Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 4

David Hume’s epistemology of strict empiricism is unworkable, unlivable, and unbelievable. Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, continues his discussion of Hume’s theory of knowledge:

As a more general methodological consideration, Hume’s unduly strict form of empiricism values experience above testimony, yet the vast majority of our general knowledge depends on testimony (the report of others’ experiences) rather than our own more limited personal experience. Granted that all eyewitness testimony is conditioned by observers’ interpretations, jurors are expected to be able to infer significant aspects of events behind such testimony; without this assumption, the modern court system would collapse.

Hume’s sword is so sharp that it cuts away at all knowledge of the past, not just miracle claims.

Virtually all historical claims depend on interpreted testimony and other interpretations of evidence; most of us would not for that reason discard any possibility of inferring information about some past events based on our extant sources. While this observation about testimony’s value is most obviously true and relevant regarding history, it applies even to most of our knowledge of science. . . .

The approach Hume applies to miracles would, if applied equally strictly elsewhere, rule out any newly observed event incompatible with or challenging current scientific understanding of nature. Hume’s skeptical approach would thus make scientific progress impossible.

How would the reigning king of the sciences, physics, fare if we adopted Hume’s skepticism of testimony?

As one scholar points out, particle physicists have never verified a proton’s decay, but this deficiency does not stultify investigation to detect proton decay. A physicist suggests that, even in its merely epistemic form, Hume’s “argument can be used to prevent a scientist from believing another scientist who announces a major discovery” that violates earlier understandings.

Physicists do not follow Hume’s approach; they were surprised by the announcement of “high temperature superconductivity,” impossible as it appeared by current understandings, but they did not reject the claims. They investigated the claims to confirm or disconfirm them; although anomalies face stricter interrogation, they are frequently recognized “even before the advent of rival theories which can accommodate them.”

Do historians and legal experts, both of whom heavily rely on testimony, accept Hume’s views? Hardly.

Moreover, whatever may be said of Hume’s relationship to physics, his epistemological arguments privileging norms over testimony do not allow the normal practice of historiography and legal testimony in their own spheres (as I shall note below). Yet these are the sorts of disciplines most often relevant to evaluating testimony, and are therefore more experienced in evaluating testimony than Hume is.

For example, even when we mistrust ancient historical sources on other points, we normally accept eyewitness testimony in them (though not always their interpretation), unless we have compelling reason not to do so. Is the existence of some fictitious information, usually outside eyewitness material, compelling reason to exclude all claims that do not fit our worldview? Historical events may be evaluated by analogy with kinds of historical events, but one can use this analogy to deny the miraculous only by presupposing that all historical testimony to miracles is invalid.

Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Hume didn’t apply his skepticism to his own historiography.

Indeed, Hume does not follow this stringent approach to testimony in his own historiography. (It was Hume’s historiography that made him famous in his own day, though the rise of critical historiography ultimately made his approach to historiography obsolete. Hume’s epistemological approach, if followed to its logical conclusion, undercuts normal reasoning, including his own. One scholar explains that Hume’s epistemology excludes all beliefs as irrational and unjustifiable, but notes that Hume explained that he himself lived by that perspective, itself no more than a belief, only when doing his philosophic work. Hume may have helpfully pinpointed the question of what factors could tip scales to allow belief in events that would normally not be believed, but in his polemic against uncritical credulity he uncritically rejected the sufficiency of any evidence.

As Keener observes, “the evidence of testimony must be given ways to surmount prior improbabilities; otherwise ‘there is no way to underwrite the sorts of inferences made in everyday life and science,’ such as a newspaper report of a winning lottery ticket.”

In the end, Hume so stacks the deck against testimony of miracles that he cuts us off from most knowledge of the past. Thus he is of little help in the investigation of miracle claims, unless, of course, your goal is to do no investigating.