Miracles part 1

Notes for October 24

Main points

We talked about Part 1 of Hume’s section on miracles.

What’s the question?

Hume’s question is not whether miracles are possible. It is, rather, whether we can ever have adequate reason to believe that a miracle occurred. He sought to show that we never could have adequate reason to believe that. Consequently, in his opinion, we should dismiss all reports of miracles without further investigation.

That is a much stronger claim than you might think it is. Hume was not saying that it makes sense to doubt claims about miracles. He was saying that it makes sense to completely ignore them.

Dr. Tillotson

The first paragraph of section X always trips people up. It looks as though Hume was saying that Dr. Tillotson has an argument to the effect that there is never adequate reason to believe Christianity. But that isn’t right. Dr. Tillotson was the Archbishop of Canterbury or head of the Church of England. He wasn’t an atheist.

Here is what trips people up: it looks as though Tillotson was saying that the evidence for Christianity diminishes over time. However, you should bear in mind that the argument is both narrowly directed at the doctrine of transubstantiation and also that it is hypothetical. Tillotson said that even if there were clear evidence for transubstantiation in the Bible, we still should trust our senses now and reject transubstantiation. Of course, Tillotson also insisted that there is no such evidence in the Bible, so he wasn’t actually saying that the case for Christianity is any weaker now than it was in the time of the apostles.

Tillotson was trying to score points for Protestants against Catholics. He proposed a rule of reasoning: we should employ our normal standards of evidence when considering whether the miracle of the eucharist really happens. Since the wafer still looks and tastes like bread rather than human flesh, following that rule of reasoning leads you to the conclusion that transubstantiation never happened, contrary to what Tillotson took to be Catholic doctrine.

Hume was going to play a little philosophical judo with Tillotson. He said we should employ our normal standards of evidence when considering whether the events described in the Bible really happened. In other words, if those standards are good enough for assessing reported miracles now, they should be good enough for assessing reported miracles that were said to happen over two thousand years ago in Palestine. That was Hume’s idea.

Proof vs. probability

There are three kinds of evidence for a conclusion.

  1. Demonstrative: it’s inconceivable that the conclusion is false. Example: 2 + 2 = 4, so 4 - 2 = 2.

  2. Proof: there is uniform evidence in favor of the conclusion. Example: the sun has risen every day without fail, so tomorrow the sun will rise. Note: it is possible that the sun will not rise, even though there is a “proof” that it will rise. Be aware of the quirks with Hume’s use of the word “proof.”

  3. Probability: there is some evidence for the conclusion and some against it. Example: it is usually warm in Southern California in October, although there can always be a freak cold snap, so it will probably be warm tomorrow but there is a small possibility that it will be cold.

What’s at issue with miracles is whether we have reason to believe the testimony of people who report having witnessed one. Hume considers two cases.

  1. The testimony of the witness amounts to proof: everything the witness has said in the past has been accurate, so that is proof that the testimony about miracles will be accurate too.

  2. The testimony of the witness is probable evidence: there is evidence for and against believing testimony about miracles.

Part 1 is about the first kind of case. Hume argues that there is a contrary ‘proof’ against miracles. He maintained that this contrary proof gives us more overwhelming reason to reject any reported miracle. Even if the testimony in favor of the miracle is a ‘proof,’ it couldn’t be good enough to give us a reason to believe that the miracle happened.

Part 2 is about the second kind of case. There, Hume will open up the question about the credibility of those who report having witnessed miracles.

Next time

We will start by asking whether Hume’s argument isn’t too strong. His conclusion appears to be that we should discard all reported observations that are surprising. If so, that is going to put a crimp on discoveries. We will use the example of Rutherford’s famous experiments with the structure of the atom as an illustration.

Then we will talk about the argument in part 2.

Key concepts

  1. Tillotson’s argument.
  2. The distinction between proof and probability.
  3. How that distinction is applied to the testimony of other people.
  4. The argument in the last two paragraphs of part 1.

Postscript: Lazarus and the witch of Endor

There are at least three cases where the dead are said to rise in the Bible. There is the resurrection of Jesus, of course. As Tillotson said, that’s the big one. But there are also the stories of the witch of Endor and Lazarus. Does the fact that there are three reports undermine Hume’s assertion that a dead man’s coming to life “has never been observed, in any age or country” (p. 77, second to last paragraph of part 1)?

Here (1 Samuel), Saul, king of the Israelites, has the witch of Endor raise his predecessor Samuel from the dead to answer a question about his fate. As you will see, Saul was not happy with the answer.

28:3 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.A familiar spirit is a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch.

28:4 And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.

28:5 And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.

28:6 And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.Saul is in trouble.

28:7 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.

28:8 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.

28:9 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? 28:10 And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.

28:11 Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel.

28:12 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.

28:13 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.

28:14 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.Here comes Samuel.

28:15 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.

28:16 Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy? 28:17 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: 28:18 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.

28:19 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.Saul is in a lot of trouble.

28:20 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.

Here’s a happier tale: Jesus brings back Lazarus (John, 11:1–12:2). Note the function of the miracle is “that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Jesus speaks aloud so that those nearby “may believe that thou hast sent me.” And it worked! Those who “had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.” In other words, miracles are used to establish Jesus’s divinity.

Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus … 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. … Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already. …

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.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted October 24, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy