First Enquiry

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AOf Miracles@: A Link between the Two Enquiries

This essay discovers three distinct conceptions of the principles of the human understanding in Section X of the First Enquiry. The mind is a solitary, private passive effect of impres­sions; it is social and passionate; and it is self-possessed, determining the criteria according to which belief occurs. Each of these conceptions is necessary to account for different parts of Hume=s argument discrediting belief in reports of religious miracles. After having pre­sented compelling arguments to discredit belief in Biblical miracles, why does Hume go on to mention reports which escape his criteria, while commanding his readers to confidently reject them without investigating the evidence? It is suggested that this prudent advice is consistent with Hume=s conception of the limits of reason=s powers. Drawing on both Enquiries, arguments based on the moral and speculative effects of religious belief are given to support Hume=s procedure.

Department of Philosophy Patrick Corrigan

Assumption College October 1997

500 Salisbury St. (508) 767-7581

Worcester, MA 01615-0005

AOf Miracles@: a link between the two Enquiries

Recent scholarship has noted the centrality of moral and political concerns to Hume=s thought.1 He is not merely, or perhaps even primarily, an epistemologist, but above all concerned with understanding and promoting the achievement of the proper goods of human life. Hume is an ethical and political thinker of the first rank. Generally, however, the literature on his essay on miracles has not taken these concerns into account. Analyses of AOf Miracles@ have principally focussed on defending or refuting two theses which have become known as the Atraditional interpretation@. First thesis: that Hume did not put forward an a priori argument against the possibility of a miracle. Second thesis: that Hume did put forward an a priori argument to show that testimony could never make it reasonable to conclude that a miracle had occurred.2 These analyses have focussed so much on questions of the criteria for justifying beliefs that the larger concerns of the First Enquiry announced in Section I are overlooked. The principles of the human understanding need to be correctly understood in order to chase disruptive superstitious fanatics from the metaphysical underbrush in which they hide (I, 11: p.11).3 Recognizing connections among epistemology, religion and ethics enables one to see the profundity of Hume=s defense of common life which recognizes the limits of reason=s powers.

This paper analyzes Section X of the First Enquiry by distinguishing three conceptions of the principles of the human understanding that are present, but not separately thematized, in it. The first picture of the mind portrays it as the passive repository of impressions and ideas. An idea is a belief when it is stronger and more lively than its contrary, because it has a prepondering weight of impressions behind it. The second model of mind suggests that belief is due to the influence of passions, rather than sense impressions. An idea is believed because it has been enlivened by passions, even when its contrary has uniform sense experience behind it. The third picture of the mind suggests that the mind should come to belief only on the basis of empirical evidence. An idea is believed because the mind will only allow those ideas to become strong which meet the criterion of having sense experience to support it. Although these models can be distinguished, Hume does not repudiate any of them; they each contain an aspect of the truth about how the mind does and should work.

Hume presents arguments against believing reports of religious miracles (especially those found in the Bible) on the basis of each of these three models. These arguments become more compelling as they progress, culminating in the criteria which explain away such testimony, showing why it is unreasonable to give any credit at all to the Bible=s account of miracles. Since this is clearly the goal of Hume=s essay on miracles, it is remarkable that he does not simply stop there. Why does he go out of his way to give examples of miracles which are not able to be discredited by his own criteria? The imperative that he presents on the basis of these examples, that one should simply dismiss these reports and refuse to consider the evidence, only causes further perplexity.

These examples and this injunction indicate that Hume recognizes that his arguments have not been able to prove that all reports of miracles are necessarily subject to his critique. Can Hume=s directive to be dogmatically closed to the possibility of miracles be defended? Hume himself does not offer such a defense, but I suggest a two-fold one. My essay ends by proposing that this command can be reasonably defended as a defense of common life. Belief in a miracle-working God tends to undermine both action and speculation. While acknowledging the limits of philosophy and the fragility of human goods, Hume nonetheless indicates the beliefs that are necessary for morality and science, and those which undermine them.


