David Hume: Last say on miracles?

“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.” David Hume

Those were the words of one of the most important and influential philosophers in the entire history of Western Philosophy, and his claim is that every reasonable person would reject any testimony of a miracle. Since the physical law has been established by the repeated human experience – through the sciences – of regularity in nature, a miracle can be rejected with the very same certainty with which the laws were established. That is, a claim to a miracle should be rejected, since experience has established uniform laws which contradict a miracle.

Hume goes on to say that ‘it is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation’.

The Christian faith holds to the claim that the God who made the universe is a God of miracles. He is a God who has indeed intervened in his creation, namely in the resurrection of his Son from the dead (http://tombell93.com/2013/11/16/was-jesus-resurrected-from-the-dead/). If every claim to a miracle must be rejected, Christianity must be rejected, since the Christian faith relies upon the claim that Jesus was physically dead and then was physically alive. This (you may have guessed it), is a claim to a miracle.

“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” 1 Corinthians 15:14-17

Hume’s argument is twofold. He argues for both uniformity in nature and uniformity in experience. That is 1) that nature behaves in accordance with certain unalterable laws and 2) that experience is consistent and regular, and allows us to observe and understand the physical law. Hume’s understanding of the descriptive of laws of nature is that they stem from consistent experience of regularity, and that consequently these observed laws must hold in every age or eventuality.

A miracle is an event which must go against the uniformity of the laws of nature, Hume claims, and as such is appealing to the assumption that the laws which humans have established through repeated observation of uniform behaviour, must hold in every situation. This is unwarranted. The fact that it has been consistently observed that a dead man remains dead, does not entail that every dead man must remain dead. On the basis of past experience, one cannot predict with complete certainty, the future. A ball which repeatedly falls to the ground upon being released is a regular event – one might say a law – however this law does not account for an intervention, changing the trajectory of the ball, such as a hand.

It is important at this point that I make clear what I mean by physical law. The OED describes a physical law as

“a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts, applicable to a defined group or class of phenomena, and expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present.”

Hume makes it clear from his statement of laws being established through experience, that this is the sense in which he speaks of the physical law. He states that laws are established from our unalterable experience of regular behaviour. A law which states that a ball released from X metres above the ground will strike the ground Y seconds later, is a valid description or model of what is observed, and indeed helps us to predict with some certainty what will happen the next time a ball is released. Yet while this model is accurate in explaining a past event, it is only valid for the description of that particular phenomenon where the very same conditions are present. It cannot be used if there is an intervention. Classical mechanics is accurate for describing the motion of large objects, but cannot be used when the conditions under which it is used are not those from which the law was first established, i.e. on a particle level. This calls for a different explanation, namely, quantum theory. Quantum behaviour is not so much a violation of uniformity in nature, as it is a distinct phenomenon, calling for a separate explanation.

Similarly, the law that dead men remain dead, which is derived from experience, is only accurate insofar as the conditions in which it was first observed remain constant – there is no intervention. In every other circumstance the law becomes irrelevant. Redundant.

What is ironic is that Hume agrees. In fact few – if any – are associated more with the impossibility of the so called ‘Problem of Induction’. Past experience cannot be used to predict the future with certainty. Total uniformity in nature is one thing, but utter uniformity is another. If all of nature is not uniform in every regard – it allows for intervention within certain ‘regularities’ – it is absurd to argue the impossibility of miracles using the uniformity of nature. A miracle is by definition, an intervention into known, predictable and describable regularities. Wholly apart from actual natural uniformity, human descriptions of regularity are very limited to logically necessary conformity, only with specific past human experience.

To paraphrase an illustration from the academic and Christian apologetic C.S. Lewis:

If this week I put a thousand pounds in the draw of my desk and add a thousand next week, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I open my draw, I’ll find two thousand pounds. But suppose I open my draw to find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken? Certainly not! I would conclude that the laws of the State have been broken!

An intervention into our expectation of regularity calls not for a denial of the law upon which we hold, for it is no longer applicable, but rather it calls for an explanation as to why our expectation was not met – why the law is not valid.

The Christian’s claim is not that Jesus spontaneously sprang back to life. That all of his billions of cells started metabolising again, of their own accord. No. It is that the God who designed his body in the first place has intervened.

On these grounds, I advance the hypothesis that Hume was incorrect in arguing that a miracle can be known to be false, purely on the basis of the weight and frequency of the experience used to establish the associated laws of uniformity. I maintain that a miracle is a supernatural intervention into an otherwise predictable situation, which – by its very definition – precludes the relevant use of any established laws.

The question before us thus becomes: ‘has God intervened’?

I believe so.

By | 2018-05-21T11:35:43+00:00 November 21st, 2013|0 Comments

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