In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in the section “On Miracles”, David Hume endeavors to provide a thorough refutation of miracles. He not only dismisses the probability of a miracle taking place, he does indeed claim to have proof that miracle is impossible: “I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusions, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures” (Hume 1993, p. 73). This is a tremendous claim, and so the argument of Hume asks to be properly verified.
This paper attempts this task, and come to the conclusion that Hume is justified in his claims. I will also argue that Hume’s claim that his proof “will be useful as long as the world endures” it not simply bombast, but is indeed an essential part of the argument. He is not really claiming a novel theory, but is rather alluding to timeless wisdom. But it still requires wisdom to comprehend, and therefore it is not to be expected that Hume’s argument will change beliefs and attitudes overnight. Only a small part of the chapter is devoted to the proof.
The rest is concerned with circumstantial evidence of why the common claims to miracles must be disregarded, and offers psychological explanations of why the common lot persists in its belief of miracles. We will consider the substantial proof first, and review the circumstantial argument later on. The proper argument is really a corollary to Hume’s principle argument of empirical skepticism, which is the substance of the Enquiry as a whole. The gist of this argument is that there is no certain foundation to knowledge. All knowledge has its source in sensory perception, and therefore knowledge is necessarily subject to relativism.
One perceives a skyscraper huge in its vicinity, but small at a distance. One sees it rectangular face on, but as a skewed parallelogram from and angle. Therefore, a spatial foundation is lacking, and the same applies to the temporal perspective. One sees a pool ball striking another, and the second ball acquiring motion through the impact. The mind naturally supposes that the first ball has caused the second ball to fly off, but there is nothing concrete by which we can establish a connection between the two events. It is only belief that supplies the connection, and belief is the result of experience.
We observe such impacts all the time, and in due course we come to relate two events, as if one event has caused the others. It is merely the “constant and regular conjunction” of events that leads us to believe that such conjunctions will repeat themselves in the future (Ibid, p. 74). Now, Hume’s proof of the impossibility of miracle hinges on the fact that we cannot escape our reliance on belief regards our knowledge of the world. If we always come to expect a certain impact of two pool balls to produce certain trajectories, we arrive indeed at natural law.
It is as if the mind balances all the possible trajectories of the balls, and clings to the most probable, and this probability has been determined through experience. If something unexpected happens, this does not mean that natural law has been violated. It only means that the previous experience has been lacking regards the possibilities. The new experience will take into account this ‘unexpected’ event, and will arrive at a formulation of natural law that is a revised version of the earlier. Miracle is defined as the violating of natural law.
The particular definition supplied by Hume if of “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (Ibid, p. 77). It is impossible because we can never some to a complete formulation of natural law. All experience only adds to our subjective conception of natural law, and new experience goes towards enhancing this conception. What is supposed to be a miracle can only be a discovery of a new aspect of nature. Because it is not possible for us to come to a complete conception of natural law, it is not possible for us to claim the reality of a miracle either.
The only valid sense in which we can talk about miracles is in the context of God, who does indeed have complete knowledge of natural law. And in this instance a miracle would be God coming across a violation of his own natural law. Hume does not indulge in such metaphysical speculations, because his concern is only with human understanding. But it is indeed a trivial matter to demonstrate that God witnessing a miracle is a contradiction of the basic kind. If one is in possession of infinite wisdom, there is no scope for surprise. In God there is a prescience of all possibilities, and therefore God does not witness any miracle.
But Hume is wise enough not to delve into the realm of theology. Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be Almighty, it [the miracle] does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable, since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience of his productions, in the usual course of nature. (Ibid, p. 89) So, whether we consider God or not, we are still limited to empirical evidence, and the extent to which it determines what we believe to be natural law. And in this context he successfully demonstrates that miracle is not possible.
If we add to this finding the truism that it is meaningless to speak of God witnessing a miracle, then we are able to state categorically that miracle is not possible at all. We can now see what Hume meant my adding “as long as the world endures” to his claim. He describes to us the fundamental rules of knowledge about the phenomenal world, and these cannot be overcome in the world itself. The consideration that remains is why people are so intent on accepting and propagating accounts of others having witnessed miracles. Hume thinks that this is only a question of psychology.
So far we have only considered empirical philosophy, and what it means for someone to have witnesses something unexpected. But Hume does not consider this to be the problem. One hardly ever comes across someone who says that he has witnessed a miracle. In almost every case we are judging indirect testimony. According to such testimony, the proper way to judge such testimony is the same as we would judge sensory evidence. To recap, we judge all the possibilities as measured against the evidence of experience. But with human testimony there is the further dimension of whether we should trust the person making the outrageous claims.
Not only the soundness of the claimant, we must place under suspicion our own credulity. The basis for all these judgments is the same as for empirical evidence – past experience. So that even after we take into consideration the omnipotence of god, who we believe can make anything happen, [t]his still reduces us to past observations, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violations of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. (Ibid)
So we assume that Hume’s psychological theories concerning miracle-mongering is based on past experience of what humans like to believe. He locates the source in a native “passion of surprise and wonder”. We want to believe in the account of miracles because it is an “agreeable emotion”. We wished that we has witnessed the miracle ourselves, but thinking ourselves deprived of this privilege, we open our credulity to the accounts given by others. In due course we pass the account on to others, narrating it with all the awe and wonder as if we had witnessed the event ourselves.
In this way become complicit in the propagation of falsehood. Even though he describes it as a natural proclivity, Hume does not think it a healthy one. To witness something unexpected is to make a new discovery, and this is something of value, for it broadens our concept of natural law. But it is by no means acceptable for the original account to be mutilated by the fancies of one and all. Hume takes especial account of which quarters of society miracle-mongering is most predominant:
[T]hey are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. (Ibid, p. 80) So Hume is prepared to accept the original account, because we must depend on the testimony of others, and cannot rely on our own senses to gain all the knowledge that is required to exist as social beings.
But he is not prepared to accept the outrageous and indirect testimonies of others, for that would not be a reasonable thing to do. But the original account must still be subjected to reason, just as any other empirical evidence would be. Because it will be accepted on the basis of reason, it will no longer be considered a miracle. Hume is correct to dismiss the miracle-mongering of the common lot, even though rooted in the native sense of wonder in the omnipotence of God. The rabble is mistaken in thinking that God must demonstrate his prowess by violating natural law.
It recalls the Chinese proverb which says, “The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth” (Moore 2006, p. 69). Men search for outrageous miracles when they cease to be amazed at the ever-present miracle of existence itself. We cannot call it a healthy state of affairs if one has lost one’s original sense of wonder. It is symptomatic of a lack of belief, which is also a lack of reason. Hume does not speak in terms of religious belief, but instead describes belief at the level of sensory perception, and how it is shaped by reason. Nevertheless, the verdict is the same.
If one thirsts for miracles, one is not fully in touch with his senses and his reason, but instead allows basic passion to rule over him. This, I believe, is the gist of Hume’s argument against the possibility of miracles. In conclusion, Hume accepts the definition of a miracle as a flouting of natural law, and goes on to argue that such is impossible. He adapts the same argument which he uses to state empirical skepticism, and bases his argument on the fact that we cannot arrive at absolute knowledge, and therefore we cannot judge whether an unexpected event is actually a violation of natural law.
Indeed, when examined properly, we may state categorically that the violation of natural law is impossible. Hume believes that the general proclivity to accept and tell tales of miracles is from an irrational impulse, for which reason it manifests itself with most force among the rabble and the barbarous peoples.
Hume D. (1993). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. Moore D. (2006). Zen Wisdom: Magnetic Quotes and Proverbs. Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press Book Publishers LLC.