Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Guest Post: David Hume on Miracles

This is a guest post; the views expressed are those of the contributor, and not of the site owner.

by Fr. Sean

David Hume was one of the most brilliant Scottish philosophers of the 18th century.  Among his many works, he wrote a book entitled:  An Enquiry into Human Understanding.  In chapter ten of the book, he establishes a framework for entertaining the possibility of a miracle.  If by chance you aren’t familiar with it, read part 1 and part 2; http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html

Hume is considered one of the most influential skeptics in history.  Both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have appealed to his philosophy, which creates a strong rejection of miracles, based simply on principle.  Having read Hume’s insights, as well as a few critiques of Hume, I would like to go over some of his ideas and assess them, myself; because if miracles do occur, then they might justly be considered signs that speak of a metaphysical reality.  If there is a God, and God uses miracles to open people up to faith, then perhaps it is a topic one should further investigate with an open mind.

My honest opinion is that every skeptic would want to believe in God, but only if the existence of God is actually/proven true.  I can come pretty close to guaranteeing that a skeptic will never come to an experience (or knowledge) of God in this life, without some form of a humble search. Therefore, if part of you requires some type of empirical proof before you will believe, then chances are almost certain you won’t discover it via that route.  Think of it like this: a scientist has to have some humility to learn anything in his field; he has to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers, but is willing to learn.  In some ways, I think Hume encourages skeptics to lay their humility aside when it comes to the possibility of miracles.  Furthermore, I think the credibility of his theory is weakened by relying so heavily on subjective, personal experience.  Thus, if there is a metaphysical world, Hume has inherently established a confirmation bias against the possibility of such a reality, by rejecting any evidence which does not present as empirical.  There are many other critiques, but I simply want to focus on the few that follow.

I think it’s important to point out that, rather than considering a miracle to be a violation of the laws of nature, a more accurate understanding would be to characterize it as an interruption in the laws of nature. I propose such a description, since an interruption merely suspends the normal course of nature momentarily, allowing for some type of dynamic change, without necessitating a wholesale revocation of the fundamental laws of nature. If someone were miraculously cured of cancer, the laws of nature would continue as normal, both prior to the event and afterwards.  It isn’t as though the laws were being utterly violated, or abrogated to such a degree that they might lose their validity and/or function.

Consider paragraph 12, in which Hume makes a claim that no miracle has ever had such a reasonable amount of evidence that one might be able to conclude that it did actually occur (especially given the lack of any educated witnesses who are, at the same time, objective in their assessment).  He then goes on to highlight the idea of a dead man returning from the grave as an example of a miracle.  His target is rather obvious.  But instead of appealing to the most dramatic of miracles, we should first acknowledge that the idea of resurrection is something in which every Christian believer hopes. It is a hope which is held not necessarily for a resurrection in this life, but rather for (or into) the next.  Thus, it would not be a common event for God (if God exists) to regularly raise people from the dead, in order to continue to live in this world.  Moreover, if other miracles occur, these may give further credence to the idea that a resurrection is, indeed, a possibility, since both cases would be considered "violations of the laws of nature". Logically, one may not want to target the biggest miracle a single individual can experience, since (most) people of Christian faith understand that the resurrection promised is for the next life.  Beyond that, other miracles may, in fact, give evidence of a resurrection to eternal life one day.  Thus, if a miracle is an interruption in the laws of nature, then that interruption points to something “other” which is in control of nature, or powerful enough to influence the laws of nature, and the idea of which might in fact lead one to ponder the possibility of a metaphysical truth.  Thus, a miracle could be considered evidence of a “Spiritual realm,” and even one about which one may wish to learn more.

Hume establishes a guideline for evaluating Jesus’ resurrection (A dead man coming back to life) that seems rather implausible (part 2 paragraph 2).  Generally speaking, about 95% of the population in biblical times would be considered uneducated. Even if that weren’t the case, and there were some educated witnesses, who had witnessed Jesus after the resurrection, they would no longer remain “objective witnesses,” since the observation of such an event would (most likely) cause them to believe,  thereby forfeiting their status as fitting witnesses, able to give testimony of the event.  (Jesus normally would require faith prior to a miracle, and many of the people that witnessed his resurrected body were, in fact, already believers. Thus Hume is almost rewording that former question of believing in God: “I’ll believe when I see empirical evidence,” when if one did see the requisite empirical evidence, one would no longer need faith.)

