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Questioning Miracles: In Defense of David Hume


Hume’s Main Argument
Clarifying Hume’s Main Argument
Graham Oppy’s Misunderstandings
Defending Hume’s Argument
     Objection 1: Hume’s Argument is Circular, So it Begs the Question whether a Miracle Occurred
     Objection 2: Hume’s Definition of a Miracle Makes Miracles Impossible
     Objection 3: Hume’s Argument Would Force us to Reject All Miracles A Priori, Prior to Examining the Evidence
     Objection 4: Hume Fails to Understand Bayes’ Theorem
          First Rebuttal
          Second Rebuttal


David Hume (1711-1776) offered some good philosophical arguments against miracles that still resonate today. His arguments focused on the unreliability of human testimony on behalf of miracles. He did not live in a technological age like ours with modern forensics that include blood analysis, such as blood tests that can determine one’s blood type, detect diseases, and detect poisons, drugs, or alcohol. We also have X-ray technology, DNA evidence, CAT scans, dash cams, and security cameras at convenience stores, on street intersections, and at neighborhood homes. Especially noteworthy are the ubiquitous number of cell phones that give us immediate access to the police by a 911 call, cameras that can capture any event on video, and GPS tracking capability showing where we are at any given time. So Hume didn’t have the capability that we do to either establish or debunk miracles.

In our day the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) once offered a one-million-dollar prize “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” In the half-century that JREF offered the challenge, from 1964 until 2015, no challenger had even gotten past the preliminary test.[1] While this doesn’t show that all paranormal and miracle claims are false, it’s what we would expect to find if all of them were false. Furthermore, science has advanced precisely because it rejected miraculous explanations using Ockham’s razor. This, too, is what we would expect to find if all such explanations were false. Biologists, for instance, are convinced that biological evolution has occurred. Geologists are convinced that plate tectonics is true. Climatologists are convinced that global warming is driven by human choices. And so on. Furthermore, psychologists are not convinced that souls exist, or that telepathy works. Science is a show-stopper for miracle-mongers who put on a show.[2]

One might ask why we even need philosophical arguments here. Why not just teach how science works and why the methods of science are the best means we have to get at the truth? In a real sense we don’t need philosophical arguments, per se, including those from Hume.[3] However, given so many possible existential threats to life on our planet, we should do everything that we can to reach people who value blind faith over scientific evidence.[4] So practically speaking, some believers might be more attentive to listen to Hume than to Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, and the like.[5]

One of the best arguments to help believers acknowledge the value of sufficient evidence is given in my book The Outsider Test for Faith.[6] It challenges them to doubt their own culturally indoctrinated childhood faith for perhaps the first time, as if they had never heard of that faith before. This calls on them to require of their own religious faith what they already require of the religious faiths that they reject. It forces them to rigorously demand logical consistency with their doctrines, along with sufficient evidence for their faith, just as they already demand of the religions that they reject.

Hume is widely regarded as the most important English-speaking philosopher in history. He wrote significant works on empiricism, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. In the latter discipline, Hume offered several powerful objections against miracles in section 10 of his seminal book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, titled “Of Miracles.”[7] My focus in this paper will be on Hume’s arguments in that essay. I intend to defend Hume against some of the most important objections to them.

Let’s start with agnostic philosopher John Earman’s claim that Hume’s essay “is largely unoriginal” and therefore “a largely derivative work.”[8] The other works Earman refers to contain some similarities. But Hume’s arguments, as he specifically laid them out into two parts, are original with Hume. In a real sense, an original contribution can be one that’s considered to be a new and better way to say what’s been said before, which is what I always aim to do. Hume gathered up the arguments of his era and packaged them together into a unique two-pronged approach. He did it in such a convincing manner that it got people’s attention, pro and con.

Sometimes it matters who makes an argument. Hume had already become widely known as a good historian for his massive six-volume series on The History of England, published from 1754 to 1762. In addition, since Hume was not always crystal clear, his essay on miracles invites more attention via controversy than otherwise. Plus, never underestimate the power of ridicule contained in an arrogant challenge. Hume got the attention of his contemporaries by beginning “Of Miracles” like this:

I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. (#86)

We know that Hume’s essay changed the course of theology and even helped to advance science. No other contemporary writer in his day did that. Hume had a great influence on Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the “father” of modern theology, who in turn significantly influenced David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) at the University of Tübingen (1825-1831). Strauss regularly attended Schleiermacher’s “Life of Jesus” lectures. Then in 1835-1836, at the age of 27, Strauss published a massive work in two volumes titled The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. In it Strauss denied the historical value of the Gospels by rejecting its miraculous claims as myths. Hume’s essay also bolstered Darwin’s resolve to pursue the biological evidence of evolution without recourse to a miracle-wielding god. Hume scholars William Morris and Charlotte Brown tell us that “Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence.”[9] Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) made it unreasonable for anyone who accepts science to accept a religion founded on miracles.

Hume’s Main Argument

Hume’s essay “Of Miracles” had two parts. Various ways have been suggested for how they fit together, as will be shown. Part I contains his main argument. In order to reasonably conclude that a miracle took place, an event must have an utterly overwhelming amount of strong human testimony to overcome our experience of the normal daily operation of the laws of nature in which miracles don’t occur. Given our daily experience of the laws of nature it’s not reasonable to accept human testimony that a miracle took place, as it never amounts to an utterly overwhelming amount of strong human testimony. The very best that human testimony could show on behalf of a miraculous event is to equal, or match, our daily experiences from the laws of nature against it. But if it’s possible that this testimonial burden could be met, then we should suspend our judgment since matching equals cancel each other out. Even this remote possibility is not enough for reasonable people to believe in miracle reports.

In Part II Hume goes on to argue against this remote possibility. He offers four supplemental arguments, including concrete examples showing that human testimony has never come close to requiring a suspension of judgment. Consequently, no one should believe human testimony that miracles took place, or that any religion founded on miracles is true. My focus will be on Part I since it’s the most controversial part. Elsewhere I have defended his supplemental arguments.[10]

Hume starts Part I by talking exclusively about probabilities. First, there is personal observation and experience, which are basic, yet still to be thought of in terms of the probabilities:

In our reasonings concerning matters of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. 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. (#87)

Hume turns next to human testimony. We know that every claim about the objective world requires sufficient corroborating evidence commensurate with the nature of the claim. Hume speaks about three types of claims. There are ordinary claims, extraordinary claims, and miraculous claims. The amount (quantity) and strength (quality) of the evidence required is dependent on the type of claim being made. He begins with ordinary testimony:

To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators….

