Did David Hume Prove That Miracles Are Impossible or Do Not Happen?

Paul looks at why reason does not support the claim that experience demonstrates that miracles do not or can not happen.

Text Publication: March 27, 2020

Text Changes/Revisions: September 9, 2020

Audio Publication: March 27, 2020

Video Publication: March 27, 2020

Author(s): Paul Larson

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Hey, there! Welcome to Credible Faith! In 1739, the Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume published his work, A Treatise of Human Nature, which was later followed by his 1748 work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Section ten of Hume's Enquiry is 'On Miracles'. It is one of the most famous passages in all of philosophy. In that section, Hume puts forth several arguments that, if successful, would undercut Christian belief in miracles generally, and specifically Christian belief in the resurrection. I mention Hume and his objection to miracles not only given that Hume is so popular, but also given that Hume uses the three main approaches that one might try to use to argue against the traditional Christian belief in miracles and the resurrection. Hume makes three basic types of claims or arguments.

1. Miracles do not or cannot happen.
2. Even if miracles did happen, we would not be justified in believing that they happened.
3. Even if miracles did happen, and even if we were justified in believing in the resurrection, the miracle claims of other religions would cancel out Christian miracles.

This third objection is significant, since Christianity hinges its validity on the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. Miracles are usually interpreted to be a validation of claims of other religions, and Christians interpret the resurrection as a validation of the claims that Jesus made. But if the miracles of both religions actually occurred, and if the claims of those religions conflict, then we would no longer be justified in interpreting those miracles as validating the religious claims that were made. In that case, Christians would be left without knowing whether Christian doctrines about heaven and hell and the afterlife and how to be saved were really true. In light of that consideration, this third objection is an important one to consider.

Whether or not someone has read Hume, these are the three principal types of objections that one would raise if he were trying to argue against the traditional Christian belief in the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus. So, even if you never encounter someone who has read Hume, you might already have thought of one of these objections, or encountered someone who objected to Christianity on the basis of one of these considerations. So it is worth thinking about. Do these objections succeed? Are Christians rational when they believe in the miracles and resurrection of Jesus? Are they turning a blind eye to the honest pursuit of truth? There is not time in this one video to consider all three objections, so for right now, let's take a look at one of Hume's objections, and let's consider what merit it does or does not have. Let's consider the claim that miracles do not or can not happen.

This is what David Hume has to say in that regard:

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. ... 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. And as a 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.

What are we to make of this objection from David Hume? To give you an overview of what I will be saying, I have some criticisms to make of what Hume says here:
1. Hume's claim is tautologous and assumes the conclusion at the start.
2. Hume makes an unjustifiable equation of description with prescription.
3. Hume makes an unnecessary, forced dichotomy between rare and regular occurrence of nature, and
4. Hume is inconsistent in accepting the testimony of others regarding dead persons staying dead but not accepting testimony of those who claim that they saw someone alive from the dead.

Those are my criticisms of Hume. So, let's dive into them.

The first thing that can be said is that Hume's claim is tautologous and assumes his conclusion at the start. Hume basically asserts that miracles do not occur because uniform experience is against miracles occurring, but to assume that uniform experience is against miracles occurring is just to assume that miracles have not occurred. Hume assumes his conclusion is true at the beginning, and so makes his claim reducible to the mere tautology that miracles do not happen because miracles do not happen. That, of course, is no argument but mere assertion.

To see its tautologous nature, consider Hume's statement "that there has never been observed in any age or country" "that a dead man should come to life". But that is the very point in question. Hume can only say that if he assumes that Jesus did not rise. And then he goes on to say that "as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, ... against the existence of any miracle." So out at the outset Hume assumes that no man has risen from the dead, then he turns around and says that this assumed fact of no man rising from the dead proves that no man has risen from the dead. If you ever wanted proof that some of the most celebrated minds of human history can be driven to utter folly by their aversion to the truth, this is a good example of it.

Secondly, Hume makes an unjustifiable equation of description with prescription. That is, Hume assumes that because something in nature has repeatedly happened in a certain way, it therefore must happen that way. This of course does not follow, and perhaps the best person to refute what David Hume says here is a famous philosopher by the name of David Hume. That is right. David Hume's own writing undercuts what he says in his section on miracles. Both in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature, and in his 1748 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (which is the very same work that has his section on miracles) Hume's own writing undercuts what he says in his section on miracles. Earlier in the Enquiry, Hume considers the problem of induction, which is the problem of how one would be justified in moving from a limited number of observations of one type of event or occurrence to a broad generalization about all the events or occurrences of that type.

That is just the problem that we have in the case of miracles. If I have only observed a limited number of cases in which dead men do not rise from the dead, on what basis would I be justified to conclude that a dead man did not rise in all the other cases that I have not observed? Or how would I conclude from observing that a miracle did not happen in a small number of experiences that a miracle would never happen among all the experiences of all living persons on the planet, to say nothing of all the experiences of people in the entire history of the planet?

Now, as if in response to this, Hume says in section 4.2.18 of the Enquiry that

'it implies no contradiction that the course of nature may change, and that an object seemingly like those which we have experienced, may be attended with different or contrary effects."

In his Treatise, Hume concludes that:

"Thus, not only our reason fails us in the discovery of the ultimate connexion of causes and effects, but even after experience has inform’d us of their constant conjunction, ’tis impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we shou’d extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation." (T. 1.3.6.11/91–2)

Hume here admits that our own reason does not justify our tendency to say that one event is the cause of a second event if we invariably see the second event happening just after the first event. Further on in the Treatise, Hume says that:

'When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination." (T. 1.3.6.12)

Again, reason does not justify the conclusion that because one event follows after a first event, the second event must necessarily follow from the first. All of this flatly contradicts Hume's statement in his section on miracles that "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".