Secondly, in Part 2 paragraph 7, Hume points out that miracles most likely originated in a “barbarous” time, when people were much more inclined to believe in supernatural events.  One might summarize his statement as follows:  In pre-scientific ages, miracles were much easier to believe as possible, but now with the laws of nature better understood, we can presume their origin to be rooted in something fallacious.  As I’m sure you know, Hume accurately points out that one can observe a “uniformity of nature,” which is naturally discernible in our world.  A miracle is thus considered a violation of the laws/uniformity of nature, which should cause one to approach said miracle with a certain sense of skepticism.  I completely agree that, if someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, one should always approach such claims with a high degree of skepticism.  Hume then points out that a wise man will only accept the reliability of a miracle when it is based on the evidence, which again, I recognize as obviously true. If someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, a wise man will consider if, in fact, the one claiming to have witnessed a miracle is either: 1) being deceived, or 2) attempting to deceive.  If it’s more likely that he is being deceived, then one’s judgment should fall on that side of the evidence, being that the uniformity of nature is rarely (if ever) violated.  Up to this point, I agree with Hume, in as much as one should assume it is more likely that an individual is either being deceived or is attempting to deceive, rather than assuming that a miracle has actually occurred.  Where I think he perhaps is mistaken – although I may be wrong – is that it appears he’s suggesting that the investigation should be immediately arrested, once a person has concluded that it’s more likely the individual is being deceived.  If I’m wrong in this assessment forgive me, but I do think that in such a situation, one should continue to investigate the issue and have a thorough look at all of the evidence, with an open mind.

As mentioned above, Hume implies that the idea or concept of a miracle arose out of a "barbarous" time, a pre-scientific era, when people would be much more inclined to believe in miracles before understanding the "uniformity of nature".  One can certainly see how this makes sense.  A tornado passes through a small town, missing every house – not killing anyone – and everyone would have a sense of jubilation/relief: “it’s a miracle!”  Or perhaps one comes down with a severe infection.  Their body becomes very weak, they lose weight, and appear at “death’s door.” During the illness, though, their body produces enough antibodies that it fights-off the infection and they recover.  Again, “it’s a miracle!”  Thus understood, we would have the idea or concept of a miracle as simply residing in phenomena of a pre-scientific era, where an apparent (mis)fortune was reversed, even as it appeared that all hope was lost.

But is that really true?  Do we, as human beings, have the concept of a miracle based only on pre-scientific events that seemed to be inexplicable?  Hume stakes his case on our experience of the “uniformity of nature,” in that, because we have a better understanding of nature today, we are less inclined to see things as miraculous.  That pre-scientific man didn’t have those same expectations, so they were much more susceptible to the idea of a miracle.  But is that really the fullest extent of the case? Did pre-scientific man not have just as much a reaction to a change in their expectations of nature, when it appeared that a miracle occurred? If we look at the scriptures, we can draw a certain amount of information regarding how they saw miracles, and thus how they seem to have had a similar [to our own, today] reaction to any change in the uniformity of nature.  (Before I lose you in referencing the scriptures, keep in mind that even if it is all made up, it still reveals a certain cultural mindset or reaction, from which we may still glean a reaction or perhaps open a window into how they saw miracles.)  When Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive before she was married (Luke Ch.1:34), how did she respond? "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"  How did Zechariah react when told by the angel that he too would have a son, though he was advanced in age? (Luke 1:18) “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  Does it not seem as though prescientific man had a similar expectation to ours, when it came to a violation of the laws of nature?  Zechariah and Mary both saw the possibility of having children as something that seemed to violate their understanding of what was normal and/or expected.  Both of them saw miracles as going against the “uniformity of nature”, even though they may not have been as knowledgeable or articulate on the subject.

Let us consider the thoughts and actions of a believer who finds his/herself in a difficult situation. When the average believer becomes sick, there tends to be a normal progression or thought pattern.  One seeks out medical assistance; they pray and ask others to pray for them.  They’re hoping God will work through the medical professionals to bring them healing.  If their situation deteriorates, they continue to hope, but begin to lean more on prayer, in the hope that something could change; they need a more drastic reversal of health.  If their situation becomes grave, their hope in something spiritual begins to almost trump their hope in the medical professionals.  There’s an innate idea borne within them: that the situation could in fact still change… in other words, there’s an innate idea of a miracle.  The concept, it seems, may not only lie in a "pre-scientific" era, but is something imbued within humanity across the ages. This same phenomenon also seems to be evident in the scriptures. When the woman with the hemorrhages in the gospel (Mark 5:25) went up to Jesus, just to touch his clothes, the scriptures tell us she had exhausted all of her life savings on doctors who were unable to help her.  The scriptures tell us she reached out for his garment, hoping she would be cured, and she was.  Thus, Hume’s theory that the concept of miracles may simply be dismissed as rooted only in a prescientific era (where people were more inclined to believe in miraculous events) isn’t exactly “air tight.” In other words, if in fact the concept of a miracle has other sources beyond what he’s hypothesized, then is it logical to insist on such a high degree of evidence to believe a miracle occurred?

