David Hume, Caricature is a photograph by Gary Brown
This is not just any David, this is David Hume (1711 - 1776). (Ok. It’s a caricature of David Hume. But, you know what I mean.) If you haven’t met him yet, you will definitely meet him and his ideas in college.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Whoa! That’s a big head!” Yes, but it fits the man that Hume was—a man of real mental heft. Hume is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers ever to have written in the English language2. His ideas were radical challenges to the commonly held beliefs of his time and they continue to influence scientific, philosophical, religious, and even economic thought today.
What did Hume believe? In general, Hume was a skeptic who demanded scientific evidence for any truth claim (see Empiricism or Scientism).3 If it could not be confirmed through observation, experience, or by the senses, Hume argued that we had reason in the least to doubt it if not to reject it altogether. This foundational idea guided Hume to make several major controversial claims concerning reality.4 Among Hume’s many bold claims was his objection to miracles and miracle accounts. Hume believed that miracles, as violations of the laws of nature, were impossible and reports of them should not be believed.5
Now, I know Hume was a brilliant guy, but maybe his head was a little too big sometimes. Even though many have been convinced by his argument against miracles, I think that if we look a little more closely, we can see that there is a good reason to reject it.6 In particular, if we look at Hume’s definition of a miracle, on which his whole argument is based, we will see that it is incorrect and, consequently, that his argument doesn’t work. Hume defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature” and then argued that since the laws of nature cannot be violated, miracles must be rejected7. In response to this, J. L. Mackie said:
The laws of nature … describe the ways in which the world—including, of course, human beings — works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.8
In other words, Hume built his argument for rejecting miracles on a flawed definition. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature because miracles are not subject to the laws of nature. The laws of nature describe how the universe works without any supernatural intervention (a.k.a. miracles). To make miracles subject to the laws of nature would be like putting a United States citizen in jail for not paying taxes in England. The United States citizen is not bound by the laws of England and miracles are not bound by the laws of nature.9 And, just as the citizen of the United States does not violate the laws of England, so miracles do not violate the laws of nature. Starting from a false premise (miracles are violations of the laws of nature) Hume’s argument fails to confirm its conclusion (miracles are impossible).
Now, why might Hume have wanted to reject miracles? Perhaps it was because he wanted to eliminate God.10 Surely this is what is really at the heart of the concern over miracles—if God exists, we must admit the possibility of miracles, and if miracles exist, we must admit the possibility of God. C. S. Lewis put it this way, “But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain.”11
Instead of doubting miracles, I doubt David Hume12. I hope you will, too.
((Though it is worth critiquing, we won’t consider his probabilistic argument against miracle reports here.))
((Hume’s claim here, if it is true, has very serious consequences for Christian faith. If miracles are indeed impossible, then the Bible is not true, Jesus Christ is not raised, and Christians are fools (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14-17).))
((Mackie, J. L., 1982, The Miracle of Theism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.))
((Whether there can be exceptions to the laws of nature is a separate question having to do with the causal closedness of the universe. We’ll consider this question in a different blog.))
((C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 109.))
((Here I mean that I do not doubt that miracles could have happened in the past. I am not affirming that they continue to happen in the present.))