It is surprising how often the intention of Hume=s argument has been misunderstood. So, in order to avoid con­fusion, let us explicitly identify three things that Hume is not doing in this chapter. (1) He does not attempt to prove that miracles could not happen.4 (2) Nor does he discuss whether one could ever see a miracle, that is see an event as miraculous. (3) He also does not attempt to prove that no particular miracle ever occurred. Hume=s earlier teachings about Nature and our knowledge of it in the First Enquiry preclude all such dogmatic assertions.5 So, Hume=s discussion in Section X is not really about miracles at all. As in the rest of An Enquiry, Hume is primarily discus­sing the way the mind works. He is investigating what happens in, or to, the mind when it receives a report of a miracle, or what should happen it hears of a miracle which is to found a religion.6

It seems that there are two or three irreducible trains of thought in this chapter. One uses the mechanical picture of belief that was presented in the earlier sections of An Enquiry. Another train of thought recognizes the insufficiency of this picture and attempts to convince the reader that it is ridiculous to believe such reports. This second train presupposes a very different under­standing of how the mind works. Indeed, this second train may itself contain two different understandings of the mind=s workings: one based on the passions and the other on acceptance of empirical evidence.

Let me first present Hume=s account of how human mind reacts when it hears a report of a miracle which is consistent with his earlier discussions of belief and its source. Before defining a miracle, Hume distinguishes it from a marvel, and discus­ses the possibility of belief of reports of marvels. A marvelous event is one of which the hearer has never had experience. They might not be unusual in themselves, but they are to him. Hume=s example is of a Sumatran prince who hears a report that when water gets cold it becomes solid (X.1,10n: p.114).7 To one who has never seen ice, the idea that water can become solid would seem quite marvelous. Is this reported marvel unbelievable? Is it complete­ly ridiculous for the prince to believe this testimony? Here Hume is quite careful; he says that it would be most likely that the idea of very cold solid water would be very weak (after all it would lack the force of any impressions behind it). Liquids simply have never become solid in his range of experience. On the other hand, since there would be no weight at all behind the contrary idea, it would not be impossible for the idea of ice to be the stronger of the two. After all, those who tell him about ice may be quite trustworthy. Since sense experience is completely silent, it is possible for the reported marvel to be stronger than its contrary idea.

The situation of reports of miracles is quite different. Hume defines a miracle as Aa violation of a law of nature@ (X.1,12: p.114).8 The laws of nature have, of course, been established by continuous and perfectly uniform past experience. The laws of nature are, therefore, very strong beliefs. Indeed, they are the most forceful ideas in the mind. To be told that a miracle has happened is to be told that a sequence of events has occurred to which one has completely uniform contrary experience.

According to Hume=s account of belief, what happens when the mind hears such testimony? The idea of the miracle has a certain force because of the trust­worthiness of the person who is reporting it. The contrary idea has a certain force because of the influence of uniform past experience. It is a simple case of Newtonian mechanics, two forces working in opposite directions (X.1,8: p.113). The mind is like a scale, the weight of each idea is placed on either side and the mind is carried by the more forceful one (X.1, 4: p.110-111; X.1,13: p.116; X.2,22: p.127).

It should be obvious that the idea of the miracle can never be stronger than its contrary. Hearsay could never overcome the force of one=s own experien­ces, at best there would be an equal balance between the two ideas. Therefore, the idea of a miracle which is derived from human testimony can never become a belief. Simply to know how the mind works shows us why belief in reports of miracles is ridiculous.


Although this is the proper conclusion to draw from the picture of human mind given in Sections V-IX, there are problems here -- not least of which is that Hume acknowledges that there are people who believe reported miracles. Hume=s argument has proved too much. He hasn=t proved that it is unreasonable, but that it is impossible, to believe reports of miracles. Is it not the case that Hume wants to convince us that we ought not to believe reported miracles, not that it is not possible to believe them?

Indeed, Hume says, Athe Christian Religion ... cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. 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@ (X.2,28: p.131).9 What does Hume mean by this? What miracle needs to occur to believe the Bible?

It seems that the law of nature which is violated by belief in reports of miracles is Custom as it was described in Section V. The ordinary sequence of belief following upon uniform past experi­ence has been violated. To believe in a reported miracle means that somehow this idea has been able to become more forceful than its alternative which has the weight of uniform past experiences behind it. The possibility of belief in reports of miracles shows that belief is not always the result of uniform past experience.10 Under certain circumstances, it seems that human testimony can overcome the force of experience.

If this odd sequence of events is possible, then sense experi­ence is not necessarily the most influential principle on the human mind. This is damning evidence against his earlier model of human mind. If that model were true, then belief in reports of miracles would be impossible. Since it is not impossible, human mind is not the result of the experience of nature; it is not merely an artifact of impressions.

