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Hume’s Beautiful Argument


Whenever I reread Section X (“Of Miracles”) of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, I am once again struck by the beauty, simplicity, and the power of his argument. Philosophers have spilt oceans of ink commenting on this argument, and many of those comments have been critical, often harshly so. Hume himself was rather proud of his reasoning on miracles:

Nothing is so convenient as an argument of this kind, which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument … which, if just, will with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful so long as the world endures. [emphasis original] (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 144)

Hume was right; his legion of detractors are wrong. Given the limitations that Hume places on his claims, the argument is obviously and undeniably sound, and will indeed be of use as long as there are aggressive ax grinders for the supernatural. In other words, it will indeed be useful “so long as the world endures.”

The limitations that Hume places on his argument are these:

  1. His argument is defensive in nature. Hume does not present his argument as a knockdown critique aimed at demolishing any and all belief in miracles. More modestly, he aims to provide tools that the “wise and learned” may use as an “everlasting check” against the “impertinent solicitations” of aggressive miracle mongers. He is not attempting to show the irrationality of belief in the miraculous; rather, he is defending the rationality of unbelief. His arguments provide grounds for reasonable doubt concerning the miraculous.
  2. Hume considers only miracle claims supported solely by human testimony. He does not consider cases where, for instance, there might be a direct public demonstration of miraculous powers, like walking on water or raising the dead. Nor is he concerned with possible physical traces of miracles, such as those claimed for the so-called Shroud of Turin. His argument concerns only evidence from one or more witnesses who claim to have observed miraculous occurrences.
  3. Hume targets only those extraordinary claims adduced with a specifically apologetic intent—those cited with the aim of establishing the credentials of a purported revelation. Indeed, he does not deny that there might be adequate testimonial evidence for the occurrence of events contrary to the usual course of nature (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 163; more on this below). He denies that a miracle can ever be proved by testimony “so as to be the foundation of a system of religion” (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 163). That is, he denies that testimonial evidence can ever support a religion’s miracle claims strongly enough to establish that religion’s claim to unique truth or legitimacy. Hume holds that the well-prepared skeptic can always reasonably deny such claimed credentials.

In short, Hume holds that no religion can establish beyond reasonable doubt its credentials as the one true, definitive, or authoritative revelation by appeal to miracle claims supported solely by human testimony. On the contrary, it will always be eminently reasonable to doubt such miracle claims.

Given these qualifications, what is Hume’s argument? The argument begins, as many good philosophical arguments do, with our commonsense and intuitive judgments. Rational persons do not believe everything that they are told; rather, they proportion their belief to the evidence. When someone tells us that something is the case, we have to consider two types of evidence in deciding whether their testimony is believable. First, we obviously have to consider the reliability of the person making the claim. Is he honest? Does he have a motivation to lie or prevaricate? Is he prone to fantasy or delusion? Even if he is honest and not delusional, does he have the qualifications necessary to reliably make such a report? Clearly, for instance, we would accept only the report of an expert ornithologist that a living ivory-billed woodpecker had been sighted (if even then). As Hume puts it:

We entertain a suspicion of any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict one another; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 146)

Secondly, and crucially, we have to consider how plausible the claim is apart from the particular present testimony. Some stories are so far-fetched, so absolutely incredible, that they are not believable even if told by a person of absolute trustworthiness. If saintly Mother Teresa had announced that she flew to her Nobel Peace Prize ceremony not in an aircraft, but simply by flapping her arms, then I presume that no sane person would have believed her. In general, however reliable some testifier may be, reasonable persons reserve the right to remain incredulous if the claim is just too unbelievable. As Hume put it:

I would not believe that story were it told me by Cato [a noble Roman of impeccable honesty], was a proverbial saying in Rome even during the life of that philosophical patriot…. The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 147)

The upshot is that the believability of a claim based on testimony comes down to (a) the reliability of the testifier(s) and (b) the prior plausibility of the claim. If the purported witness or witnesses are unreliable and/or the claim is just too implausible, then we rightly discount the testimony. Now just as the reliability of witnesses comes in degrees, so too does the plausibility of claims. Some claims are so prosaic that we demand little evidence to accept them and might even accept the word of a fool. A story might be so trite that I would believe that story were it told me by Sarah Palin. However, the more implausible the claim, the more worthy the testimony must be to make the claim credible. As the Skeptical Inquirer crowd likes to put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

