Thursday, 22 March 2012

David Humes View On Miracles



Believers and sceptics’ alike need a form of criteria in order declare something a miracle. According to Hume a ‘miracle’ is an anomalous event caused “by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” Hume also proposes that if such an event were to occur, it would have an apparent interference in the ‘laws of nature’ which he described as being “established by firm and unalterable experience.” For example, the law of gravitation or irreversible biological decay which is based upon empirical observation. In a religious context miracles are related to beliefs of ‘divine intervention’ as denoted in biblical scriptures such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Conversely, this appears to have a potential conflict with the modern scientific viewpoint, as such beliefs make claims about the natural world on the basis of religious authority and personal experience, rather than any discernible evidence. Thus naturalistic scientists indicate that belief in miraculous events are untenable and even erroneous. The following will assess the possibility of miracles through David Hume who provided strong objections in his famous essay ‘Of Miracles’

The term ‘miracle’ is used commonly to refer to fortuitous events such as recovering from a terminal illness, prevailing against the odds in a contest or even coincidental happenings. While it can’t be denied that various events like this occur, it could also be argued that some believers are exceedingly ample in what they classify as divine intervention. Hume strongly dismissed ostensible claims such as the examples mentioned above and summed this up by stating “Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it has ever happened in the common course of nature” indicating that although these occurrences are remarkable and statistically unlikely, they are banal instances, unworthy of being categorized as a proper miracle as they do not violate a law of nature.

He presents three key arguments to support his reasons for being against the credibility of miracles. The first is ‘The Balance Of Evidence Argument’ where Hume establishes that a miracle is an event that does not comply with our patterns of ‘uniform experience.’ He concludes that “the wise man always proportions his belief to the evidence” and that the law of nature is authentic. Hence, according to Hume it is more rational to perpetuate a belief in the established law, therefore inexorably invalidating any singular experience testimony that a miracle has occurred, as it goes against repeated observational evidence based on past experience. While this may seem like a convincing argument, there are glaring issues with the proposition that a singular experience testimony is always inferior to repeated observational evidence. For example, the scientific method is unique in that everything it holds to be true is also inherently falsifiable and therefore suggests the possibility that a long-held scientific theory could be proven wrong eventually. Hume’s argument is problematic in regards to this scientific inference, where scientists may be shown evidence that conflicts with a given theory. Therefore, if we followed this argument, scientists would have to reject singular experiences which don’t adhere to past uniform experience.

Following from this critique of the ‘Balance of Evidence’ Hume also proposed a more appropriate argument called ‘The Wrong Laws Argument.’ While still aiming to establish that we are never rationally obligated to believe that certain events are miraculous, he makes adjustments to the questionable premise that was proposed in the first argument. Hume argues that if we are confronted with an event that seemingly violates an established law of nature; instead of jumping to the conclusion that a law of nature has been violated, he encourages us to accept that perhaps we were mistaken and have not correctly understood the relevant laws of nature. Hume argues that although our sensory experience is the only method by which we can rationalize and understand the world around us, that does not mean that it is exempt from error. People with religious dispositions are more likely to jump to the conclusion that an event was a miracle. Concurrently, if we combine this with our limited knowledge about how the universe actually functions, it seems more rational to conclude that we were incorrect in our beliefs. Human understanding is emergent and following historical precedence, events that were assumed to be of a supernatural nature, were later shown to have naturalistic causes. Hume states, "It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous events, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous ancestors; or if civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from these barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend perceived opinions." Despite this, it could also be argued that if an event violates a law of nature, and is never firmly established to be caused by known law of nature regardless of thorough scientific analysis; then this would be sufficient evidence to acknowledge that a miraculous event has occurred.

A third argument that Hume proposes is ‘The Purely Anomalous Event Argument.’ This argument takes into consideration that an event could violate a law of nature and thus be considered anomalous. However it does not necessarily have to be the result of a supernatural divine intervention; a prerequisite for an event to be considered a miracle. This could be seen as quite a contentious claim to assume that an anamolous event doesn’t have a supernatural cause, however philosophers and scientists often appeal to ‘Occoms Razor’ under such circumstances, which is the principle that asserts that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. Therefore the simplest of two separate competing theories is favoured over the more complicated one. In this case it is preferred to hypothesize that the anomalous event was uncaused, rather than speculating about unknown supernatural phenomena.

Despite its iconoclastic conclusion the principle argument Hume puts forward is “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony to be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.” His overall philosophy is that, if we accept miracles and laws as they are defined above, then there lacks any significant evidence in the possibility of miracles and they are impossible. There may be various criticism in Hume’s evaluation of miracles, such as defining a miracle as an ‘exception,’ or excessively restricting the appropriate evidence that a miracle has occurred, in regards to ‘The Purely Anomalous Event Argument.’ He even goes so far as to downgrade a believers subjective experience of a miracle. To combat this, theists instead attempt to sidestep these arguments against the possibility of miracles by changing the definition to something more appropriate, claiming that it is “An event (ultimately) caused by God that cannot be accounted for by the natural powers of natural substances alone.” This is how early theistic philosophers such as Gottfried Leibniz and Thomas Aquinas defined a miracle. Described in this way, anomalous events then become more plausible as they do not violate a law of nature, as defined by Hume and therefore his whole argument collapses.

In conclusion, upon evaluating Hume’s argument for the possibility of miracles, it seems that he is basing his arguments on scientific inference, which is quite different from talking about miracles in a religious context. However, in his defence he makes some very compelling arguments in regards to primitive civilizations who perceived certain events as miracles, which in modern day society we would perceive as normal. In this context, anomalous events could be described as an ever receding perception of scientific ignorance. This also brings into question, the credibility of miracles in a religious context as regards to biblical scriptures from the Bronze Age which document events where divine intervention has evidently occurred. However, while this may be true, it’s also worth noting that if you take the religious definition of miracle into consideration, then Hume doesn’t necessarily prove that miracles are impossible. In fact such a conclusion would conflict with his own personal firm convictions that “no matter of fact is impossible.” Hume’s, scientific observation provides us with a guideline with disproving miracles from a naturalistic perspective, but outside of that belief in anomalous events appears to be purely based on individual hope and subjective sense of reality.

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