We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.

This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; 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. (#88-89)

Next Hume writes about extraordinary testimony:

Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual…. When the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. (#89)

For Hume, the greater the extraordinary event testified, the less reliable the human testimony is for its occurrence. We would accept the testimony of a foursome group of golfers that one of them sank a hole-in-one during a round of golf. But we would not accept their testimony if they claimed that one of them made 18 of them consecutively in a row. Testimony alone is insufficient for this.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which entails sufficient corroborating evidence commensurate with the nature of the extraordinary claim. That means the evidence should be sufficient, regardless of whether it’s one piece of evidence like a lottery ticket, or a hundred pieces of evidence. It might mean a small amount of evidence, or a small amount of objective evidence, or large amounts very strong objective evidence.

When it comes to a miracle, which is an extraordinary claim of the highest order, Hume says:

But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist. (#90)

If readers think it’s difficult for testimony alone to prove an extraordinary event, a miracle claim greatly increases the probability against testimony. Human testimony alone must be weighed against the proof coming from our uniform experience of the laws of nature. The strongest proof must prevail in proportion to each side, each antagonist.

So Hume has just set the stage to show just how much force the proof of human experience is against the proof of mere human testimony. He begins by defining a miracle:

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. (#90)

He goes on to defend his definition of miracle:

Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature. 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. And as a 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. [italics mine] (#90)

In defending his definition, Hume shows that he’s pretty adamant that miracles have never been observed, especially miracles as dramatic as someone coming back to life from the dead. (Note that not even the Gospels say that Jesus was observed coming out of a tomb!) See the italics? Hume inserted his conclusion within his definition of miracle. Since Hume is always talking about probabilities, this is a gloss, or annotation, on the force of his definition of a miracle. It plays no role in his definition, or in how to test for miracles. One need only look at his closing words to see this: “but by an opposite proof, which is superior.” One proof versus the other proof is still in play.

For the record, Hume is not alone. In the same 18th century in which Hume was writing, German critic Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) argued for what’s known as Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch.” Lessing began by saying matter-of-factly:

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another. But I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen.[11] [italics mine]

Full stop! Lessing didn’t expect his “wise and learned” readers to disagree with his claim that miracles didn’t take place “anymore.” That’s because in the minds of people at that time, there was widespread agreement after the scientific revolution that miracles don’t take place. (They stopped occurring just after the scientific revolution. Imagine that?!)

It was in this same century that American deists founded the United States of America. There was George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Elihu Palmer, Philip Freneau, and especially Thomas Paine. None of them were Bible-believers (to state the obvious). Jefferson produced the Jefferson Bible, an “edition” in which he edited out the New Testament reports of miracles. Paine challenged miracles in a 1794 book that is still in print—and still changing minds: The Age of Reason.[12]

The reason why Hume, Lessing, Jefferson, Paine, and others didn’t believe in miracles goes back to Newtonian science, chiefly the concept that there are laws of nature that are all-encompassing. This led people to see the world as a machine, alternatively described as the Newtonian world machine or a clockwork universe. Given this milieu, miracles had it very tough. But it’s this very milieu that produced a notion of a truly miraculous event, as philosopher Antony Flew described:

A strong notion of the truly miraculous can only be generated if there is first an equally strong conception of a natural order. Where there is as yet no strong conception of a natural order, there is little room for the idea of a genuinely miraculous event as distinct from the phenomenon of a prodigy, of a wonder, or of a divine sign. But once such a conception of a natural order has taken firm root, there is a great reluctance to allow that miracles have in fact occurred, or even to admit as legitimate a concept of the miraculous.[13]

Summing up, Hume says:

I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. 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. (#91)

On the one hand, we have a very firm experience of the laws of nature. On the other hand, someone might say that he experienced a miracle, which requires that we give up what we know about how nature works. Hume says that his choice is basically a no-brainer!

Hume offered a general maxim:

That 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 endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.[14] (#91) [italics mine]

It looks like Hume is using mathematical reasoning at the very end. Hume’s detractors have misunderstood him, claiming that he was arguing for a mathematical probability. If this is true, then as Earman demurs, Hume is “double counting.”[15] Hume scholar William Vanderburgh explains:

The degree to which one should believe that the next roll of a die will come up six is not calculated by subtracting the probabilities that the event will not occur from the probability it will occur: 5/6th minus 1/6th = 4/6th against, or 2/6th in favor. Clearly the correct degree of belief is 1/6th in favor (p. 67).

Surely Hume would not make such a huge mathematical mistake. So he must not have been making a mathematical argument. Settling the dispute about his meaning should be that simple. Hume was trained in law, though, and such an argument does make good sense in a criminal trial. Vanderburgh suggests that we think instead of a “balance beam” where we pile evidence on one side or another to see which side has the weight of evidence for it. Vanderburgh goes on to argue that mathematical means of understanding Hume “are not appropriately analogous to Hume’s reasoning about evidential probability.”[16]

Reasoning without using math, as I do, isn’t as precise, but some issues don’t lead to precision. Nonmathematical reasoning is good enough in those cases. Often it’s not possible to quantify information but that doesn’t negate its utility. In many cases there isn’t much of a difference when we say that x is highly probable, or say that x is 92%, or 93%, or 94%, or 95%, or 96%, or 97%, or 98% probable. We’re not counting spoons here.

Clarifying Hume’s Main Argument

As we’ve seen, it’s easy to come up with criticisms of Hume if one seeks to do so. Just nitpick, for one thing. Or uncharitably foster upon his lone handwritten chapter on miracles—of about 7,002 words (without endnotes)—a worst possible interpretation. Many of the criticisms of Hume out there are uncharitable or otherwise false.

Philosopher J. L. Mackie thinks that Hume’s argument needs “improvement” (p. 25) by being “tidied up and restated” (p. 17) due to “inaccuracies” (p. 27), even calling some of it “very unsatisfactory” (p. 23).[17] Although Hume indeed should have better constructed some of his arguments, Mackie is largely uncharitable to him. Nevertheless, Mackie did come up with a significant argument using Hume as his inspiration:

The defender of a miracle must in effect concede to Hume that the antecedent improbability of this event is as high as it could be, hence that, apart from the testimony, we have the strongest possible grounds for believing that the alleged event did not occur. This event must, by the miracle advocate’s own admission, be contrary to a genuine, not merely supposed, law of nature, and therefore maximally improbable. It is this maximal improbability that the weight of the testimony would have to overcome.

