David Hume’s essay On Miracles is a strong refutation of supernatural phenomena, often linked to divine intervention. Hume states boldly that even religious events such as miracles should be judged on the basis of empirical evidence. He thus makes evidence the chief determinant of credibility. The credibility of a claimed miracle will increase in proportion to the reliability, method and number of witnesses. Hence Hume dismisses outright any kind of revelatory recounting of miracles. Take say, the example of the resurrection of Christ three days after his death. Though it is an important miracle in Christian theology, it fails the rigorous standards of empiricism that Hume mandates. We only have references to the event in the scriptures, the writing of which happened much later than the event – sometimes centuries later. On top of this, those who witnessed Christ’s resurrection were invariably the faithful, who wished that it were so. Moreover, even if a claimed miracle is attested by numerous witnesses, its veracity becomes dubious if a greater number testify the opposite.
A major thrust of Hume’s thesis is that the burden of proof lies heavily upon those claiming miracles. Hume defines a miracle as that event which has defined laws of nature. As a consequence witnesses of miracles are required to bring high credibility to their evidence. But this is easier said than done, as there are inherent mitigating factors. Firstly, since an overwhelming majority of people are religiously inclined and have accepted miracles as acts of God, their psyche would lack the requisite scepticism and objectivity in evaluating a claimed miracle. Second, individuals do not merely perceive events through their senses but through the lens of their cognitive faculties. Our cognitive faculties are trained and cultivated through our education and exposure to various life experiences. Since there is a great deal of variability among humans in this regard, no two individuals would perceive an event in the same way.
Hume also articulates the ‘argument from miracles’. Since every religion claims its own set of miracles, the devotee to a religion believes in one set to the exclusion of the rest. The same is done by the practitioner of another religion. So, for a neutral observer, every miracle has more disbelievers than believers. This begs the question if there is an element of fanaticism behind these beliefs.
In my view, if I have to pick one flaw in the essay, it would be the element of circularity in one of the arguments. Hume recognizes miracles as those events that are exceptions to the natural order. By requiring testimony of huge numbers of people separated in time and place, Hume somewhat pre-empts any potential claims of miracles. This is so because, historically, no miracle had ever been evidenced in such scale, and nor are they likely to happen in the future. Hence Hume’s imposition of enough satisfactory evidence to compensate for the highly exceptional of the miraculous event is a circular argument.
On Miracles was published circa 1748. It was a key period in European history, as the hold of religious superstition was giving way to scientific understanding. Hume’s essay is an important contribution to the literature of the Enlightenment. Although there is deficit of terminology in some of Hume’s arguments, they largely remain meritorious. In the two and half centuries since Hume’s essay, philosophical vocabulary is considerably enhanced and can rearticulate Hume’s thesis with greater cogency. Interestingly, while belief in miracles is not as rampant today as it was in the early 18th century, a great portion of humanity still holds such views. Exposure to Hume’s rigorous tour of logic will help move them toward rationality.