Lewis on Miracles

Notes for October 31

Main points

We started with the cases of the sun and the queen.

Then we discussed one of Lewis’s criticisms of Hume: that his argument against miracles conflicts with his skepticism about induction.

The sun and the queen

Suppose there were uniform reports that the sun had not risen for eight days. Hume thinks that this would give us enough reason to believe that this had really happened and that we should investigate it to determine what the natural cause had been.

But suppose there were similarly good reports that Queen Elizabeth had risen from the dead. Hume thinks that this would not give us reason to believe that this had really happened and that we should dismiss it out of hand without further investigation.

What’s the difference? I don’t see it myself.

Our discussion revealed that Hume cooked the books a bit here. He produced testimony about the sun that would have been nearly impossible to fake. By contrast, the testimony about the queen is more open to manipulation.

In saying that he cooked the books, I mean that he didn’t make the two cases genuinely equivalent. He could have made the testimony about the queen much better: more witnesses, better evidence that she was really dead, and so on. But then I don’t see why he would have any grounds for thinking the one is worth investigation while the other is not.

I wonder, though, if I’m missing his point. There are two variables in play with these examples: the phenomena (the sun doesn’t rise, the queen does) and the testimony (more and less immune to manipulation). I’ve been focusing on the phenomena: Hume said he might believe the sun hadn’t risen but that he would never believe a person rose from the dead. But maybe I should have been looking at the testimony instead. Maybe what he meant to say was that the testimony we get about miracles is more like the case of the queen than it is like the case of the sun.

But now I feel as though I’m bending over backwards for him. Still, maybe that’s what he should have said.

Lewis’s criticism

In his discussion of induction, Hume maintained that we have no reason for believing that the course of nature must be uniform, such that it follows natural law. In his discussion of miracles, he maintained that there will always be more evidence favoring the uniformity of nature and natural laws than there could be in favor of a miraculous disruption of the uniformity of nature.

That looks like a contradiction.

Hume did not confront this problem. But I think Franklin hit on the way he should have confronted it: he should have said that his opponents face a dilemma.

Suppose we have reason to believe the course of nature is uniform. Then Hume’s arguments apply.

Suppose we have no reason to believe the course of nature is uniform. Then we have no reason for thinking that an unusual event is a miracle rather than just one of those things that happens in the normal course of events.

Miracles would lose their power to communicate anything about the supernatural if nature were not uniform. So both sides to the dispute assume that we have reason to believe the course of nature is uniform.

We also talked about Lewis’s contention that the uniformity of nature requires a supernatural explanation.

We did not discuss Lewis’s other major criticism of Hume: that his assertions that miracles conflict with uniform experience rest on circular reasoning. If you’re curious about following up on this, I thought the discussion from the last time I taught the course was pretty good.

Key concepts

  1. The sun and the queen.
  2. The conflict between Hume’s skepticism about induction and his treatment of miracles.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted November 5, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy