Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 1

The 18th century philosopher David Hume claimed that there had never been credible testimony offered by anyone claiming they witnessed a miracle. Numerous skeptics who have commented on this blog have basically said the same thing. There is no need, they claim, to investigate the claims of New Testament miracles because there has never been any evidence of reliable and credible testimonies about miracles.

This is, by far, the easiest position to take if you are too lazy to actually do the work of investigating miracle claims. By fiat, the skeptic asserts that there has never been credible testimony of a miracle, so it is a waste of time for them to look into it themselves.

Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, takes on Hume and the skeptics who follow him. Are Hume’s views on testimony convincing?

Hume, seeking to make his case, quickly denies that sufficient credible witnesses exist to substantiate miracles. By contrast, my subsequent chapters on miracle claims will emphasize that we have an overwhelmingly greater number of witnesses today than were available to Hume, an observation that should make his case far more tenuous for interpreters today than it appeared in his day. But let us consider his argument in more detail: Are the witnesses and their miraculous interpretations potentially reliable?

According to a common reading of Hume (which I think most probable), he rejects in practice the possibility of any witnesses reliable enough to challenge the unlikelihood of miracles. He circularly bases this denial on the assumed uniformity of human experience against such miracles, a uniformity that would deconstruct if there were any adequately clear instances of such miracles.

How can Hume claim uniform experience against miracles? How could he possibly know that?

Claiming uniform experience against miracles is not really an argument, scholars often note, because it “begs the question at issue, which is whether anyone has experienced a miracle.” Or as one critic puts it, “Hume used the unproved conclusion (that miracles are not possible) and made it a datum of his argument (miracles do not happen).” Some supporters of miracles articulate this logical problem even more bluntly: “It amounts to saying ‘miracles violate the principle that miracles never happen.’” . . .

Claims about nature and miracles both rest on experience, so claimed experience of the former cannot cancel out claimed experience of the latter. If experience is reliable in knowing that water is normally not turned to wine, why would it not be reliable in recognizing when water is turned to wine?

What would it take for Hume to accept testimony about a miracle?

Hume avers “that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle,” unless the authentic miracle would be less extraordinary than the inaccuracy or deceptiveness of its reporter. Far from maintaining openness to this possibility that a reporter could be sufficiently reliable to establish such a claim, however, Hume essentially excludes it in practice.

He grants in principle that one might accept witnesses who were unquestionably reliable, claiming public events, and would have much to lose by lying; yet scholars note that in practice he rejects individual testimonies that, so far as anyone can discern by normal means of inquiry, would meet this very criterion.

Hume’s denial of any historical eyewitnesses qualified to testify about miracles is no more than a bare assertion offered on his own authority; by contrast, one of his early detractors offered more than one hundred pages of argument in response to such claims, which one might hope could count for more than bare assertions.

There are more problems with Hume’s skepticism about miracle claims. We’ll continue in part 2.