Lesson 10 – Hume’s Argument Regarding the Impossibility of Miracles

HumeDavid Hume (1711-1176) was a Scottish EMPIRICIST philosopher. An empiricist is someone who uses evidence to build their picture of the world and won’t draw conclusions about anything for which there is no evidence. Science is an empirical method; you use evidence to form conclusions about what happened or is happening.

For this reason, Hume wanted to talk about the evidence for miracles and the PROBABILITY of their actually having happened. Thus Hume’s arguments are scientific arguments against miracles, not theological ones like in the last lesson.

So, what are the arguments?

There can never be enough evidence to prove the laws of nature have been broken.

According to Hume the laws of nature have been established through ‘firm and unalterable experience’; in other words, we call them laws of nature because that’s what everyone sees happening time after time after time. We know that unsupported weights will fall to the earth and that fire consumes wood because that’s what always happens. If someone things they have seen something different then which is more likely: that the entire experience of all other people is wrong or that you were mistaken about what you saw?

The witnesses to miracles are unreliableIdiot

Add to this the fact that the ‘evidence’ for miracles tends to come from people who are in less educated parts of the world and from people who already believe in God then we have further reasons to doubt that a law of nature was actually broken. You believe it because you want it to be true and it fits with your view of how the word is.

Religions contradict each other yet all use miracles to prove they are true.

All world religions seem to be based on some miraculous event, yet these religions contradict each other and can’t all be true. If one religion says there is one God, another that there are many and both use miracles to prove these facts then one must be wrong. It is possible, then, that all religions are wrong and that no miracles actually happen.

How do religious people respond to Hume?

There can never be enough evidence to prove the laws of nature have been broken.

Miracles are supposed to be rare; that’s kind of the point. If we trust people’s experiences of the world enough to form the ‘laws of nature’ on them then we should trust them when they report otherwise as well. People do not tend to lie for no reason, so if a person with no vested interest reports a law of nature being broken then we ought to believe them. Until the Wright brothers flew in 1903, no-one had seen an ‘unsupported’ object not fall, but this ‘law of nature’ had to be challenged as experience changed.

The witnesses to miracles are unreliable

CS LewisIt is not true that all witnesses to miracles come from uneducated backgrounds. C.S. Lewis was a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge universities but claimed to have a religious experience (if not a miracle). The Roman Catholic Church is very careful to scientifically investigate all claims that miracles have happened at Lourdes. It is just not true that all witnesses are not to be trusted.

Religions contradict each other yet all use miracles to prove they are true.

There are two points to be raised here; one is that some religions (such as Buddhism) do not rest their ideas on miracles. No ‘miracles’ occurred in the enlightenment of the Buddha. Thus it is not true that all religions rely on them. The other is a return to the iceberg analogy of God. He is experienced by different people in different ways but the greater truth of God remains hidden. If a Hindu chooses to interpret God’s nature in many ways and a Muslim in one it does not mean God does not exist, merely that people understand Him in different ways.

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