Where there is some plausible testimony about the occurrence of what would appear to be a miracle, those who accept this as a miracle have the double burden of showing both that the event took place and that it violated the laws of nature. But it will be very hard to sustain this double burden. For whatever tends to show that it would have been a violation of a natural law tends for that very reason to make it most unlikely that is actually happened.

Mackie then distinguished between two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be considered to be a real one:

First, there is the context where two parties have accepted some general theistic doctrines and the point at issue is, whether a miracle has occurred which would enhance the authority of a specific sect or teacher. In this context supernatural intervention, though prima facie (“on the surface”) unlikely on any particular occasion is, generally speaking, on the cards: it is not altogether outside the range of reasonable expectation for these parties. The second context is a very different matter when the context is that of fundamental debate about the truth of theism itself. Here one party to the debate is initially at least agnostic, and does not yet concede that there is a supernatural power at all. From this point of view the intrinsic improbability of a genuine miracle … is very great, and that one or other of the alternative explanations … will always be much more likely—that is, either that the alleged event is not miraculous, or that it did not occur, or that the testimony is faulty in some way.

Mackie concludes: “This entails that it is pretty well impossible that reported miracles should provide a worthwhile argument for theism addressed to those who are initially inclined to atheism or even to agnosticism.”[18]

Michael Levine is more critical of Hume, saying his argument in Part I “fails” (p. 296) as an “unsuccessful” (p. 292) “superfluous” (p. 302) “misadventure” (p. 292).[19] That is: “It is a gloss for understanding the underlying supposition that one cannot have an ‘impression’ of a supernatural event” (p. 302). Now it’s correct that an underlying empiricist supposition is a theme in Hume’s writings. For he had argued that we don’t have empirical sense impressions of ’cause and effect’ or divine activity, or of the self for that matter, which is nothing but a bundle of sensations. So, Levine says: “Given his view that divine activity is impossible to know, Hume’s argument in Part I is in a sense superfluous” (p. 302).

But I find this particular criticism quite uncharitable. Drawing out the implications of a previously held epistemology is worthwhile, especially where no one had done so before. Had Hume not done so, someone else eventually would.

Levine criticizes Part I on the grounds that Hume’s argument is “an a priori one against miracles based on considerations of natural law, that the evidence of natural law outweighs any testimony to a miracle.”[20] In effect, Levine says, Hume is “presupposing or else arguing for a thoroughgoing naturalism. Hence, Hume’s empiricism commits him to naturalism…. All one has to admit is that “naturalism is possibly false.” Once this is admitted, “miracles are possible” (p. 292):

Hume is thus constrained by his empiricism in such a way that had he been on the shore of the Red Sea with Moses, and had the Red Sea crashed to a close the moment the last Israelite was safe, Hume would still be constrained by his principles to deny that what was witnessing was a miracle. (p. 298)

In this case Levine goes beyond mischaracterizing Hume. Levine has misunderstood Hume. He offers a hypothetical tale where Hume is an eyewitness to a miracle done by Moses. But Hume is focused instead on human testimony to miracles. Since a miracle was not witnessed by him, a report of one would require sufficient corroboration. So Levine’s tale is wildly off the point. Furthermore, Hume makes no reference to either empiricism or naturalism. So it plays no part in his argument. That Hume was an empiricist, who didn’t believe in miracles, has nothing to do with his argument against miracles. People regularly construct arguments to persuade others of conclusions that they previously arrived at for different reasons. That’s because people can make more than one argument to reach the same conclusion.

Moreover, regardless of the motivations of a philosopher, politician, ethicist, or apologist, we must still deal with the argument that was made. For my part, I have come to affirm a thoroughgoing naturalism partly because of arguments like Hume’s, in which human testimony is insufficient to justify reasonable belief in a miracle, or by extension, in a miracle-working god. So Levine’s cart is before the horse.

Levine goes on to say Part II of Hume’s essay is an a posteriori case that belief in miracles is unjustified on the basis of the evidence that has been offered for them thus far. According to him, “Hume deals with the only significant philosophical question that matters: ‘Is anyone justified in believing in miracles—for example, on the basis of Scripture’?” (p. 296). He adds:

This is the question that many philosophers on miracles either

(1) ignore or postpone—while addressing questions about laws of nature instead [as C. S. Lewis did in Miracles: A Preliminary Study];

(2) affirm—despite what historical scholarship and sophisticated biblical (textual) criticism tell us; or

(3) casually presuppose to be answered affirmatively. [formatting mine] (p. 296)

On this crucial third question Levine correctly says that Hume’s conclusion succeeds, that “no one is justified in believing that a miracle occurred, at least not on the basis of testimony” (p. 296).

Nicholas Everitt offers a starkly opposite view to Levine. He describes Hume’s philosophical argument in Part I as follows:

Since a miracle is by definition a violation of a law of nature, it is maximally improbable. So, if testimony in favour of a miracle is to be rationally credible … it must be hugely strong testimony—if fact, maximally strong. But even if the testimony were to achieve maximal strength, it would all be cancelled out by the antecedent improbability of anything which contravenes the laws of nature … and since the net evidence would be zero (maximal evidence for is cancelled by maximal evidence against), the rational response would be non-belief in the occurrence of the supposed miracle.”[21]

Everitt answers Hume’s detractors:

Hume’s conclusion does not imply that levitation is impossible, nor that testimony that it has occurred is always incredible. His conclusion is that the more credible the evidence that levitation has occurred, the less we are justified in believing that levitation is contrary to the laws of nature, and hence the less we are justified in believing that levitation is a violation miracle. (p. 117)

The big disagreement between Levine and Everitt has to do with the strength of the two parts of Hume’s essay. About Part I Everitt claims: “The real destructive power of Hume’s critique lies in his philosophical argument, that even in the most favorable circumstances possible it would not be rational to believe a miracle occurred” (p. 116). Everitt thinks that Part II isn’t very significant, writing: “the historical evidence mentioned in Part II, that these most favorable circumstances have never in fact occurred, is comparatively unimportant: even if it were wholly controverted, his main argument would remain unaffected” (p. 116).

