Why Hume was certainly wrong about miracles

This post is meant to be a supplement to “About Miracles.” I’m including a video by Professor of Philosophy at Marywood University,  John DePoe, PhD., which is a little more academic in nature but I think you’ll find his lecture useful in understanding where the philosophical argument against miracles came from and why it’s most certainly wrong.

But, before we continue, we should define what we mean by miracles. Here’s how DePoe defines them: “a miracle is an action performed by God, a deviation from the natural course of events, performed for a divine purpose.” 

To be clear, this is not the same thing as what we mean by divine providence, which would be God working through the natural course of events. The Christian claim for miracles is not a claim that calls for the violation of natural law. The claim is that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead by His intervening power over the regularities of nature. So, to argue that dead men don’t normally get up again is irrelevant to the point.

This prejudice against miracles didn’t happen overnight, We could reasonably suppose that our disbelief started with the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th century onward, which was a reaction to perhaps an overly superstitious view by many pre-moderns. But this reaction became an over-reaction and outright rejection of the supernatural, which led to our indoctrination that we live in a closed mechanistic universe which does not allow for anything that deviates from natural law. This is the dogma of naturalism.

So, we have this ironically absurd situation with regard to miracles today, as G.K. Chesterton observed:

“Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.” (Chesterton, “Orthodoxy,” p. 278-279)

But one philosopher, more than most others, can be considered the father of disbelief, and that is Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume (1711-1776), infamous for his radical empiricism and skepticism. A modern day exponent of Hume’s argument is agnostic textual critic, Bart Ehrman. We already looked at Ehrman channeling Hume here, and especially this video here.

Here’s Hume’s argument against miracles in a nutshell:

DePoe responds to this popular notion listing five problems with Hume’s argument in his lecture (video below). Summarizing, these five problems are:

1. The scope of personal experience. Should it be limited to personal experience or extend to the experience all people? And if Hume claims it defies the experience of all people of all ages, how can he know that? (Begging the question fallacy). Hume assumes we should rely on our personal experience to judge the credibility of other’s testimony.

2. Our personal experience does not provide “a uniform experience against every miraculous event.” The laws of nature only describe how these laws normally work on their own, or how it normally operates. As we saw in “About Miracles” this is not the claim being made for them.

3. Personal experience can support miracles. Our experience tells us that people are not willing to endure suffering unto death for proclaiming events they know to be false, which proves sincerity in testimony. Along with evidence that the witnesses are not deceived, it would be a violation of our uniform experience for people to endure suffering for proclaiming known falsehoods.

4. The stultification of science. If scientists allowed uniform personal experience to inform them of what was believable (regardless of the evidence), then science would never progress. Hume’s argument does not match the actual practice of scientists. If it were followed by scientists, it would be paralyzing to scientific inquiry.

5. Testimony can and does overcome great improbabilities. Independent eye-witness testimony can confirm improbable events. Since science cannot empirically test for miracles a better method is forensic in nature.

DePoe lists and quotes some of Hume’s contemporary and modern detractors and also provides great reference materials for further study. Here’s the video lecture.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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5 Responses to Why Hume was certainly wrong about miracles

  1. jim- says:

    I like the writing style of GK Chesterton, but how can I trust the views of a guy that eventually converted to be catholic? If you split enough hairs, you can convince yourself of anything, including the process of miracles.

    • Mel Wild says:

      LOL! Okay, but the Catholics do have a more coherent ontological argument than the Protestants. And I’ve always liked their mystics, too.

      And, of course, you can split hairs and listen to the likes of Hume and Ehrman and convince yourself there’s no such thing as miracles. 🙂

  2. “All reasonable judgments about matters of fact must rely on past experiences.”

    This is a good post, Mel. Helps to clarify some things in my mind. We’ve been a having a similar discussion in church. I’m chuckling here, but my mission in life is to try to convince people we need to let go of our desire to be praised for our “reasonable judgments.” Our “facts” are either going to be based on past experiences or they are going to be based on the Lord. If they are based exclusively on past experiences, than we have just cut ourselves off from transformation, from metanoia. For miracles to occur we have to suspend our disbelief, which is basically suspending our reliance on past experiences and placing our eyes on what is unseen.

    All things are possible with the Lord. Past experiences tend to tell us things that simply aren’t true, like “I’ll never have a good marriage, I’ll always struggle with addiction, or every time I try, I just get knocked down.” Overcoming any of those things is a miracle of sorts, but the only way to get there is to suspend our reliance on “reasonable judgments” and “past experiences.” Or as my favorite verse goes, “lean not unto your own understanding,” because it’s often flawed, subjective, and deceptive.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Our “facts” are either going to be based on past experiences or they are going to be based on the Lord. If they are based exclusively on past experiences, than we have just cut ourselves off from transformation, from metanoia.

      I really like what you said here, IB. Basically, if we stay stuck in our own heads, we will never grow and change! Only God has all knowledge. It’s kind of like insisting on learning everything by personal experience instead of from those who’ve been through it before; otherwise known as learning things the hard way!

      Past experiences tend to tell us things that simply aren’t true, like “I’ll never have a good marriage, I’ll always struggle with addiction, or every time I try, I just get knocked down.”

      Another really good point. Past experience can just keep us in a rut, repeating the same failures over and over. Common sense says we need intervention from the outside in order to see something we’re not seeing about ourselves. Basing our beliefs on our past experience is a bit myopic and short-sighted.

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