What constitutes worthy testimony? Simple: testimony strongly supports a claim when (a) we are very likely to have the testimony if the claim is true and (b) we are very unlikely to have the testimony if the claim is untrue. In evaluating claims supported by testimony, item (b)—the likelihood that the testimony would be given even if the claim is untrue—is often particularly important. For instance, if someone tells me that he saw Bigfoot in the woods last week, I would probably think that he would be quite likely to say that he had seen the furry critter if in fact he had. On the other hand, given what we know about human dishonesty and fallibility, I might also think that it is rather likely that he would say that he had seen Bigfoot when, in fact, he had not. In that case I would give his testimony little credence.

Surely up to this point Hume’s argument claims absolutely nothing that any reasonable person need dispute. Really, how could he be wrong? Should we just believe any claims that we find congenial, and not bother to check them out? Should we just ignore the motives, character, or qualifications of the person making a claim? Does it just not matter if a claim is extremely implausible? Should we regard far-fetched claims with the same casual indifference that we do everyday ones? So far Hume is merely articulating the most basic and indispensable epistemological commonplaces when it comes to the rational assessment of testimony. Yet Hume’s whole argument concerning miracle claims rests on these commonplaces. Maybe the reason why so many philosophers have had problems with Hume’s argument is that they cannot believe that it is really so simple, and in the process of straining to make something deeper or more profound out of it, they have created a straw man of his actual argument.

So, how extraordinary are miracle claims? By definition, as extraordinary as can be. Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by the particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 149). Forget the stuff about the invisible agent; consider the requirement that a miracle be a transgression of a law of nature. It is essential to note that this is not a gratuitous stipulation by Hume. On the contrary, it is absolutely essential for the miracle claimer that the miracle is in some sense more than merely extraordinary. If a miracle claim is to do the job of establishing the credentials of a religion, showing even the hard-bitten skeptic that it is the only true or legitimate one, then it cannot be the sort of event that the skeptic would rightly and reasonably dismiss. It cannot be something that is merely highly extraordinary or very unusual, like your cable TV company lowering its rates and improving its service. It has to be something that is genuinely physically impossible—that is, something which, to the best of our knowledge, and short of supernatural intervention, just cannot happen.

In one of the skits from the old Monty Python TV series from the 1960s, a sleazy character exploits a deranged individual by putting him up to a series of impossible tasks, like jumping the English Channel in one leap, eating an entire cathedral, and digging to Java with a shovel. Everything we know about human capacities tells us that such things simply cannot be done. It is not just that we do not do these things; we cannot. Leaping the English Channel, eating a cathedral, and digging to Java with a shovel are things which, for a human being, are physically impossible. Therefore, if someone, with a straight face, reported that some such event had occurred, we should initially regard such a report with maximum incredulity, right? Is there the slightest chance that a man could eat a cathedral for lunch, or that a nun could fly by flapping her arms, or that a cow could jump over the moon? Nobody could possibly deny that such a report would be anything but utterly unbelievable. Surely, no featherless biped would be so pointlessly and perversely argumentative as to deny that.

Well, some philosophers might be. Philosophers, particularly those of a Bayesian bent, will point out that the believability of a claim for an individual depends crucially upon that individual’s prior beliefs, and that these may rationally vary greatly from person to person. A claim that is utterly incredible for one person might not be so unbelievable to another, depending upon those persons’ “priors.” For instance, if I believe that Senator Sleazymann is a bribable, influence-peddling lapdog of major campaign donors, then I will tend to believe it when I hear that the Ethics Committee has brought charges of vote selling against him. On the other hand, an admirer of the Senator, one who regards him as honest and upright, will, initially at least, tend to doubt the charges. Given our very different prior beliefs, it may well be that neither of us is being irrational in our initial attitudes toward the Ethics Committee’s charges. The underlying point about human rationality is this: when we assess the believability of any claim, we have no choice but to begin on our own epistemic turf. We have to start where we are, with the convictions that we presently have. Now the evidence for a new claim might lead us to abandon or revise our present beliefs, but our initial attitude toward the claim—how plausible or implausible we regard it (and hence how heavy a burden of proof we will place on the claim)—must be determined by our present convictions.

