Originally published online at Wondering Fair.
Miracles. Big ones. Things like raising dead people or walking on water. How on earth are we meant to believe such things in the 21st Century? David Hume, perhaps the greatest sceptic to belief in miracles, presents us this challenge:
it forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations that they 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.
Believe in miracles, says Hume, and you must be pretty ignorant. Hmm. Well, perhaps he was unaware of the clever men around him like Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton who all did believe in miracles. I suspect he might not convince everyone with such ‘ad hominem’ approaches. He has another argument, though:
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.
Hume sees miracles as violating nature and therefore they can’t exist almost by definition. But he considers these laws to be inviolable and all powerful, if you like. But what if there existed a greater power who could overrule those laws? For example, an apple falls from the tree. It would normally hit the ground and most times it does. However, if I am there and succeed in catching the apple, it won’t. The laws of gravity still hold, but a greater power has intervened. Natural laws can be superseded by a greater power – in this case, me. Well, if I can do this, how much more can God intervene over the laws of nature and perform a miracle if he so chooses.
His third critique can be summed up with the following quote:
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 endeavors to establish.
However, by this reasoning, I think the big bang would be rejected. Firstly, it fails his second condition as it is an unrepeatable singularity in nature and therefore goes against the regular, repeatable laws of nature and would therefore class as a miracle. But secondly, there can be no sufficient testimony for it. Following Hume’s logic then, there is no way the Big Bang can be believed – it is far more plausible to believe in a Creator. But hang on, Hume’s trying to disprove God and miracles …
Thus even this third argument fails as it ultimately denies the very worldview he is trying to establish. His arguments are stated too strongly and need to be reworded to ask whether there are good reasons to believe in a said miracle like the resurrection. And to this challenge, I would reply, absolutely – it is not without reason Christianity is the most popular worldview today with over 2 billion followers. But that is the subject for another blog post.
Hume is right that miracles don’t happen often. But it’s a huge step of faith to say they never do.
All quotes are from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume, chapter 10 freely accessible here: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/hume1748.pdf