Hume on miracles

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Begin by reviewing my simplified version of Hume's argument, which you have seen before.

1. By definition, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.

2. Laws of nature are known by firm, unalterable and uniform experience.

3. Whenever a claim is made that something has happened, we have to weigh up the possibilities of the claim being true or false.

4. If something very likely is being claimed, then we don't need a lot of evidence to convince us that the claim is true.

5. If something very unlikely is being claimed, then we need a lot of evidence to convince us that the claim is true.

6. Since a violation of the law of nature is the most unlikely thing that could ever be claimed, we would need the greatest imaginable amount of evidence to convince us that the claim is true.

7. In fact, no one could ever collect as much evidence as you would need to overcome our belief that laws of nature are unbreakable.

A: How would you put Hume's definition of miracle into plain English?

ore exactly, Hume defines a miracle as

' transgression of a law of nature

by a particular volition of the Deity or by the

interposition of some invisible agent'.

B: What are examples of what Hume calls a law of nature?

Now, we need to be clear about what Hume is arguing.

He is NOT saying that miracles are logically impossible.

He is NOT saying that miracles never happen.

He IS saying that no reasonable person would ever believe a claim that a

miracle had happened.

C: Put in your own words, as briefly as possible, the reason why we should not believe miracle-claims:

Hume now goes on to give 4 extra reasons why we should dismiss claims that a miracle has happened:

  1. Miracles do not have evidence from people of sufficient repute

>> often social or psychological motives for reporting miracles.

  1. People are naturally prone to look for marvels and wonders

>> religious people's enthusiasm makes them more prone to this.

  1. Reports of miracles come chiefly from ignorant nations

>> could be due to lack of scientific understanding.

  1. The different miracles in different religions cancel each other out

>> miracle by a Chinese god contradicts miracle by the Christian God.
This leads to his final conclusion:

‘There never was a miraculous event established’, and ‘a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation for a system of religion.’

D: So far, Hume’s argument has been about whether we should believe other people when they tell us a miracle has happened. If I were to say, ‘I am not believing in this miracle because someone else told me about it; I believe it because I saw it with my own eyes!’, how do you think he would respond?

E: Hume may have shown that miracles are ‘inherently improbable’ (Palmer) or ‘maximally improbable’ (Flew). What if I respond, ‘they may be improbable, but they still happen’? Where could the debate go?

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