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Many of David Hume’s writings and ideas, such as the famous “Hume’s Fork,” are common currency today. While his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was not well-received when it was first published, it later became known as one of his major works. This essay addresses Hume’s question about whether miracles are reliable testimony that aid human understanding or merely falsehoods that do not serve as epistemological grounds. In large part, it is evident that Hume was not in favor of testimony that attempted to prove miracles because it did not fit in with his convictions about natural philosophy and reason.
Hume argues that while testimony may have some validity in furthering human understanding, it is never as powerful as the direct evidence confronting our senses, and the only reason why we would believe testimony is if the person speaking is reliable and the facts do not fly in the face of observed reality. For instance, if someone says that there is a “dead man restored to life,” is it more probable that “this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact… should really have happened” (116)? This central question succinctly shows Hume’s viewpoint that conformity to experience or “natural law” is more important than the mere relating of events. This suggests that Hume is rather hostile towards miracles, believing them to be most probably falsehoods. Natural law, meaning events that can be observed repeatedly occurring in nature, is what Hume believes in. In other words, according to Hume, what is available to our senses, seeing men die and not rise to life again, can be considered true, but testimony to the contrary only leads us to doubt the witness, who could have been deceived, were he honest. Hume thus strongly criticizes testimony to miracles, and condemns what he deems unreal.
Furthermore, Hume points out, there have never been any miracles testified to by large numbers of men of unquestioned probity and standing, and with qualities that render them very lucid and valid witnesses (116). People have a “passion of surprise and wonder” (117) and “ignorant and barbarous nations” abound in established opinion about miracles and prodigies. As these nations become enlightened they learn real, proper histories and no longer resort to divine explanations (119). Finally, “the testimony destroys itself” because when one religion’s miracle contravenes another’s, the evidences contradict and hence cancel each other out (121-122).
The first point described above is an empirical observation that there has never been a fully validated miracle, where people of education, status, and standing have put their names and reputation on the line to prove, and is damning evidence against miracles. This empiricism was characteristic of Hume and was in accordance to his belief in natural law, which obviously requires no testimony because it is not contrary to what is commonly observed. Second, Hume suggests that people want to be surprised and awed, that credulity is part of the human condition and credulous, gullible people can easily be made to believe in miracles by mere testimony. Hume himself, of course, is more astute than to be easily misled. Third, Hume’s opinion that ignorant and backward people are more superstitious than advanced nations smacks of racism typical of the Enlightenment, a period in which many thinkers, like Hume, rejected religious ideology and superstition in favor of rational thought. Hume’s final argument against miracles has to do with contradictory testimonies of rival religions – their miracles cannot coexist and are therefore false.
Hume also invokes natural law as a way to distinguish between truth and falsehood, or miracle. For example, we believe that occasionally a blackout of the entire sky may occur because we know that solar eclipses exist and follow natural law. Historians’ accounts of eclipses are therefore trustworthy. If historians were to claim, by contrast, that “after being interred a month, [Queen Victoria] again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years” (128), an impossible contradiction of natural law would have occurred and the historians could not be believed.
Are miracles reliable testimonies that aid human understanding, or are they falsehoods, and do not serve as epistemological grounds? The answer according to Hume is that while testimony plays a role in human understanding and knowledge, it cannot be divorced from natural law and simple common sense.
Hume, David (2006). Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. New York: Oxford University Press.
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