Explain Hume’s Argument Against Miracles

Firstly, we must begin with what Hume defines miracles as. Hume states that a miracle is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. By this, Hume means to suggest that a miracle is a breaking of a law of nature by the choice and action of a God or supernatural power.

Hume sets up this definition in order to counter with five main arguments.

1) “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”.  Here, Hume means to suggest that a wise man considers which side is supported by the most evidence. Everitt calls this the proportionality principle. For example, if we take the miracle of Jesus walking on water from the bible, Hume would suggest that there is more evidence to support the fact people cannot walk on water rather than the one time that Jesus did, and so we should not believe it.

2) Hume also says that we must choose the lesser miracle. Hume here points to Ockham’s Razor as support for this, which basically states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In order for a miracle to be true, denial of the miracle would have to be more miraculous than its acceptance. If we took the example of Jesus being resurrected, Hume would suggest that we consider what is more likely: that those making the claim are mistaken, or that Jesus actually came back to life? Here Hume would argue we must logically choose the first option.

3) Hume also suggests that with all claims of miracles made, there is inadequate witness testimony. Witnesses must, according to Hume, be well educated and intelligent. They should have a reputation to lose and nothing to gain from their claim. There must be a “sufficient number” of witnesses in order for a claim to be considered. Hume also states that humans love the fantastic and want to believe in miracles, and believers desire to promote their religion. As a result, Hume argues that many, if not all, claims of miracles in current sources are inadequate and should be dismissed.

4) Following this, Hume also claims that miracles often come from “ignorant and barbarous nations”, making accounts of miracles unreliable. For example, many of the claims of miracles within the bible are made by poor, uneducated fishermen and peasants, which Hume argues is not an adequate source.

5) Finally, Hume argues that miracles in other religions cancel each other out. Miracles from Hinduism or Buddhism, he argues, cancels out those from Christianity of Islam. As such, Hume suggests that instead of picking just one to believe in, we should deny them all.

Answered by Patrick S. Philosophy tutor

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