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David Hume Misplaced Understanding Of Miracles Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2980 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Abstract: David Hume believed he had found an “everlasting check” against the belief in miracles, “useful as long as the world endures.” Careful consideration, however, uncovers a number of flaws in the proof which render it useless. One example is Hume’s confidence that a miraculous explanation is always less probable than a naturalistic one. The purpose of this paper is to look at the claims and arguments of Section 10, “Of Miracles,” in Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding are misplaced and to show that his arguments are contradictory.

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In this paper I would like to explain Hume understanding of miracles and summarize his argument against miracles. His examples and his reason which, is shared with other skeptics give reason that this topic has not fallen off the map. The next part of the paper will cover critique form Christian tradition perspective and will give reason to believe in miracles.

Hume defines a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, or more completely, “a violation of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (An Enquiry Con. 173). He then argues that it cannot be rational to believe that a miracle has occurred: “as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws of nature, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined’ (p. 173). Hume gives the example of a dead man to make his point about that miracles are false. He stated that:

 A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature … Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? 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 (Section 12, “Of Miracles”)

The dead man coming back to life that Hume’s gives is an example which clearly is referring to the resurrection of Christ.

Hume continues in paragraph 10, Part 2, that the testimony for miracles is not very good evidence. He has three points that testimony is a poor proof of a miracle. His reasons are that there is no miracle attested to by people of good sense, education, integrity, and reputation, where a miracle is witnessed by many such people. Second he thinks that human nature enjoys surprise and wonder, which gives us a tendency to believe unusual things when the belief is not reasonable. Lastly those stories of miracles are common among ignorant peoples, and diminish in civilization, and the tales of miracles are often given in explanation of everyday events, such as battles and famine, that don’t need a miraculous explanation.

Hume’s other argument depends on the definition of a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” but these laws are recognized by “a firm and unalterable experience” against the event of such violations. As he stated:

… 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…. When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which be relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (An Enquiry Concerning p.127-128)

Hume attack on miracles comes from lack of good witness and that a miracle violates the laws of nature. Hume also concludes that miracles very nature cannot be known historically. Hume argument for this is his division between probability and proof. In part I of his essay on miracle, Hume for the sake of argument, that there actually is a miracle with enough evidence which would constitute a proof. However, he also argues that the entire human experience of the uniformity of laws of nature is itself proof. Therefore, since the proof for natural laws will always be greater proof then the proof for any miracle, “there is proof against proof,” and if you weigh probability, Hume concludes that the intelligent person will always reject the miraculous. (Hume, Enquiry 109)

Hume is not the only skeptic the hold his view. Antony Flew is in agreement with critical history argument laid out by Hume, which probability says miracles are highly improbable and practically impossible. Alastair McKinnon holds the view with Hume about miracles go against natural law. He believes that a miracle is an omission to a scientific law as a result, a “miracle” would have to be revised and the acknowledgment of a larger law would explain that a “miracle” is a natural occurrence. Science is built on identical experience, not one time events. Consistency is the root of a scientific understanding. Therefore, science, in general cannot accept the premise of miracles. Consequently the principle of consistency looks to be the general point of the anti- miracle arguments. (Beck with p.95-105)

To counter his inductive thinking and his point of “a violation of the laws of nature,” one example would be that some scientists believes that spontaneous generation lead to the first life.(Virtual Dust) Their some naturalist scientist as wells mechanistic philosophers that believes that life began in the cosmos. Scientist who holds this theory think that life began on earth only once. Spontaneous generation of life has not taken place again and again. But if it is not repeatability then this foundation of the scientific understanding of the belief in spontaneous generation is not scientific either. (Limitations of Science, 1963, p 94)

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If we look at the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory we will find a similar argument. According to the belief in evolution, the evolutionary development of life only occurred one time. Each new advance occurred only one time. For example fish evolved into reptiles only once, and reptiles evolved into birds only once. These changes have never been repeated. Yet, evolutionist believes it is on sold scientific grounds to believe in evolution as Darwin did. Some even call evolution a “fact,” not just a theory.( Darwin Myth p 165) But if it is unscientific to believe in miracles, then it would also be unscientific to believe in the theory of evolution. For if this argument is legitimate, and then it would show that there is no scientific basis for some events considered to be scientific by scientists who disregard miracles because they occur only one time. One example would be the Big Bang theory. It is considered by most astronomers to be a creditable scientific explanation of the origin of the universe, (God & the Astronomers 2nd Ed) but so far as the scientific evidence goes the Big Bang occurred only once. This theory has not yet reoccurred. It is a onetime event. Therefore, if the repeatability requirement is a major argument for it to be scientific then it would not follow the laws of science. If we hold this to be true then it would get rid of one of the most popular held views on the beginning of the universe. As scientist look for a chemical foundation for the origins of life and an evolutionary root for the origin of species. In each example the ability to repeat the observations in our current time are used as a foundation for understanding the singularity of the origin found millions of years ago. Without this law of regularity there would be no way of receiving any singularities in either the past or in our current time. The argument that naturalist’s have against miracles proves that even some of Hume’s reasoning for the laws of nature are also “a violation of the laws of nature.”

Hume assumed that one knows the entire field of experience to be uniform. By doing so how can one know that all possible experience will conform to those that nature is all there is unless one has complete access to possible experiences and that would have to include those experiences in the future. (Norman L. Geisler, p76) Science understanding is based on constant repetition of events and miracles are not always repeated. In this since, scientific understand of miracles is unable to understand miracles because scientific laws are based on regularities and not one time events. (*) Hume reasoning in the matter of uniform experience to prove that there is no reasoning in miracles is misleading. Scientist believes in onetime events such as the spontaneous generation theory, Big Bang theory and the evolution theory. Hume weighted part of his argument on uniform experience and that many highly educated people, including many scientists that hold Hume view on miracles to believe in onetime events to prove science and not God are the reasoning for the world and man to exist.