All of these points about rationality are relevant to the credibility of miracle reports in the following way. Some people who receive such reports will be skeptics like Hume, who will rightly regard such reports as maximally implausible and consequently place a mountainous burden of proof on such reports. On the other hand, some who hear such reports might be theists who believe that there is a God who is capable of performing miracles and who will perform them when he deems the time right. Hence, when an appropriate miracle is reported in an appropriate context (and not something silly like flying nuns or tunneling to Java), then such a person might reasonably initially regard such a report as less than totally incredible. Suppose, for instance, that a devout Jew were, for the first time, to read the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. Such a person, being a believer in a God who can and has performed miracles (e.g., the parting of the Red Sea), might reasonably regard these reports with less initial skepticism than would, say, Hume. Thus, it is wrong to say that reports of physically impossible events should always be regarded as maximally implausible by everyone. Some such reports might reasonably be regarded by some people as not quite so outrageously implausible, and so they might reasonably place a lower burden of proof on those claims.

OK, fair enough. But remember that Hume is interested in whether there could ever be sufficient evidence to convince the skeptic, one who initially regards such reports as maximally improbable. If you want to convince me that a miracle has occurred, then you have to address my priors, not yours. Furthermore, I may be fully within my epistemic rights to initially regard your miracle claims as no more believable than reports of flying nuns or tunneling to Java.

Could there be sufficient testimonial evidence to convince even the hard-bitten skeptic that a miracle had occurred? Hume’s answer is that, in principle, yes. Some critics of Hume, sometimes deploying much sophisticated Bayesian machinery, have argued that the testimony of a sufficient number of independent witnesses could overcome even a very low prior probability for such an occurrence. But such effort is wasted if it is intended as a criticism of Hume. Hume concedes the point. Indeed, Hume’s explicit conclusion to Part I of his essay is that the burden of proof could, in principle, be met:

When anyone tells me that he saw a dead person restored to life I immediately consider with myself whether it is more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or the fact, which he relates, should really have happened … if the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 149)

In other words, Hume says that he will accept a miracle report when (and only when) the improbability of the report’s falsehood is even greater than the prior improbability of the miracle. You just cannot ask for a fairer procedure than that. Indeed, Hume’s point is quite trivial and would apply to any testimony for any event. As noted earlier, in evaluating any piece of testimony, we weigh the reliability of the testimony against the prior improbability of the event. We accept the occurrence of even an improbable event if we judge the testimony to be reliable enough (i.e., sufficiently unlikely to be false). What makes Hume’s claim interesting is not the epistemological principle, which is commonplace, but the degree of prior improbability the skeptic can reasonably assign to miracle claims, and the consequent burden of proof he can put on the supporting testimony.

Indeed, near the end of his essay Hume proposes a scenario in which an event apparently contrary to natural law would not only be believable, but certain on the basis of testimony:

I own … that there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travelers who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident that our present philosophers [i.e., scientists] instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 163)

Eight days of total darkness over the whole earth would certainly seem as prodigious and inexplicable as a resurrection, yet Hume admits that testimony could establish its occurrence beyond reasonable doubt. That so many independent witnesses would separately concoct the identical story is surely even more improbable than eight days of total darkness.

Contrary to popular philosophical opinion, then, the purpose Part I of Hume’s miracle essay cannot be to exclude the possibility that a miracle report could be confirmed by testimony—unless we take it that Hume blatantly contradicts what he said in the above passage. It seems to me that Hume’s aim in Part I is not to say that it is (in principle) never rational to accept a miracle report, but merely to show how heavy a burden of proof such a claim must bear when it is directed toward the well-prepared skeptic. The purpose of Part II is to adduce historical evidence to show how unlikely it is that any actual miracle claim can meet such a burden. In “Of Miracles” Hume speaks as both a philosopher and a historian. The philosopher delineates the ideal case, the conditions under which the burden of proof could conceivably be met by the miracle claimant. The historian asks whether any actual miracles have met that burden—that is, whether any actual miracle claim has approximated the philosopher’s ideal case. If the answer is negative, and if history is any guide (and if it isn’t, what is?), then the philosopher can step back in and draw conclusions about the kinds of miracle claims that we are likely to get (now that he is informed by the historical findings). This is Hume’s procedure.

