FROM DAVID HUME'S AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

[He assumes that the apostles, despite what they said, did not observe Jesus being alive again after death.  Should he be dealing with why their observation was wrong instead of dismissing it?  I would say that by observing he meant professionally documented observation - eg notes taken during the appearances and seeking out crosschecking.]

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.
 
From David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, L. A. Selby Bigge, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 114-16.

MY RESPONSE:

Hume agreed with the Christian and miracle-believer understanding of a miracle as something very unlikely but which may still happen. Christians say that God does it as a sign that there is more to life than just nature. There is something bigger than nature out there. He may call a miracle a violation of nature but does not use that definition as part of his argument. He can call a miracle what he wants but the argument still works. It is about a miracle being so odd and unlikely that we are entitled to disbelieve in it. Even many natural events are so odd that we are entitled to disbelieve until we see proof. If we are entitled then then we are more entitled when the event is reported as a miracle.

Hume is talking only about miracles that are testified to by other people. He is not telling you to disbelieve in a miracle you see with your own eyes and that stands all tests as an event without a natural explanation.
 
I would add that we must remember that the percentage of people who report a miracle is tiny tiny but the number who believe without seeing is huge. Even if somebody has seen a miracle that does not mean that it is healthy or wise for others to believe them.

What if somebody said, "Nature has changed temporarily because X is a reliable witness and has said it. The tree talked to him." That is not a logical statement. We can even feel it. Also, there are times when testimony no matter how honest and good and sincere the witness to a miracle or anything can still be dismissed as unconvincing.

He did say, "'no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish" so his problem is not that miracles are untrue but that no testimony to them as far as he knows is good enough but he admits that good enough evidence is a possibility. That is only observing that no miracle has good enough evidence - it is not defining miracles in such a way that nobody can believe in them.

We see that Hume did not define miracles in such a way to make them look ridiculous nor did he deny that a miracle could be verified. He just said that so far he knew of nothing miraculous that met a high standard of evidence and could be considered believable.
 
RELIGION USES CIRCULAR REASONING

When religion accuses Hume of saying, "There is no evidence for any miracle for a miracle is a violation of nature and not possible" it itself argues, "There is evidence for miracles for miracles can happen even if they do not. Miracles can happen for they are exceptions to natural law. Natural law is not that fixed." So if both are assuming and we have to make a choice then who do we go with? Perhaps it does not matter which means that religion should not matter and should not be acting as if it does. It is safer to deny that nature changes even if it does for it is more important to believe nature never changes than that a statue can walk or a man can rise from the dead.
 
Religion says that a miracle is not a violation of an iron law. It says God set up the laws of nature but intended to make exceptions. There is no violation in the sense that God had to arrest natural law and make it change. He is in control. He would not be God and atheism would be true if he isn't. If God had to set up his laws and then break them then that is bad planning. He would not be all knowing or all powerful. He would not be a real God but an idol.

So religion denies there is a violation. It assumes there is no violation.

If it is saying that Hume talks nonsense because he has defined a miracle wrong, we must remember that Hume based his argument not on a miracle being a violation but on it being improbable. Hume called it a violation for it tries to look like one. What else would you be expected to think if somebody told you that their statue of a leprechaun tells them where to look for gold?
 
If Hume is assuming a violation then religion is doing far more assuming by assuming it is not! It is against how the event looks.

Hume is criticised for allegedly assuming miracles are too improbable to be believed. But they assume that miracles are not violations of nature. It is an uncharitable double-standard! If they can make their assumptions why can't Hume make his?

If miracles are violations then they refute God - an incompetent being is not much of a God. It is for Christian philosophers to decide that if miracles are violations and happen, does God having no role make them more improbable or less? If they are improbable because there is a God then they are far more improbable than Hume envisaged. Believers in God should scorn them more then sceptics should!

UNFAIR DEFINITION OF MIRACLE AS VIOLATION OF NATURE?

So did Hume define miracles as impossible violations of nature?

Hume defined a miracle as a violation of natural law. It is said that this makes miracles ridiculous and impossible. God would not have to violate natural law. And the laws would not violate themselves. He could do exceptions to the law not violations of it.

Hume never said a miracle was impossible because by definition it was a violation. He only said that there was not yet enough evidence that one had ever happened.

In physics and in science, no amount of personal testimony - no matter how reliable the witnesses are - is enough for science to accept that something is the natural law. They don't believe the facts of science because of the personal testimony from other scientists. They only believe because they can test and work out what the law is by doing experiments for themselves. So unbelief in natural law is fine in science but just means you have to do the experiment for yourself. You have to see and discover for yourself. No other and no lesser standard of proof is acceptable for scientific explanations of the world. To attack Hume is really to attack science and truth.

VIOLATION OF NATURE IS NOT A RIGID CONCEPT FOR HUME

Suppose Hume defined a miracle as a violation of nature.
 
Christians say he was defining a miracle in such a way as to make it look stupid. In other words, he was trying to argue that as a miracle is a violation of nature and violations of nature don't happen then miracles don't happen. But his argument is not about a miracle being a violation - it is about a miracle being very unlikely to be true. A miracle by definition has to be something that needs tremendously good evidence.

Also, Hume talks of laws of nature, meaning not literal laws but its just an expression about how the universe works. Laws of nature to Hume mean how the universe works according to our experience and experimentation. It is not true that Hume was saying natural law is unchangeable and iron-clad so miracles would be impossible. He says a miracle is not a violation of iron law but a violation of how we should see the law.
 
Some Christians say that Hume contradicts himself by not defining nature as rigid and then saying miracles cannot happen. They are totally wrong. He never meant iron rigidity.
 
HUME NEVER DEFINED A MIRACLE AS UNBELIEVABLE

Did Hume simply assume miracles can't happen? Did he also assume they are therefore unbelievable? That implies that a miracle is being defined as an unbelievable event. Hume is accused of that but if he is guilty why didn't he write, "A miracle is an event that cannot be believed in"? He wrote no such and did lay out when and why we can believe.

Christians claim that Hume argues that miracles are by definition unbelievable. This is not true. The quote from him that allegedly proves it is true goes, "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle." He said we can believe if it is a bigger miracle for the evidence for a miracle to be wrong. The assumption is that if miracle x is more supernatural than miracle y then choose y. Choose the least miraculous thing. He did however believe that a miracle is by definition hard to believe which is why evidence is so important. A miracle being hard to believe is not the same as a miracle being unbelievable.

Hume does not say that miracles are impossible. He says they could be possible. He only says nobody can be expected to believe they happen for the evidence is never be good enough. He is merely voicing the fact that there has to be a line drawn somewhere in relation to what testimony and evidence point to. Everybody has a line. There are things we cannot believe even if there is testimony and evidence. He indicates that if miracles and magic are not among those things then nothing is. He says what kind of evidence is needed so the fact that no miracle he knows of today is backed up properly does not mean that a properly attested and authenticated miracle might happen tomorrow.

FINALLY

The fact is that some things even if there is evidence are to be dismissed.  Religion and atheists both reject the well-attested miracle of the brick that turns pink from its natural colour and back again in an hour.  If we follow Hume we are guilty only of consistency.  While you need solid evidence for a miracle, the probability of the miracle does matter.  Nothing changes the fact that odd and unrepeatable things happen in nature and could make you think you seen a miracle that you in fact did not.  Natural anomalies are not miracles.