The mind which can believe miracles: Section X of Hume's

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Section X of Hume's
Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Patrick Corrigan

Assumption College

April 1991


1. Hume on belief in EHU ''I-VII.

a. Why belief is the central issue of the work: skepticism

Nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has af­forded us only the knowledge of a few superficial qualities of objects. (Section IV.2, paragraph 3: page 32-33)

b. Hume's first explanation of belief: a mechanistic picture.

The concurrence of these several views or glimpses imprints the idea more strongly on the imagination; gives it superior force and vigour; ... and in a word, begets that reliance or security, which constitutes the nature of belief and opinion. (VI,3:57)

2. Hume on believing reports of miracles: a first answer. (Belief is a passive artifact of experience.)

a. The aim of Hume's essay "Of Miracles."

b. Miracles distinguished from marvels.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; ... a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws. (X.1,12:114)

c. How the mind of EHU ''I-IX works when it hears of a miracle.

Here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. (X.1,8:113)

3. Hume on believing reports of miracles: a second answer. (Belief is the result of passions.)

a. Belief in reports of miracles is possible, so the early model of mind is inaccurate.

The Christian Religion ... at this day cannot be believed by any rea­sonable person without [a miracle]. (X.2,28:131)

b. Recognition of the source of these stories helps to discount them.

c. A new picture of how the mind works: mind is also the product of passions and educa­tion.
4. Hume on believing reports of miracles: a third answer. (Belief is the result of choice.)

a. This work is supposed to affect its reader.

b. Belief is the result of a decision about what will count as evidence.

P. Corrigan 4/91

The Mind which Can Believe Miracles: Section X of EHU
Recent scholarship has noted the centrality of social and political concerns to Hume's thought. The very extensive literature on his essay on miracles, however, has not taken these concerns into account. The opening section of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding explicitly locates the importance of an investigation into the principles of human mind within the context of the social and political difficulties caused by the excessively adamant beliefs of religious fanatics. The mind must be correctly understood in order to chase disruptive religious fanatics from the metaphysical underbrush in which they like to hide. (1,11: p.11)1 Although the best commentator on the argument in Section X, "Of Miracles" does not overlook its epistemological character, even he does not note its wider human setting.2 Failure to recognize the connections among epistemology, religion and politics has allowed scholars to overlook the subtlety and radical character of Hume's argument. Section X of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding presents Hume's most radical epistemology: an epistemology which thoroughly uproots that metaphysical underbrush leaving a clear and level field on which passions and politics can play freely, a field in which no belief can sink deep roots. As I shall show, Hume's arguments against believing reports of miracles culminates his enquiry into human understanding by showing that its basic principles are the result of passion and choice. However, this conception of mind may undermine his previous teachings.

Hume's discussion of miracles deserves our attention because it combines the two major modern tools used to call into question the use of accounts of miracles to found religious faith: the New Science's account of Nature and Critical History. Although it is clear that Hume's goal in this essay is to debunk belief, it is not clear how each of these two tools fit his earlier discussions of human mind. As we shall see, Hume's claim to give an argument which will be "useful as long as the world endures" (X.1,2: p.110), an argument which will be a check to powerful passions which undermine good sense, requires that Hume teach that human mind be more malleable to human choice, less determined by outside influences than has yet been noted by scholars. Hume's final teaching about human understanding may avoid skepticism, but in "Of Miracles" it flirts with nihilism.


In order to prepare ourselves for understanding Hume's teaching on the mind which believes reports of miracles, let us look at his teaching on belief in general in the early sections of An Enquiry concern­ing Human Understanding, especially Sections II through VII. If one knows anything at all about the philosophy of David Hume it is probably that he is a skeptic: he thinks that human mind can know just about nothing about workings of the world. Belief is the crucial issue for An Enquiry because it teaches that human mind can know so very little about the world. Because we cannot know anything, belief is the best that human mind can achieve. What has been called "knowledge" of the world is really just a species of belief.

Hume begins his discussion of human mind by repeating and appropriating the commonplace Empiricist teaching about the things of which the mind can be aware. According to this teaching, human mind is only aware of two sorts of things, impressions and ideas. Although Hume is much more vague about what these things are and how they are different from and similar to each other in this work than in A Treatise, it is clearly the case that from the very beginning of An Enquiry we are stuck inside our heads. Human mind is not aware of things in the world, but only the supposed direct "effects" of those things called "impressions" and weaker "copies" of those impressions called "ideas." The mind is, as it were, just a movie screen on which stronger and weaker images are being constantly being projected. Hume asserts that if we are very precise and rigorous, then we have to admit that all we are ever aware of are these two sorts of mental events.

