The UW Undergraduate
The Cretin …………………………………………………………B.W. Roberts 1
The Miracles Debate ………………………………………...Yen Jeannette Tran 4
Hume’s Horrible Costume …………………………………………Julia Parker 21
Morality as Subjectively Perspectivist……………………… Matthew Jernberg 38
The story of little-known encounter between Immanuel Kant and a traveling Cretin.
One fine afternoon, a bright young Cretin decided that he had known quite enough of his little island, where the women and men devoted their lives to idleness, amusement, and the propagation of their species. He kissed his mother goodbye, and set off north in search of the foundations of morality. As he traveled, he inquired of each passerby as to where he might learn about such matters. Each passerby responded in the same way: “I can’t tell you the answer.” Then, they would point to the north.
Finally, after many long days of travel, the young Cretin arrived at the cold Northern Seas, outside a quaint little Prussian town by the water. As he entered the city, he was surprised to find all of the townspeople standing outside their doors, their pendulum clocks in their hands. Their eyes were all fixed upon the slow, metrical march of a solitary old gentleman, out for his noon-time walk. The moment the gentleman rounded the block, they all set their clocks at once. Exactly eleven-o-five. The Cretin was mystified, and asked of an approaching Whig:
“Can you tell me the name of that man, whose pace is so certain that one can set a clock to it?”
“I can’t,” replied the Whig.
“For heaven’s sake, why not?” exclaimed the Cretin.
“Good sir, I am telling you—his name is I. Kant,” said the Whig, as he trotted away.
The Cretin suddenly realized that he had found what he was looking for. Of course! he thought. I. Kant tell you the answer! He hurried up to the old gentleman and fell into step beside him.
“Mr. Kant,” said the Cretin, “I was wondering if you could teach me something about the foundations of morality.” Kant regarded the Cretin thoughtfully, his cane ticking rhythmically on the sidewalk as he walked. He replied with firm conviction:
“There is but one categorical imperative, namely this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Finally, an answer to the puzzle! Yet Kant’s response was startling to the Cretin, whose island was known for its lawlessness as much as for its lazy lack of action. “I don’t understand. Can you give me an example?” he asked.
Kant thought again for a moment, then responded: “Thou shalt not promise deceitfully.”
This startled the Cretin even more, with regard to a long-practiced tradition on his far-away island. He decided to explain.
“Well, you see Mr. Kant, we have a tradition in my far-away home, which is to take the following oath: I promise to break all of my promises...”
Kant shrieked. “Be careful! Foolish South Sea islander, you may have already doomed yourself! Think about what you’ve said.”
In his surprise, the Cretin tripped and fell out of step for a moment, then jogged to catch back up with the old gentleman. He thought hard about Kant’s words, and about his oath. Kant says it is imperative that I not break my promises, he thought. But if I am to keep my oath, then I must break all of my promises. And my oath is itself a promise—so it may be kept if and only if it is broken! The poor Cretin, what could he do? It seemed inevitable that he would soon violate Kant’s Categorical Imperative: whether he kept his oath or broke it, he would still be breaking promises.
Suddenly, the Cretin had a dangerous idea. He could simply resolve to make no promises at all; then his oath would remain indeterminate, and his conscience would remain clear in Kant’s eyes. He decided to give it a try.
“I’ve got it,” said the Cretin after a long pause. “I promise not to make promises.”
“No!” cried Kant. “Don’t, you fool!”
But it was too late. In speaking these words, the poor young Cretin had double-violated the Categorical Imperative. His promise not to make promises was broken as soon as he made it. And his oath was now inevitably broken in one sense or the other, for the oath was kept if and only if it was broken. Kant shook his head and marched on, leaving the poor young Cretin gaping behind him.
The young Cretin left the cold Northern Seas and returned to his little island, where the women and men devoted their lives to idleness, amusement, and the propagation of their species. He kissed his mother upon his return.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked.
“What I found was beyond our world,” the Cretin replied, “as much as it was beyond sensible language. As for what I was looking for, I do not believe it exists.” He looked to the north and smiled. “But if it does, then we are all in a lot of trouble.”
The Miracle Debate
Hume and Contemporaries
Yen Jeannette Tran
Do miracles happen? Should we believe in them? David Hume answers ‘no’ on both accounts. Here, an explication and a defense of Hume’s ‘On Miracles’ is given, with particular attention paid to Hume’s use of a priori versus a posteriori reasoning.