Everitt thinks that Hume’s Part I argument succeeds and does all the work needed. Levine thinks the opposite, that Part II succeeds and does all the work. I suggest that the arguments of both parts succeed.

Graham Oppy’s Misunderstandings

As the editor of the anthology The Case against Miracles, I feel compelled to respond to philosopher Graham Oppy’s criticisms of Hume’s arguments since I consider my anthology to be a defense of Hume on miracles. In what follows, I’ll show how Oppy’s criticisms are unjustified.

As a very harsh critic of Hume on miracles, Oppy bluntly tells us: “Hume’s attempt is a failure.”[22] He concludes that “Hume’s argument against belief in miracle reports fails no less surely than do the various arguments from miracle reports to the existence of an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god.”[23] Hume was not just wrong, Oppy intimates—he was as delusional as Christians who argue for God on the basis of miracle reports. Oppy has recommended books of mine where I’ve described how poorly Christian apologists argue, even describing them as delusional.[24] So he knows full well what he’s claiming here. But Oppy cannot be more wrong.[25]

His brief discussion is focused on “the force of arguments from miracles, not about the reasonableness of believing in miracles” (p. 379). Even if Hume’s arguments were good ones, Oppy says, “I doubt that there are many theists who will suppose that they are true” (p. 380). His main claim is this:

I do not think that the considerations to which Hume adverts can serve the needs of an argument for the conclusion that there has never been believable testimony to the miraculous. Depending upon what else it is that one believes, one may well act reasonably in believing some miracle reports; in particular, if one believes that there is an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god, then perhaps it can be reasonable for you to accept that certain historical events are best explained as the result of the intervention of an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god. (p. 381).

This is very telling. Oppy is not focused on that which needs to be discussed, the reasonableness of believing in miracles. Instead, he’s focused on the force that believers might feel from Hume’s arguments. I think this is a poor way to frame the issue. Granted, many believers are indeed unimpressed by the force of Hume’s arguments. But that could be said of virtually any argument against their faith.

Oppy therefore builds the wall over which Hume must climb unreasonably high. Famed apologist William Lane Craig agrees, writing: “Oppy’s account not only sets the bar unrealistically high but also appears to be self-defeating.”[26] Oppy’s foundational question here is: “When should we say that an argument for a given conclusion is a successful argument?” His answer is that “in circumstances in which it is well known that there has been perennial controversy about a given claim, a successful argument on behalf of that claim has to be one that ought to persuade all of those who have hitherto failed to accept that claim to change their minds” (p. 1). In other words, he says: “A good argument is one that succeeds—or perhaps would or ought to succeed—in bringing about reasonable belief revision in reasonable targets.”[27]

Although Oppy adequately describes the power of cognitive biases, I doubt that he understands how they lead most people to accept faulty premises and poorly reasoned conclusions.[28] He mentions three of them that prevent reasonable disagreement. First, he admits that “there is a substantial body of psychological research that suggests that our ‘reasonableness’ is actually quite imperfect—that is, even at the best of times, we are prone to all kinds of lapses from ideal rationality” (p. 7). Second, “we all have different bodies of evidence—we draw on different bodies of information—that we obtain in all manner of different ways” (p. 7). Third, he says, “I can see no reason at all for thinking that there is a unique set of ‘priors’ that any reasonable person must have on pain of conviction of irrationality” (p. 8).

For any and all claims about the natural world, the only check against our cognitive biases is to obtain sufficient objective evidence whenever possible. Reasonable people accept the results of science, whereas unreasonable people reject them. To the extent that religious believers, theistic or otherwise, affirm at least one doctrine that contradicts the consensus of scientists in their respective fields, they are unreasonable.[29]

I find it sadly enabling for Oppy to suggest that belief in miracles can be reasonable. He says that if believers have prior beliefs that make miracles overall more probable than not, then their belief in miracles is reasonable. This idea has been touted for far too long and must be rejected. While we do in fact assess claims based on prior beliefs, only prior knowledge counts. Prior beliefs can go back to one’s childhood, as far back as preschool, something I’ll address later in the context of Bayes’ theorem. Empirically informed priors have more weight than priors that are not empirically informed, or priors that contradict well-established knowledge. Some priors are more scientifically plausible than others, and Oppy should address this fact.

Hume’s arguments were firmly grounded in the modern world given the scientific revolution that preceded them. Some of those who live among us don’t live in the modern world. Should we let them believe what they were previously taught as children in the backwaters and swamps, the deserts, and the remote islands of isolated parts of the world? Not if we wish to teach people the truth.

Oppy goes on to say: “It is not clear that we should accept that the laws of nature are regularities to which no exceptions have been observed” (p. 380). I won’t examine this claim here, but I know of an excellent reference.[30] Oppy should pay closer to what Hume is saying. Hume argues that for all he knows, given our daily experience of the regularities of nature, human testimony of a miracle cannot, by itself, provide the proof that a miracle has in fact occurred. Hume could easily admit that miracles might have been observed by someone, somewhere, sometime in the past. It’s just that the evidence of human testimony cannot show that they did! Oppy missed this point.

Hume’s point is that there is no reason to believe human testimony on behalf of events that violate the laws of nature. That’s because the kind of human testimony considered to be a proof against the proof of a miracle just does not exist. It could exist. It just doesn’t. I’ve previously shared what could have been the case, if a god of miracles existed.[31] That this evidence doesn’t exist is not Hume’s fault.

Hume even shares a hypothetical example where testimony could possibly establish a miracle:

I own, that otherwise, 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 a 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 travellers, 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, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform. (#99)

This testimony would be acceptable and should provoke us to look for the causes of this hypothetical phenomenon. However, no one has put forward a concrete example like it.

Oppy goes on to say “the balancing principle upon which Hume relies—namely, that testimony should be believed if and only if the falsehood of the testimony is more improbable than the event attested to—seems to me to be beyond reproach…” Good for him. However, he adds that “it is quite unclear how we are to use this principle in arguing for the conclusion that the posterior probability of the truth of any given testimony to a miraculous event must be low” (p. 380).

Even though Oppy correctly admits that Hume got something right, Oppy goes on to mischaracterize Hume. His balancing principle, his maxim, is not used to argue that the posterior probability of a miracle claim is exceedingly low. No, Hume’s maxim is derived from the fact that the prior probability of a miracle claim has been shown to be exceedingly low. So Oppy has it backward. His maxim is derived from the facts. It’s used to show the enormous hurdle that testimony must overcome before it can reasonably convince reasonable people.