At the beginning of Part II, Hume reiterates his conclusion from Part I that a miracle claim could conceivably be established by probative testimony. He then in effect tells us: “And you should be so lucky as to ever get such ideal testimony!” In fact, the actual historical circumstances in which miracle claims have been made have rendered such testimony far below ideal. Hume lists four circumstances of historical miracle claims that are detrimental to the credibility of those claims.

First, he simply claims that the actual historical records of miracle reports fall far short of ideal cases:

[T]here is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to assure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond any suspicion of design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and, at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 150)

But this is assertion, not argument. Defenders of historical miracle claims, such as those reported in the Gospels, would rightly regard Hume as here merely begging the question. If Hume’s comments here are taken to address the miracle claims in the Gospels, then in my view Hume seriously understates the problems for those claims. However, this conclusion has to be established and not merely asserted. Even the best philosophers sometimes make freshman mistakes.

Hume’s second cited circumstance is much more relevant:

We may observe a principle in human nature which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy…. The passions of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 151)

Hume merely observes a fact that cannot be denied—that people love tall tales:

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of land and sea monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men and uncouth manners? (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 151)

Two-and-a-half centuries of scientific progress since Hume have certainly not made things any different for us. On any random day it is a good bet that somewhere on TV you can find a program about UFOs, alien abductions, the “prophecies” of Nostradamus, ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, ghosts, ESP, etc. People still eat this stuff up, just as they did in Hume’s day. When you hear hoofbeats in the distance, you should think “Aha! Horses!” not “Aha! Unicorns!” But unicorns are a lot more fun. A little over two decades ago Phoenix, Arizona was all abuzz over a big “UFO” sighting. People were obviously disappointed to learn that it was due to the US Air Force dropping long-burning flares, and quite a few refused to accept that explanation. ETs are fun; flares are just lame.

But the natural human love of the weird and wondrous is less than half of the story:

But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast [i.e., a fanatic] and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 151)

Now lying for Jesus is sadly common, but the most interesting cases are those that do not involve deliberate misrepresentation. Some years ago a woman in Conyers, Georgia claimed to have visitations from the Virgin Mary on the thirteenth of every month. She would report the banal “revelations” that she supposedly received. When the thirteenth of the month fell on a Sunday, hundreds of thousands would gather and have a kind of Catholic Woodstock. Now at these gatherings various miraculous events would be reported. One of the most common, also reported in conjunction with the events at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, was that the sun was dancing and spinning in the sky. A skeptical friend attended one of these events and set up a telescope with a solar filter, calling upon all who would look to see that the sun was not performing a fandango, but was merely up to its usual activities. Yet people all around continued to claim that the sun was gyrating, and no doubt they honestly thought that it was.

Actually, we know far more now than was known in Hume’s day about how people under the spell of powerful motivations or obsessions can form false beliefs. For instance, much work has been done on false memories to show how easily people can be led to “remember” events that never happened. Furthermore, it has been shown many times how beliefs distort perception. Astronomer Carl Sagan offers a number of telling examples:

Teachers are presented with two groups of children who have, unknown to them, tested equally well on all examinations. But the teachers are informed that one group is smart and the other dumb. The subsequent grades reflect that initial and erroneous assessment, independent of the performance of the students. Predispositions bias conclusions…. Witnesses are shown a motion picture of an automobile accident. They are then asked a series of questions such as “Did the blue car run the stop sign?” A week later, when questioned again, a large proportion of the witnesses claim to have seen a blue car—despite the fact that no remotely blue car is in the film. There seems to be a stage, shortly after an eyewitness event, in which we verbalize what we think we have seen and then forever after lock it into our memories. We are very vulnerable in that stage, and any prevailing beliefs—in Olympian gods or Christian saints or extraterrestrial astronauts, say—can unconsciously influence our eyewitness account. (Sagan, 1979, pp. 67-68).

Examples of the sort Sagan adduces could be multiplied indefinitely. It is clear that people very often “see” what they want or expect to see rather than what is actually there. People who very much want to see a miracle, especially if they are in a crowd with similarly minded people, are quite likely to “see” a miracle (and so in miracle reports, the presence of many witnesses often lowers the credibility of the report). In short, modern research has greatly strengthened Hume’s claims here.