The beginning of 2003 was marked by a miracle—a twenty-pound talking carp that believers considered God speaking out in fish form. The mystical event was witnessed by two employees, Zaimen Rosen and Luis Nivelo, in a New York fish market. Just as Nivelo was about to kill the fish it began shouting the following Hebrew words: ‘Tzaruch shemirah' and 'Hasof bah,’ which, when translated, basically means to account for yourself, for the end is near. Not only did the fish warn of impending doom (in response at that time to the prospect of an Iraq war), it also provided a course of action. It instructed the two men to consult the Torah and pray. Rosen, a Hasidic Jew, was convinced of God’s revelation, saying: “[i]t is very rare that God reminds people he exists in this modern world. But when he does, you cannot ignore it.” One may think that an account of a talking fish would not merit many believers due to the sheer preposterousness of such an event, but the amount of supporters has disproved this. As local resident Abraham Spitz reasons, “[t]wo men do not dream the same dream.” So what happened to this miraculous fish that had the power of prophecy? It was killed and then sold.1
One may ask whether this incident constitutes a miracle, or if it was rather the delusion of two men desperately seeking divine revelation? How are we to decide the validity of purported miracles? David Hume claims to have established a general maxim toward the assignment of miracles in his famous essay “Of Miracles”.2 The argument is against miracles, and purports the irrationality of believing in miracles. The argument Hume deploys has been under debate since its publication and still remains a contemporary focus. Under the interpretations of many religious and philosophical scholars, the argument is partitioned in two ways. First, the argument can be separated into two arguments by the distinction: a priori or a posteriori, both of which provide arguments that must be acknowledged by the opposing side. Second, the argument can be separated into two arguments by the two parts in the essay, Part I and Part II. It is not as difficult to determine exactly what Hume was trying to accomplish in his essay, but rather how and by what method he reaches his conclusion. I will set forth in this essay to show that Hume’s conclusion does not rely solely on either the a priori or the a posteriori argument, but rather uses them both together. Furthermore, there is an alternative argument revealed in a footnote to the passage that is of greater importance to his overall argument against miracles, and it is this argument which drives Hume’s final claim that religious belief is irrational.
First, let us establish what a miracle is for Hume. Generally, a miracle is something that defies the natural course of events that are governed by “laws of nature.” Hume states:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.…Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature.…There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.3
For Hume, the driving force in the first of the two definitions he proposes is the concept of “laws of nature.” It is this definition that is mainly employed in the argument in Part I of the essay, and many claim it is the basis of an a priori argument.4 The second definition of a miracle is found in his footnote to the first definition, and is treated in the second argument contained in Part II: “[a] miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”5 This is the definition that is more fundamental in understanding Hume’s argument against miracles and I will further address this matter later in the essay. But in order to understand the more relevant aspects of that definition, we must first critically analyze the first definition and the argument that follows from it.
It is not out of character that Hume supplies the first definition of miracle with respect to “laws of nature.” Hume is an empiricist, affixing himself fully to science in his epistemology and metaphysics, and it is the task of the scientist to uncover and establish the laws of nature. The wise man should regard his past experience as full proof of a future event with a one hundred percent clear expectation. From this method of reasoning arise laws of nature that entail a uniform experience that is confirmed by all experiences of the same type. A similar concept that is more relaxed is posited by John Stewart Mill in his “enumerative induction” principle.6 The general idea is the same, using our uniform experience as empirical evidence with which we can form an accepted view or consensus, which for Hume amounts to the laws of nature. To be more precise, the “common course of nature” refers to nomic laws, which are formed from the following induction: all (or almost all) regular associations of A’s and B’s are identical to all (or almost all) regular associations of observed C’s and D’s. Thus, the laws of nature are a posteriori by this method.
On the other hand, Richard Swinburne regards Hume’s laws of nature as a simple scientific formula, and asserts in his book, The Concept of Miracle, that “[i]n so far as a formula is simple and the simplest known formula is compatible with observations, we regard it—provisional[ly]—as a law of nature.”
7 In making this claim, Swinburne is assuming that the laws of nature may be easily ascertained from a simple formula. I agree that, in some cases, a law of nature derived in this fashion can be as simple as the conclusion that heavy objects fall toward the earth, based on our experiences with heavy objects falling down. What about cases in which objects do not abide by gravitational laws, for example in outer space? Where is the simple formula to account for this? One might respond by simply asserting that it is a part of the same law of gravity, based on our experience of floating objects in space and heavy objects falling to the ground on earth. Can one really say that gravitational laws come from simple formulas based on our experience, and that they are not more complex? Surely, a modern physicist would not agree with such a claim. The laws of nature derived in a Humean fashion cannot be as arbitrary as Swinburne proposes.