Having introduced and illustrated the distinction between the two sorts of mental events, Hume goes on to distinguish between the two kinds of things the mind can think about, the two "objects of enquiry." Human mind can only think about propositions, and there are two kinds of propositions: "Relations of Ideas" and "Matters of Fact." The former do not assert anything about how things are in the world and they are known to be true or false on the basis of thinking alone. The sciences of geometry and arithmetic are especially good examples of sciences which investigate relations of ideas. We know that the square-root of 64 is not 10 by just thinking, not by going around and looking at square-roots, 64's, 8's and 10's.

Matters of fact, on the other hand, are propositions which do assert things about the world. Since we can imagine the non-existence of anything which exists, we cannot know whether a matter of fact is true or false merely by thinking. These sorts of statements need to be verified by experience. The proposition "there are 40 people in this room" asserts something about how things are in the world, it could be true, so to verify it we would have to count the people here. Mind must rely on sense experience in order to know whether matters of fact are true or false; thinking alone is insufficient.

When we combine these two pairs of distinctions, things the mind is aware of (impressions and ideas) and the two sorts of things it can think about (relations of ideas and matters of fact) what sort of picture do we get? Saying that the mind is only aware of mental events obviously and very significantly shifts our understanding of matters of fact. The "experience" which is to verify matters of fact is now understood in a peculiar way. It is certainly not the sort of thing you thought it was when Hume first mentioned it. It seems that we are to equate the "experience" which is to verify matters of fact with the strong and vivacious mental events called "impressions." If we do, then it is clear that we can never have knowledge (in any traditional sense) of the world "out there." According to this Humean picture, mind simply is not able to verify statements about the world by matching statements to things; all it has is a continuous flow of weaker and stronger events.

The mind is only able to note the repeating patterns of impressions which flow on it, not verify matters of fact. Although all the mind is aware of is a flow of ideas and impressions, the flow is not at all chaotic. The mind is quite easily able to recognize repeating patterns, "connections" between these impressions. Indeed, that is all it can do. As a river cannot rise above its source, so the mind cannot get outside itself to verify propositions about the world. As Hume says, "the ultimate principles and springs [of Nature] are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry." (IV.1,12: p.30) "Nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has afforded us only the knowledge of a few superficial qualities." (IV.2,3: p.32)

It is now clear why belief is such a crucial concept in An Enquiry. Human mind cannot have knowledge of the world, so it seems that the best it can hope for is belief. After having listened carefully to Hume, we readers now realize that we do not know that drinking the clear odorless liquid which has the chemical formula H2O will not cause another head to grow on my shoulders, but I can check my past impressions and see that these two events have never followed one another. In fact I cannot help but think that my thirst will be relieved by taking a sip of it. Hume takes pains to assert that this little exercise in philosophy has only changed our appreciation of your beliefs; philosophy does not change any of our beliefs about the world. (V.1,2: p.41; V.2,13: p.55)

So, why do we have the beliefs we do? Why do we believe certain propositions and not others? As we all know, Hume's answer is "experience." However, in light of his earlier discussions, it is not at all clear what Hume means by this answer and how he understands the question.

Hume's earlier discussion precludes any possibility of knowing that any proposition about the world which is believed is believed because it is known to be true. What distinguishes propositions which are believed from those which are not cannot be anything about the proposition itself, nor could it be any relation it has to things in the world. So, according to Hume, the distinctive feature of believed propositions can only be their effect on the mind. Believed ideas carry more weight than their alterna­tives. So, Hume defines belief as "nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object." (V.2,3: p.49)

Therefore, to ask why we believe one thing rather than another is to ask why it has more force on us. What causes an idea to become stronger? Hume's answer is that repeated experiences cause an idea to be believed. His name for this phenomenon is "Custom." According to this model of how the mind works, belief is the "necessary result" of having had repeated experiences of a sequence of events. (V.1,8: p.46)

According to Hume, then, the mind is the passive recipient of impressions. Similar impressions reinforce each other, causing their copy to gain momentum. So, even if the pattern of impressions is not perfectly uniform, the idea with the greater number of impressions behind it will become stronger than its alternative. The mind is passively affected by this difference in momentum; those ideas which have more momentum have greater influence on the mind.

