43 David Hume and Miracles

We have encountered David Hume before when we were discussing the problem of induction. Hume is known as a great skeptic because of this problem and because he did not think there is a rational solution to it. But Hume was far from an irrational philosopher. He believed that once we admit that human beings are conditioned to expect that nature will continue to follow the patterns it has followed in the past, we can begin to think more carefully about what we should or should not believe given the patterns of our past experience. He knew that sometimes we can be surprised when nature doesn’t do what it is expected to do. But such surprises are rare (thank goodness!), and we ought to be careful when we hear from someone else that some surprising event has happened.

 

As Hume recognized, we all make our judgments on the basis of our past experience. He tells the story of “an Indian prince” who was told by some visiting Europeans that where they came from, water freezes in the winter. The prince had never experienced or even heard of such a thing. In his experience, water was always liquid, and the idea that it could turn into a solid that people could walk on seemed ludicrous. Yet here were strangers in his court claiming that water could become as hard as stone. The prince faced a choice: he could believe these strangers and accept the seemingly outrageous claim that water can turn into a solid, or he could continue to believe what all of his previous experience showed—that water was, is, and always shall be liquid—and suspect these strange newcomers as trying to pull a fast one on him.

 

What is the rational thing to believe? We know the truth: water can freeze. But when we ask what is rational for the prince to believe, we are asking what he should believe given his previous knowledge and experiences. The idea that water turns solid was totally “unprecedented” in his experience (he had no evidence of it having happened before). But the idea that strange people from strange lands might be less than truthful, or might even make up astonishing things in an attempt to impress him, was not at all unprecedented. Maybe for a prince at that time it was even a common occurrence. So, Hume observed, the prince “reasoned justly” when he concluded that water does not freeze and that these visitors were not telling the truth.

 

We can see in this case a kind of rational weighing. Imagine a balance scale. On one side we put the likelihood that water freezes; on the other side we put the likelihood that strangers tell false and fantastic stories. The second likelihood was greater according to the prince’s experience and weighed more, so the balance was tipped in favor of denying the strangers’ claims.

 

 

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Hume went on to consider a pair of more complicated cases. Suppose we find historical reports that say that on the first of January in the year 1600 there was darkness over the whole Earth for eight days. Now that is quite a claim, and if it were just a single report, we would be wise to suspect that the report was false. But suppose it is not just a single report. Suppose that as we gather reports from around the world, from all sorts of societies, we find the same thing being reported in different languages and in different calendar systems. The reports all agree on the details: eight days of darkness beginning on the first of January 1600 (as Europeans reckon it). In this case, Hume thinks, we would be rational to accept the truth of the reports, and we should then start trying to figure out what strange sort of eclipse or weather phenomenon might explain the eight-day darkness.

 

Why should we accept the reports? Consider again the weighing analogy. On the one side we put the claim that the whole world was covered in darkness for eight days. That is quite extraordinary. On the other side we put the claim that independent societies around the world all came to report the eight-day darkness, even though, in fact, the world was not covered in darkness for eight days. That is also quite extraordinary. But which is more likely or less extraordinary? In Hume’s estimation, it is more unlikely that observers from around the world would all agree on something that did not happen than that some strange astronomical event or weather event happened. It’s more likely that something weird happened in nature than that all of these reports would be false.

 

But here is the second case Hume considers. Suppose we are reading records from English history and we find reports that on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died and was confirmed dead by court physicians. A successor was put on the throne, as would usually happen in such cases. Then, the reports say that, one month later, the queen arose from the dead, resumed the throne, and governed England for three more years. The records, let us presume, are the sorts of records historians typically rely on as they try to trace all the details of English political events.

 

What is rational for us to believe in this second case? We might think that it is like the eight days of darkness and that we ought to accept that nature does some pretty wild things sometimes, including bringing British monarchs back from the dead. But Hume writes that he would not have the “least inclination” to believe the reports. Why not? Hume answers that “I should not doubt of her pretended death and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor could possibly be real.” In other words, Hume thinks it more likely that something tricky was going on. The queen’s death was faked, and her resurrection was faked, possibly to gain some sort of political advantage, for who would not be faithfully obedient to a queen who arose from the dead?!

 

So, in this case we are weighing the possibility of real death and real resurrection one month later from being dead against the possibility of some rather large-scale hoax being perpetrated on the English public. It is difficult to perpetrate such a large-scale hoax. But that is nothing compared to the difficulty of resurrecting someone who has been truly dead for a month. So, Hume concludes, it is far more likely that there was a hoax due to “the knavery and folly of men” than that the queen truly arose from the dead.

 

Why doesn’t Hume also suspect a hoax in the eight days of darkness case? We might consider just how massive and difficult such a hoax would have to be. How would you trick people from different societies all around the world to believe that the world was dark for eight days? Or perhaps we need not go that far. Perhaps we only need a dedicated team of hoaxers to infiltrate every society around the world and doctor all the records to make it seem as if there had been eight days of darkness. But either way, that is a truly massive hoax. At some point it becomes more likely to judge, in this case, that the strange event really happened than that such a hoax happened. But the English hoax is not nearly so massive. We perhaps need only a dozen people to agree to a cover-up operation and keep quiet about it. That is difficult, to be sure, but (again) not nearly so difficult as resurrecting someone from the dead.

 

Objection: But we should remember the Indian prince and the fact that he came to the wrong conclusion about water freezing into ice. Perhaps in the right circumstances people can be resurrected after being dead for a month.

 

Hume would grant the objection. Nature certainly can be surprising. But, like the prince, we can only make judgments about what is rational for us to believe given our previous experience. The prince was rational to deny the reports of the visitors given his previous experience. We are similarly rational, given our experience, to deny the queen’s resurrection. Of course, we might be wrong. But, given our experience, there is going to have to be a lot more evidence to make the death and resurrection of the queen more likely than the possibility of a hoax.

 

Hume discusses these three cases while arguing for what was, in his day, an extremely radical and dangerous claim: that a rational person should not believe in the miracles reported in the Bible. The Bible presents reports of extraordinary events like a flood covering the entire globe, the Red Sea parting, angelic visitations, resurrections, and so on. The Bible itself is a collection of ancient documents written by various people at different times, and none of the extraordinary events are corroborated by any other texts. We typically do not believe other ancient texts, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, when they report the interventions of the gods or visits to the underworld or creatures like Circe or the Cyclops. Why, then, should the Bible be treated as any more truthful in such matters than any other ancient text that describes similarly extraordinary events?

 

Hume puts his point quite forcefully (and exhibiting an anti-semitism which was all too common, even among so-called Enlightenment thinkers):

 

Here we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous [fable-like] accounts which every nation gives of its origin. […] I desire any one to lay his hand upon his heart, and after a serious consideration, declare whether he thinks the falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates[1]

 

The last point which I have put into italics demonstrates what Hume is weighing as he considers whether to believe the Bible’s reports of miracles. On one side, we have the possibility that the reports are false. On the other side, we have the possibility that all those events really happened and have been accurately described. Which is more probable? We have plenty of examples of ancient texts (and not-so-ancient texts) presenting false accounts. There is nothing extraordinary about this. But the events being reported—the flood, the parting of the sea, and so on—are about as extraordinary as any report could possibly be. Indeed, they are deemed as miracles, meaning events that are never observed to happen in the ordinary course of nature. In Hume’s view, we should not hesitate to deny the Biblical reports.

 

Hume offers a general rule to follow in all these cases we have been examining: “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” In other words, don’t believe the reports of an extraordinary event unless the falsehood of that report would be even more extraordinary than the event it reports.

Media Attributions


  1. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).

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