We can now enter Hume’s first argument in Part I, granting my explanation of Hume’s laws of nature and not that which Swinburne holds. A fair interpretation of this argument that I will use throughout from William Rowe’s introductory text on religion, Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, is as follows:
The evidence from experience in support of laws of nature is extremely strong.
A miracle is a violation of a law of nature.
Therefore, the evidence from experience against the occurrence of a miracle is extremely strong.8
According to Swinburne, the evidence from experience against a miracle is extremely strong because “there cannot be repeatable counter-instances to genuine laws of nature, that is, counter-instances which would be repeated in similar circumstances.”9 If there are repeatable counter-instances, then our laws of nature are not in fact laws of nature. Thus, laws of nature are self-contained. I agree with Swinburne on this view, and it is one of my concerns especially if we are to live in a world of scientific progress where repeatable counter-instances readily do occur. Thus, we have a refutation of nomic laws that makes them self-defeating. This view leads to an a priori account of Hume’s first argument in Part I, a view championed by David Johnson in his book: Hume, Holism, and Miracles. He declares,
Hume might, and in at least some moods certainly would, protest that he is not just assuming that we have a proof, and hence “uniform experience,” against a given miracle, but that this follows from the very fact that the alleged event is a miracle.…But if this is the claim, then, first, Hume is saying that it is a necessary truth that every miracle is opposed by a uniform experience.10
If this is the case, then no argument in favor of a miracle can ever be endorsed. Referring back to Swinburne’s claim of counter-instances, Jenkins furthers this argument in his book Understanding Hume. Here he claims that we would never be justified in recording the first counter-instance of a law of nature—it will always be dismissed. It may be attributed to scientist error, instrumental error, or to any other excuse for the refusal of the law in question. Therefore, a process of garnering counter-instances will never get started, and so the repeated occurrence of counter-instances will never serve as proof of a miracle.
Now, it is critical in our discussion of miracles thus far to acknowledge Hume’s take on evidence. He makes it quite clear how to evaluate the evidentiary proof for a miracle:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention) ‘[t]hat 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 endeavors to establish.…I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.11
For Hume, the evidence in favor of a miracle has been historically less than (or at least equal to) that of our evidence for the laws of nature, where miracles are a violation of the laws of nature, which are established by our experience. The opposite experiment most likely will never be greater than the original experiment, so the superior evidence will always be in favor of the original. Thus, no laws of nature will ever be violated, which makes believing in miracles irrational as a direct consequence of no repeatable counter-instances.12 As an a priori argument, this is clearly very problematic, and runs contradictory to the spirit of inquiry that Hume dogmatically supports throughout the Enquiry. Is this the argument Hume is trying to convey in Part I?
The problem with the prima facie claim is its strict interpretation of Hume in his belief that the laws of nature will never be malleable. By adhering to my interpretation of “laws of nature” that was stated earlier, I maintain that the argument is not entirely a priori and thus does not fail on that account, but rather for other inconsistencies. The claim put forth by Jenkins (that the scientist can never get the method of gathering counter-instances off the ground, due to the credit of the commonly agreed upon law) is an absurd claim. Hume never claimed that the laws are incorrigible. In fact, he acknowledged that they could be altered: “any phenomenon, which violates a law of nature, comes within the reach of human testimony, that testimony be very extensive and uniform.”13 The example he uses to illustrate this point is the possible unanimous agreement of scholars on the eight days of total darkness beginning on the first of January 1600. This is justification enough that Hume’s argument does not rest solely on an a priori argument.
Furthermore, there are many contemporary instances of progress in science and thus there are many apparent instances of violations of laws of nature. Our law of nature proof is capable of being threatened by a contrary proof. An example exists in the discovery of hydrochloric acid (HCl) to show that a law of nature has been altered. The older definition for acids was that “all acids contain oxygen.” It was required of acids to combine with alkalis to form salts to contain oxygen, but upon the discovery of HCl the definition of acids, and thus the law, had to be modified. To take the point even further, in the strict sense, a law of nature that was previously held was violated. But in response, one could just say that the former law for acids was not a genuine law of nature and that this new law is the real law. James Kellenberger, in an essay entitled “Miracles”, rejects Hume’s characterization of laws of nature, but agrees that Hume would say, “our previous conception of the natural law involved was deficient” in this situation, and that the violation is not really a violation of the law but rather an unusual circumstance.14 The result is that a law of nature is not violated. The consequence of this reformulation of the law keeps the a priori argument intact, and unambiguously eliminates the dilemma of a violation of a natural law.