Oppy also blunts its force. For example, Oppy asks about a spectacular new unexpected scientific discovery. The scientist, he says, must make a choice between previously known experience and this new scientific discovery, which is contrary to that previous experience. Oppy thus says that Hume is faced with a problem, namely:

Since Hume should not want to deny that there can be spectacular scientific discoveries, I take it that he ought to concede that he has no good grounds for claiming that ‘the proof from experience in favour of testimony cannot be more compelling than the absolutely uniform experience against the occurrence of a given kind of event’: there are new things under the sun, and we can come to have knowledge of them. (p. 381)

But what Hume is addressing is emphatically not analogous to new scientific discoveries. Hume is seeking after, and not finding, the requisite testimonial evidence sufficient to reasonably believe in miracles, which by definition are impossible within the natural world all on their own. He concludes that human testimony is insufficient for this task. Scientific discoveries, by contrast, can change our past understanding of nature’s laws precisely because scientists find the objective evidence to do so.

Sure, nonscientists learn of new scientific discoveries through the testimonies of scientists. However, a bona fide scientific discovery must be vetted by the scientific community, as illustrated by the need for peer review. It requires the quality of evidence that can be verified by any scientist working on the same problem, using methods that are the same, which will produce the same results within an acceptable margin of error. The highest authority is the consensus of scientists working within the same field. No nonscientist is qualified to dispute that consensus, nor does he have the requisite knowledge to choose to believe an outlier scientist who disputes it.

The only way to understand Oppy is to think in terms of that which is possible, probabilities be damned. But only probabilities count. The laws of nature are firm and reliable, and human testimonies to violations of those laws are not enough for reasonable belief. Our daily experiences of the laws of nature in the modern world, and the multitude numbers of times that exceptions to these laws have been claimed only to be scientifically debunked, show us that what Hume says is spot on.

Defending Hume’s Argument

I turn now to the four biggest objections to Hume.

Objection 1: Hume’s Argument is Circular, So it Begs the Question whether a Miracle Occurred

C. S. Lewis wrote: “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 reports of them are false. And we know all the reports to be false only if we already know that miracles have never happened.”[32] Likewise William Lane Craig states: “To say that uniform experience is against miracles is to implicitly assume already that miracles have never occurred. The only way Hume can place uniform experience for the regularity of nature on one side of the scale is by assuming that the testimony for miracles on the other side of the scale is false. And that, quite simply, is begging the question.”[33] Michael Licona agrees, saying that Hume “begs the question, since he assumes what he must prove.”[34] Or to put it another way, just because it’s very improbable that a miracle actually occurred doesn’t mean that the event didn’t happen. Saying that a wise man shouldn’t believe in miracles, so the argument goes, begs the question of whether or not they occurred.

But Hume scholar Robert Fogelin argues that this is “a gross misreading of the text” and sufficiently dismisses the straw man objection:

Hume nowhere argues, either explicitly or implicitly, that we know that all reports of miracles are false because we know that all reports of miracles are false…. Hume begins with a claim about testimony. On the one side we have wide and unproblematic testimony to the effect that when people step into the water they do not remain on its surface. On the other side we have isolated reports of people walking across the surface of the water. Given the testimony of the first kind, how are we to evaluate the testimony of the second sort? The testimony of the first sort does not show that the testimony of the second sort is false; it does, however, create a strong presumption—unless countered, a decisively strong presumption—in favor of its falsehood…. That is Hume’s argument, and there is nothing circular or question begging about it.[35]

Objection 2: Hume’s Definition of a Miracle Makes Miracles Impossible

Hume defined a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature,” adding “by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” in a footnote (#115n22). What other definition best conveys that a miracle is about events that have transgressed, breached, ruptured, or “countermanded” (in Oppy’s words) the laws of nature? What best describes an event in which someone calculates one of Newton’s three laws of motion only to find that nature didn’t behave accordingly? That kind of event is what Hume was almost certainly thinking about in the era just after Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who discovered that nature operated by laws that could predict nature’s future behavior and that could be written out in mathematical notation. F = ma anyone?

The crucial question for Hume is whether we can know that any miracles have taken place. Hume’s case against miracles depends on an accurate description of the conditions under which people are justified in believing in a miracle. And on this point the criterion for knowing that a miracle occurred is whether an event “violates natural law.” I really don’t see any better definition.

No lower standard than this is worthy of being recognized as a miracle. Otherwise, credulous people with lower standards, taking mere coincidental events to be miracles, could be swindled by any two-bit nefarious street preaching huckster, famous TV personality, faith healer, or priest who desires their money, kids, or lives.

Since a miracle violates a law of nature, it must be an event caused by a force outside of nature, a supernatural force or god. Such an event within the natural world could not take place on its own without the action of such a supernatural being. Nor could such an event be explainable by science since it would be an impossible occurrence within nature’s laws and processes alone. If scientists could explain the event with known natural laws, then it could no longer be considered a miracle.

Consequently, a miracle is not merely an extremely rare event within the natural world, nor something that just happened “at the right time.” We know from statistics that extremely rare events take place regularly. Believers will quote doctors citing the odds of being healed as “one in a million” as evidence of a miraculous healing. But a one in a million healing is not equivalent to a miracle, especially when we consider that there are now 8 billion people on this planet with about sixteen waking hours filled with witnessed events. Any number of them could be considered miraculous by the gullible and statistically uninformed.

Statistician David Hand shows us this in his book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. He convincingly shows that “extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.” But verbal flourish aside, he does not believe in genuinely supernatural miracles: “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive.”[36] Extremely rare events within the natural world are not miracles, period. A key reason why believers see evidence of miracles in rare coincidences is simply because they’re ignorant about statistics and the probabilities built on them. There can be no reasonable doubt about this.

Hume’s detractors are wrong. Hume did not consider it impossible that the laws of nature could be violated by a miracle, as Vanderburgh clarifies. For Hume the “laws of nature are at most probable, never certain.” When we put miracle claims in the same context of questions about the existence of cause and effect, or the existence of the self, or the existence of God, they are all “epistemological rather than ontological categories.” This means that the real question for Hume “is not what sorts of events do and don’t occur, but rather what events it is rational, given the available evidence, to believe to have occurred” (p. 56).