If sense experience is not always the most powerful in­fluence on the mind, what is stronger? How does this belief in reports of miracles happen? How can people believe such ridicu­lous things? Hume says that certain vulgar passions are at work when someone believes reports of miracles, particularly the spirit of religion joined to the love of wonder (X.2,4: p.117). For various reasons, most people enjoy telling and believing stories of surprising and wonderful things. Human beings have a Astrong propensity to the extraordi­nary and the marvelous,@ and these people have let these passions rule over their judgment. ADo not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report ... all religious miracles?@ (X.2,3-7: p.117-119).11 People find extraordi­nary stories pleasant and this pleasure gives the idea more influence on the mind. Eloquence and repetition while the person is still young can add considerable force to these pleasant ideas (X.2,5: p.118). These moral influences seem to be the factors which overwhelm the evidence of the senses.

Here in the second part of Section X, Hume is slipping in a new model of human mind. Human mind is not merely a depository of sense data which is carried along by their inertia. Human mind is also influenced by its own passions. Indeed, this influence is potentially overwhelming. If any idea should be impossible to believe, miracles should be. However, when these passions get involved, no idea is so outrageous or silly that it cannot be believed. Passions can overcome Custom.

Hume=s review of the historical sources of these reports shows an aspect of human mind that his previous accounts had overlooked, the role that pleasures and pains, loves and fears play in beliefs. According to this second picture of the human understanding, belief continues to be the passive effect of certain influ­ences. Now, however, those influences have been widened to include the passions.12 Hume notes such passions as Avanity and a heated imagination@, Apassions of surprise and wonder@, Athe spirit of religion@, enthusiasm and Apride and delight in being admired by others@ as some of the agreeable sentiments which contribute to religious belief (X.2, 3-4: pp.117-118). When the alleged witnesses to a miracle add a sense of promoting a Aholy cause@ their Aheated imagination@ and eloquence can captivate their hearers and subdue their reason (X.2,4: p.118). Their spirit is easily communicated to others, giving the idea of the miracle a significant force which is not easy to resist.13

Hume seems to have difficulties accepting the reality of religious belief, probably because it resists any rational account. Any explanation of faith would seem to reduce it to a psychological disease or hypoc­risy.14 Nonetheless, if Hume is willing to say that ideas which have as little affect on one=s life as a chemical formula or a geographical fact can be beliefs, then the ideas which constitute the dogmas of Christianity must be said to be beliefs. If a belief is an idea which has more weight in the thought, giving it superior influence on the passions and imagination than a mere fiction (V.2, 3: p.49), then it is clear that people have believed in the Trinity, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is only because such belief is possible that revealed religion is such a danger to common life.

It is worth noting that Hume not only presents this understanding of mind, he also takes advantage of it. The second half of AOf Miracles@ is largely rhetorical, and not very argumentative. Hume attempts to convince his reader to reject the reports of miracles by painting believers in very unflattering colors and unbelievers in quite attractive ones. Unbelievers are called Awise,@ Ajust reasoners,@ Amen of sense,@ Ajudicious readers,@ and Awise and learned.@ Believers are said to be Acredulous@; they are the dupes of madmen, liars and villains; they are Aignorant@ and common. Believers are shown to be subject to base passions, able to be controlled and manipulated by unscrupulous men. Who can read such mockery of believers and approbation of unbelievers and not desire to be one of the latter? To oppose the pleasures of believing the wonderful and unusual, Hume sets that of seeing oneself as reasonable.

Hume=s rhetoric attempts to treat the minds of some of his readers according to the account of the under­standing that he is presenting. He attempts to make disbelief more pleasing and comfortable; he does not attempt to prove that miracles have not occurred. Ideas are believed according to the passions which can be enlisted on their side and according to how frequently they are heard by authoritative and eloquent speakers.


A further twist in Hume=s presentation of the principles of human understanding must be noted. By the second half of AOf Miracles@, Hume is no longer describing how the mind works, but how it ought to work. Hume is not only trying to manipulate his reader=s beliefs, he is trying to convince him to become a Aman of sense@ who judges from Anatural causes@ (X.2,14n: p.345). To attempt to persuade or convince, however, implies a voluntariness and power on the part of the understanding. According to this third picture, the understanding is no longer like a scale, determined by forces outside itself or by passions. Rather, it is active; it determines the criteria according to which ideas will be allowed to carry weight. Only if an idea has empirical evidence in its favor will it be believed. This final model is the only one which can account for the possibility of both belief in reports of miracles and writing arguments which will be Auseful for all time@ against that belief (X.1,2: p.110).

