A defense of miracles Notes for November 1

Main points

We discussed two of Lewis’s arguments against Hume’s treatment of miracles. The first accused Hume of circular reasoning. The second pointed to an apparent contradiction between Hume’s earlier skeptical account of inductive reasoning and his reliance on the laws on nature in the section on miracles. Lewis claimed that the uniformity of nature can only be given a supernatural explanation and that, obviously, would not rule out miracles.

Is the argument circular?

Hume says that our experience is uniform: the dead always stay dead. But there have been several reports to the contrary, so how does he know that our experience is uniform? It must be because he knows that he can dismiss those reports as false. But how can he know that he can do that? His argument is that he can do so because our uniform experience gives evidence that outweighs the evidence favoring the reports. But how can he know that our experience is uniform …?

Remember that we’re talking about the argument in Part I here. It tries to move from the fact that miracles violate laws of nature alone to the conclusion that we have no reason to believe in them. It doesn’t involve questioning the quality of the testimony on behalf of miracles, just assessing the odds that what is reported could be true.

Dhruv said that Hume’s argument would be basically the same if he said that the weight of the evidence was overwhelming, even if not uniform. Let as many reports of miracles in as you like, the evidence against them is still enormous.

I tried to give a stronger defense of Hume’s argument. I gave you a handout with a series of purported miracles on it, most involving raising the dead. I said that Hume thought his argument proceded in a linear, rather than a circular fashion. Take the first miracle on the list: the witch of Endor’s raising Samuel from the dead. There is uniform experience of the dead remaining dead against this report. Do you believe the report, that the witch of Endor raised Samuel. If not, then our experience of the dead remaining dead is still uniform. Now, take Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead: repeat. And so on. (It gets testy when you get to the Resurrection, of course, but that’s where Hume was headed.)

If this works, then Hume’s original contention stands. There is uniform experience against each reported miracle. That uniformity could be broken if we ever had enough evidence to conclude that a report of a miracle counts as a genuine observation of an exception to the laws of nature. But, according to Hume, we never have enough evidence to do that.

I have one reservation. It takes us back to Rutherford and the charge that Hume’s argument in part one proves too much. Our best defense of Hume against the charge of having proven too much was that experiments in science can be replicated. But if we discard each novel observation as mistaken, why would we ever think to try replicating it? I suspect Hume could answer that question, but it isn’t obvious to me exactly how that would go or if the answer would succeed.

Does science assume the supernatural?

Hume and Lewis both think science will never ultimately explain why nature is uniform. Hume thinks that we can get by without such an explanation. Lewis thinks that we can’t and that the only available explanation is a supernatural one.

I think that Hume might legitimately bring back a point that he used against occasionalism. Invoking the supernatural isn’t a way of explaining something. It’s just a placeholder for an explanation. “What would explain this otherwise inexplicable thing, namely how causes make their effects happen or why nature seems to obey laws? Something that we don’t understand, the supernatural!” Is that an explanation of anything?

But Lewis has a good point that Hume is the one who said that experience gives us no reason at all for believing in the uniformity of nature or, in other words, that the future will resemble the past. I think it’s fair of Lewis to say that Hume owes an explanation of why he’s entitled to claim that we have more reason to believe in the laws of nature than we have for believing in miracles.

Robert had a particularly nice way of putting the point. In the earlier section, Hume maintained that observations of the past gives us no reason at all for drawing conclusions about what we haven’t observed, past, present, or future. In the section on miracles, he said the opposite, that observations of the past give us all the reason we need to conclude that a whole class of putative observations should be ignored.

Nick and Dhruv, on the other hand, thought that Hume was doing something perfectly legitimate. His treatment of cause and effect showed that we lack one kind of reason for relying on induction while his discussion of miracles takes his positive account of induction for granted and shows that miracles come up short by the standards of good inductive reasoning.

What’s the answer? I’ll let you decide.

Raising the dead

Hume maintains that a reported miracle is a singular violation of otherwise uniform experience. But that’s not exactly the case. Take the resurrection. There are lots of claims about raising the dead in the Bible. Well, at least three. But that’s three times more than one!

I said that Hume would have dismissed each of these one by one. When I went through each of these cases, almost everyone in the room agreed that they had trouble believing each one in turn, which is pretty much what Hume wanted you to say. (We skipped the Resurrection, though you know where Hume is going with that case.) I’m including the full text of these stories, taken from the King James, or Authorized, Version of the Bible because it’s even harder to believe when you see the story written out in full.

I should add that I’m not sure why this is so. Perhaps it’s because these stories are presented in a way that is strange to our eyes. They’re repetitive, loaded with details that seem irrelevant to us, and quite short on details that seem essential. I think it would be fascinating to go through the Bible with a real expert and learn more about not just the background but the literary form on display here.

The witch of Endor** First Book of Samuel, 28:3–25

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.

And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.

And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.

And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.

And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.

And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die? And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.

Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel.

And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.

And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.

And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.

Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy? And the LORD hath done to him, as he spake by me: for the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David: Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the LORD, nor executedst his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day.

Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.

Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel: and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.

And the woman came unto Saul, and saw that he was sore troubled, and said unto him, Behold, thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto thy words which thou spakest unto me.

Now therefore, I pray thee, hearken thou also unto the voice of thine handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before thee; and eat, that thou mayest have strength, when thou goest on thy way.

But he refused, and said, I will not eat. But his servants, together with the woman, compelled him; and he hearkened unto their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed.

And the woman had a fat calf in the house; and she hasted, and killed it, and took flour, and kneaded it, and did bake unleavened bread thereof: And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants; and they did eat. Then they rose up, and went away that night.

Lazarus†† John, 11:1–12:2.

Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.

(It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.

When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.

Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.

When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.

Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again.

His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again? Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.

But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.

These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.

Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.

Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.

Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.

And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.

Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.

Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off: And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.

Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.

Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.

Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.

Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.

And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee.

As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him.

Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him.

The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there.

Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.

And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.

Jesus wept.

Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.

Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.

And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him. …

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.

There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.

The Resurrection‡‡ Mark, 16:1–20

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.

And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.

And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.

And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.

After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.

And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.

Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.

And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

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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