On this point Vanderburgh offers a helpful analogy to show that never doesn’t mean logically never. He asks us to consider the claim “A human will never bench press 1,500 pounds.” The current record, he tells us, is “735.5 pounds set by Kirill Sarychev in 2015”:

Given what we know about … human physiology, and the laws of physics (breaking strength of bones, etc.), it is utterly unbelievable that a human (as we currently understand the reference class) could complete a 1,500-pound raw bench press. It isn’t logically impossible, just impossible-given-what-we-know. There is a sense in which it is possible that this claim is wrong, but you still should not believe a report that someone has raw benched 1,500 pounds if you hear one. (p. 50)

Of course, an extraordinary claim that someone bench pressed 1,500 pounds would still be more likely than the miraculous claim that someone walked on water, or rose from the dead. So Vanderburgh goes on to say: “If you would not believe the bench press claim, then on pain of inconsistency you should not believe the miracle claim either” (pp. 50-51).

Had Hume argued that miracles are impossible, that would have made him closed-minded, and no one thinks that that’s a reasonable, even-handed approach to miracles. So it’s good that at least one Christian apologist, Ronald Nash, understands him. Nash states that “Hume could not have been arguing that miracles are impossible”:

Instead of attacking miracles metaphysically (by arguing they are impossible), Hume’s challenge turns out to be epistemological in nature. That is, he argues that even though miracles could occur, it is never rational to believe that any alleged miracle took place. Hume develops this epistemological attack on miracles in two stages. In Part I of his essay, he argues on philosophical grounds that the evidence that might be thought to support belief in a miracle will normally, by the nature of the case, be less than the evidence against belief in the miracle. The evidence against the alleged miracle will typically outweigh the supporting evidence. In Part II, Hume presents several subsidiary arguments that are more evidential than philosophical; he attempts to show why in practice the evidence against any alleged miracle will always outweigh the putative supporting evidence.[37]

Objection 3: Hume’s Argument Would Force us to Reject All Miracles A Priori, Prior to Examining the Evidence

Contrary to popular belief, Hume does not suggest that we should ignore evidence offered in favor of miracle claims. Earlier in his Enquiry he makes a key distinction between two distinct categories, relations of ideas and matters of fact. Relations of ideas are about that which is known to be certain because we see that their contraries contain logical contradictions. So, for example, “All bachelors are unmarried” and “2 + 5 = 7” are relations of ideas since statements like “some bachelor is married” and “2 + 5 = 6” are self-contradictory. Vanderburgh explains that, according to Hume, relations of ideas “provide us with certainty, effectively because they are analytic” (p. 27).

Matters of fact are about matters that are learned from experience. Disputing them doesn’t involve contradictions; for example, there is no contradiction involved in disputing that “the sun rises every 24 hours” or “death is inevitable.” Although direct sensation and experience are typically reliable, we can make mistakes about them: so matters of fact cannot be certain. As Vanderburgh explains, they have “higher and lower degrees of probability, depending on the kind and strength of the evidence available” (p. 27).

So far this is pretty standard stuff on Hume. Thus it seems that most of Hume’s critics just aren’t paying attention, for if they understood Hume’s distinction between these two categories, they would pretty much derive everything important to correctly understand what he says about miracles. We know this about section 10 of his Enquiry because Hume says that he’s speaking about matters of fact four times. First, he begins by saying that experience is “our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact” (#87). Second, he says that “in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence” (#87). Third, “We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; 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” (#89). Fourth, “As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered” (#99).

Take, for instance, Hume’s claim to have produced a “full proof” against miracles. Vanderburgh informs us that “[w]hether or not a miracle has occurred is a question regarding a matter of fact, and for Hume a degree of belief for or against a matter of fact can never reach the level of perfect certainty or logical necessity (demonstration), only moral certainty (proof)” (p. 106). For Hume, “a proof is a category of probability and not a certainty of the sort we have in the case of relations of ideas” (pp. 87-88).

So Hume cannot be properly understood as meaning that “there is zero chance that miracles can happen” [italics Vanderburgh’s] (p. 87). “A proof against the existence of any miracle is still an epistemic rather than an ontological claim for Hume, because proof is an epistemic category” (p. 88). “Contrary to what many of his critics have suggested, Hume does not think that his proof against miracles establishes the impossibility of the existence of miracles. Rather, Hume thinks that the available evidence gives us such a high degree of probability to the laws of nature that belief in the existence of miracles can never be rational—that is, sufficiently well-grounded epistemically” (p. 7). Vanderburgh concludes:

The whole structure of Hume’s argument against miracles is a posteriori (and hence cannot lead to logically necessary propositions). Hume argues that as a matter of fact, and given what we know about human psychology and the facts of history there has never been and probably never will be an instance in which the probability that a miracle has occurred rises to the level greater than the probability that the reporter is mistaken, has been deceived, or is a deceiver. It is true that Hume puts this point very strongly but, in the context of Hume’s thought, it is easy to see that despite his rhetoric he does not really mean anything stronger than this.[38]

Objection 4: Hume Fails to Understand Bayes’ Theorem

In Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles, Earman argues that Hume failed to understand probability theory, specifically Bayes’ theorem. Christian apologist William Lane Craig agrees with agnostic Earman that “Hume failed to appreciate this whole probability calculus. That is why his argument was an abject failure. He didn’t take into account all of the factors.” Craig says that Hume “incorrectly assumes that miracles are intrinsically highly improbable.” But they can be “highly probable relative to our background information,” by which is meant the sum total of everything that he and other theists believe.[39] Craig said these words in his debate with Bart Ehrman in 2006 on the question “Is there Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?”[40]

Those unfamiliar with Bayes’ theorem should read “Bayes’ Rule—Explained For Beginners.”[41] The theorem states that the probability of an event, based on the occurrence of another event, is equal to the likelihood of the second event given the first event multiplied by the probability of the first event, and divided by the probability of the second event. But don’t worry, the reasoning behind it can be understood even without understanding this excellent mathematical tool.