C. S. Lewis offers one objection to Hume’s probability. C.S. Lewis wrote,” The whole idea of Probability (as Hume understands it) depends on the principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Unless Nature always goes on in the same way, the fact that a thing had happened ten million times would not make it a whit more probable that it would happen again…Probabilities of the kind that Hume is concerned with hold inside the frame work of an assumed Uniformity of Nature.” (Lewis, Miracles, p 108) For Lewis the Probability Principle is true only if the principle of the Uniformity of Nature is true. If Nature is almost uniformed then we cannot think that Hume Probability Principle is correct. Thus, Hume argument for Probability Principle is not worthy argument.

Hume second point against miracles the lack of creditable witness to the miracle. In Hume’s essay on miracles in part II, Section X he is trying to answer the question, can miracles even occur. He asks if there is one criterion that any sensible person can use to confirm a miracle had occurred. Hume uses reasoning to state that there are no good witnesses for a defense for the reliable of a miracle. No man, not even many, can be of “such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning” or can be of “such undoubted integrity” or of “such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind” that they can prove to skeptics that the witnesses for miracles are not misleading or do not have “any design to deceive others” or are not exempt from self-interest and shame of being detected in promoting miracles (Miracles-part 2 par 2). Hume’s makes another point about witness of a miracles, he tells of “one of the best attested miracles in all profane [secular] history.” The Emperor Vespasian healed a blind man and a lame man, as reported by Tacitus, whom Hume praises as reliable. Hume goes on to say that after all the confirmation of the miracles, “no evidence can well be supposed stronger for so gross and palpable falsehood” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding pp. 122-23). One example Hume’s gives is the testimonies about the Cardinal de Retz also fall into the same categorical doubt. He seems to have witnessed the result of a miracle, but later thought better of it because even well-attested, strong evidence “carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument” (An Enquiry Concerning pp. 123-24). Hume is clear that witnesses are not a good source for the credibility of miracles.

In part II of “Miracles,” Hume disputes that past experience point outs that any kind of religious testimony in support of miracles is a bad and unreliable brand of testimony. This part of his argument shows a limitation on the scope of his argument. The argument is not intended to show that it is never a reasonable to believe that a miracle has indeed occurred on the basis of testimony, but is intended merely to show that it is never reasonable to believe that miracle has occurred on the primes of one type of testimony which is religious testimony.()

In the book by Francis Beckwith David Hume’s argument against miracles: A Critical Analysis is answer to the problem of not creditable witnesses is we should look at legal reasoning when dealing with miracles. To be far when looking at miracles one must properly evaluate the evidence. There are many parallels between miracle claims and evidential claims that are involved in legal cases. There are three points to look when evaluating miracles. The first is that miracle claims are almost always claims attested to by witnesses. Legal reasoning entails the judging of trustworthiness of witness and how their testimony fits in with the known facts surrounding the case. Second, miracle claims are also based on evidence other than testimonial. Thirdly, miracle-claims may involve counter-claims, that is, claims that the event did not occur at all. Legal reasoning involves estimating the ability or the inability of opposing evidence to disconfirm or raised doubts concerning the miracle claim. One cannot simply bestow with legal reason, on the reasoning that its application may result in the plausibility of believing in a miracle event, without in turn sacrificing the evidential standards by which civilized society pass judgment on life and death disputes. (Beckwith,p122, 123) In this logical reasoning is used to help determine the quality of the claims. If one uses legal reasoning one must have a solid case, must show that his premises are correct and that his conclusion logically follows from these premises. After cross examination the judge or jury can make a decision to except the evidence or reject it. This of course is not a new idea but one may also scientific fact as well as eye witness to prove that a miracle had happen. This is one of the methods that Vatican used to judge miracles for the beatification of saints.

As for the example Hume’s of a dead man coming back to life. C.S. Lewis does agree with Hume that part of all testimony is either false or exaggerated and Hume would conclude that all testimony would then be false. Levis answer this by concluding that we can find truth in testimony by relaying the sense of fitness. One can conclude that some miracles make more sense the others. Some of them make enough sense that historical evidence together with their fitness makes it reasonable for one to conclude that they really happen. The dead man (the Resurrection of Christ) is a good candidate for such a miracle. (Reppert, p 35)

Hume’s dismissal of miracles is an attacked on Christianity, if one dismisses the miracles of Jesus, specially the Resurrection of Jesus, and then there is no foundation of Christianity. Hume basis for is argument is that miracles are a violation of a law of nature. By looking at Hume inductive reasoning on miracles examples are such the belief in the spontaneous generation theory, Big Bang theory and the evolution theory which also onetime events just as miracles. These onetime of events are the some of the foundation that science use today. The second argument that is given by Hume’s is of creditable witness. Legal reasoning is a major part of many nations court system. Even given that witness can be faulted at times it is still a logical and one can find truth in testimony by relaying the sense of fitness. Along with the fitness of the testimony, science is with logical reason to prove or disprove something. This is the means to which miracles should examine to determine creditability. Hume has a narrow scope when looking at miracles, by throwing at testimony and since there cannot be any repeatability then miracle are false. If we are look at miracles in away that is just, then one must go beyond the Hume’s narrow scope to show thing have and will not always fit into such a narrow box and that science is only a tool and not the end all to answering all type of questions.


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