Can Miracles Happen?

Exploring David Hume’s views on miracles

Lizzie Bestow
Nov 3, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

What is a miracle? It’s tough to say. I was raised as a Christian, although I no longer practice that faith. I’d say I’m something of an agnostic now. In fact, I feel like I lean towards Buddhism or a kind of Spiritualism. Much of my distaste with organized religion revolves around the kind of scandals that have come with great power.

As the great philosopher Spiderman once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and many of the clergy don’t seem to have taken that to heed.

The film Spotlight addresses the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a huge scandal involving the Catholic Archdiocese and child molestation. Part of why that film was so terribly upsetting was because the children had so much trust in clergy members to do the right thing. Members of the Catholic Church — some very high up — deliberately sought to conceal the abuse inflicted by priests onto these (primarily) young men. But the other thing I found a little odd about the Christian religion I grew up with was the Biblical miracles; spectacular events that supposedly defy the laws of the land.

David Hume sought to argue against the possibility of miracles; and, furthermore, he expected that his argument would be the sting in the tail for a whole host of belief systems. He said, “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.”

Who is Hume?

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who lived in the 1700s. He was influential in the forming of the modern analytical movement here in the UK. He was heavily critical of organized religion, which was unusual at that time.

He put a lot of faith — ironically — in empirical methods and scepticism; arguing that the teleological argument (or argument from design — the argument that we as human beings have been designed because of the intricacy of certain of our features like eyes — and if there’s design, then there’s a designer) and the possibility of miracles held little weight. Hume influenced a plethora of ideas and views, including utilitarianism, logical positivism, and the philosophy of science. He’s also, as of late, been “canceled” by Edinburgh University.

Much of the debate concerning the possibility of miracles is intertwined with how the word miracle has been defined. Hume first wrote extensively on miracles in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

What’s in a name?

You could probably name a couple of miracles in the Bible; like the resurrection of Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, changing water into wine, and calming a stormy sea.

But what’s the actual definition of a miracle? For some writers, it’s anything that seems to belie an intervention from God. However, David Hume argued for a narrow definition of the word miracle: for Hume, a miraculous event is a ‘violation of the laws of nature’. This seems to make sense — after all, if we just define a miracle as involving divine intervention, then there seems no way to argue back against the possibility of miracles.

Hume argues, based on his definition, that a miracle could never occur. I will focus on Biblical depictions of miracles, as this is the tradition on which Hume focuses his attack.

The dictionary Merriam-Webster defines a miracle as:

1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
- the healing miracles described in the Gospels

2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment
- the bridge is a miracle of engineering.

3: Christian Science : a divinely natural phenomenon experienced humanly as the fulfillment of spiritual law

So, you can see that the term has infiltrated everyday life, beyond merely the religious sphere. A miracle can be something incredibly good; like the aforementioned bridge that is a miracle of engineering.

Hume’s Case

Hume’s argument on miracles was a particularly important one for his time. Hume, ever the strident atheist, was concerned with “the gazing populace… receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition, and promotes wonder.”

Defining Miracle

Hume defines a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ and, since, ‘a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws’ evidence will always lead us to believe that a miracle has not occurred, because the laws have been established by concrete evidence. This is a very similar view to that which Hume has on causation.

Hume argued that causal relations could be discovered through inductive reasoning, and he uses the same reasoning to argue that a miracle cannot occur. As we can observe that the cause of the drop of a pin is the force of gravity, we can observe that the law of gravity is considered a law because of the regular observations of such forces. Under Hume’s definition, nothing can violate a natural law, otherwise, it would not be considered a law.

Credible Witnesses

For Hume, even if one were to believe the biblical accounts of miracles, they have not been reported by a sufficient number of credible witnesses to rival the uniformity of witnesses to natural laws: they have been reported by those with a low social standing, and therefore little to lose. The second part of Hume’s argument thus centers around probability: even if it were possible for a miracle to occur, it would be highly improbable that a witness to a miracle was telling the truth.

He believes that it’s no coincidence that most miracles seem to have occurred in ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’ (his words, not mine…). Of course, that’s not the most politically correct thing to say. And this notion that people “back in the day” were a bit thick is incredibly suspect. See the classic Monty Python scene, ‘What Did The Romans Do For Us?’ for just a few of the things that ancient civilizations did for us — they performed numerous feats without the science and technology that we have to help them — which is, well…miraculous, really.

What’s Good Evidence?

Hume, after providing an argument from deduction (an a priori argument) as to why a miracle is an impossible event, then provides an argument from experience (an a posteriori argument) to formulate a criteria of what constitutes good evidence with which to assess a witnesses’ claim to a miracle.