This is a quite simple Newtonian mechanical picture of mind and belief that Hume has given. Impressions are more forceful than their copies. So impressions are able to bestow greater force on a similar idea. Beliefs are strong, forceful ideas. Belief is just the name for the effect repeated impressions have on the mind. Belief is something that happens to the mind; an idea necessarily becomes stronger because of repeated experience.

According to Hume, belief is a natural instinct which "no reasoning or process of the thought and understanding is able, either to produce or to prevent." (V.1,8: p.47) The mind is not active in coming to believe one thing rather than other. It is not the case that we as reasonable beings decide to believe, or give our assent to, those ideas which have the weight of experience behind them. Rather, those ideas, because they have that weight, are beliefs. Strong ideas are beliefs, they are not believed. (Cf., IV.2,10; V.1,4 & 5 & 8; V.2,1 & 2 & 3 & 13; VI,3 & 4; VII.2,3)
Although this explanation of belief began on quite distressing principles, it concludes in a very comforting teaching. Although I see that I cannot know anything about the world, I now see that my beliefs really could not be other than they are. Hume's skepticism, it would seem, leads to a sort of smugness. I have been assured that my beliefs have pretty solid foundations.

This explanation of belief leads to a simple account of why different people have different beliefs. They have had different experiences, or one person may have a better memory, or better powers of observation, etc. (cf., IX,5n.: p.107) And a similar account could, it would seem, be given to explain the differences between cultures or peoples. They have had different experiences, so they have different beliefs. We have the good fortune to live in Enlightened times and have the benefit of modern experimen­tal science, so we know that our beliefs are more solidly based than the beliefs of other peoples. Modern science has systematized this learning from experience, so we have a methodical advantage over others. Other people's beliefs about Nature and how Nature works are not based on the same precise, careful observations, so they cannot be as well founded.

Because we have this methodical advantage over other, more primitive peoples, we can afford to be tolerant of their peculiar beliefs. Indeed, according to this mechanistic Humean model of the mind, we see that they cannot help having the beliefs they do. So it would be unreasonable and unkind of us to be intolerant. Their minds have been thwarted by a lack of proper experiences of Nature. Since there is in principle no reason why all peoples could not come to have the same beliefs through the promulgation of science, we have the responsibility to help them by giving them the opportunity to have more refined and extensive experience of the world.

This first model of human mind of An Enquiry has cleared away some of the largest sections of the underbrush in which rationalistic dogmatists hide. They can no longer claim to have apodictic knowledge of "powers invisible." But there remains the possibility of being dogmatic on the basis of a claim to superior experience.


As we move from the first discussion of how the mind works, to Hume's chapter "Of Miracles," I would like to clarify his intention. It is surprising how often the intention of Hume's argument has been misunderstood. So, in order to avoid confusion, let explicitly identify three things that Hume is not doing in this chapter. (1) He does not attempt to prove that miracles could not happen. (2) Nor does he discuss whether one could ever see a miracles, 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 preclude all such dogmatic assertions.3

So, Hume's discussion in Section X is not really about miracles at all. As in the rest of An Enquiry, Hume is discussing the way the mind works. He is investigating what happens in, or to, the mind when it receives a report of a miracle.

It seems that there are two or three irreconcilable trains of thought in this chapter. One uses the 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.

Let me first present that account of how human mind reacts when it hears a report of a miracle which is consistent with Hume's earlier discussions.

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 you have never had experience. They are not unusual in themselves, but they are to you. 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) To one who has never seen ice, the idea that water can become solid would seem quite marvelous. Is it 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 not have the force of any impressions behind it). 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. So, it is quite possible for the reported marvel to be stronger than its contrary idea since sense experience is completely silent.

The situation of reports of miracles is quite different. Hume defines a miracle as "a violation of a law of nature." (X.1,12: p.114) 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 you have 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, which everyone knows is fallible, could never overcome the force of one's own experiences. 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 valid conclusion to draw from Hume's earlier picture of human mind, there are problems here, not least of which is that Hume acknowledges that there are people who believe reported miracles, Christians for example. 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. Indeed, Hume says, "the 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) What does Hume mean by this? What miracle needs to occur to believe the Bible? 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?

