Hume on miracles, part 2 Notes for October 18

Main points

The first part of Hume’s discussion of miracles tries to show that even the best evidence, testimony that amounts to “an entire proof” of a miracle, cannot be enough reason to believe that one occurred.

The second part tries to show that the evidence given in favor of reported miracles is far from the best. Hume gives four reasons why this is so before turning to more general remarks.

Our most detailed discussion concerned the fourth.

The second argument

I thought it was worth commenting on the second argument because I really liked Vivian’s point. The way gossip works adds support for Hume’s assertion that we are suckers for the surprising and wonderful. That means that we tend to believe things that are novel or surprising even if there is less evidence for them than we would otherwise demand.

The fourth argument

The fourth argument is rather nifty. It holds that the miracles cited by different religious traditions undermine one another. There are some unarticulated assumptions about miracles behind this argument. We tried to articulate them.

For instance, one such assumption is that the different religious traditions are incompatible with one another. This assumption is, in fact, true, since not all religions are polytheistic. It didn’t have to be that way, of course. But, remember, Hume is here trying to show that the miracles that people actually believe are not credible. He’s not trying to show that they could not be credible; that was the task of the first section.

Another assumption is that the evidence favoring different reported miracles is equally good. I think that this is the upshot of some of Hume’s remarks that offended Abi. I don’t think he was trying to give offense. I think he was telling his largely Christian audience that their tradition was based on the same kind of testimony as those of other traditions that they rejected.

Another assumption was brought out by Anna, Tommy, and Devin. It is that miracles only occur in order to confirm the true religion. Without this assumption, the fact that miracles occur that seem to support a variety of religions would not be troubling.

This last point tells us something important about the function of miracles. They are used to confirm that a book or person that purports to speak for God really does so. Some extraordinary event is needed to show that there is supernatural support for the book or person’s claims. Otherwise, there would be no way to distinguish true from false prophets or books.

Next time

Next time, we’re going to start with the sun and the queen. Hume concedes that there could be enough evidence to convince him that the sun did not rise. But he denies that there could ever be enough evidence him that Queen Elizabeth rose from the dead.

What’s the difference?

This page was written by Michael Green for The Image of God, ID-1, Fall 2007. It was posted October 18, 2007.
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