Hume's logic

"A violation of the laws of nature"

Hume's views on miracles:

  • Extremely unlikely
  • Observed by people who are too desperate to believe
  • Cannot be checked or obersved
  • Used to support contradictory claims
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Hume's 4 objections to miracles

1. They're not rational. We should proportion our belief to the available evidence. Available testimony regarding miracles is poor: insufficient witnesses of 'good sense, education and learning' - Hume. 

2. Human nature loves the 'fantastic'. Religious people may be so enthusiastic that they imagine things or even persist with things they know to be beale. They have a natural tendency to suspend reason and support a miraculous claim.

3. Miracles occur chiefly among "ignorant and barbourous nations" in conditions in which it is impossible to check them. (E.g, poor countries don't have scientific equipment to check)

4. Miracles are used to support the contradictory claims of religions. Most religions use miracles to try and persuade people that their religion is true. Different claims cancel each other out as they cannot all be true.

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Problems with Hume

1. Unjustifiable assumption. Hume states that mircales can't happen based upon that natural laws have been uniform for hundreds of years. This is only the case if all accounts of miracles are false. Therefore in order to assume a miracle is false, you have to prove the falsity, making the conclusion invalid.

2. Does it make sense to talk about probability when assessing miracles? Hume equates the likelihood of probability with the 'frequency of an event' rather than chance. Does whether how many miracles happen have any bearing on the possibility of miracles occuring? Surely issues such as the nature of God have more bearing. If God is all-powerful but has just not chosen to perform any miracles in the past, it is stil possible that miracles may occur.

3. Are natural laws unchangeable? Hume infers that the laws of nature are unchangeable, and anything that violates these laws cannot be believed to have happened as they can't be changed. This links with the first criticism, and shows the limits of Hume's argument. 

4. Does it matter that miracles are unlikely? Most theists would disagree that one would be unreasonable to believe a miracle has occurred, and argue that miracles have happened (e.g in bibilical accounts: Jesus walks on water) and therefore the probability of them happening again are more significant than Hume allows.

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Issues with Hume's problem with the absence of cre

What about first hand experience? Hume's argument overlooks the possibility of first hand observation of a miracle. If you were to personally experience a miracle then issues about the credibility of witnesses are not relevant. Swinburne argue that are are three types of historical evidence that can be used: Our apparant memories, the testimony of others, physical traces

What does Hume mean by a sufficient number? Humen doesn't explain crucial points. For example, in his first point he does not state how many reliable witnesses there would need to be for it to be a miracle. Similarly, he does not say what sort of education or intregrity would make such witnesses credible.

What about evidence other than testimony? There may be scientific tests or physical effects/traces of a miracle which could count towards a person being warranted in believing a miracle has occured. E.g, a healed broken leg, which counts as evidence of a possible miracle independant of the testimony of the healed person. It would be physical and scientific evidence (from x-rays).

Must religions cancel each other out? Hume's argument is based on the premise that all religions are mutually exclusive, which is controversial. 

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Religious responses

  • 1. A believer does not need any proof
  • God revealed directly to the believer
  • It's personal
  • They intuitively know he is present
  • 2. Anti-realist (anti realism = theory of truth)
  • It is true if it corresponds with the situation as a person understands it
  • A single event therefore can be a miracle and not a miracle at the same time without any contradiction
  • The miracle exists as a concept within the religious community
  • 3. Paul Tillich: 
  • God is 'being itself' and the 'ground of being'
  • God is the power who gives existence to everything in the world
  • Nothing would exist without him
  • More likely to feel if near/close to death
  • An event is only a miracle because we interpret it as much. It is because of the response we have to it that we know it is a miracle
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Swinburne's defence of miracles

  • Natural laws are not adequate to explain every event in the world. They're just there to give a picture of what should happen in a particular situation.

Therefore, events such as the resurrection of Jesus (which totally go against our observations of the laws of nature) can be considered miraculous

  • Three types of historical evidence: Our memories, the tesimony of others, and the physical traces left by the event.

Scientific law is based on these forms. Therefore, if such evidence isn't enough to back up the existence of miracles, it can't be enough to prove the certainty of natural law.

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Sitgmata is a sign of God's existence. Many people who are stigmatic bear one or more of the five wounds inflicted on jesuswhen he was crucified.

It can include body marks, sores, or sensations of pain. 

St Francis of Assisi was the first to receive stigmata. He received wisions from God in prison and heard Christ telling him to repair the Christian church and live in loverty. So he abandoned his luxuries and devoted his life to Christianity. He later received a vision that left him with marks resembling Jesus' wounds.

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Scientific responses - 1.

1. The laws of nature are 'descriptive' not 'prescriptive' (doesn't give exact rules). They simply tell us what has happened in certain situations in the past and allow us to have predictions about what will happen in the future. For example, every day the sun rises in the morning, and therefore you can predict it will tomorrow morning. This means it is impossible to violate a law of nature.

John Hick argues that miracles can not happen because of the definition of 'natural law'. They are generalisations. Therefore, as miracles are defined here as a violation of the laws of nature, he says "we can declare... that there are no miracles".

However, Swinburne argues that natural laws are not adequate to explain every event everywhere in the world. He felt that natural laws are just there to give a picture of what should happen. Therefore, events such as the resurrection of Jesus can be considered to be miraculous because it is totally removed from our observations of natural laws.

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Scientific responses - 2.

2. Science realises that events can be unique. Scientists argue that every event is unique in a way, as it occurs at a different time and place as a result of circumstances which will never be exactly the same again. Also, some events that happen in extreme conditions are totally unique and can only occur once, but they are not miraculous. 

For example, the Big Bang. Other events occur which sicentists do not fully understand, like Black Holes which occur where there is extreme gravity. 

  • Science does not deny that events can be unique
  • Science does not rule out the possibility that an event may not be covered by existing 'laws of nature'
  • Science makes progress at exactly those points where existing theories fail to account for an occurance. The task of science is to show the inadequacies of existing theories and to make better ones 
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Scientific responses - 3. and 4.

3. Ockham's Razor. This principle states that when faced with competing explanations for an event, one should choose the simplest exaplantions. Scientists argue that believing an event which violates a law of nature is a miracle is NOT the simplest explanation.

The simplest explanation is that the event will eventually be explained by science. To push God in as the explanation, and claiming the evnt as a miracle, is an example of God of the Gaps.  Scientists argue that they eventually uncover the scientific explanation for the event and there will be no more gaps for God to hide in.

4. Alternate explanations

The rationalist approach - Rationalists believe that miracles can not happen, as the laws of nature can not be violated. Therefore, they seek a natural explanation for the miracles mentioned in the Bible.

E.g the disciples thought that they saw Jesus walking on the water, but actually he was walking on a bed of rocks which were hidden by the water.

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