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 not occurred. 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 past experiences behind it. The possibility of belief in reports of miracles shows that belief is not always the result of uniform past experience. 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, human mind is not the result of the experience of nature, it is not merely an artifact of nature.

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. Human beings have a "strong propensity to the extraordinary and the marvelous," and these people have let these passions rule over their judgment. "Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report ... all religious miracles."4 (X.2,3-7: p.117-119) For various reasons, most people enjoy telling and believing stories of surprising and wonderful things. 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.

Hume goes on to articulate three more reasons to discount any reports of miracles. He seems to think that recognition of the facts surrounding these reports will help us become more critical hearers and readers, and this will undermine any possibility of us taking them seriously. In addition to asserting that these stories are the result of a love of wonder (X.2,4: p.117), Hume notes that those who have reported miracles are few in number, of little education and of quite questionable integrity. These peoples' testimony ought not to be taken too seriously. Hume's third reason for discounting these reports is that the picture of Nature they present is so bizarre. It seems like another world, full of "prodigies, omens, oracles, [and] judgments" ... which "never happen in our days." (X.2, 7-8: p.119-120) The fourth reason we have for not taking these reports seriously is taken from the diversity of religions. Each one claims that the miracles which founded it, prove that it is the true religion. These contradictions show that we should not take any of them seriously. Hume concludes this critical debunking by calling our attention to the fact that these stories are "the production of a mere human writer," written in a barbarous age and "in all probability long after the facts which it relates." (X.2,27: p.130)

After having been presented with this critical look at the historical records, how can we take any account of a miracle as evidence of the truth of a religion? Hume realizes that if he can get his readers to doubt the historical accuracy of the parting of the Red Sea and the Virgin birth of Jesus, he is well on his way of undermining their belief in the Resurrection. This is obviously Hume's intent, but what is the understanding of human mind and its beliefs that underlies critical history?

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 which is carried along by sense experience of nature. 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 and indoctrination can overcome nature.

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 account of the human understanding, belief continues to be the passive effect of certain influences. Now, however, those influences have been widened.

It is worth noting that Hume not only presents this understanding of mind, he also attempts to employ it. The second half of "Of 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 "wise," "just reasoners," "men of sense," "judicious readers, and "wise and learned." Unbelievers are said to be "credulous," they are the dupes of madmen, liars and villains, they are "ignorant" and common. Unbelievers 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 one of the latter? 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.5 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.


One further twist in Hume's account of the principles of human understanding must be noted. Hume is no longer describing how the mind works, but how it ought to work. In this Section Hume is not only trying to manipulate his reader's beliefs via their passions, he is trying to convince him to become a "man of sense" who judges from "natural 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 model, the understanding is no longer like a scale, determined by forces outside itself. Rather, it is active; it determines the criteria according to which ideas will be allowed to carry weight. 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 "useful 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 "weigh" the experiments and proportion his beliefs to the evidence. (X.1,3: p.110) One can "refuse to believe." (X.1,10: p.113) He who believes miracles has "made 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.

This more active model of human mind is also more compatible with Hume's use of history. Hume's use of critical history, an analysis which displays some minds as passive effects of passions, indicates another sort of mind is possible. The mind of the one who sees others as manipulated and dominated must see itself as above such domination. It must see itself as able to stand above such manipulation and decide for itself what it will accept and reject. Hume's historical analyses, which depict the primitive and common minds of others, invites its reader to decide for himself not to be like them. Hume shows that we can avoid being like the credulous and superstitious by adopting certain criteria of belief.

Why do we accept some things as evidence for our beliefs and reject others? What are the principles according to which we make these determinations, and are they subject to our control, our choice? Hume's third model of human understanding presents it as able to choose for itself its principles of belief.

Hume's goal is to get the reader to accept such "naturalistic" principles as, "objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we do" and "give greater preference to the greatest number of observations." (X.2,3: p.117)6 Hume calls attention to these criteria by which "wise 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 "wise and judicious" reasoners Hume praises, and whom the reader is invited to imitate, do not bother to investigate such reports carefully to determine their falsehood. They see that such a report carries "falsehood upon the very face of it ... (and is) more properly a subject of derision than argument." (X.2,13: p.124)7

Hume sees that there is something in human nature that will tend many, if not most, people to allow their fears of "powers invisible" and their enjoyment of strange stories to dominate their minds. And yet, he, full of hope, argues against their belief. Hume's key discovery is that belief is due to the voluntary acceptance or rejection of evidence. Since it is voluntary, it is subject to education. Although this propensity to superstition will persist as long as human nature remains the same, it can "receive 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 the 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 eliminating superstition. (I,17: p.16)

