Miracles, part 2 Notes for October 27

Main points

The first part of Hume’s discussion of miracles gives an argument for dismissing all reports of miracles without further investigation. Even assuming that there are no reasons to doubt the sincerity or accuracy of those who report having witnessed a miracle, the balance of the evidence will always be against them.

In the second part, Hume withdraws the assumption that there is no reason to doubt the sincerity or accuracy of those who report having witnessed miracles. Instead, he maintains that the these people have always been unreliable.

I spent a lot of time describing what I called the rhetorical strategy of part 2. That strategy involves taking reported miracles that his Christian audience would have rejected. The clear implication is that the evidence for the miracles supporting Christianity is no better and, in some cases, clearly worse, than the evidence for these miracles.

Does the part one argument prove too much?

We began with a problem remaining from part one. Hume maintained that we should dismiss a reported observation that is at odds with all of our other observations: the weight of the evidence is against it, after all. I’ll call this Hume’s rule.

If we followed Hume’s rule, would we have to dismiss all the unexpected observations and experiments that lead to scientific progress? The weight of the evidence is against them, after all. I illustrated the point with Rutherford’s discoveries about the atom.

If Hume’s rule would have required Rutherford to ignore the results of the experiment, then it’s a bad rule for science. And if it’s a bad rule for science, there’s no reason to think it’s a good rule for miracles.

So we talked about ways that Hume could have distinguished unexpected observations in science from observations of miracles. The goal was to see if Hume could legitimately claim that his rule would not require scientists to ignore novel experimental observations. For example, Alex said that scientists can replicate their experiments. That means they can find out whether their unexpected observation is genuine or if it is erroneous for some reason.

We took it for granted that the same cannot be done with miracles and, I think it’s fair to say, that’s generally the case. But if you look at the biblical story of Lazarus, you’ll see that there is something that looks like a demand for replication. The question asked was whether Jesus, who cured the sick, can do something similar for Lazarus (whose condition was, admittedly, far worse). When he did it, that served as strong evidence for them that he was the son of God. Was that a kind of replication?

Part 2 vs. part 1

One advantage of writing these summaries for me is that I sometimes see things a new way. That might have happened here. Let me explain.

I said that the difference between the arguments in part 1 and part 2 is that the part 1 arguments accept, for the sake of argument, that there is no special reason to doubt the accuracy or sincerity of the people who report witnessing miracles while part 2 is dedicated to showing that this is not, in fact, true of people who have reported witnessing miracles. In other words, the first part maintains that the weight of evidence is always against miracles even under the ideal circumstances while the second part maintains that the circumstances for reported miracles are far from ideal. To put it yet another way, part 1 is about our reasons for believing about miracles in general while part 2 is about our reasons for believing the specific reports we have received from the past.

But Hume might have been aiming a little higher in part 2. What if the argument in part 2 is an inductive argument for the conclusion that people who report witnessing miracles are unreliable? By “inductive argument,” I mean it’s an argument based on past observations. Maybe Hume’s thought went like this. “All reported miracles from the past have been tainted by poor witnesses, so if we hear a new report of a miracle, we should conclude that the person who claims to have witnessed it is also a poor witness.”

I want to look at the text again before I say for certain that this is what Hume himself thought he was doing. But it’s at least consistent with his line of thinking and interesting in its own right. So it’s the kind of thing he might have said even if, in fact, he did not.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted November 5, 2010.
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