Moreover, if we did violate a law of nature for acids, does the discovery of hydrochloric acid constitute a miracle? Let us examine this in more detail. Suppose we say that the original definition of acid is in fact a law of nature supported by a preponderance of evidence. Despite the discovery of HCl, we can still agree that the acids that contain oxygen are still acids—that cannot be refuted. The difference now is the addition of HCl, we are faced with amending the law or making a new law. For our purposes, we want to avoid falling into an a priori argument so that we will not be modifying the law to recognize it as the real law of nature. Instead, we will keep with the traditionalist definition and law. Again, the existence of HCl proves a violation of a law of nature, given that the direct experience of HCl passes all Humean checks of being a contrary proof to the proof that originally established the law.15
For Hume it seems that the contrary proof is always more difficult to prove. The burden is on us to provide positive evidence for the violation. What we do not have is the ability to provide equally positive evidence for laws of nature. Yes, our conception of the laws of nature is grounded in our constant and uniform experience, but it appears as though the positive evidence for laws of nature is always less and much less difficult to produce than the evidence for a miracle. Why is it that one must be of greater value? Why is the burden of proof not on the other side of the fence? My response to this is, simply, that there have to be higher standards in assessing violation of laws of nature, because laws of nature have already proven themselves as laws of nature. If the requirements were lax, then there would be a continuous changing of the laws of nature, which opposes Hume’s conception of uniform experience. Thus, this opposes the very principle that grounds the laws of nature. In his book, A Defense of Hume on Miracles, David Fogelin agrees with this challenge for the disprover, who has “the formidable task of showing that the argument drawn from the internal quality of the testimony fully dominates the counterargument based on the empirically grounded improbability of the event’s occurring.”16 As I claimed earlier, it is a difficult task, but I do not believe Hume thinks it an impossible task.
A way to escape the worry about the laws of nature is to assign supernatural events, which is a view that is posited by Michael Levine. Levine recognized that Hume was not arguing the impossibility of miracles, but rather that justified belief in a miracle on the basis of testimony is impossible. What Levine fails to do is reconcile the incompatibility of the laws of nature with miracles. He asserts that one way to overcome the problem with the laws of nature is to regard them as non-universal or incomplete. Levine claims that if we restrict the laws of nature to things that are inside the natural realm, to make room for the supernatural, we will not run into a conflict of violating the laws of nature if we experience a miracle. There would be no contradiction in supposing that a physically impossible event could occur because it is not within the scope of the laws of nature.17 This is a rather interesting idea that is somewhat naïve in assuming that the laws of nature have these special supernatural loopholes, and in fact this becomes problematic if we are to label events as supernatural.18 In Hume’s defense, we have no knowledge of the supernatural, because we never experience anything outside the scope of the laws of nature. Therefore, we can confidently determine what counts as supernatural: it cannot merely rest upon the definition that the supernatural is something that is not within the laws of nature. As argued, the laws of nature are already ambiguous. One worry is that it will become a common occurrence to consider unusual events as supernatural. Another worry is in distinguishing between the supernatural and that which resides within the laws of nature. We cannot remedy the problems of the laws of nature by offering, as a solution, the addition of such stipulations to them as Levine and many other scholars do.19
Given these considerations, let’s assume that a contrary proof to the original proof for the law of nature is strong enough to constitute a “violation.” If Hume wants to remain consistent with his argument thus far, he has to admit here that the violation is a miracle, because a law of nature was sufficiently proven to be broken. But this cannot be correct. Surely we cannot justly maintain that all scientific discoveries are miracles. This is an instance where falsification is not miraculous. Jenkins was correct in the strict sense that laws of nature will never be violated on one of Hume’s accounts, but he fails to acknowledge the other Humean view of a non-a priori argument which, as I have shown, fails as well. Understanding the argument a priori (prior to) or a posteriori (after) with respect to Hume’s laws of nature poses serious difficulties in solving the philosophical worry. Therefore, one also needs Hume’s footnote definition of miracle to complete the entire argument.
