Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Brief Note on Miracles and Hume

The most recent God or Not carnival is up at "Evangelical Atheist"; the subject is miracles, and it's not surprising that Hume figures heavily in the discussion. Hume famously defined a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature" or "a violation of the laws of nature" -- somewhat oddly, I've always thought, since he would have known at least two people whose understanding of miracle is quite opposed to formulating the definition this way (Malebranche & Butler). But there's perhaps reason to think that Hume's use of the terms 'violation' and 'transgression' are like his use of the term 'contradiction' elsewhere when talking about unifrom experience, i.e., the idea is simply that a miracle is something that is contrary to our uniform experience. (In the Essay on Miracles he is only considering knowledge of miracles by testimony, so the person being considered there hasn't experienced the miracle himself.) One of the chief difficulties with Hume's argument -- it has always been a contentious point -- is making it work without also condemning all of astrophysics and any other science that deals with phenomena outside our rather mundane uniform experience. Indeed, a common complaint is that Hume's argument, if taken seriously would push our ignorance even farther than that. One of the most fun formulations of such an argument is Richard Whately's 1819 Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte. And, indeed, because Hume puts the same weight on uniform experience of human nature as he does on uniform experience of the physical world, Whately may have something of a point. In any case, it's a tricky issue; Hume doesn't appear to have recognized the problem, although possibly his ultimate qualification of his argument, that it simply disproves the possibility of proving a miracle from testimony "so as to be the foundation of a system of religion" might provide an escape hatch. But what exactly this means is hard to pin down; perhaps he means that young religions are missed by the historical evidence (which he does say), or that religious people are more likely to lie about marvels (which he does imply), but perhaps the point is that "it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven". This latter issue about divine mission was a major part of discussion of miracles at the time, so it may well be Hume's primary target. Or perhaps Hume intends the qualification only to apply to some of his later arguments in the essay (but which ones?) -- in which case it doesn't provide a way of dealing with the problem at all. We might well borrow a sentence from Hume in another context to characterize the argument: The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.

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