Review of The Everlasting Check: Hume on Miracles

David Hume was not the debunker of miracles so much as simply warning us to be careful and how careful we should be.  Alexander L George wrote this book to help clarify what Hume wrote.   The book is extremely helpful to one who is confused by the lies and deliberate misrepresentations of those who don't want us to think more about why we believe in any particular miracle.

Let us look at the pros and cons.

PROS OF THE BOOK

Pros: takes care to show what Hume meant by a miracle. He said a miracle is a violation of nature but in fact he meant that it looks like a violation of what we expect of nature. George quotes Hume saying a man with a clean bill of health dying just like that is not a miracle for we know things like that happen. But a dead man returning to life is not observed in the same way which is why if it happens it is a miracle. Hume is weighing evidence against evidence. So George paraphrases Hume’s thought as “The conflict is not with a law of nature but with a well-confirmed candidate for such a law.” Or “To say an event has violated a law would just be to say that it has violated statement for which we have a considerable degree of evidence.”

My thought: Critics have said Hume is guilty of saying a miracle is what which cannot happen for nature cannot be violated. This is not true for Hume makes his case about evidence and does not say natural law is that iron. And if he did say that it would be a mere assumption. It can be argued that we have to assume something so even if we just guess it that is fine.

Pros: Points out how Hume showed that we have no proof that a miracle is all about being seen. A feather might levitate all by itself without any wind or natural force and nobody might know or notice. Hume pointed out that not all miracles are equally miraculous.

My point; he seems to mean that not all miracles are equally impressive.  That is true.  But we must be careful.  Christians say miracles are acts wherein God simply makes something from nothing there and then.  He makes the miracle from nothing or if you like the miracle is an act of creation.  Thus there is as much miracle in cold milk boiling up in a second as there is in a man rising from the dead.  If something comes from nothing then to do one thing is literally as easy as to do the other.

If the miracle of healing a broken toenail is nothing compared to raising a man from the dead then what?  Is that an example of miracles being not equally miraculous?  No.  It is an example of something that is trying to impress us unduly and manipulate us.  The argument of many that attention seeking miracles turn God into a show off is thereby vindicated.

If a miracle is reported it could be that an unseen miracle was at work to make you witnessed a miracle that was not in fact the miracle.  For example, a miracle eye disorder might make you think you seen Jesus.  You think then that the apparition is the real miracle.

Pros: Shows that Hume has no problem with saying miracles happen it is just that the standard for assessing them is poor and irrational. Hume for example says that we should believe the testimony for a miracle if the testimony being wrong would be as big of a miracle or a bigger one as the reported miracle.

“Hume does believe that one can imagine circumstances in which one would be justified in judging that a miracle had occurred.”

“The evidence against the miracle is just the evidence in favour of the confirmed lawlike claim with which it conflicts.” As Locke would put it, “The two foundations of credibility, viz. Common Observation in like cases, and particular Testimonies in that particular instance.”

A person can testify that he alone knows the moon is now cheese but that contradicts everybody else’s observation.  That is why even if he is right we cannot believe for we don't have enough to believe him.

Pros: Points out that evidence and testimony are no good for confirming anything if the witnesses are too anxious to use the miracle tales to further an religious agenda or faith propaganda. George writes, “It is clear, then, that the testimonial evidence in favour of a miracle of a religious nature is far weaker than the evidence in favor of the lawlike claim with which the alleged miraculous event conflicts. Hence, the falsehood of testimony on behalf of an alleged miraculous event of a religious nature is not ‘more miraculous’ than the event itself.”

My thought: That is a very good point. Even if testimony gave some hope of establishing that something magical happened it is no good if there is a propagandist motivation. Pious fraud is quite common and we must remember that Christians can feel forced to promote their religion at all costs for they feel it is better than letting non-believers go to Hell for not believing. Fear is largely the message of the Bible and most of what Jesus said was scaremongering.

Hume explicitly declared that a miracle claim cannot make a sensible foundation for a religion. Thus the miracle of the resurrection is a bad foundation for Christianity. Thus the miracle of the Quran is a bad foundation for Islam.  It is not a good sign when most religions and most religious people have a scary idea of the divine and are keen to honour its immorality and call it good. 

