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David Hume: When should I Believe Miracle Testimony? Prof. Matt McCormick Department of Philosophy California State University, Sacramento mccormick@csus.edu What is a Miracle? A common usage is to call any fortuitous and unusual event a “miracle.”

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david hume when should i believe miracle testimony

David Hume: When should I Believe Miracle Testimony?

Prof. Matt McCormick

Department of Philosophy

California State University, Sacramento


what is a miracle
What is a Miracle?

A common usage is to call any fortuitous and unusual event a “miracle.”

Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time

March 3, 1999 | Issue 35•08

HOPE SPRINGS, AR—The holy and sacrosanct miracle of birth, long revered by human civilization as the most mysterious and magical of all phenomena, took place for what experts are estimating "must be at least the 83 billionth time" Tuesday with the successful delivery of eight-pound, four-ounce baby boy Darryl Brandon Severson at Holy Mary Mother Of God Hospital.

Seriously, if a miracle is to count as evidence for the existence of God, then we can’t let every unusual (and not so unusual) event that we are happy about count.

Some People See God Everywhere:

Ontario man, Fred Whan claims a fishstick from a TV dinner that he burned a year ago bears the image of Jesus Christ


The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich

A decade-old toasted cheese sandwich said to bear an image of the Virgin Mary has sold on the eBay auction website for $28,000.

An internet casino confirmed it had purchased the sandwich, saying it had become a "part of pop culture".


The Virgin Mary: Lurking Under a Chicago Overpass

This water and salt stain appeared in a Chicago overpass. Hundreds of the faithful rushed to see it and pay their respects. Local News Video

miracle a violation of the laws of nature
Miracle= a violation of the laws of nature.

What’s the difference between our understanding of the laws of nature and the actual laws of nature?

We have changed our minds often about what we thought were the laws of nature, particularly in cases where we observed “violations.”

When they invented the locomotive, people used to think that if you propelled the human body faster than 22 mph it would be destroyed.

So a miracle should be understood as a violation of the actual laws of nature.

  • Candidates:
    • Jesus walks on water.
    • Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
    • Jesus is resurrected from the dead.
    • Muhammed splits the moon.
    • An ardent devotee of the Lord and child, Prahlada, is protected from being killed by fire, trampling by elephants, and other means.
    • Moses parts the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee Egypt.
many purported miracles are fraudulent
Many purported miracles are fraudulent.
  • Radio transmitters: James “The Amazing” Randi exposed popular televangelist Peter Popoff.
  • Prayer trolling: Other televangelists describe people with vague illnesses when they pray, and then claim to have healed those unknown individuals.
  • Deceptions: Faith healers offer “complimentary” wheelchairs to the sick and then “heal” them from their affliction by taking the wheelchair away.
  • Fakes: Others use plants in the audience.
  • Gullible Audiences: And all of them capitalize on the excitement, expectations, enthusiasm, and the power of suggestion in their audience.
many purported miracles are simply mistakes
Many purported miracles are simply mistakes.

At Lourdes, France, the spring waters are alleged to have miraculous healing powers.

Over 80,000 pilgrims a year visit the site, and have done so for over a century.

That’s over 8 million pilgrims, most of them going with the strong expectation that:

1) miracles have occurred there,

2) they will be miraculously healed as well. And

3) Many of them, probably most, leave believing that one has occurred.

Officials at Lourdes (themselves also strong and enthusiastic believers) have officially recognized 66 healings.

what leads us to find so many miracles
What Leads Us to Find so Many Miracles?
  • Confirmation Bias: the disposition to search for and find evidence that supports a pet hypothesis while ignoring or neglecting evidence that would refute it. Check enough water stains on enough bridges and you’ll find one that looks like Danny Devito too.
  • Religious pareidolia: humans have a well documented disposition to find patterns where none are present. Religious contexts boost this tendency and give us strong suggestions.
  • Believers are the investigators: very often the people investigating miracle claims are enthusiastic believers who have an uncanny knack of finding what they are looking for.
when the miracle is in another language the fallacy is even clearer
When the miracle is in another language, the fallacy is even clearer.

This is the name of Allah (in Arabic) written in a watermelon. Does God speak English? Arabic? Hebrew? Is writing in watermelons what you would do with your power if you were God?

hume s argument
Hume’s Argument:
  • In all of my experience, nature has been uniform.
  • A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, or the uniformity of nature.
  • If someone testifies that they have seen a miracle, then there are several possible explanations:
      • a. He is mistaken.
      • b. He is lying.
      • c. He has been deceived.
      • d. A real miracle has occurred.
      • 4. My experience and my evidence will always favor a, b, or c more than d.
      • 5. Therefore, it will never be reasonable for me to believe miracle testimony.
so what sort of testimony would be believable
So What Sort of Testimony Would Be Believable?
  • Hume says, “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 travelers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived.”
suppose we had compelling evidence that some miracle had occurred
Suppose We Had Compelling Evidence that Some Miracle Had Occurred:
  • Would that give us evidence that some supernatural agent was responsible?
  • Would that give us evidence that the being responsible was omnipotent? Omniscient? Omnibenevolent?
miracles would be evidence against the existence of god
Miracles Would Be Evidence Against the Existence of God
  • If God did intervene in the course of things to make one good thing happen, or prevent an evil thing, then we would have to ask, “Why not more?”
  • An omni-being wouldn’t manifest himself through mere healings, images, cryptic intimations.
  • Only a petty, superficial, short-sighted being would bother with such insignificant party tricks.
  • If there were real miracles, then all the purported solutions to the problem of evil that asserted evil has a divine purpose, or this is the best of all possible worlds, or that God must be hidden must be rejected.