For the record, I don’t object to using Bayes’ theorem when applied appropriately to questions for which we have prior data that informs how we determine their initial probability. But I do have objections to the use of Bayes’ theorem when assessing miracles, which by their nature have no prior data to work from. I expand on my objection in my earlier paper “What’s Wrong with Using Bayes’ Theorem on Miracles?”[42]

There are times when mathematical reasoning is necessary, and times when it is not: “Mathematical probability applies perfectly in stochastic setups with known alternatives; in other contexts, it is an artificial tool that does not accurately reflect how humans do or should reason about evidence; using it can mislead us” (Vanderburgh, 2019, p. 127). Too often “[t]he appearance of precision is nothing but an illusion.” So, “it can be potentially misleading, and is even positively harmful” (p. 163). “Numbers are impressively powerful in a great many contexts,” Vanderburgh says. But “[w]e should expect only the degree of precision appropriate to the subject matter” (p. 127). Take that, Craig!

First Rebuttal

Hume did not think that his argument was helped by invoking Bayes’ theorem. Vanderburgh briefly addresses the issue:

Hume was aware of Bayes’ Theorem but didn’t think he needed it to make his argument. Earman chastises Hume for being unaware of Bayesianism and of mathematical probability generally. This is unfair on two counts. First, Bayes’ work on probability was not widely known in 1748 when Hume published the first edition of the Enquiry. Richard Price arranged to have the posthumous publication of Bayes’ essay only in 1763, and it remained obscure even after its publication. Price’s paper applying Bayesian methods to the evidence for miracles appeared in 1767. We know Hume read and admired that paper … but still Hume neither addressed Bayesian arguments nor revised his account of miracles for the 1768 and 1777 editions of the Enquiry. This suggests that Hume ultimately did not view Bayes’ work as relevant to the argument against miracles.

Hume’s discussion of the probability of chances “shows without controversy that he was familiar with the basic concepts of probability based on the calculus of chances”…. Given Hume’s familiarity with Pascalian probability in general, and his acquaintance (through Price) with Bayesian ideas, his non-numerical treatment of the evidential probability of miracles … must be seen as a deliberate philosophical position, not as a result of negligence or ignorance.[43]

The reason for Hume’s position is seen in another general maxim of his: “We may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion” (#98).

Hume had shown that not only are testimonials for miracles insufficient for believing that a miracle took place, but also that miracles cannot be an adequate foundation for a religion. Hume undercut miracles, and any religion born of miracles, in one fell swoop. Going for the jugular vein of miracles does all the work, for it also deals a death blow to any religion that has a miracle-working god.

Full stop! If miracles are the foundation for a particular god of a particular religion, and we have no good reason to believe in human testimonies of miracles, then believers cannot use a prior belief in a god to justify those miracles. That’s because human testimony of miracles is supposed to provide evidence that a miracle-working god exists. Whether or not there is a miracle-working god depends completely on human testimony. A believer cannot reason backwards from the existence of their god to the reliability of human testimony. This entails that the miracles that we read about in the Bible must be established before, and apart from, the belief in a god who is believed to have done them.

These are the kinds of problems that Hume surely understood, which is why he didn’t bother with Bayes’ theorem. And if this doesn’t explain why he didn’t use Bayes, it doesn’t matter. These are the reasons why no one needs to adopt Bayesian arguments when debating exceedingly improbable events in the natural world like miracles, which have no prior data to work from, and no prior miracle working god who would do them.

This goes directly to the concerns that Bayes’ theorem raises. In other words, Bayesian reasoning does not help the case for miracles, period.

Second Rebuttal

My second response to both Earman and Craig has to do with the whole notion of background information, background knowledge, and plausibility frameworks. Craig refuses to discuss the honest question of whether Jesus came back from the dead separately from assuming the existence of his god. He claims that the proposition up for debate is not whether “Jesus arose from the dead,” but whether “God raised Jesus from the dead.” The second possibility, Craig says, can be “highly probable relative to our background information.”[44]

By “background information” Craig means the sum total of everything that Christians were raised to believe inside their Christianized cultures. This cultural background information provides them with the justification for sidestepping Hume. At this point they’re already assuming that their Christian God exists and is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. For if the hypothesis was that “Allah raised Jesus from the dead,” we already know their answer—of course not! Nor would it be the Hindu Brahman, or any of the ancient Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, a deistic god, or even the Jewish god, since overwhelming numbers of Jews don’t believe in the Christian God.

It’s true that our general background information about how the world works plays a part in assessing whether a miracle has occurred. For when we talk about the probability of some event or hypothesis A, that probability is always relative to a body of background information B. So we cannot merely speak of the probability of A without taking into consideration that background information, B, all of it. Got it! So no one can evaluate miracle claims without using previously acquired background information. But what shouldn’t count as background information are unevidenced indoctrinated beliefs that were inherited from parents, who in turn blindly accepted what they were told. Only knowledge should count, based on sufficient evidence; not everything Christians have learned in a Christian culture, which constitutes background belief, not necessarily knowledge. Previously acquired knowledge of how the world works should be based on sufficient objective evidence commensurate with the type of information being sought. Otherwise, culturally inherited indoctrinated background information can and will lead people to believe in delusions against any and all objective evidence to the contrary. What we end up with is unevidenced Muslim background beliefs versus unevidenced Mormon background beliefs versus unevidenced Mennonite background beliefs versus unevidenced Moonie background beliefs.


I’ll conclude with the words of philosophers Paul Russell and Anders Kraal: “The key issue, for Hume’s critique of miracles, is whether or not we ever have reason to believe on the basis of testimony that a law of nature has been violated. Hume’s arguments lead to the conclusion that we never have reason to believe miracle reports as passed on to us.”[45] Since there is no good reason to believe testimonies of miracles, there is no good reason to believe in a god of miracles, either. Russell and Kraal again: “What really matters for assessing Hume’s critique of miracles is to keep in mind that his primary aim is to discredit the actual historical miracle claims that are supposed to provide authority and credibility for the major established religions—most obviously, Christianity.”[46] And on that score, Hume’s arguments succeed, since all that we have in the Bible are ancient reports of miracles found in ancient texts. As miracles go by the wayside, so does a god of miracles. Just as Hume’s previous objections to design in the universe served to debunk an intelligent, perfectly good divine designer, so too his objections to miracles show us that there isn’t good reason to believe in a god of miracles.[47]


[1] The conditions of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge are archived here.

[2] To see this in detail, I highly recommend Keith Augustine, “Christian vs. Survivalist Apologetics” (May 1, 2023). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/survivalist-apologetics/>.

[3] This is another example of how science takes over the tasks of philosophy, something that I showed in Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

[4] Phil Torres, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

[5] On miracle claims in the modern world see Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York, NY: Random House, 1996), Joe Nickell, The Science of Miracles (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013), Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2002), and Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010). Especially noteworthy are Guy Harrison, 50 Popular Beliefs that People Think are True (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012) and Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, 6th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010).