Hume also wrote elsewhere that he hardly ever met a man who loved anybody as much as he loved himself. Hume said that wanting others to be reasonably happy is a natural instinct. He said that it is “rare to meet with one, who loves any single person better than himself.” But he added it is also as "rare to meet with one, in whom all the kind affections, taken together, do not over-balance all the selfish.”

If so, then miracle claims that are voiced in honour of God and celebrated as telling us of God's loving nature are not about him at all or rarely are even if they could be.  You would need strong evidence out of respect for God before you can declare that a miracle involving somebody else speaks something of God.  And if nature helps us to be good what do we need God and religion and miracles for?  Real goodness keeps to the point.  The unbeliever cares about refuting miracles because the unbeliever does not like the human cost of such beliefs. It is not just about their silliness.

Pros: George shows that Hume did not fuse the idea of God being able to change nature with the concept of miracles: “He does not intend, as some readers have supposed, to make the notion of divine causation part of the concept miracle.”

My thought is that Hume is equating miracle and magic. He dismisses the alleged distinction which is that a miracle is an act of a creator God who creates an event out of nothing that does not fit in with what we expect of nature while magic is the same thing except that witches or spirits do it not God. In both cases you do not really know how the event is done but only that it is done.  It is really just about show for we are still left guessing about the origin.

Pros: if the lawlike claim we all accept is that dead men stay dead then it is no longer a lawlike claim if Jesus' resurrection really is known to have happened. George writes, “One can no longer view Jesus’ resurrection as miracle, since there is no longer a – general claim with which it conflicts.”  In other words, if dead men do not necessarily stay dead then there is no miracle about Jesus rising - his staying dead would be as much entitled to be called a miracle.

My thought: Religion says that everything is a miracle in the sense that there is something when there should be nothing.  So we already have the problem of calling Jesus' resurrection a miracle.  The only hope is to say that it makes no sense for it is impossible for a man to rise and yet it happened.  A miracle is about show thus it is demeaning to the idea of a sensible God.  It contradicts the doctrine that a real miracle from God is an "I love you and want you to be guided to my truth".

George shows how some go as far as to say that dead men stay dead but dead men who are born of virgins can live.  That is an obvious cop-out but it is demanded by belief in miracles.  What else can the believers say?  Why are they not saying, "It is true that only holy men do miracles but a sinful man born of a virgin can do them?"  They do not believe their own nonsense.

Pros: George deals with three objections to Hume’s argument that the lawlike claims come from his experience which is why he can dismiss the resurrection of Jesus for he never experienced Jesus’ return from the grave.

One criticism is that Hume makes mistakes about the general lawlike claims he thinks are true. [It is not true that Hume regarded his perception of natural law as proof and as infallible. He regarded it is as enough.]

Another is that he regards his experiences of how regular nature is as proof that miracles don't happen.  But his experiences cannot be proof.

[That does not affect his arguments against believing in miracle testimonies. As George says, “either past experience does furnish us with a proof of certain lawlike claims, or it does not.” He shows it does.]

The last is that he is contradicting himself for he rejects induction or guessing as being any good and yet it is by induction he learns miracles are too silly for believing in and that experience refutes them. Induction can be wrong and he is offering his induction experiences to support certain things as possible laws of nature. It cannot both support and not support.

[We are not guilty of induction when we are forced to take one view.  It is either for or against miracles.  The choice is ours and it is not our fault we have to choose.  What is irrational is not making a choice.  That is a bigger contradiction than saying guesses are no good and you have to guess anyway.  Guesses being no good does not apply in this case.  When you see the dead staying dead then guessing that nobody rises is the best one.  Not all guesses are equal.]

Pros: George deals with how Hume sees a person who believes in a natural event that is not in her or his past experience – ie like the prince who believes in ice though he cannot see it – as rational but the person who believes testimony to religious miracles as irrational. He asks if the two are just as irrational as each other.  George says that Hume observes that to tell an Indian prince that there is solid water is not asking him to believe in a miracle but to tell him there is solid water but just not in India or that the water cannot become solid when the temperature is warm like it is in India.  So the prince is taught natural laws that explain how water can go solid.