An indication that Hume is aware that the understanding is active is his shift from passive to active verbs. Throughout this section, Hume describes both those who believe reports of miracles and those who do not as responsible for their beliefs. A person can Aweigh@ the experiments and proportion his beliefs to the evidence (X.1,3: p.110). One can Arefuse to believe@ (X.1,10: p.113). One who believes miracles has Amade a convert of himself@ (X.2,16: p.125). Even when Hume continues to use a quantitative model of belief, he no longer pictures the mind as governed by outside forces. Rather it is now doing the adding and subtracting (X.1,4: p.111 and X.2,22: p.127). The human understanding is not merely the effect of such forces as sense experience and passions; strong ideas are no longer beliefs, they are to be believed (and should be believed only because they are worthy of belief).

It is only because belief is not merely the result of external forces and violent passion that it makes sense for Hume to give reasons why reports of religious miracles should be rejected. Hume offers a number of such reasons why a wise person would give no credit to such reports. He notes factors about the character of the reputed witnesses, human nature, the character of the world, and the diversity of religions to convince his readers that no reports of miracles which support a religion can justify belief. If these arguments are sufficient, then Hume has gone a long way towards rationally discrediting religious belief founded on such reports (including, for example, the New Testament).

Let us quickly review the reasons Hume gives for discrediting any reports of miracles. He presents these reasons in two places: X.1,7 (pp.112-113) and X.2,1-11 (pp.116-122). These reports, Hume says, come from only a few witnesses, of little education, of questionable integrity and good sense, who live in barbarous ages, and who have little to lose if discovered and much to gain if they aren=t. The events they report usually occur in remote backwaters away from public and reasonably scrutiny, and often these reports are written only long after the events related. These events also present a nature which is wholly unlike the one we readers experience; it is irregular and disjointed, full of prodigies foreign to current experience. The pleasing sentiments which, thoroughly independent of the truth, dispose the mind to religious belief have been noted above. Finally, Hume notes that whatever force one would grant to the reports of one religion would also have to be granted to those of any other religion; this conflict would discount both.15

Hume=s goal is to get the reader to accept such Anaturalis­tic@ principles of reasoning as, Aobjects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we do@ and Agive greater preference to the greatest number of observations@ (X.2,3: p.117).16 Hume calls attention to these principles by which Awise and judicious men@ judge so that his reader will judge likewise. These principles of reasoning, or criteria of belief, would settle the issue of belief in reports of miracles by rejecting them out of hand. Those Awise and judi­cious@ reasoners Hume praises, and the reader is invited to imitate, judge according to natural causes and do not bother to investigate such reports carefully to determine their falsehood. They see that such a report carries Afalsehood upon the very face of it ... (and is) more properly a subject of derision than argument@ (X.2,13: p.124).17

Hume sees that there is something in human nature that will tend many, if not most, people to allow their fears of Apowers invisible@ and their enjoyment of strange stories to dominate their minds. Hume=s key discovery is that belief is due to the acceptance or rejection of evidence. Since this acceptance or rejection of natural principles of judgment is voluntary, it is subject to persuasion and education. Although this propensity to superstition will persist as long as human nature remains the same, it can Areceive a check from sense and learning@ (X.2,7: p.119). Learning, that is, seeing the effects of the fears and loves which lead to belief in miracles, can empower the understanding to adopt one set of basic principles of the understanding and reject another. Hume=s argument will always be needed because the mind will always have these fears and loves; it will always be useful because the mind will always be able to determine its principles of belief. A correct understanding of the human understanding shows that there is hope for diminishing the detrimental effects of superstition (I,17: p.16).


Although this is probably Hume=s principal goal (and it has been the one most scholars have argued that he did or did not achieve), it does not seem to be his full thinking on the matter. It does not even fully account for all that Hume says in AOf Miracles.@ The insufficiency of the reasons listed to discredit reported miracles is recognized in two types of examples Hume proceeds to give. The first concerns a miraculous event which is not reported in order to support a religion. The second concerns reports of religious miracles which are not susceptible to being discredited.

