No, David Hume’s Treatise Against Miracles is Not Knock-down Argument

The apostle Paul said that Christianity stands or falls on the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:14) Yet for many religious skeptics, any argument made for a miracle is a project doomed from the start. It simply cannot get off the ground. Why is that the case?

Enter the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume.

In 1748 Hume wrote a short essay called Of Miracles. Hume vigorously argued that one can ever rationally believe a miracle claim because there is always more evidence that one did not occur. Michael Shermer has gone so far to say that “I think his treatise against miracles is pretty much a knockdown argument. Everything else is a footnote”.

Shermer isn’t alone. Hume’s argument has been the lynchpin of many biblical scholars and critics who reject miracles. It’s why Bart Ehrman will say things like “Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition, a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened.”

Hume’s argument against belief in miracles

Here’s the main summary of Hume’s argument from the man himself:

“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and because firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the case against a miracle is—just because it is a miracle—as complete as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined to be…”

Of Miracles, Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 

Put differently, we have ample evidence for the laws of nature through our everyday experience. We observe regularly that seas do not part. Ax heads sink in water, they don’t float. Virgins don’t become pregnant. Dead people stay dead.

Echoing Hume, here’s the skeptical philosopher Larry Shapiro:

“Even granting the tremendous reliability of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, the case for accepting their account is very weak. How many people return from the dead? It must be very low, far less than the number of people who have a serious disease in our analogy. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God resurrects one in a billion people. This means that even if the witnesses to the resurrection were incredibly reliable (perhaps they misidentify non-miraculous events as miraculous only one in a million times), the chance that they were correct about Jesus’ resurrection would be only one in a thousand.”

So when faced with a choice – uncertain evidence versus the strongest possible evidence – a wise person should always choose the stronger evidence. A betting man will always come down on the side of scientific laws rather than their supernatural violation.


David Hume

So was Hume’s treatise really a knock-down argument?

In a word, no. The reality is Hume was answered by many of his own contemporaries. Many of his critics astutely pointed out that you can’t use the regular order of nature as evidence against miracles.

Non-plussed by Hume’s essay, William Adams wrote: “An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature before there can be anything extraordinary. A river must flow before its stream can be interrupted. It is strange, therefore, that this uniformity, which is implied in the nature of a miracle, should at the same time be inconsistent with it.”

To help us better understand using less 18th-century speak, here’s an argument from philosopher Tim McGrew:

1. In religious contexts, miracles are supposed to function as signs.

2. Miracles that function as signs would be impossible unless they took place against the backdrop of a stable natural order since that’s what enables them to function as signs.

Therefore,

3. The existence of a stable order of nature cannot be used as an argument against miracles in religious contexts.

Of course, the resurrection wouldn’t stand out unless dead men normally stay dead. Moses would have never been curious to “see this strange sight” if bushes regularly burn and yet are not consumed. (Exodus 3:3) Science does a good job telling us what nature does on its own. But why assume that it’s left to its own? If God exists and wants to get our attention to get a special message across – like as in a “let my people go” message, he can act beyond what nature normally does.

Anyone can claim to speak for God using eloquent words. Muhammad dared his critics to write verses superior to the Qu’ran as proof of its inspiration. (Surah 2:23-24) The Book of Mormon says that if you ask God to show you the truth, you’ll sense a “burning in your bosom” that Mormonism is the real deal. (Moroni 10:8, Doctrines and Covenants 9:8)

I’m sympathetic to those who find the Mormon or Islamic challenges unpersuasive. But resurrection is a different matter altogether. The widow who cared for Elijah understood this. After her son was raised by the dead by Elijah she said: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” (1 Kings 17:24) Nicodemus basically said the same thing to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)

William Paley was living during the same time of Hume. Regarding miracles serving as signs, he wrote:

“Now, in what way can a revelation be made but by miracles? In none which we are able to conceive. Consequently, in whatever degree it is probable, or not very improbable, that a revelation should be communicated to mankind at all; in the same degree is it probable, or not very improbable, that miracles should be wrought”

Here’s the bottom line:

If there is a God and he wants to make a revelation clear, then miracles aren’t improbable. They’re bound to happen at some point in history.

Like Paul said in Acts 26:8, “Why do any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” God’s no dummy. He wouldn’t rent a billboard and use a black font against a black background. What Hume is asking us to do is make a false choice. Those who follow his reasoning aren’t interested in looking at the evidence, they’re just dismissing themselves from their duty to do so.

It’s really just an argument from incredulity, and that’s not a good way to argue. Sure, we don’t need to accept every strange claim that is made, but if there can be good evidence marshaled in favor of a miracle, we should at least have an open mind.

Paley again hits the nail on the head when he says (caution: long sentence alert!): “If twelve men, whose honesty and good sense I had long known, should seriously and circumstantially relate to me an account of a miracle wrought before their eyes, and in which it was impossible that they should be deceived; if the governor of the country, hearing a rumor of this account, should call these men into his presence, and offer them a short proposal, either to confess the imposture or submit to be [hung], if they should refuse with one voice to acknowledge that there existed any falsehood or imposture in the case; if this threat was communicated to them separately, yet with no different effect; if it was at last executed; if I myself saw them, one after another, consenting to be racked, burned, or strangled, rather than give up the truth of their account; — still, if Mr. Hume’s rule be my guide, I am not to believe them. Now I undertake to say, that there exists not a skeptic in the world who would not believe them, or who would defend such incredulity.”

Basically….

Hume’s argument begs the question

Paley is right. It feels as if Hume is asking us to close our minds and to not think. Furthermore, by saying a firm and unalterable experience counts against the belief in miracles he’s also begging the question. All of human testimony and experience is completely against miracles? Really? How would Hume know this? C.S. Lewis calls this out in his book Miracles:

“Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely “uniform experience” against miracles, if in other words, they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately, we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports of them to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.”

As GK Chesterton has said “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

Hume’s argument is celebrated in skeptical circles as a knock-down argument, but it’s vastly overrated. Don’t fall for it. It presents a false choice between the laws of science and miracles and it is based on circular reasoning. It’s no small wonder why John Earman, a non-religious philosopher, calls it an abject failure.

For more:

How to Think About Miracles – Dr. Tim McGrew. Much of what I have written here I’d attribute to Dr. McGrew. This lecture is well worth your time.
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