I have been trying to clear the way for an “unapologetic” argument for God. I am four articles in, and still making me way to the beginning. Standing in the way as I move forward is Hume’s standard of proof for miracles.
David Hume has had a profound influence on Western thought in the promotion of the Enlightenment view, which values human reason as the supreme measuring stick. Hume’s argument against miracles has been viewed as a gold standard among proofs that Christianity is not credible, especially to the extent that Christianity stands on the foundation of a miraculous event – the resurrection of Jesus.
Hume does not hide his antipathy for Christianity. He calls the “Christian religion” a doctrine “so little worthy of a serious refutation … founded merely in the testimony of the apostles”. He labels belief in Christianity “arrogant bigotry and superstition”.
Hume speaks of the “greediness” with which “miraculous accounts” are received. He characterizes the “religionist” as “an enthusiast who sees no reality”, whose vanity is excited by strong temptations and self-interest to promote narratives he knows to be false for what he deems to be a “holy cause”. Hume accuses religionists of renouncing judgment by principle and losing grip on judgment by “passion and a heated imagination”.
Hume blames the popularity of religion on a “strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous”. Hume’s disdain carries over from his view of “the generality of mankind” emerging from “ignorant and barbarous nations” who he says are fools … industrious in propagating the imposture” of the “supernatural and marvellous”, the “grossest delusions”, and “delusive prophecies”.
Hume rails on the religions “of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” equally. He lumps together the testimony of “a few barbarous Arabians” about Mahomet with “Titus Livius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and… all the authors and witnesses, Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle in their particular religion”.
Me thinks he doth protest too much.
The standard Hume created to determine the veracity and credibility of a miraculous account contains the poison of his passionate convictions – a passion that smacks of the same kind of bias he accuses the “religionist” of committing. Yet, that standard has adherents today, perhaps because he reduces it to mathematical proportions that have the appearance of sacred science. Hume says,
“A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.”
He acknowledges the importance of eyewitness testimony, but he imposes a standard on it that diminishes the value of any eyewitness testimony that contradicts widely established human experience. This seems reasonable on its face. “Marvelous” assertions are suspect; miraculous ones are even more suspect.
I think most of us can “go there” with him. On miracles, Hume says.
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”
In one sense, Hume is merely acknowledging the nature of a miracle: it is a miracle that goes against (or seems to go against) the laws of nature that are commonly recognized and the weight of common experience. Nothing would be considered a miracle that was common to the experience of people, even if that experience is relatively uncommon among human experience. He reasonably says,
“There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”
Hume, though, is not content to relegate miracles to the rarity they are by definition. He proceeds to define them out of the realm of possibility:
“And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”
Perhaps, wanting to appear open-minded, Hume allows for some proof that might establish a miracle. The proof of a miracle, Hume says, must so weighty “that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours [sic] to establish”.
Even then, Hume says, such counter-balancing evidence only levels the scales; it doesn’t make the factual assertion of the miracle more likely than not (and rejection of the assertion of a miracle would be justified either way).
Hume says, the mere testimony that a miracle occurred should be dismissed out of hand unless the falsehood of the assertion would require believing the miraculous, itself.
Hume seems to assume the possibility of such corroborative evidence, but a simple application of math belies the lack of substance he saw in anything miraculous. Nil plus nil equals nil.
As Hume’s approach is a mathematical one, we can see by the application of math and the value Hume has given to the miraculous the impossibility of establishing proof of a miracle on Hume’s position. The likelihood of proof is nil.
Indeed, he sets his bar so high and makes the requisite proof so onerous that a miracle would be required to prove a miracle. Lest there be any doubt about the meaninglessness of Hume’s standard, he admits:
“I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved….”
Hume is saying that miracles cannot be proven by any amount or kind of evidence.
For this reason, Hume’s argument against miracles seems (to me) to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning. I am surprised, therefore, that we take him at all seriously. To give further illustration and to remove all doubt about his pretense, Hume seems to beg the question in the following example:
“But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized [sic] at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event.”
The fact that people still take him seriously, though the blunt force of his conviction seems stronger than his argument, is one reason I address him here.
Hume’s purported reliance on human experience in making his argument is betrayed by his ultimate conviction that human beings are incapable of understanding reality. He is the ultimate skeptic, and (I maintain) we should be most skeptical of people who are skeptical about everything. Especially when they exempt their own strong convictions from that skepticism!