Hume=s first example of a properly attested non-religious miracle is of eight days when the sun did not rise or shine which would be universally witnessed throughout the world by all authors, in all languages Awithout the least variation or contradiction@ (X.2,23: pp.127-128). In such a case it would not be unreason­able to believe the report, or at least to take it seriously. In such a case, the thing to do is to Asearch for the causes whence it is derived.@ A person could accept this report, and remain within the principles of the wise and judicious by assuming that the event had a natural cause, one which is discoverable. This example of a Amiracle@ follows the initial definition of a miracle as Aa violation of the laws of nature@ (X.1,12: p.114). So, events which only satisfy this definition are not the principal focus of Hume=s arguments against belief in reports of miracles.18

The second set of examples presented in AOf Miracles@ which indicates the insufficiency of its criteria to discredit all reports of miracles are religiously significant ones. These examples are remarkable because, as Hume presents them, they do not founder on the criteria he has established. The first, and least significant, is Tacitus= report of Vespasian curing a blind man in Alexandria (X.2,12: pp.122-123). The second reports that the doorkeeper of the cathedral of Saragosa grew a leg after rubbing his amputated stump with holy oil (X.2,13: pp.123-124). The third, and most remarkable, concerns miracles alleged to have occurred around the tomb of Abbé Paris (X.2,14: pp. 124-125, and note pp. 344-346). As Hume presents each of these reports, he goes out of his way to show that his earlier criticisms of reports of miracles (concerning the character of the witnesses, the influence of base passions, and character of the events) do not pertain. Those criteria will not warrant dismissal of these reports. Why does Hume give such detailed and convincing evidence that miracles connected with the Catholic Church occurred, while calling his reader to confidently dismiss such reports without further inquiry?19

Hume has not proved that sufficient evidence could not be given for a reported miracle; indeed, he has gone out of his way with these examples to suggest that well-attested reports are possible.20 His criteria are effective against Biblical reports, but not against some contemporary reports. What if the God who revealed himself in times past continued to evidence his power and the election of his Church through contemporary miracles? Hume (perhaps) can discredit the reports of miracles found in the Bible, but he has not proved that an omnipotent God will not manifest himself and the truth of his revelation to a particular Church by perform­ing miracles to witnesses who can not be discredited by Hume=s criteria. Hume=s call for unreflective rejection of such reports is an acknowledgment of the limits of his argument. It seems that he does not think that he has given an a priori argument to show that testimony could never be given to warrant belief in a miracle. Rather, he has suggested that adequate testimony (that is, testimony that could not be refuted or discredited), could be given for both religious and non-religious miracles.

These examples show a number of significant features of Hume=s position regarding reports of miracles. The third model of belief had suggested a way for human mind to be rational by conforming its beliefs to the evidence, especially being open to changing its beliefs on the basis of changing evidence.21 This reasonable mind would carefully sift all the evidence and not be swayed by the violent passions which lead to religious belief. As Hume concludes AOf Miracles@, he again calls attention to the limited power of reason and experience in human life. There may be occasions when one ought to violate the maxim to make experience the only standard of one=s judgment (cf., IX, 24: p.142). These examples indicate that it may not always be possible to determine that a reported miracles is suspect; indeed, there may be times when the evidence for a religious miracle is overwhelming. What should a reasonable person do in such a circumstance?

According to Hume, one should simply dismiss any such reports out of hand and not even bother to investigate their evidence. M.A. Stewart says that Hume=s wise man proportions his belief to the evidence as a matter of Apsychological compulsion.@22 J.C.A. Gaskin recognizes that Hume=s wise man might seem Adogmatic and obscurantic@ in his blind rejection of reports of religious miracles.23 This third picture of the human mind which presented itself as the rational alternative to mind as passive repository of impressions and mind as subject to passions seems to end in being both coerced and prejudiced. Can an argument be given to support this dogmatic prejudice against revealed religion, and in favor of rationally coherent experience?

Hume=s cases of reported religious miracles which cannot be discredited and must be simply dismissed show that he is aware that he has not demonstrated the impossibility of any such report satisfying his criteria. It cannot be proved that all such reporters are liars or dupes. This indicates that reason cannot guarantee the principles according to which it must judge if it is going to function well. In the essay on miracles, Hume simply leaves it at this: not all reports can be discredited, but all reports are to be dismissed.


Hume=s AOf Miracles@ ends by recommending its judicious reader to judge wisely and treat reports of religious miracles with derision and reject them without investigation (as Cardinal deRetz and the Archbishop of Paris treated the reports which reached them). Hume seems to think that there are only two types of reaction to reports of religious miracles. One is either a gullible superstitious believer or a dogmatic rejector of such stories. Why does Hume not recognize or acknowledge the third possibility of a reasonable believer, one who investigates such reports and only accepts those which have overwhelming evidence to support them? Why is this not a reasonable possibility?

