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Hume’s “Of miracles”. Thesis: You can’t establish a religion on human testimony of miracles. He has an argument similar to one used by John Tillotson (moderate Archbishop of Canterbury, 1691-1694) against transubstantiation.

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hume s of miracles
Hume’s “Of miracles”
  • Thesis: You can’t establish a religion on human testimony of miracles.
  • He has an argument similar to one used by John Tillotson (moderate Archbishop of Canterbury, 1691-1694) against transubstantiation.
  • He’s writing in a context where Protestants are already skeptical of miracle reports coming from Roman Catholics in continental Europe.
  • The argument is supposed to convince his Protestant audience that they should be skeptical of any miracle reports in religious contexts.
experience evidence and belief
Experience, evidence, and belief
  • When it comes to matters of fact, experience is our only guide.
  • And it is a fallible guide.
  • So we have to proportion our belief to the evidence.
  • Sometimes we have a perfectly consistent pattern of evidence (a proof), and sometimes we have a mixed pattern of evidence (mere probability).
  • With proofs, we should have (something like) complete confidence. With probabilities, we should have less confidence.
  • Testimony is one source of evidence.
  • It works the same way: our confidence in certain testimony should be tailored to how often testimony of this kind faithfully represents the facts.
  • If our experience has shown a certain kind of testimony to be perfectly reliable, then we should be completely confident in it.
  • And if our experience has shown a certain kind of testimony to be less reliable, then we should be less confident in it.
two factors that should lower our confidence
Two factors thatshould lower our confidence
  • Sometimes our confidence should be lowered because of the nature of the testimony.
      • Witnesses contradict each other
      • Only a few witnesses
      • Doubtful character
      • They have an interest in what they claim
      • They hesitate, or they “protest too much”
  • Other times our confidence should be lowered because of the nature of the event attested to.
nature of the event
Nature of the event
  • Inasmuch as the event attested to “partakes of the extraordinary and marvellous”, we should lower our confidence.
  • If someone tells you that President Bush gave a State of the Union address wearing a Speedo, you should be highly skeptical.
    • Why? Because the event itself seems highly unlikely.
  • Even if the testimony looks pretty credible, the extreme improbability of the event ought to lower our confidence.
    • Even if you were told this by a proven and trustworthy friend, you should still be skeptical.
  • Miracles, by definition, are highly unlikely events – even more unlikely than Bush in a Speedo!
  • A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature by supernatural agency.
  • The laws of nature are the most consistent patterns of natural phenomena available to us.
  • So a miracle is an event whose credibility is threatened by the strongest amount of evidence possible.
    • “there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle”
belief in miracles
Belief in miracles
  • So, for belief in a miracle to be reasonable, the testimony in its favor must be so reliable and so credible that it outweighs the intrinsic improbability of the alleged miraculous event.
  • Hume writes 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”
  • The event itself is so incredible, we need extremely credible testimony.
  • Slogan of the skeptic’s movement: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”
how strong is the evidence
How strong is the evidence?
  • Hume says that “there never was a miraculous event founded on so full an evidence”.
  • He thinks that the quality of the evidence (i.e., the credibility of the testimony) is never strong enough to outweigh the intrinsic improbability of miracles.
  • But why does he think this?
  • He raises four points.
point 1 the testimony itself
Point 1 – The testimony itself
  • We need extremely credible testimony:
    • lots of witnesses
    • with good sense, education, and learning
    • with integrity
    • with a reputation to lose
    • attesting in public, where any deception will be found out
  • But, Hume says, you’ll never find this, not anywhere in history.
point 2 human nature
Point 2 – Human nature
  • Humans are naturally drawn to tall tales and urban legends and old wives' tales and ghost stories and the like.
  • We enjoy hearing about them and we enjoy spreading them around.
  • Religious enthusiasm especially leads us to deceive ourselves and renounce our judgment, and sometimes even to lie to others.
  • You can see these passions operating in the history of forgeries and frauds.
point 3 ignorance
Point 3 – Ignorance
  • These stories are found in the ignorant distant past, or in ignorant cultures of today.
  • Ancient histories are filled with wild stories, but as you advance from ancient histories up to modern histories, the wild stories show up less and less.
  • And even today, we can ask ourselves: swho tends to believe urban legends? who tends to spread ghost stories?
point 4 conflicting religions
Point 4 – Conflicting religions
  • Each religion has its own testimony of miracles.
  • If the testimony of this miracle established this religion, then the testimony of that miracle would establish that religion.
  • And then we’d end up with all religions being true, which is impossible – after all, different religions contradict each other.
hume s argument
Hume’s argument
  • For testimony of a miracle to establish a religion, the testimony would have to be so credible as to outweigh the intrinsic improbability of the miracle.
  • But testimony of miracles is never that credible (remember Hume’s four points).
  • Therefore, “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion”
limitations of the argument
Limitations of the argument
  • Hume does think that human testimony could establish a violation of the laws of nature.
  • But only if the testimony was credible enough to outweigh the intrinsic improbability of the event.
    • “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.”
so what s special about religion
So what’s special about religion?
  • Hume thinks that religious miracles are especially worthy of doubt.
  • It’s because he thinks people have shown themselves to be extremely unreliable on matters of religion.
  • “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.”
what hume is not arguing
What Hume is not arguing
  • A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
  • The laws of nature are exceptionless regularities.
  • Therefore, no miracles occur.
    • This just begs the question—no one who believes in miracles would ever accept premise 2.
    • Instead, Hume is arguing that we have tons of evidence on behalf of the laws of nature, and so any claim of a violation of the laws of nature is automatically highly unlikely.
another thing hume is not arguing
Another thing Hume is not arguing
  • We have absolutely exceptionless experience in favor of the laws of nature.
  • A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
  • Therefore, all of our experience is against miracles.
    • Here, it’s premise 1 that is question-begging.
    • Instead, Hume is just arguing that we have “wide and unproblematic testimony” on behalf of the laws of nature, and we have only isolated and dubious reports of exceptions (Fogelin, 20).
an objection
An objection
  • Maybe it's unlikely for the laws of nature to be violated on their own.
  • But it's not unlikely for God to violate the laws of nature.
  • After all, God is omnipotent – it’s a simple matter for him to violate the laws of nature.
hume s reply
Hume’s reply
  • But Hume anticipated this objection.
  • Our experience of God's activities strongly indicates that he doesn't violate the laws of nature.
  • “It is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature”
  • You shouldn't believe someone who claims to have been able to fly back when he was 17 years old.
  • Likewise, you shouldn’t believe someone who claims that God gave him the power to fly when he was 17.
hume s ironic ending
Hume’s ironic ending
  • He says that Christianity is founded not on reason, but on faith.
  • If it weren't for faith, Hume says, Christianity would be totally unreasonable.
  • As a matter of fact, Hume himself was not religious.
  • He is ironically ridiculing the reasonableness of believing in Christianity.