My thought: If both the prince believing in ice and the person who hears of a miracle and believes are irrational it is still the case that the prince is less irrational than the believer in a miracle.  A person who has a far fetched natural but possible explanation for what a magician does is wiser than one who just simply assumes it is supernatural.  Indeed the latter is just a conduit for laziness.

Pros: George brings up our assumption that the future will always be the same as the past. He says Hume has no problem with this assumption. In his view, nature will work the same way tomorrow as it did yesterday. George points out though that it is a circular argument for there is no reason why tomorrow has to be in any way similar to yesterday.

My comment here is that it is true that dice bringing up six each time for a hundred years does not mean it will bring up six the next time you throw it.  Hume does not need an argument here.  It can be a practical thing.  It remains practical to assume the dice will be six the next time.

Pros: George shows how Hume knew that only experience not testimony gives credence to a miracle but “the only basis for this credit is experience, which then properly weighed actually favours the evidence against the testimony. The justification thereby undercuts itself.”

In other words, you need to see a miracle yourself to be reasonably sure it is a miracle.  It is up to the person saying a miracle has happened to first and foremost consider and thoroughly refute all possible objections and put forward and deal with all evidences against.  Then and only then can the evidence for the miracle be discussed.

Pros: George gives us Hume’s Theorem: “It is not rational to believe on the basis of testimony that a miracle of a religious nature has occurred.” He warns us that Hume thinks that miracles are not necessarily religious – there can be ones like a litre of petrol lasting for ten years in a car that is constantly on the road. But George thinks the theorem is best directed at religious miracles as in acts done by God or a spirit. The weaker evidence can never destroy the stronger is another good way to understand the reasoning behind the theorem. George says theorem is only a name but it is not strictly speaking a rigid dogmatic theorem.  It does not need to be proven 100% to be able to refute all miracle claims.

Pro: For Hume “the difference between a marvelous event and a miraculous one is … a matter of degree: as the evidence in favour of a lawlike statement increases, a violation of it moves from being merely extraordinary, to marvellous, and finally to miraculous."

So the odder the claim the less you can just take it for granted as being true.

Pro: Hume treated believers claiming confirmation for their beliefs from miracle stories “as completely on a par with those made by the scientist or the historian.”

Pros: I love the Wittgenstein quote about the problems of philosophy which he says “are not empirical problems. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.”  It inspires one to hope that believers in miracles only think they believe.

CONS:

Cons: George rejects Frazer’s view that the ancients really did think their rituals and prayers kept the universe going. Frazer said that spells to bring rain seemed to work to the ancients for rain had to come anyway. George says this accuses them of being too stupid. George thinks rites to cause the sun to rise were not about literally trying to get the sun to come up but to express the wish that the sun would come up and to celebrate and anticipate that. It was symbolism.

But the fact of the matter is that there were religions and priests casting spells all over the world so there was no way to test what would happen if rites to cause the sun to come up were discontinued.  So you can hold that the ancients thought the rites worked and avoid calling them stupid.

And what if they were not stupid but suffering from a common mental problem where they had an illogical approach to reality?

There is no such thing as anybody having a mental illness.  Mental illness is an umbrella term for mental illnesses.  Each person has mental problems for complicated reasons some of which are stand alone problems which add to a bigger one.  Religious faith can be a mental illness and let most believers act reasonably normal but if the person gets loads of problems the religious faith can be the trigger that puts them over the boundary and they end up needing urgent help.

Another example given by George of an odd religious idea is how the Jews opposed the eating of pork. It may have started off with realising that pig meat was infectious but that does not explain how the Jews didn’t realise it needed to be cooked properly. So the argument is that they banned pig meat for they thought God banned it.

Is that really any saner than thinking the eating of pig meat brought bad luck?  To argue that God bans walking under ladders is no different from saying it is unlucky.

Conclusion - the book shows that Hume stands forever as a valid challenge to those who wish to head into faith in miracles without careful evaluation.  The fact that too many do that is clear proof that Hume was right to say that miracle testimony cannot override the fact that it might be down to a mistake or a lie.  Or both.