Hume=s recommendation rests on an insight that belief in religious miracles poses a serious threat to common life, to both action and thought.24 Reports of religious miracles and reports of non-religious miracles (or reports of divinely caused and naturally caused events) require such different responses because of the importance God can play in common life. Mistaken conceptions of the divine are one of the most corrosive influences on both action and thought. To action, belief in miracles undermines assurance that the proper goods of human life are those which can be achieved in the life we live with others; happiness can only be achieved if the only true goods are those which qualities useful and agreeable to oneself and others provide. To thought, belief in miracles undermines that basic principle according to which the mind must work if it is to make sense of the world; mind can only make progress if it assumes that things happen because of Anatural causes.@

Let us first look at the way that careful investigation of well attested reports of miracles would threaten the active part of common life. Reports of religious miracles would foster the worst type of religion: superstition.25 Miraculous reports foster superstition, rather than enthusiasm, because the faithful are dependent on intermediaries (the witnesses or their successors) for their knowledge of and connection to the divine and its wishes. The God who performs miracles is one who would inspire fear, lack of self-assurance and dependence. Others have noted many aspects of Hume=s understanding of the detrimental effects religious faith has on various aspects of the active life.26 According to Hume, belief in an omnipotent and provident God causes psychological, political and moral problems for human beings.

The psychological problems include the tensions within the human mind as it tries to hold together an incoherent notion of an omnipotent, capricious and good divinity. The fear and love such a being inspires splits human mind apart by actualizing contrary principles within human nature.27 Political problems include fanaticism (and its incumbent bigotry and cruelty) and intolerance (fostered by conflicting sects) and absurd practices inspired by such an awful being.28

Hume=s recommendation of dogmatic rejection of reports of religious miracles can also be defended on moral grounds.29 Reports of religious miracles should be rejected out of hand because the superstition they found undermines the achievement of the proper goods of human life. If a God who can perform miracles exists, then the human good may not be bounded by this world; man may have a Asupernatural@ end. The things that man should take most seriously and strive to achieve may not be the goods achievable in our common life together such as comfort, prosperity, security and the delights of being with one another.

If one believes that the Biblical God continues to validate the revelation of the Scriptures by continu­ing to perform miracles, then one may well be motivated to embrace the Aartificial life@ of a Christian saint, as Pascal did.30 Like Pascal, Christians are encouraged to hold this life in contempt in hopeful expectation of the next life. This other-worldly concern could lead one to embrace the Amonkish virtues@, in spite of the fact that (or rather, because) they Aneither advance one=s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment@ (EPM IX.1,3: p.270). These beliefs would lead one to seek to please God, rather than human beings; passively pray for help, rather than actively work to improve one=s condition; accept things as God=s will, rather than accept responsibility for one=s successes and failures; focus on one=s weaknesses and dependencies, rather than one=s strengths and abilities; abase oneself, rather than confidently assert oneself; imitate a suffering God, rather than an heroic human being; and deny oneself pleasures and embrace poverty, rather than pursue and promote the development of pleasures and other available goods. Such a life would preclude the possibility of achieving all the goods Nature has made available to us. Although Nature does not grant us these goods in such abundance that without any care or industry all our most voracious appetites and luxurious imaginations are satisfied, she has provided enough goods such that frugality, industry and ingenuity can make up for natural deficiencies, and even allow many to be secure and comfortable (EPM 3.1, 2, 8, 13: pp. 183, 186, 188). But this happy life can only be achieved if people are properly focused on these goods; other-worldly concerns guarantee that they will not be achieved and that people will remain miserable.

It is difficult enough to achieve happiness while pursuing the coherent set of ends which Hume identifies as natural, it would be impossible to be happy if one were pursuing inconsistent goods. Since it seems that, according to Hume, no human being could not pursue these natural goods, to pursue the Aartifi­cial@ goods of a saintly (or a false philosophical) life would necessarily involve one in miserable frustrations. Since an a priori refutation of all reports of the workings of a God which would inspire such an artificial life cannot be given, Hume prudently advises his readers to dismiss them without further attention.

