Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 3

David Hume’s criteria for believing the eyewitnesses of miracles sets the bar so high that it is doubtful that we should believe anything anyone says about events that occurred in the past.

Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, discusses the consequences of applying Hume’s criteria to other disciplines. First, here is a review of this criteria as it applies to miracle testimony:

For this sort of case (eyewitness testimony for miracle claims), Hume thinks it unreasonable for people to depend on testimonial evidence, requiring instead direct experience. The fairness of this criterion should be questioned, however; those with such direct experience are in this case (but not in most others) considered unable to be trusted by others. Presumably Hume himself lacked this personal experience, but his uniformity argument generalizes from this lack in his immediate circle to that of all humanity.

On Hume’s epistemology, “uniform experience” involved passive recollection of a sequence of events known to oneself and possibly one’s colleagues, and no more. Such a generalization rests on too small a sample size to be legitimate (as his own epistemology warned); while he may speak authoritatively about his own experience, how can he speak in this way for the entire human race? His own “uniform experience” can hardly be used to exclude the experience about which another person testifies.

Is it reasonable to demand direct experience of something before we will believe that it has occurred?

Hume’s insistence on rejecting others’ testimony without personal knowledge, following the egocentric approach of Cartesian rationalists and Pyrrhonian skeptics, stood in bold opposition to contemporary English science, which stressed communal research and knowledge. Not surprisingly, moderate empiricists generally viewed Hume’s rejection of testimony as irrational. Few today follow Hume’s fairly thoroughgoing epistemological skepticism on other fronts; its survival with respect to the question of miracles may suggest the readiness of many to treat claims offered in religious contexts as a special category of lesser value than other sorts of claims.

In fact, many modern-day miracle skeptics reject Hume’s skepticism on every topic except for religion. Religious claims are singled out in a completely ad hoc manner.

Further, one critic rightly objects, “If Hume’s criteria for accepting testimony as true were employed outside of miracle claims, we would probably have to dismiss the vast majority of what we believe we presently know about the past,” since much of it depends on a single, untested source. This observation seems damaging to Hume’s argument; he advances the argument in terms of “general principles about evidence, reasonable credibility, and the like,” yet we clearly do not employ his approach outside of religion.

Where events are not explained spiritually, even when they are otherwise unbelievable, historians normally accept or check them if witnesses are credible, rather than simply rejecting the testimony. Granted, this might not be the case for an isolated testimony if the events in question were particularly unusual, but it would certainly apply to multiple, independent ones.

In part 4 , Keener continues to draw out the consequences of Hume’s epistemology.