Miracles part 1 Notes for October 25

Main points

Hume was interested in the use of miracles as a reason to believe in God. The idea is that miracles are violations of the course of nature and so they can only be caused by a supernatural being. That doesn’t get you all the way to any particular religion’s god, of course, but it does seem to be evidence that there is a supernatural realm, which is a good start.

In part 1 of Section X, Hume sought to show that we can never have enough reason to believe an apparent miracle. Let the witnesses to a miracle be honest and accurate, their testimony won’t be enough reason to believe in the miracle. It’s not a matter of demanding a very high burden of proof. Hume didn’t think reports of miracles merited any investigation at all but that we should dismiss them out of hand.

I began by supplying the context needed to read the first paragraph correctly. (Hint: most people think that it means the Archbishop of Canterbury was giving an argument for atheism, which, if you think about it, can’t possibly be right.) Then I explained what Hume meant by the term “proof” and offered an interpretation of the second paragraph on p. 76. Finally, I presented the argument as found in the last two paragraphs of this section. After doing so, I noted that the argument could equally well apply to things that you see yourself; it isn’t just about the unreliability of others’ testimony.

Objections to Hume’s argument

There were four excellent objections raised. We will discuss these over the next two sessions.

  1. Kyle and Robert pointed to a tension between Hume’s views on causation and what he said about the laws of nature here. Since the laws of nature aren’t certain and we don’t know why they hold, why does Hume say we should think that the laws of nature rule out miracles?
  2. Selma said that we don’t know what the laws of nature are. Hume says that we should dismiss observations that conflict with the laws of nature. But that’s toothless. If we don’t know what the laws are, we don’t know what we’re supposed to dismiss. How do we know that an observation that conflicts with what we understood to be a law of nature doesn’t just show that our understanding of the laws of nature is incomplete?
  3. Dhruv accused Hume of making miracles impossible by definition. He defined miracles as violations of the laws of nature and defined laws of nature as having been established by uniform (i.e. exceptionless) observations. That means we can’t ever observe a miracle, as a matter of definition! But that hardly shows that there aren’t any miracles.
  4. Finally, Nick maintained that the laws of nature cannot be established by “proofs” (in Hume’s sense of the term) but only probability. This is because observations of the violations of the laws of nature, that is, observations of miracles, mean that the evidence for laws of nature is “mixed” rather than uniform.

Wow, that’s quite a lot of very sharp observations! It’s going to take some time to work through them. For right now, I made one point on Hume’s behalf that partly addresses a number of these objections.

The point is that Hume’s opponents are the ones who insist that miracles are violations of the laws of nature; it’s not a definition that he saddled them with. If this were not so, miracles would not be evidence of a supernatural being. Miracles might establish something about God if they cannot be explained as the result of natural processes. We should believe in a supernatural being, the argument goes, because that is the only possible cause for the miracles we have observed.

This partly answers Dhruv: the definition isn’t unfair but accurately reflects what his opponents believe. (We still need to say more about the part involving “uniform observations,” though. We’ll get to that when we talk about C.S. Lewis.)

It also partly answers Selma. Her point addressed someone who is looking for a natural explanation of an unusual observation. But Hume was addressing someone who insists that there are observations that are clearly violations of the laws of nature, such that there is no question of whether the observations could be accounted for with a more sophisticated understanding of the laws of nature.

It might help Hume to answer Nick, for similar reasons, but I’m not sure about that.

We still have Kyle and Robert’s point to work on. And Selma’s point naturally leads to another objection: Hume is claiming too much. Specifically, he seems to be claiming that we should reject observations that conflict with our understanding of the laws of nature. But if we did that, we wouldn’t make any progress in the sciences: we would never accept observations that conflict with our accepted theories but, of course, that’s precisely how our theories improve! This is the issue raised on the handout on Rutherford. We will start with it next time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted October 25, 2010.
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