Well attested reports of miracles would also threaten the speculative part of common life. It is better for the proper working of the mind to dismiss out of hand the possibility of an omnipotent, capricious and provident divinity than to give it serious consideration. Non-religious miracles (if any such exist) would call forth and spur further investigations into nature (perhaps inspiring further wonder of its lawfulness, and yet ultimate incompre­hensibity)31 while presuming that it has Anatural causes.@ A mind which was seriously investigating the evidence supporting such a report would continue to see all events, even the most extraordi­nary, as governed by natural causes. A religious miracle, on the other hand, would not spur inquiry, because its Acause@ is, ex suppositio, not available to human investigation -- it is a singular and free volition of the deity. Belief in even the possibility of divinely caused events is too great a threat to the basis of reasonable­ness to be entertained.

Hume=s promotion of dogmatic rejection of reports of religious miracles is consistent with the principles of the human understanding which he has described in each of the three models that we have identified. According to the first model of how mind comes to belief, repetition of experience is the ultimate source of belief. A scrupulous investigation of a well attested religious miracle would itself cause this repetition, and so make the idea stronger. Disdaining the report insures against this repetition. According to the second picture, belief is due to the influence of passions. Careful investigation of reports of religious miracles would activate and excite those very strong passions which are tied up with religion. Dogmatic rejection of all such reports would foster the pleasant sentiments of confident assurance and not allow religious passions to take hold. According to the third conception of the principles of the human understanding, belief is the result of consideration of the evidence. Belief in a God who performed miracles would entail that the uniform system of causes that underlies investigations of Aevidence@ may not truly exist. The most important truths about the world and human life may not be available to reasonable investigation, but only to the witnesses of God=s self-revelation or their successors. A careful and thorough investigation of well attested reports of religious miracles may end in undermining the worth of careful, reasonable concern for evidence. Immediate rejection of such reports guards against this. Hume=s analyses of the principles of the understand­ing show why we need to be careful about what we attend to, and that we should only attend to things consistent with the proper workings of the mind.

Human mind can be reasonable, but there are no guarantees that it will be or remain so. Human mind must participate in, and take responsibility for, getting itself to work according to its Anatural@ active and speculative principles. Neither Nature nor reason can guarantee reasonableness in action and speculation, and there are principles of our nature that work against it. AUnreasonably@ dismissing reports of miracles without consideration of the evidence recognizes the limits of what can be known and the fragility of happiness and the virtue of being reasonable.


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Fogelin, Robert J., AWhat Hume Actually Said about Miracles.@ Hume Studies 16 (1990) pp. 81-86.
Foster, S.P., ADifferent Religions and the Difference They Make: Hume on the political effects of religious ideology.@ in David Hume: critical assessments. Vol. V. Ed. Stanley Tweyman. London: Routledge. pp. 377-399.
Gaskin, J.C.A., Hume=s Philosophy of Religion. (Second edition) Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988.
Livingston, Donald, AHume=s Conception of True Religion.@ in Hume=s Philosophy of Religion. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 1986. pp.33-73.
_______, AHume on the Natural History of Philosophical Consciousness.@ in The >Science of Man= in the Scottish Enlighten­ment. Ed. Peter Jones. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. pp.68-84.
Nelson, John O., AThe Burial and Resurrection of Hume=s Essay >Of Miracles=.@ Hume Studies 12 (1986) pp. 57-76.
Passmore, John, AEnthusiasm, Fanaticism and David Hume.@ in The >Science of Man= in the Scottish Enlighten­ment. Ed. Peter Jones. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. pp.85-107.

Slupik, Chris, AA New Interpretation of Hume=s >Of Miracles=.@ Religious Studies 31 (1995) pp. 517-536.
Stewart, M.A., AHume=s Historical View of Miracles.@ in Hume and Hume=s Connexions. Ed. M.A. Stewart and John P. Wright. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. pp. 171-200.
Streminger, Gerhard, AReligion a Threat to Morality: an attempt to throw some new light on Hume=s philosophy of religion.@ Hume Studies 15 (1989) pp. 277-293.
Wallace, R.C., AHume, Flew, and the Miraculous@ Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1970) pp. 230-243.
Wooton, David, AHume=s >Of Miracles=: Probability and Irreligion@ in Studies in the Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Ed. M.A. Stewart. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. pp. 191-229.

1 D. Livingston, Hume=s Philosophy of Common Life, J.W. Danford, Hume and the Problem of Reason, and The Cambridge Companion to Hume all make this point.

2 Coleman, Fogelin, Flew, Ellin, et al. concur in naming these two theses as the principal points of debate in the literature on Hume=s essay. I will argue that the first thesis is correct, but the second is not. Hume recognizes that reason is not able to prove that all reports of miracles are incredible.

