Miracles are something that human beings always want to believe in, but what scholars, philosophers, and scientists try to dismantle. In other words, being a purely religious phenomenon, a miracle is doubted by those who actually doubt the very essence of religion and the fact of the existence of God. One of such philosophers is David Hume, a famous Scottish thinker known for his skepticism and critical attitude towards things.
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His essay Of Miracles reflects his ideas about the God and miracles stating that they both are fictional: “Hume’s main argument went something like this. Miracles are contrary to human experience. Thus, they cannot occur” (Jackson, 2003). Drawing from this, the very plot of the essay by Hume is developed in order to convince the readers that the individual practical experiences of people are worth more than the evidence and words by those who allegedly saw or experienced miracles. Thus, the present paper focuses on the consideration of Hume’s ideas in order to assess and analyze them.
To start up the discussion of the arguments made by David Hume in his essay, it is necessary to outline the basic directions in which the author places his ideas:
In reading David Hume’s famous essay “Of Miracles” it is important to realize that his discussion is about the credibility of testimony about miracles. He does not address the question of whether miracles themselves are possible. His question is whether we can ever have good evidence on the basis of what others tell us to believe in miracles (CHSBS, 2006).
Thus, the ideas that David Hue touches upon in his work basically concern the factor that might make human beings believe in a miracle based on the evidence that anyone else can present in an oral or written form (Earman, 2000). Hume states that it is rather unwise to believe what another person tells you about a miracle; it is much better to recall one’s own experience and based our belief or rejection of this “miracle” on what we ourselves can say or prove about it.
Such a point of view is supported by several arguments that David Hume sees as much more credible than the ideas of other, especially religious, thinkers: “Hume says that experience gives us “a full proof of the future existence of that event”” (CHSBS, 2006). Thus, the author attributes the primary importance in the thinking and understanding processes of any person to the experiences that this person possesses (Hume, 1784).
On the contrary, those who believe in the Biblical dogmas and miracles described in the Scripture are bound to be mislead as their opinions are thus formed emotionally but not rationally: “Our evidence, then, for, the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater” (Hume, 1784). Based on this, the very role of religion in the world is diminished, while the fact of the existence of miracles is more than doubted – it is rejected, but not completely. According to Hume, a person can believe in a miracle if only he/she has experienced one in their own lives, but not based on someone else’s words.
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Queen Elizabeth Argument
One of the best examples of Hume’s arguments aimed at proving his point of view about the impossibility to believe in a miracle which is not supported by practice of experience is the so-called Queen Elizabeth argument (Earman, 2000). Its essence lies in the comparison of two unlikely-to-happen things in one of which Hume is more inclined to believe. The first one is the announcement that on January 1, 1600 all the Earth will be covered with darkness for eight days, while the second one is the message of the resurrection of Queen Elizabeth who died on January 1, 1600 but then appeared again to resume her throne and rule till 1603 (Hume, 1784).
David Hume states that he would rather believe in the first miracle as his previous experience allows him to do it: “The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform” (Hume, 1784).
Thus, if the occurrence is at least approximately credible, Hume would believe it, but the fact that a dead person becomes alive again is absurd and it is impossible in the nature: “I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature” (Hume, 1784). Thus, assuming the existence of miracles on the whole, Hume advocates those miracles, which are at least weakly supported by science, knowledge, experience, etc.
To evaluate such an argument from the positions of a modern person, it is necessary to state that nowadays it is impossible to imagine a person with the rational mind, who would believe in the resurrection of Queen Elizabeth in 1600 (Earman, 2000). Nowadays, the things that were considered to be miracles in the 18th century are possible but only due to the advances of science. Drawing from this, and taking into account the fact that during David Hume’s lifetime these technological and scientific advances were not yet familiar to the mankind, the argument by the author seems rather reasonable (Earman, 2000).
David Hume goes ahead of his time to reject the purely mythological belief in miracle to bring the miracle of science and human experience into this life: “I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event” (Hume, 1784). Thus, the argument by David Hume sounds rather credible, and despite of the fact that scholars like Jackson (2003) call it “not valid” (Jackson, 2003), it is the argument that allowed human beings to belief in science and depend on it in developing the things that seemed to be miracles for centuries, like for example flights of people, reanimation of those experiencing the clinical death, etc.
To conclude, David Hume’s essay Of Miracles reflects his ideas about the God and miracles stating that they both are fictional. The author uses clear and precise arguments, like the comparison of Queen Elizabeth’s resurrection with the darkening of Earth, to convince the readers that the individual practical experiences of people are worth more than the evidence and words by those who allegedly saw or experienced miracles.
CHSBS 2006, David Hume “Of Miracles”, Cmich. Web.
Earman, J 2000, Hume’s abject failure: the argument against miracles, Oxford University Press US.
Hume, D 1748, Of Miracles – From Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Millenium Project. Web.
Jackson, W 2003, David Hume and Miracles, Christian Courier. Web.