Hume on Miracles, Part 2

Class notes for 2 March

Main points

There were three parts to this session.

  1. An interpretive question about what Hume meant to do in Part 1 and, implicitly, what he meant to do in Part 2.
  2. The four reasons for doubting testimony concerning miracles in Part 2.
  3. The conclusion of Part 2.

One: interpretive question

First, you indulged my returning to the end of Part 1. Many people, including just about everyone in our class, take the conclusion of Part 1 to be that it is impossible either for there to be such a thing as a miracle or for anyone to have good enough reason to believe that a miracle occurred.

I think Hume’s had a more precise target in mind. I think he wanted to argue that there is no reason to believe in the miracles that serve as the foundations for popular religions. So we began with looking more carefully at the use of the term “proof” at the end of Part 1 as well as the first paragraph of Part 2.

I do want to take one thing back. I said that I thought the argument in Part 2 is supposed to be entirely historical, meaning it is dedicated entirely to refuting past reports of miracles and that Hume took no stand on the plausibility of future reports of miracles. But the last sentence of paragraph 35 and the first sentence of paragraph 36 both claim that testimony cannot ever establish a religion. So I think I overstated my case. Sorry about that.

Two: doubts about reported miracles

Second, we went over Hume’s four reasons for doubting the testimony of those who claim to have witnessed miracles. Actually, you all did the work here.

I pointed out how Hume was pushing Protestant arguments against the Catholic church one step further. Protestants generally held that miracles ceased after the church was established. That committed them to denying Catholic claims that miracles continued, so they raised all sorts of doubts about contemporary reports of miracles. Hume merely added that the same doubts could be applied to the testimony in the Bible about Christ’s miracles.

I said that helps to explain the reason for bringing up Tillotson at the beginning. Tillotson maintained that Christian belief depends on believing the testimony of those who saw Christ alive after his crucifixion. I think that Hume meant to grant the point and call all such testimony into question.

Three: conclusions

Finally, we went over each of the paragraphs in Hume’s conclusion. Among other things, Hume applies the four reasons for doubting the testimony of those who claim to have witnessed miracles to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament).

Hume's discussion of two examples of apparent miracles is very important. Hume accepted the possibility that he could have reason to believe testimony about eight days of darkness but denied that any testimony could ever be good reason to believe the resurrection of Queen Elizabeth (paragraphs 36-7).

I have several questions about these two examples. For the first, what did Hume mean by saying that the “decay of nature” was possible? Is it that the laws of nature might change? Or was his point that events that we are sure occurred must have a natural explanation? Also, what distinguishes the two cases, such that Hume is willing to accept the reports about the sun but unwilling to accept the reports about Queen Elizabeth?