In what sense is it "reasonable" to accept the principles that Hume presents, principles which do not prove that miracles do not and never have occurred, but only pre-judge that they will not be believed? Hume's argument in Section IV, "Skeptical Doubts concerning the Operations of the Understanding," shows that such propositions as those noted above cannot be known to be true. They are not relations of ideas. But neither are they matters of fact which are confirmed by experience. Rather, they are the principles according to which experience is given preference over all other possible evidence. Can Hume give any argument for these principles, or does his essay on miracles show that human understanding is at root thoroughly irrational and merely the result of will, a blind decision to accept some things as evidence and reject others?

In An Enquiry Hume does not attempt to vindicate these principles. He merely ridicules believers and invites his reader to see that a world in which miracles are allowed does not conform to his own experience, and that a world in which they are not allowed does. The full argument for the superiority of these naturalistic principles is given in Hume's History of England and his Essays Moral, Political and Literary. There he shows the effects belief in "powers invisible" have on common life. If the principles Hume presents are not accepted as the most basic criteria for belief, then social and political life is unstable and unpleasant. Accepting his principles allows for peace and prosperity.

It should be noted, then, that this final "voluntaristic" account of human understanding like the second model asserts that mind is dominated by passions. Hume's naturalistic first principles of belief are to be accepted because they allow for the greater satisfaction of more, and more important, passions. The reader is asked to judge what sort of world he chooses to live in on the basis of which passions are his greatest concern.

Hume's essay on miracles is not about miracles but about the mind that accepts or rejects them. The argument from history does not attempt to show that miracles cannot or have not occurred, rather it attempts to get the reader to adopt for himself the principles of the understanding which deny them out of hand. Hume invites his reader to decide for himself his basic presuppositions about the world on the basis of his passions. His argument has led to the conclusion that the understanding can and must choose his first principles if it is not to be primitive and superstitious. To accept the principles of Hume's "just reasoner" would be to choose to see the world as a place where human beings can make sense of things and live comfortably and peacefully together. In the final analysis, Hume's essay presents the human understanding as able to decide for itself, more or less rationally, what sort of world it will live in.


An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding contains three accounts of the human understanding and three conceptions of its "principles." According to the predominant one, mind is the passive effect of impressions; Custom is the "source of the distinction ... between truth and falsity," (1,2: p.6) or rather, the "difference between fiction and belief" (V.2,2: p.48) However, if this were the whole truth about human understanding, if Custom were its "ultimate principle" (V.1,5: p.43), then belief in reports of miracles would be impossible.

Therefore, a second model, which can account for this belief is necessary. This second account of the understanding acknowledges the influence passions (fears and loves) have on belief. According to this picture, belief is the result of likes and dislikes. This sort of mind is most apparent in the historical accounts of primitive and superstitious people. Although this second account makes better sense of the style and rhetoric of Hume's essay, it cannot account for its intention.

A third model of human understanding is needed to account for Hume's goal of having his readers become "just reasoners." According to this account, mind can decide for itself the principles according to which evidence will be accepted. We can choose to become the sort of mind which will not believe reports of miracles and sees such reports as simply false. We can reasonably become such prejudiced minds because we see the effects such principles will have on our common life.

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

2 Anthony Flew, Hume's Philosophy of Belief. (New York, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961).

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

4 This is the closest that Hume comes in "Of Miracles" to mentioning the role that fear plays in strengthening an idea, an idea that takes prominence of place in his posthumous 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 greater fears and greater desires concerning the next life.

5 Indeed, paragraphs 12 - 15 present quite strong evidence for miracles having occurred. (pp.122-125)

6 Other principles of Enlightened judgement include the following. The ultimate standard by which we ought to determine all disputes is "always derived from experience and observa­tion." (X.1,6: p.112) Evidence of a miracle "carries falsehood upon the very face of it." (X.2,13: p.124) We should "reason from natural causes." (X.2,14n: p.345) "Judge 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)

7 Hume describes the "wise" 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. If Hume believed what he reports about the events surrounding the tomb of Abbe Paris did occur, would he not have to believe that something very unusual happened? (X.2,14: p.124-125 and the note on pages 344-346). Why does Hume go out of his way to give this report in such detail?

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