An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Yesterday, I finished reading David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. It was, naturally, interesting. Although I read his Treatise of Human Nature years ago, and taught the causation and induction sections for something like ten years at Cambridge, I’d not previously read the whole of the first Enquiry.

One of the most notorious sections is chaper 10: Of Miracles. In this chapter, Hume argues that there can never be any reason to believe that a miracle happened. The basic argument is simple: it is always more likely that the sources are mistaken or lying than that a miracle occurred, so the reasonable conclusion is always that there was no miracle.

Hume’s reason for that belief seems to be that we have lots of empirical evidence that the laws of nature are never broken, so that testimony, which we know is sometimes false, can never be enough to convince us otherwise. It is interesting that he assumes that one will never personally witness a miracle.

This could be read as saying that it is irrational to believe something that you haven’t seen for yourself. That’s not what he means, however. He’s perfectly happy for people to believe testimony of the sorts of things that they have themselves seen; if someone tells me that they saw a flock of starlings flying through the air over Cambridge, I should generally believe them. When I lived there, I saw similar things many times. The problem comes with things that are very different from anything you have experienced.

Actually, I think there is a deeper problem. When Matthew’s Gospel says (27: 52-53) that, after the resurrection of Jesus, many formerly dead and buried saints went into Jerusalem and were seen by many, we can safely conclude that this never happened. Matthew was either lied to or lying. Somebody else would have mentioned it; at the very least, this mass resurrection would have got a mention in the other Gospels. More likely, it would have been reported, at least as a rumour, by the numerous Roman historians writing at the people. Large numbers of dead people getting up and walking around is not a common occurrence, after all.

However, consider the cases of resurrection that were reported to medieval shrines. These were reported within a few weeks of the event, by people who were there, with witnesses. A typical pattern is as follows: A child falls into a river, and, being unable to swim, sinks. After some time the child is pulled out of the river, but he is not breathing and has no apparent heartbeat. Efforts are made to revive him, but they fail, and he is pronounced dead. The child’s mother, deeply distraught, petitions the saints to save him. (Sometimes, she petitions several saints, but nothing happens at first.) Suddenly, the child coughs, sits up, and is well. The miracle is attributed to the saint who was being invoked at the relevant moment.

Now, I think it is much less reasonable to reject this account out of hand. This sort of thing happens today, particularly, in fact, with children who have fallen into water. As I understand the cases, even modern equipment cannot immediately find signs of life, but after warming up a bit, the child revives, apparently none the worse for wear. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, even if we accept the event, that does not mean that we accept that it was a miracle. A miracle is the direct intervention of God, suspending the laws of nature. It is true that, as far as I know, doctors do not currently understand exactly what is happening in these cases, but that is not enough to assume a miracle. There are lots and lots of perfectly common, everyday, events that science does not yet fully understand, including my ability to type. That doesn’t make that a miracle, so why should lack of understanding make these apparent resurrections into miracles?

And that, I think, is the deeper problem here. No matter what you see, that can only give you a reason to believe that you have seen something you do not understand. It cannot give you a reason to believe that you have seen something that breaks the laws of nature. One event is simply never enough to do that.

This does not mean that there are no circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in, say, ghosts. If the ghosts of several people appeared frequently to a number of people, appeared when being filmed for television, and appeared even when massive batteries of scientific instruments were set up, then it would be reasonable to believe that there was something there. After further investigation, it could even become reasonable to believe that there was something there that could not be explained by current science. There are, in fact, numerous examples of such things. Radiation is one; when it was first detected, it seemed to be impossible, but it kept showing up, and so eventually it was brought within the ambit of science.

There may even be things that happen lots of times, but which are not predictable, and so which do not get explained. Ball lightning is an example of this; the scientific consensus appears to be that the events happen, but there is no consensus on what causes them (other than that they are not lightning). The events are just not common or predictable enough to investigate properly. But that still doesn’t show that they are miracles.

The problem here, then, is that the supporters of miracles have not finished their job when they have proved that people rise from the dead. They still need to prove that they rise from the dead because an undetectable, ineffable deity wills them to. And there can never be any evidence for that. In fact, they need to show that the dead rise because the particular undetectable, ineffable deity described in their scriptures wills them to, and I cannot see any way to even begin doing that.

There is even some textual evidence that this is the sort of miracle Hume has in mind; he says that the miracles of different religions cancel out, which is only true if the miracles are supposed to imply the truth of the religion. If they are treated merely as events, there is no reason why all the events could not have happened. Obviously, a lot of people will be wrong about the causes.

And now, before I get distracted into epistemological relativism (because things are different for people who believe in God already, just as reports of radioactivity are different for people who believe in that already), I will leave things there.

Posted in Books, Epistemology, Philosophy, Religion.

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