Recall once again the definition Hume states in a footnote: “[a] miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”20 Because the argument against miracles from laws of nature fails on two possible accounts of Hume’s argument (a priori and falsification), we are left to reconcile his argument with his footnote. However, this is not to say that Hume’s characterization of the laws of nature in Part I is not a necessary condition of his argument. It lays down the groundwork of probabilistic reasoning needed to confirm or validate testimony on behalf of miracles. In Part II, Hume shifts the focus of his essay to properly address the issue of rational belief in religious miracles. Instead of basing the argument against miracles entirely on just violations of laws of nature, we can now attribute those violations to a divine being. Thus, Hume centers his argument on the rejection of religious miracles, which is the stronger and more complete argument of the two. So where Part I ends, Part II begins to complete the story.
From the onset of Part II, Hume presents four main claims against historically reported miracles and uses them as proof for the unreliability of human testimony concerning religious miracles. First, Hume claims that never in history has there been a miracle attested to by enough educated men that their testimony could serve as reliable testimony that does not entertain the skeptic. Second, humans give preference to events that arise out of our “passions” of surprise and wonder (with which he is referring to religious miracles). These religious miracles overpower our common sense-experience and the laws of nature due to the sheer exhilaration of the professed miracle. Thirdly, Hume questions the integrity and intelligence of those who attest to religious miracles: “they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations,” and even those that are intelligent descended from ignorant and barbarous ancestors. Finally, Hume claims that there is no miraculous event “that is not opposed by an infinite number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the credit of the testimony, but the testimony destroys itself.”21 Thus, we have witnessed each of the four “checks” on miracles set out to prove that human testimony is tenuous on the matter of religious miracles. We will often refer back to these four claims.
It is fairly difficult to read Hume’s four claims and not have any objections to his determination of what is or is not “good human testimony.” The first claim is nearly infallible; it leaves a miniscule chance that any human testimony can ever achieve a true and entire consensus on a miracle. It directly counters his claim of a true and entire consensus on the laws of nature, which for him does and has to occur. The miracle violates a law of nature, thus we can already establish that there is not a true and entire consensus on the event that is classified as the religious miracle, prima facie. The second assertion is more warranted. By appealing to human psychology and the general human need for faith, it diminishes the testimony of those who are religious and claim that miracles occur. Hume puts it well; “[a] religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: [h]e may know his narrative to be false, and yet preserve in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.”22 In response to the third statement, it is easy to attack Hume on an ad hominem basis, but I do not feel the argument is so defunct. Ask yourself, would you believe a child who claimed to see flying pigs? Clearly, you would not trust the claim. For Hume, people who report religious miracles are analogous to the child in my example. The real problem is not the questioning of ignorant testimony, but how to determine ignorance. How did Hume decide that the people who made miraculous claims were in fact barbarous? Did he have a real experience of their ignorance, or of their ancestors’ ignorance? Finally, the last argument follows directly from the first; now the opposition is too great, whereas before it was too incomplete.
Hume’s argument is unique, because he uses it in a direct critique on religion. Hume writes,
Every miracle [from religion], therefore, as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.23
This is an argument that cannot be dismissed so easily. However, a response that I support is that Hume presupposes the correlation between religion and miracles as the foundation of religions. He does not present a convincing argument for the relation, though it can be inferred. It appears that Hume again is employing an a priori argument to show that the testimony for miracles is self-defeating, but that is not the case. The countering claim brings back the example of the eight days of darkness contained in Part II, it serves as a defense of this critique for the reasons stated previously. Hume posits these four arguments against the reported testimony of his day, but let us pay particular attention to an argument on the verification of evidence that takes into account the character of a witness.