Hume highlights the problem of induction in both his Treatise and in the Enquiry, and he completely ignores it in his statement here on miracles. So, on the one hand, David Hume claims that the regularity proves that miracles can not happen (or at the least, do not happen), and on the other hand, David Hume shows that he has no basis in reason to claim that the regularity of nature proves that miracles can not happen (or at least, do not happen).

To say that miracles do not happen is to unjustifiably misconstrue our regular experience of what actually does happen with the notion of what should happen. "Scientific law" properly construed is simply a description of what we normally experience, but Hume then leaps from this description to the claim that this is what we must experience. There is no basis for that.

It might even be somewhat ironic given that Hume is known in ethics for the supposed naturalistic or is-ought fallacy. If Hume claims in the field of ethics that one can not derive an "ought" from an "is", then why does Hume claim that one can derive the "ought" that nature should always do something in one way merely on the basis of the "is" that that is the only way that one has seen it happen?

A more sensible evaluation of nature's regularity is articulated by the British journalist G. K. Chesteron in the chapter 'The Ethics of Elfland' in Chesterton's book Orthodoxy. The quote is a rather long one (bear with me), but one of the greatest chapters in all of English literature deserves that a larger part of its contents be heard. So, if I may, Chesterton says the following:

There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened— dawn and death and so on—as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.

Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn, and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.

In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm's Law. But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than Grimm's Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature." When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we [I added the word 'can' here; Chesterton's text did not have 'can'] count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, "law," "necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment." They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism;'

Well said, Chesterton, and I would hope that you see why Chesterton is considered one of the greatest writers in English literature.

Let's move on to a third critique of Hume's claim of a proof against miracles: Hume posits an unnecessary, forced dichotomy between rare and regular occurrences of nature. William Paley was a Christian apologist of the 18th and early 19th centuries who considered the issue of miracle claims in other religions in his work Evidences of Christianity. In that work, Paley remarks that

"The force of experience as an objection to miracles is founded in the presumption, either that the course of nature is invariable, or that, if it be ever varied, variations will be frequent and general. Has the necessity of this alternative been demonstrated?"

To answer Paley, no, the necessity of that alternative has never been proven or demonstrated. In fact, Hume's insistence that the course of nature be invariable, or that variations would be frequent and general is an indirect way to rule out the possibility of the Christian religion without even having to consider the evidence for Christianity. In the Christian worldview, we have a triune God, and God the Father sends God the son to be found as a man and to die for sinners in their place. This son performs great miracles and eventually rises from the dead to validate his teaching and preaching so that mankind can know that what he says is true. If this divine son did not do any miracles nor rise from the dead, we would not have very much reason to trust him more than we would trust a lot of the other religious gurus who claimed to know the truth about many of life's most important questions.

So the very purpose of the miracles that God the Father would do in and through God the son requires that those miracles be very rare. But if you start out your search for truth by saying that all miracles must be frequent and general, you have made it impossible to be justified in believing in Christianity before you have examined even one shred of evidence, because Christianity requires miracles that are very rare. That is not a search for the truth. That is stacking the desk against the Christian worldview by an unjustified starting assumption.

The fourth and final criticism of Hume is that he is inconsistent in accepting testimony of others who did not observe miracles but not accepting the testimony of those who claim that they did see a miracle. In particular, Hume would be inconsistent if he accepted the testimony of people who observed that dead people stayed dead but excluded the testimony of people who observed a dead man coming back to life. If a skeptic accepts what other people have said regarding persons not rising from the dead, then they are accepting the historical testimony of others to bolster their case, but if they can accept the historical testimony of others to bolster their case, they cannot be consistent in accepting that negative testimony and yet not accepting the positive historical testimony of people who claimed that they saw Jesus alive after they saw him dead.

This is reflective of a more general problem that affects all humans who use claims about science to try to argue against miracle claims. Most of the so-called scientific knowledge that we have has been received on the testimony of other people. Most of us have never gone and performed the experiments upon which many scientific theories are built. We read about the scientific theory. We think that the theory makes sense. We see that many other people claim to believe the theory, and we simply accept that the data and scientific experiments would support what we read without us ever going and doing the experiments ourselves. Our so-called scientific knowledge is heavily dependent on accepting the testimony of others. In so far as this is the case, as long as we claim that we know certain things about the physical external world on the testimony of others, we would be inconsistent if we adopted an a priori maxim at the start that we will not even consider the testimony of persons who claimed to have seen a miracle, or who claimed that they saw a man alive after they saw him dead.

So, did David Hume prove that miracles are impossible or that they do not happen? Not even close. Hume's thinking is subject to four criticisms:
1. Hume's claim is tautologous and assumes the conclusion at the start.
2. Hume makes an unjustifiable equation of description with prescription.
3. Hume makes an unnecessary, forced dichotomy between rare and regular occurrence of nature.
4. Hume is inconsistent in accepting the testimony of others regarding dead persons staying dead but not accepting testimony of those who claim that they saw someone alive after they saw him dead.

On top of that, the writing of David Hume elsewhere even agrees that there is no basis in reason to conclude that the regular course of nature proves that nature can not be altered. And if the regular course of nature can be altered, then a miracle is possible.

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