[6] Loftus, The Outsider Test for Faith (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[7] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X (“Of Miracles“), Part 1. <https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm>.

[8] See John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), Chapter 1, Section 7, and my response “Was David Hume’s Argument “Of Miracles” Original? The Role of Ridicule” (November 18, 2019). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2019/11/was-david-humes-argument-of-miracles.html>.

[9] See William Edward Morris and Charlotte R. Brown, “David Hume” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2023 edn.) ed. E. N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2023). <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2023/entries/hume/>.

[10] I deal with these arguments in chapter 3 of The Case Against Miracles, and more extensively in Why I Became an Atheist.

[11] Gotthold Lessing, “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power” in Lessing’s Theological Writings (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1956), pp. 51-55.

[12] See Kerry Walters, Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Infidels ‎(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books 2010).

[13] Anthony Flew, “Miracles” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5 ed. Paul Edwards (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967), p. 347.

[14] Hume, “Of Miracles” #91.

[15] Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure, p. 43.

[16] William L. Vanderburgh, David Hume on Miracles, Evidence, and Probability (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019), p. 68.

[17] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[18] Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, p. 25, 27, 23, and 17, respectively.

[19] Michael Levine, “Philosophers on Religion” in The Cambridge Companion to Miracles ed. Graham H. Twelftree (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 302.

[20] Levine, “Philosophers on Religion,” p. 302.

[21] Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), pp.115-116.

[22] Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 376.

[23] Oppy, Arguing About Gods, p. 381

[24] Of my anthology. The Christian Delusion, Oppy said, “The contributors to this book have important things to say to conservative Christians…. This book is a fitting successor to Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist and merits a similarly broad readership.” That’s two book recommendations in one.

[25] I say a lot about his views in Chapter 4 in Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2016) at https://www.academia.edu/45539424/Chapter_4_Case_Studies_in_Atheistic_Philosophy_of_Religion_in_Unapologetic_Why_Philosophy_of_Religion_Must_End

[26] William Lane Craig, “Arguing Successfully about God: A Review Essay of Graham Oppy’s Arguing about Gods.” Philosophia Christi Vol. 10 (2008): 435-442.

[27] Oppy, Arguing About Gods, p. 10. I wrote a model for how to argue someone out of faith, if it can be done. See John W. Loftus, “How to Change the Minds of Believers” (January 31, 2023). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/editors-choice/how-to-change-the-minds-of-believers/>.

[28] See the Wikipedia entry “Cognitive Biases.”

[29] Just consider the evidence of evolution and/or the virgin birth as two important test cases. Consider also how to think like a scientist, or having faith in light of a host of cognitive biases. Compare the cosmology of the Bible, the lack of evidence for a soul, the probability that we have as much free will as dogs, cats, elephants, and chimpanzees, the lack of archaeological evidence of biblical tales, including of the credibility of the Exodus narrative. Plus there is a lack of evidence that Nazareth existed at the time that Jesus was alleged to be born, the lack of any scientific evidence for the alleged Bethlehem star, and scientific studies on prayer showing that it doesn’t work any better than chance. For more, see my anthology Christianity in the Light of Science (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016). To see this at a glance, see John W. Loftus, “Top Seven Ways Christianity is Debunked By the Sciences” (August 3, 2010). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2010/08/top-seven-ways-christianity-is-debunked.html>.

[30] See David Corner’s fantastic chapter, “Miracles and the Challenge of Apologetics,” the first chapter of The Case against Miracles (United States: Hypatia Press, 2019).

[31] See John W. Loftus, “What Would Convince Us Christianity is True?” (June 30, 2023). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2023/06/what-would-convince-us-christianity-is.html>.

[32] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1947), p. 105

[33] William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), p. 121.

[34] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historigraphial Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), p. 152.

[35] Robert J. Fogelin, A Defense of Hume on Miracles (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 19-20.

[36] Back cover explanation of David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York, NY: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

[37] Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), p. 228.

[38] Vanderburgh, David Hume on Miracles, Evidence, and Probability, p. 106.

[39] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), p. 571.

[40] William Lane Craig, “Is there Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate Featuring William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman” (March 28, 2006). College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA. <https://ehrmanblog.org/ehrman-vs-craig-evidence-for-resurrection/>.

[41] Peter Gleeson, “Bayes’ Rule—Explained for Beginners” (March 29, 2021). Free Code Camp website. <https://www.freecodecamp.org/news/bayes-rule-explained/>.

[42] See John W. Loftus, “What’s Wrong with Using Bayes’ Theorem on Miracles?” (January 25, 2022), § “What’s Wrong With Bayes’ Theorem?The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/whats-wrong-with-bayes-theorem/>.

[43] In William L. Vanderburgh, “Of Miracles and Evidential Probability: Hume’s ‘Abject Failure’ Vindicated.” Hume Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (April 2005): 37-61. Also found in Vanderburgh, David Hume on Miracles, Evidence, and Probability, p. 121.

[44] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 571.

[45] Paul Russell and Anders Kraal, “Hume on Religion” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 edn.) ed. E. N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2017), §6 (“Miracles“). <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/hume-religion/>.

[46] Russell and Kraal, “Hume on Religion.”

[47] Since “reason is insufficient” to establish a miracle, according to Hume, the Christian religion “cannot be believed by any reasonable person” without one. So anyone “moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience” (#101).

I discussed private subjective miracles in The Case against Miracles, pp. 110-113. These kinds of “miracles” are claimed by Muslims on behalf of Mohammed and the Koran, Orthodox Jews and the Old Testament, Hindus and the Bhagavad Gita, and Joseph Smith and the Mormon scriptures. Gone from their cogitations is a god of the cosmos and history. Now all that believers have left is a god of the gaps and worse, a god of the guts. Anyone with a gut can claim to experience a god. To see this regarding the Christian claim to have experienced the Holy Spirit, see my earlier Secular Web piece “Psychic Epistemology: The Special Pleading of William Lane Craig.”

I thank Keith Augustine for his keen editorial skills and advice. I also thank an anonymous reviewer who offered a few minor points of advice, along with one that turned into the last endnote. It was gratifying that the reviewer said of this paper: “The clarity of writing combined with its excellent reasoning make it one of the better defenses of Hume that I’ve read.”

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