Elliot Sober proposes an elaboration and unique view on what constitutes an evidentiary proof for a constant experience, which founds laws of nature, in response to John Earman’s book, Hume’s Abject Failure. Hume puts emphasis on the quantity of evidence that must be provided to validate the laws. Sober interprets this in terms of probabilities. Though this type of proof is not explicitly discussed in either part
s of the essay, it is worth noting now because it plays a fundamental role in confirming a violation of a law of nature. Sober affirms that the reliability or proof of a law of nature can be understood using a Bayesian representation, though it is not a method Hume actually employs. The argument differentiates between “likelihoods” in the proposition versus “posterior possibilities” for miracles (M) and not M. Sober’s proposition is stated:
In effect, Sober contends from the proposition that the testimony from one witness must be very reliable if it is to be more probable than “not a proposition that has a very low posterior probability.”24 However, the proposition also maintains that the larger the set of witnesses, the less stringent the standards of reliability must be. For Sober, the proposition (*) is a representation of Hume’s stance on testimony and evidence: “[the] basic idea is that the testimony that M is true must somehow be combined with the background evidence that M is false if we are to form an overall assessment of whether M is correct, and that the stronger the background evidence is against M, the more difficult it will be for testimony to reverse our prior judgment.”25
It is typical to employ Bayesian probability laws to philosophical arguments like the one presented above. However, the problem with this type of argument is the subjectivity of the probabilities used in the equation for evaluating the evidence, and what results is something very similar to a probability for the proposed event. We can never formulate probabilities that are entirely objective; they are always influenced by the past experiences or background knowledge we have acquired throughout our lives. The result is a non-uniform account, which Hume’s epistemology directly opposes. For this reason, arguments of this nature are non-conclusive and fail to prove anything.
Another implication of the four arguments presented is to question why Hume does not raise positive arguments against the testimony, and subsequently why he does not raise positive arguments for reasoning the event as a miracle from God’s hands. Why should positive evidence count, and not negative evidence? How could God show his omnipotence by intervening in our lives, and how can we empirically distinguish the event? These questions merit our attention in order to point out the shortcomings in Hume’s argument against religious miracles. So let us turn to another critique of the argument regarding the second definition, based on the following argument presented by Rowe. The second definition only allows miracles for those who are followers of theistic faith. If followers already believe in a God that watches over his children, then it simply follows that the same God has the power to yield miracles through his volitions. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe in the occurrence of miracles in cases where faith and religion are present.
Although this argument seems plausible, there is a serious problem with respect to the “grounds.” The argument presupposes the belief in a god in order to justify a miracle, and leaves us with an even more urgent problem for the non-believer. Rowe advances this view, that we “have to have reasons for thinking that the violation is itself evidence for the existence of God. And if it is the theistic God that concerns us, it hardly seems possible that this should be so,” if one does not believe in God.26 The argument for miracles and the evidence thus falls upon another separate contemporary debate on the existence of God, and furthermore his power to intervene through miracles.
Given these concerns, what are the ramifications of Hume’s argument in Part II? Toward the conclusion of the essay, he confirms our suspicions by making his position unmistakably clear:
Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted a probability, much less a proof: and that even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavor to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience which assures of the laws of nature.27
Hume used Part II to ground the argument he posed in Part I, in order to fully derive an argument against the rational belief in religious miracles. It is the rejection of miracles that allows Hume to make his final blow: “we may establish it as a general maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”28 Therefore, a system of religion is not warranted and it is irrational to believe in religion. The argument against miracles is a smoke screen for Hume’s real objection to religion. Despite the difficulties the argument faces, it still establishes a procedure for assessing miraculous claims. Though there are inconsistencies in some of his formulations, Hume’s general ideology is coherent to the world as we know it, therefore the maxim in general is upheld. The best we can do is have confidence in our experiences that determine laws of nature. The failure in Hume’s argument is not that the maxims do not work, but that Hume’s argument rests more on the unfalsifiable claims. His argument is not entirely a priori, but there are times when a priori reasoning is the only choice.
The improvement of the definition of a miracle made by adding God makes Hume’s argument much stronger on the basis of insufficient and unqualified testimony and evidence, despite the difficulties with the four methods of detection. The outcome and achievement of the argument is that one acknowledges the questions Hume raises. For this, Hume’s argument is most effective. Rather than analyze the argument in detail, the argument makes us question the rationality of our own religious beliefs on these grounds—an age old question that still resonates today.29 He concludes on the matter:
Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.30
What are the implications of this statement? Without faith there will inevitably be despair—miracles and religion cure the human spirit. Are miracles necessary for life? Hume seems to ignore the psychological necessity associated with miracles. His stone cold conclusion diverts our attention to the question of rationale versus emotion in religion. There are further questions that must be answered if he is to provide a more complete argument against religion. Hume is only successful in arguing for the improbability of miracles, not the impossibility of miracles. Impossibility is the absolute strike against rational religious belief; thus, the irrationality of religious belief is not readily supported. The maxims lead us to the improbability of miracles. So now, let us finally return to the miraculous talking carp, and apply the Humean checklist; does the religious miracle hold? The short answer: Reason and Hume tell us no.