Hume on miracles part 1 Notes for October 16

Main points

We began by talking about the background to Hume’s discussion of miracles, specifically, Protestant polemics against Catholic claims about miracles. The section begins with Dr. Tillotson, I said, for the reason laid out in his letter to Rev. Campbell. Don’t remember all that? Re-read the handout.

We also discussed two challenges to Hume’s claims about miracles.

We ended with the question of whether Hume meant to prove that miracles are impossible or whether he meant to prove that we have no reason to believe in them. The answer turns on what “proof” means in the last paragraph of part 1. Again, the answer is in the handout.


One challenge concerns Hume’s claim that uniform experience goes against observed miracles. But, by hypothesis, Mr. Welch isn’t just some coot saying “I’ll strike ye dead!”; rather, God is acting through him. So, it seems, it’s inappropriate to lump the observation of Welch together with other observations of people failing to kill using words. Doing so begs the question against those who claim that a genuine miracle happened, meaning it simply assumes that they’re wrong rather than proving that they are.

The second challenge we discussed concerned the possibility of novel observations in science. We know from our discussion of Hume on causation that, for Hume, laws of nature are just uniform observations. We can’t plumb the reasons why these observations always turn out the same, much less know that there is a divine legislator making it happen that way.

But scientific progress happens when a keen-eyed observer notes that what everyone regards as a uniform experience really isn’t. Einstein finds that the Newtonian laws of motion are uniform only at certain speeds. Or Rutherford sees that electrons are not distributed uniformly throughout an atom’s mass.

The question for Hume is why Einstein and Rutherford’s contemporaries shouldn’t have disregarded their observations just as he counsels us to ignore reported miracles. Alternatively, if E and R’s contemporaries should not have discounted their observations, why shouldn’t we give credence to those who report miraculous events?

We had two proposals on Hume’s behalf.

First, Abi and Tommy pointed out that scientific observations can be replicated. So even if we don’t believe the first observation, we can resurrect it when it is repeated. By the same token, I would think, reports of miracles can be resurrected (I did not intend that pun but, now that it has happened, I have to keep it) if the miracle is repeated.

Second, Vivian pointed out that the comparison is misleading. We usually have very little evidence in favor of a scientific hypothesis as compared with an alternative. Both the dominant theory and a challenger will be compatible with all the easily observed stuff. They will differ on a much smaller set of observations. So, Vivian pointed out, we don’t really have an impressive set of observations favoring the dominant theory over its challenger. Very clever!

We could add that the observations supporting challengers are sometimes made using what are regarded as superior technology. That might be a reason for regarding them as qualitatively superior to any observations that uniquely support the dominant theory.

This page was written by Michael Green for The Image of God, ID-1, Fall 2007. It was posted October 16, 2007.
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