As you may know, Hume believes one should put the “uniformity of nature” on one side as evidence, with the testimony of the witness/es on the other side, along with accompanying evidence, and factor which side appears to be more miraculous.  If it seems to be more of a miracle to ignore the evidence, then one should accept said evidence. In other words, there ought to be so much evidence on the side of the miracle, that it seems absurd not to accept it. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the idea of a miracle is rooted simply in a prescientific era.  If that were true, wouldn’t it seem reasonable that the hope or idea of miracles would have dissipated by now, since science has revealed so much?  Science, by all accounts, should have done away with the idea of a miracle, if it was only rooted in the simplicity of an earlier era.

Consider yet another phenomenon which would have been more common in the prescientific era, and let us discern the effect science has had on the perception of this phenomenon:  People in biblical times regularly believed in demon possession.  As in the case of a boy with epilepsy, most mental ailments (whether they were emotional or biological) were attributed to demons.  With the growth of science, though, almost all such cases are recognized as simply mental/neurological illnesses.  Thus, that prescientific mindset believed in a certain phenomenon that, once science had shed light on it, has seemingly disappeared.  Shouldn’t the same thing have occurred with the notion of miracles?  Shouldn’t science have done away with it, if it was simply rooted in a superstitious view of our world?  I can’t help but to think that Hume has established a confirmation bias so deeply within the skeptical community, that they may never even consider the evidence of a miracle, or the evidence of a believer’s personal experience. That possibility is rejected out-of-hand, before it is even entertained, and yet, I so often hear, in so many of our discussions, the common appeal: "Sean, if there is a God, I would like to know it, but I just don’t see it. Can you give me some empirical evidence?”  Hume’s standards for accepting a miracle almost seem to be the exact same question re-worded.

So, what should a fair standard be for the acceptance of a miracle?  I first think it might be fair to acknowledge what we mean by “knowing”, or how we can be sure that something is, in fact, true.  As Descartes pointed out, in his own proof for the existence of God [I’m not concerned with his proof at this point, just with his method of discerning something to be true]: the only thing about which any of us can be 100% certain is that each one of us exists. Thus, everything else has some element of doubt, or has a varying percentage of probability.  I may be 99.99999999% sure that the world is round, but there is the very small percentage of possibility that I could be wrong.  I may be 99.9997% that the earth is the third planet from the sun in our solar system.  I may be 97% sure that global warming is occurring, or perhaps 85% sure that it is man-made.  If I was a college student, I may be 65% sure that I wanted to major in a certain subject, because I want to become employed in a certain profession.  Thus, we all make decisions based on a balance of probability, and not 100% certainty.  Any miracle that may occur has a certain mystery about it which we can’t explain scientifically. So, gaining an absolute certainty of something which can’t be explained scientifically is always going to be difficult. If, however, I study the phenomena in general, I can imagine (or even allow) that at least some percentage of miracles – no matter how miniscule – would seem to have a decent probability of having occurred naturally, while at the same time acknowledging that many others can seem almost impossible.  If I take the phenomena, as a whole, though, and can see that there’s something connecting the “miracle” with someone’s prayers, and that they experience an unexplained reversal of (mis)fortune, then perhaps I should at least ponder the possibility that a certain phenomenon is genuine.  If there is a metaphysical reality that, at times, reveals itself through miracles, but about which I’ve established a confirmation bias so powerful that I refuse to look at the entirety of the evidence, then chances aren’t very good that I will ever discover that metaphysical reality in this life.

In the gospel, Thomas is certainly the resident skeptic (one might even say relatively intellectual.)  He believes, but his understanding of miracles (or of what Jesus means in general) is constantly a topic which Jesus ends up having to clarify. After the resurrection, many of the disciples were gathered in one room for their first experience of the resurrected Jesus.  Thomas was not present for that first event, and thus tells the others that he would not believe unless he put his hand into the side of the resurrected Jesus and his finger into his nail marks.  At the second appearance, Jesus met all the disciples together, and encouraged Thomas to see his wounds, just as he had requested.

Thomas may have had a hard time believing in some aspects of the faith, but he stayed, he pondered, he asked, and in time he got the answers he needed.

by Fr. Sean