Some people might claim that an “unnatural” or sudden death would be something that subverts the laws of nature. Thus, it might be a miracle. Hume argues ‘it is no miracle that a man… should die on a sudden’ because such a death, although unusual, can occur. Human beings live (and die) in a whole host of weird ways.

For Hume, then, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus noted in the Bible is purported to be a miracle because such an event has not followed the common course of nature. Hume’s empiricism is a central tenant of his thesis: while we can draw on vast amounts of experience that the laws of nature have operated consistently, there will never be more witnesses to the breaking of these laws of nature.

It is the uniformity of the experience which hath designated them laws. As a ‘wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence’, one must always believe that the laws of nature have been upheld, and that a miracle has not taken place. As you may have already guessed, this proposition was a little ill-received.

It smacks of logical fallacies; it belies a kind of circularity whereby Hume defines a miracle as something that cannot ever occur. Some have accused Hume of begging the question. But he does leave open the possibility of divine intervention. Hume is just warning us that we ought be on our guard. After all, what seems like something miraculous is often just a great coincidence. Some might say that that’s what faith is all about. Remember that scene in the TV show House M.D., where a faithless priest ends up being treated by House?

House: “Coincidences do happen.”
Daniel: “That coincidence is what brought me to you in the first place.”
House: “You promised you wouldn’t go there.”
Daniel: “Einstein said, ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous…. You didn’t even want to take my case. You didn’t even think I was sick.”
House: “The fact that I was wrong is not a proof of God.”
Daniel: “I’m just trying to understand how my life could completely turn around in a single day.”
House: “Don’t worry. Your life will go back to sucking soon enough. Everything that happened to you can be rationally explained.”
Daniel: “I know. It’s just — That’s a lot of coincidences.”

We never find out exactly what happens to Daniel — the show, after all, focuses on the inner machinations of Dr House’s brain and his relationship with his colleagues. But it’s strongly implied that he finds his faith again.

Maybe faith is borne in trying to make sense of those really strange coincidences. Maybe it’s a bit like trying to make out animals and faces in clouds. But do the clouds really show those faces?

“Natural” Miracles

Hume argued that ‘nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature’. However, in Judaeo-Christian tradition, a miracle is an event which is marked by God’s intervention in the world, regardless of whether such an event may break a law of nature. A miracle might involve God breaking the laws of nature, but it doesn’t necessarily involve such a thing happening.

A miracle could involve something highly unlikely happening at a pivotal moment; The Star of Bethlehem occurring might have been a bright comet or the birth of a new star. In Genesis, a blood Moon signals God’s oncoming arrival. But blood Moons are quite common; it happens when the Earth moves between the Sun and the Moon.

Finally, there’s an instance in the Bible where Moses — seeing that his people were suffering due to thirst — strikes a rock with a great amount of force, and water pours of that. Some rocks, like sandstone and limestone, store lots of rainwater. Apparently, rocks in the desert sometimes have a cement-like outer crust known as desert varnish. Water can pour from these rocks once the varnish has been shattered. This kind of thing could happen if you struck the rock with a great amount of force.

So Hume’s theory fails to critique that aspect of miracles. But I think he is right concerning our proposed skepticism towards miraculous events. If you are religious, that might not make sense to you. It’s often been suggested that faith is about belief, rather than facts. Kind of like Daniel in House M.D. quote above.

But we ought to be critical about apparently “miraculous” events. Too often it’s just a perfect storm of coincidence and our ability — as human beings — to input meaning into that which has none (like the example of the cloud). Because of the way the brain works, we create patterns and the like out of that which has no inherent meaning.

Whether someone sees a very unlikely coincidence as miraculous or not will depend on the belief system of that individual. For me, it’s nothing but ad hoc reasoning; something that we humans, according to psychologists, also do in the realm of morality. Too often we believe something is wrong and then create reasons for that belief. Is that what’s happening with miracles?

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Thanks to Jon Hawkins

Lizzie Bestow

Written by

BA & MA in Philosophy from Durham University, off to do a PhD in September! I write accessible Philosophy pieces for those who’ve never studied it.

The Apeiron Blog

An easy to read philosophical space that aims to elicit discussion and debate on matters of the universe.

Lizzie Bestow

Written by

BA & MA in Philosophy from Durham University, off to do a PhD in September! I write accessible Philosophy pieces for those who’ve never studied it.

The Apeiron Blog

An easy to read philosophical space that aims to elicit discussion and debate on matters of the universe.

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