David Hume, Miracles and the Speculations of The Spectator

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In a recent article in the Spectator, Matthew Parris writes:

I wish I were a religious conservative: the field’s wide open. It must be dispiriting for believers to encounter so little intelligent support for belief. It’s certainly infuriating for us non-believers, because there’s hardly anyone left who seems capable of giving us a good argument. In search of a stimulating conversation about religion, we are reduced to arguing with ourselves.

Shockingly, it seems Mr. Parris isn’t familiar with Saints and Sceptics! Well, perhaps he could be forgiven for that, but hasn’t he heard of John Lennox, Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, Richard Swinburne or Keith Ward, just to mention a few people from this side of the Atlantic? In light of his subsequent discussion on miracles, it appears that he hasn’t.

After outlining David Hume’s argument against miracles, Parris attempts to strike a moderate tone by identifying some weaknesses in Hume’s case. However, he then goes on to identify what he considers to be the “interesting truth in Hume’s essay”:

In remarking 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’, [Hume] makes the point that the act of believing in a miracle is, in itself, a minor miracle, for in accepting a miracle the believer must forsake the laws of probability.

You could put it more simply: one needs faith before one can believe in miracles. A claimed miracle cannot be a justification for faith, but faith can justify believing the claim. Herein lies the theists’ own circular argument: to have faith, you must have faith; to make the leap, you must make the leap.

Ironically, having claimed to identify weaknesses in Hume, Parris defends Hume at what is arguably his weakest point. In claiming that “in accepting a miracle the believer must forsake the laws of probability” he seems to be unaware of the enormous difficulties in reconciling Hume’s argument with the laws of probability. Atheists don’t need to consult the works of Christian scholars to realize there is a difficulty for Hume on this point since it has been argued very convincingly by the eminent philosopher of science, John Earman, himself a non-theist, in his book Hume’s Abject Failure.

One difficulty is that all sorts of events can be very improbable before relevant evidence is taken into account, but highly probable afterwards. Unique historical events may be extremely improbable in the absence of evidence, but accepted on the basis of fairly mundane evidence. Physicists have never observed proton decay despite all their attempts and believe that it must be exceedingly improbable that a given observed proton will decay; but they also believe that evidence could show that it had in fact decayed (otherwise they wouldn’t spend time trying to observe the phenomenon). In the 19th century many people pointed out the disastrous consequences of Humean reasoning in various contexts, the most humorous example of which is Richard Whately’s satire: he argued that Napoleon never existed based on the improbability of all the events associated with his life, and that he was in fact invented by the British government to enhance national unity.

And in the case of miracles, Charles Babbage pointed out that a large enough number of independent, reliable witnesses (even if they are only partially reliable) to a miracle will result in the miracle being more probable than the witnesses being mistaken. Of course, points of this kind do not show that miracles have ever occurred, but they do undermine the idea that there is some sort of problem with miracles in principle. Belief in miracles need not conflict with probability theory; quite the opposite, in fact. If Earman is right, it is Hume and his followers who forsake the laws of probability in their approach to miracles.

As for Hume’s maxim, quoted by Parris in the above passage, Earman concludes after a detailed analysis of how it relates to probability that it is “just the unhelpful tautology that no testimony is sufficient to establish the credibility of a miracle unless it is sufficient to make the occurrence more probable than not”. No doubt, it is reasonable to require more evidence for a miracle than a more mundane event, but Earman considers it ‘risible’ to attribute a deep insight to Hume on this point. He notes that:

All of the parties on the opposite side from Hume in the eighteenth-century debate on miracles knew that miracle claims could not be established without the help of very strong evidence. In some cases they thought they had produced the required evidence. Perhaps they were wrong. But to show that they were wrong takes more than solemnly uttered platitudes.

And that is the point. The only way to determine whether a miracle has occurred is by a detailed study of the relevant evidence. Humean appeals of the kind endorsed by Parris will not do.

Finally, consider Parris’s claim that “one needs faith before one can believe in miracles. A claimed miracle cannot be a justification for faith”. It’s not clear what he means here. If by ‘faith’ he means ‘belief without evidence’, he couldn’t be further from the truth because the point of Earman and others is that there is no reason in principle to think that evidence for miracles is impossible. If he means that one needs to believe in God before believing in miracles and so miracles cannot provide evidence for belief in God, he is also wrong. Probability theory can help us here too. Suppose someone thinks (as almost all atheists do) that God’s existence is improbable, but not impossible. Such a person would indeed consider a miracle to be extremely improbable, but even moderate evidence could increase its probability and Hume gives us no reason to think that evidence could not completely overturn such a low probability. Such evidence for a miracle could in turn increase the probability of God’s existence and so provide evidence for God.


John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford, 2000).

The article on Miracles in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (by Timothy McGrew).

The Evidence for the Resurrection

Four Poor Reasons for Rejecting the Resurrection

Here’s my discussion with Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland on the resurrection during our debate.

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