3 Citations to An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge. 3rd ed. rev. P.H. Nidditch. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) will be made in the body according to the following format: (Section. part of section (if appropriate), paragraph number: and page number).

4 This follows what has come to be known as the first thesis of the Atraditional interpretation@ of AOf Miracles.@ See Coleman, Fogelin, Flew (1990) and Ferguson.

5 See IV.2,5: p.35 and X.2,23: p.128 for explicit assertions about Nature which suggest the possibility of miracles.

6 Slupik and Armstrong seem to be correct in identifying religious miracles as the precise target of Hume=s arguments.

7 D. Wooten examines the sources of this example and other elements in Hume=s argument.

8 The significance of the fuller definition which Hume gives in the footnote to X.1, 12 (p. 115) will be discussed below.

9 Along with Slupik, I believe that Hume is not being merely ironic in this statement (See, p. 536n.).

10 As Passmore notes, religious belief Apresents difficulties for Hume=s epistemology in so far as that regards beliefs as arising only from impressions@ (p. 105).

11 This is the closest that Hume comes in AOf Miracles@ to mentioning the role that fear plays in strengthening an idea, an idea that takes prominence of place in his Natural History of Religion. Throughout Section X his emphasis is on the influence these pleasing feelings have on the ignorant. He does not call attention to their fears and desires concerning the next life.

12 This recognition of the role of the passions in belief is so consistent with Hume=s teachings in A Treatise that many commentators have failed to see that it is not consistent with the earlier parts of the First Enquiry. (See, THN I.iii.9: pp. 112-117.)

13 See Slupik, pp. 523-525.

14 Stewart, Gaskin, Streminger and Bernard examine Hume=s various accounts of religious belief.

15 As M.A. Stewart suggests, Hume=s strategy is to explain away the testimony of reported miracles rather than to examine the conditions under which it should be examined for possible acceptance (p. 192).

16 Other principles of enlightened judgement include the following. The ultimate standard by which we ought to determine all disputes is Aalways derived from experience and observation@ (X.1,6: p.112). We should Areason, like a man of sense, from natural causes@ (X.2,14n: p.345) and Ajudge in conformity to regular experience and observa­tion@ (X.2,18: p.126). The world and human nature were the same in the past as it is now (X.2,7: p.119 and X.2,27: p.130).

17 Hume describes the Awise@ in this way throughout his essay. See paragraphs 3, 9, 14, 20, 23 and 25 of Part II, especially. It is striking that he does so while himself giving strong reports of miracles which avoid the weak­nesses of most of such reports.

18 B.F. Armstrong provides a more detailed analysis of this example.

19 Ellin also notes that AHume goes out of his way to depict the credibility and quantity of witnesses@, but develops this insight in a different way (AAgain@, p. 209).

20 This is contrary to what has come to be known as the second thesis of the ATraditional Interpretation.@

21 J.C.A. Gaskin shows the importance of this criterion for counting a belief as rational in his analysis of natural, as opposed to acquired, beliefs (Hume=s Philosophy of Religion, ch. 6).

22 M.A. Stewart, p.198n.

23 J.C.A. Gaskin, p.155.

24 It is only with these examples that the fuller definition of a miracle as Aa transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent@ becomes crucial (X.1, 12: p.115n). It is because of its connection with a certain understanding of the divine that these miracles require a different response by a reasonable mind.

25 See Foster and Passmore on Hume=s essay, AOf Superstition and Enthusiasm@.

26 See, J.C.A. Gaskin, Hume=s Philosophy of Religion (ch. 11), Livingston, ATrue Religion@, Passmore, Streminger, Bernard, and Foster, cited below.

27 Streminger, (p. 283), Bernard, (p.237) and Gaskin, Hume=s Philosophy of Religion, p. 194-200.

28 Livingston, ATrue Religion@ (p.46), Streminger, (p. 288-291), and Passmore, (pp. 100-103).

29 Gaskin=s arguments are certainly in the right direction (Hume=s Philosophy of Religion, ch. 11).

30 See Hume=s description of Pascal at the end of AA Dialogue@ which is published at the end of the Second Enquiry (&&53-54: pp.342-343). Hume seems to call the religious life of Pascal and the philosophical life of Diogenes Aartificial@ for two reasons. They are not natural because they result from ideas rather than natural sentiments. And they are contrary to natural principles; they cannot achieve happiness.

31 See Livingston, ATrue Religion@ (p. 61) and Ellin, AComments@ (p.298).

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