Third, Hume notes that traditions about miracles generally arise in “ignorant and barbarous nations” (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 152), and if more sophisticated cultures retain such traditions, they generally inherited them from more primitive ancestors. Now modern readers may find Hume’s language about “ignorant and barbarous nations” to be offensively condescending. With our more sensitive attitudes, we might prefer to refer to “prescientific” or “premodern” societies without implying that they were, in general, ignorant and barbarous, and thus, by implication, inferior to us. Be that as it may, what exactly is Hume’s point here?

Philosopher of mind John Searle tells a story that might be relevant. When he was a visiting professor at the University of Venice, Searle lived near a cathedral called the “Madonna dell’Orto,” the Madonna of the Orchard. The story goes that when the cathedral was under construction (in the 13th or 14th century, I guess) the builders had planned to give it a different name. Then a tiny statue of the Madonna was found in an orchard adjacent to the rising cathedral. This was unanimously taken as a sign of the divine will, indicating that the cathedral was to be named after the Madonna, and so it was. Today, Searle notes, if we found a Madonna statuette in a lot next to a church under construction, even the most religious people would probably shrug and dismiss it as a coincidence rather than a supernatural sign (Searle, 1998, p. 35). People in past centuries lived with a sense of God’s direct presence and activity in the details of their daily lives that even the devout today would find extraordinary. Searle thinks that today the prevailing attitude, even among religious people, is that stuff just happens.

Suppose that Searle and Hume are right. Suppose that people in general (at least in economically advanced societies) are now less credulous about miracles than, say, Jewish fishermen 2000 years ago. So what? What is the bearing of this anthropological generalization on the question of the confirmation of miracle claims? There is no bearing if the reporters of a miracle claim are not in fact “ignorant and barbarous.” Suppose that a committee consisting of James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Peter Atkins, and the editors of Skeptical Inquirer unanimously reported that a resurrection from the dead had been performed in their presence. Strictures against the credulity of the “ignorant and barbarous” would have no relevance to the evaluation of this testimony.

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case that the historical miracle reports that matter the most did originate in ancient societies among unsophisticated and uneducated people who displayed little aptitude for or inclination toward the critical evaluation of miracle reports. An obvious case in point is the purported resurrection of Jesus. The followers of Jesus were simple and uneducated people. There is no reason to think that they were stupid or dishonest, but neither is there any reason to think that they were less subject to the kinds of experiences that erroneously convince such people, to this day, that miraculous events have occurred. Nor is there any reason to think that they would have taken a particularly skeptical attitude toward reports that appeared to corroborate their experiences. In short, it is quite likely that the belief that Jesus rose from the dead could have gotten started without Jesus actually rising from the dead. To the extent that this is so, we are justified in regarding the report of Jesus’ resurrection with skepticism.

The upshot is that miracle claims need not originate among the “ignorant and barbarous”—but the historically most important ones did. So we are justified in being extra skeptical of such reports. The general point to make here is that a credible witness to a purported miracle must possess and employ skills that are rare even today, and certainly were nonexistent among the alleged witnesses of the reported biblical miracles. As Hume explains, miracle claims usually do not get the critical attention that they need until they are rooted traditions and the opportunities for critical investigation have passed:

In the infancy of new religions, the wise and the learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat, in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, are perished beyond recovery. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 162)

Finally, Hume notes that competing religions make competing miracle claims (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 154). When different religions vie for the right to be called the one true religion, or the final and most authoritative revelation, then any miracles they adduce to support that claim are opposed by the supporting miracles claimed for the other side/s. Apologists for religion A cannot engage in special pleading when they criticize the miracles adduced in support of competing religion B. The tools of skepticism cannot be deployed to debunk religion B’s miracle claims and then just thrown away when it comes to religion A’s miracles. This appears to pose a dilemma for apologists for religion A. If they set their standards for miracle reports too high, then in debunking religion B’s miracle claims, they might provide grounds for debunking their own. On the other hand, if they set their standards low enough so that their miracles reports pass, then the rival miracle reports might also make the grade. Thus, whether they set their standards for assessing miracle claims high or low, apologists are in danger of undermining their own case.