Hume is also arbitrary in the premises on which he builds his “argument” (such as it is). He might say that the assumptions he makes are self-evident, but that would simply be another way of saying that he cannot prove them.
As for Hume’s reliance on human experience, it’s not that he asserts a purely subjective standard. He purports to know the totality of human experience.
Of course, one person in the 21st century with access to the Internet can hardly claim to know the totality of human experience. A man who lived in the 18th century on a British Isle in the North Sea cannot credibly establish a standard for the totality of human experience in all times and places.
Further, implicit in Hume’s reliance on the common experience of human beings is the assumption that human beings are the appropriate – indeed the only – standard by which truth and reality should be measured. This, of course, is the hallmark for the Enlightenment: the exaltation of the human mind.
That Hume was ultimately skeptical of the capacity of the human mind is to his credit. Still, he succumbs effectually to the deification of the human mind. He relies with rash confidence on his own ability to reason miracles out of existence.
Though humans have been remarkably adaptive and inventive in accumulating knowledge and understanding of the mechanics of the world in which we live, we still don’t know what we don’t know. We have achieved some consensus on many things, but consensus views have been known to change over time as we discover new evidence and achieve new understanding.
More to the point, though, human beings are merely creatures in a universe of which we are unable to determine its origin. Not having created the universe, and not even knowing from whence the universe came, we should not expect more of ourselves than we are capable.
I find it ironic that Hume ultimately “concluded that no theory of reality is possible” for human beings who are relegated to their own experience – finite and limited as it is. Yet, he was willing (dare I say eager) to draw sharp lines and concrete conclusions on ultimate matters, like whether God or miracles are possible.
On his conclusion that we are incapable of objectively establishing a theory of reality, he seems to recognize the humility of the human condition. But then, he ploughs ahead (damn the torpedo’s!) to ultimate conclusions about the existence of God and miracles. He should have stopped humbly at the recognition of the finitude and limitation of the human mind.
Given Hume’s convictions on the limitations of human ability to know reality, it’s curious that he took on arguments refuting the existence of God at all. Why bother? (Unless satire is the actual point.)
I actually agree with Hume that “humans are creatures more of sensitive and practical sentiment than of reason” (a summary of Hume’s thought). Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and agnostic, makes the same point in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Overreliance on the human ability to reason is misplaced. We don’t seem to reason to know truth as much as to support our conceptions and commitment to the truth that we favor. We seem to arrive at our conceptions of the truth more intuitively, and maybe more emotionally, than we care to admit.
Yet, I believe that truth is absolute, and truth is knowable. It’s just that we (humans) might not know when we know it, and we might suppose we do know it when we don’t.
Unlike Hume, I believe in the necessity of a Creator God in Whom absolute truth and reality resides. We did not create the universe, so who or what did?
I don’t believe it was a what, because everything we know about the universe is that it seems to have had a beginning (says Hawking). It turns out that even a multiverse (an infinite panoply of universes) must have a beginning also (says Borde, Guth and Valenkin).
For something to have initiated a universe (or a multiverse), it would have to be transcendent and to have agency – the ability to initiate an action that is not caused mechanically by another action. This is the Christian conception of God. The existence of God makes more sense of the universe and our experience in it to me than the absence of God.
We, being part and parcel of the universe with a beginning a finite time ago, are unable, on our own, to transcend it. If a transcendent God exists, He would have to initiate the contact with us for us to know anything about Him, including the fact of His existence.
Such a God would also have to build into us some ability to understand such transcendence. We would not come by it ourselves, limited as we are to the material universe in which our existence is confined.
None of these things proves that God exists any more than Hume’s strong repulsion of Christianity and “religionists” proves that God does not exist and that miracles do not happen. All of this is simply groundwork for getting to a starting place from which we might consider the proposition of the existence of God and of the Christian conception of God.
Ultimately, we can’t rely on miracles. They don’t tell us much other than to suggest some reality beyond the limits of our natural world. We also can’t say definitively, as Hume tried to argue, that they don’t happen.
On Hume’s argument, a marvelous event that happened only once in human experience, and never happened again, such as the beginning of a universe – which occurred only one time in the last 13 to 14 Billion years – is so unlikely to have happened that only a miracle might justify believing it. According to Hume, we shouldn’t believe it, though every human being in existence is gullible enough to embrace it.
Well, I do believe in our universe, and that miracle leaves me open to believing in a God who might have created it. I don’t believe that is the end of the discussion, but it gets us somewhere near the beginning of it, perhaps.