Outline of Hume on miracles

Notes for October 29


The topic of Hume’s section on miracles is not whether miracles are possible. After all, almost anything is possible, according to Hume. Rather, what is under discussion is whether we could ever have adequate reason to believe that a miracle has happened. In particular, he is concerned with whether we could ever have adequate reason to believe testimony about miracles, that is, someone’s report to have witnessed a miracle.

The section is divided into two parts that correspond to the distinction between proof and probability (see ¶¶ 4–6 in Part I, pp. 73–75).

In Part I, Hume imagines that the testimony in favor of a miracle amounts to a proof. As I understand him, that means that the testimony comes from someone who has always been accurate: whenever such a person’s reports have been checked, they have always matched the facts.

In Part II, Hume weighs the probability that testimony about a miracle is accurate against the probability that it is inaccurate. He does that by looking at the characteristics of people who report having witnessed miracles. Since all of the other people who report having seen a miracle are unreliable, according to Hume, we should regard the next person who reports having witnessed a miracle as also being unreliable.

Part II is especially difficult to follow, so I will pay special attention to it.

Part I

  1. Introduction: Hume says he has come up with an argument similar to the one Tillotson used against transubstantiation. (¶¶ 1-2, pp. 72–73)

  2. Rules of reasoning.

  3. Even if the testimony for a miracle amounts to a proof, the balance of the evidence would favor not believing it. This is the main argument of Part I. Also, note the definitions of a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature” and “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity.” (¶¶ 11–13, pp. 76–77)

Part II

  1. Four reasons why, in real cases, the testimony about miracles has been bad.

  2. These problems are especially acute when miracles are used to establish a new religion. (¶¶ 29–34, pp. 86–87)

  3. Summary (¶ 35, pp. 87–88)Was this originally meant to be the end?

  4. Apparent qualification: Hume is willing to concede that there could be testimony about a violation of the course of nature that is worth believing. Example of total darkness for eight days (¶36, p. 88). But he insists that he could never have adequate testimony to believe that Queen Elizabeth rose from the dead (¶37, pp. 88–89). What’s the difference?

  5. Another summary (¶¶ 38–39, p. 89)

  6. Christianity is based on faith, not reason. So miracles never should have been used to establish the truth of Christianity in the first place. (¶¶ 40–41, pp. 89–90). Is that sincere or a bit of misdirection?

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted October 26, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy