise it would be natural), and 2) it is the introduction by God of some other law of which we are not aware (thus, not a violation of natural law but a superaddition of a higher law overriding natural law), and 3) it must occur in a religious context (that is, prove some religious doctrine or statement).7  There must be a careful distinction made, then, between what men often call miraculous and what is actually miraculous.   


The second premise would then be:

2.  All things which violate natural law are things which cannot be proved.

This proposition, too, is faulty.  It is presumptuous, and therefore circular, to make this claim when this is essentially the conclusion of the argument.  In all arguments there must be a distribution of class, otherwise the argument becomes circular.  For example, if I said:

1.  All bachelors are unmarried men.

 2.  All unmarried men are playboys.

3.  All bachelors are playboys.

I have reasoned circularly because, though the form is valid,  premise two is the conclusion.  Premise one distributes nothing, rather it simply renames the antecedent in the consequent.  The same is true in Hume's miracle argument for, in his view, there are no other things which violate natural law which are not miracles.  Thus, Hume is merely renaming the antecedent in the consequent in the first premise, saying it is not provable in the second, then restating his second premise in the conclusion.  Thus, Hume's argument is circular.


Furthermore, not only is it circular, it is also wrong.  Is it true that all things which violate natural law are things which cannot be proved?  No.  Suppose a religious man, who was perhaps viewed as a criminal by a religious hierarchy, is put to death.  Before he was executed, however, he repeatedly claimed he would rise from the dead.  The authorities were careful to make certain that this man did indeed die and that no one had an opportunity to steal the body or in any other way make it appear he had risen.  Yet, after three days, the tomb of the man is found empty, those guarding his tomb view his resurrection, and for a period of forty days the man is seen alive with his followers, sometimes with over five hundred men and women at once.  The followers of the man for three days had been afraid to appear in public for fear they would lose their life because they had been with the man executed.  Now, during and after the man's appearance after his resurrection, they boldly proclaim he has risen, even though this often ends in their own death.  Furthermore, they perform other miracles to support their claim that the man did, indeed, rise.  Though all uniform experience is against resurrection, it would certainly be possible to know that the man did indeed arise from the dead by the force of the evidence.  Any other event with so much evidence backing it, besides a miracle, would be said to be indubitable.   


Where does Hume go wrong?


Hume, in his fervor to disprove miracles, equivocates on the use of his terms proof and probability.  Proof against anything requires that it shut out the possibility of that thing.  Uniform experience, however, does not shut out anything.  Though it may be improbable that a miracle occur, that does not mean it is impossible.  In other words, Hume has confused the improbability of a miracle occurring with the proof that they do not occur.  These are two entirely different matters.  In fact, their improbability gives miracles their peculiar nature.


Furthermore, to say that miracles cannot occur on the basis of uniform experience or natural law is to deny the existence of a Lawgiver--God--who can except His law for a particular occasion, especially to establish the truth of what He says through and to men.  Perhaps if the laws of nature were mechanistic, Hume might have a case.  But, again, it smacks of prejudice to say that since God does not exist there can be no miracles when, in fact, the subject of God's existence is the topic of much debate, itself.  Though we have no room here to argue the existence of God, it is at least possible for God to exist and therefore possible for miracles to occur.8  The following quote from "the late man of science, Professor Sir George Stokes"9  makes the point well:


If we think of the laws of nature as self-existent and uncaused, then we cannot admit any deviation from them.  But if we think of them as designed by a Supreme Will, then we must allow the possibility of their being on some particular occasion suspended.10


Thus, Hume's argument is fallacious on at least two accounts.  First, it is circular.  He re-defines miracles to suit his own fancy.  Furthermore, when his argument is put into standard categorical form, it is seen to reproduce the second premise in the conclusion.  Second, premise two of Hume's argument is just plain wrong.  It is possible to produce sufficient evidence to prove an event which goes contrary to natural law or uniform experience.   Hume supposes natural law to be mechanistic and uncaused, which is very presumptuous on his part.  Thus, as proposed earlier in the introduction, Hume's argument against miracles is not only deficient but also fallacious. - CA


ENDNOTES

1.   Francis J. Beckwith, David Hume's Argument Against Miracles: A Critical Analysis, (NY:University Press of America, 1989), p. 139.

2.   David Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Classics of Western Philosophy, Ed. by Steven M. Cohm, (Indianapolis, IN Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1977), p. 840.

3.   The Universal Illustrated Encyclopedia, (NY: Banner Press, 1978), p. 439.

4.   Enquiry, p.

5.   Beckwith, p. 28.

6.   Ibid.

7.   The basis for these statements are to be found in chapter two of Beckwith's volume.  I have here altered them somewhat.

8.   I can prove, beyond any shadow of a possible doubt, that God does exist.  Let G=God, S=subjectivism, D=any doctrine (for example, murder is wrong); then,

  1.   G v -G

 2.   -G → S

 3.   S → (D ∙ -D)

 4.   -(D ∙ -D)  /G

 5.   -S     4,3 MT

 6.   - -G    5,2 MT

 7.   G        6 DN

Premise two is true because without God (ultimate good), there can be no objective wrong.  If there is no objective standard of good, then morality, for instance, is left up to man.  Therefore, murder may be wrong to you but not to me.  Thus, subjectivism implies logical contradiction.

9.   H. Wace, "Miracles," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Ed. James Orr, (Grand Rapids, MC: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), Vol. III, p. 2063.

10.  Ibid.



Christian Apologist
Copyright Eric L. Padgett  07-18-2013