The standard response to this dilemma is to deny that the purported miracles performed in the context of other religions compete with the ones performed in the context of one’s own religion. For instance, one could argue that the Christian God might hear a Hindu’s or Muslim’s prayer for relief and mercifully perform a miraculous healing even though the prayer was addressed to Vishnu or Allah. Thus, even miracles performed when other gods are called upon might be taken to complement, not compete with, the Christian claim that a merciful God exists.

Not all miracle claims need compete, but some clearly do. A few years ago there was a big brouhaha in the news when a bigoted Baptist preacher—a supporter of then-presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry—dismissed Mormonism as a “cult.” To me, of course, this was like the Tooth Fairy ridiculing the Easter Bunny for being imaginary. But suppose that we staged a debate between a Southern Baptist apologist and a Mormon apologist. Suppose that the Mormon adduced the golden tablets allegedly discovered by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, which were allegedly observed by several witnesses who signed documents attesting such. The Baptist would no doubt try to debunk such testimony, but a clever atheist in the audience might wonder whether those same debunking tools could not be used against the miracle claims in the Bible. In short, how can the Baptist be sure that he will not be hoisted with his own petard?

Of course, apologists will brazen it out and claim that their miracles meet high standards of evidence while competing ones do not. Such arguments provide skeptics with many hours of pleasant and useful diversion as they poke big holes in such apologetic claims. For example, see the contributions of Robert M. Price, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, and Richard C. Carrier in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005).

OK, then, what tools has Hume given the skeptic when the skeptic is confronted with a miracle claim supported solely by human testimony and aimed at establishing the credentials of a purported revelation? First, he notes that we skeptics rightly place a very heavy burden of proof on such a claim. How heavy? As heavy as we like. Again, I get to appeal to my priors, not the apologist’s. If someone reports an event which, apart from that testimony, I have every reason to believe is physically impossible, then I have every right initially to regard that testimony as implausible in the extreme—as implausible as flying nuns and cows jumping over the moon. Second, I ask whether the alleged witnesses of the purported event might have deceived or have been deceived. There are innumerable circumstances, some mentioned by Hume and many more adduced by more recent research, that can make it highly likely that a given miracle report will be made even when no miracle has occurred. The well-known foibles of human perception and memory, and the bias introduced by zeal and wishful thinking, undeniably account for the overwhelming majority of miracle reports. Third, if the miracle report originated in a culture that was credulous about such reports and among people who, so far as we can tell, were neither qualified nor inclined to critically investigate such reports, then we have extra reasons to doubt. Finally, if the religion that the miracle claims are adduced to support is opposed by other purported revelations supported by their own alleged miracles, the skeptic can regard those antagonistic miracle claims as undermining each other.

Hume sums up by considering the miracle claims in the first five books of the Old Testament:

Here then 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 it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of the state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: Of our fall from that state: Of the age of man extended to near a thousand years: Of the arbitrary choice of one people as the favorites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author: Of their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing imaginable: I desire any one to lay his hand on his heart, and after serious consideration declare, whether he thinks the falsehood of such a book, supported by such testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates. (Hume, 1748/1988, p. 166)

So much, then, for the founding miracle claims of Judaism and (also clearly for Hume) Christianity. Here is the appropriate place to put in Hume’s claim about the general failure of historical miracle claims to meet the requisite standards of proof.

Still, though, could a miracle claim supported by testimony and aimed at establishing the credentials of a purported revelation ever negotiate this minefield of difficulties and plant its flag in the skeptic’s camp? Maybe none have up to now, but what about the future? Can we be absolutely confident that no miracle report ever will meet the burden of proof? Well, as Hume delighted in arguing elsewhere in the Enquiry, foretelling the future is dicey to say the least. So the skeptic need not assert categorically and dogmatically that no miracle report will ever meet the burden of proof. But if the past is any guide—and again, if it is not, then what is?—the skeptic can confidently sit and wait for such an eventuality, knowing that, as Hume said, the folly, knavery, credulity, and fanaticism of human beings will generate miracle claims for the indefinite future. When they are generated, Hume’s beautiful argument will be there to deal with them.


Hume, David. (1988). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ed. Antony Flew. LaSalle, IL: Open Court. (Originally published 1748).

Price, Robert M. & Jeffrey Jay Lowder. (Eds.). (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sagan, Carl. (1979). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Searle, John. (1998). Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Copyright ©2019 Keith Parsons. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.

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