david hume on miracles (2007)


A miracle has the definition of a “wonderful supernatural event” “[1], pg. 317”. This seems to conflict with Hume’s definition as being a “violation of the laws of nature” “Hume, [2], Section X, Part I, Paragraph 90”. The following essay will be covering the points outlined by Hume, alongside a critical commentary to assess the accuracy of his argument.

Hume did not directly say miracles do not exist; rather, it is improbable for them to ever be proved.  He puts forward some key criticisms of miracles.

Hume’s first reason is that there has never been a group of honest, educated people that have a good reputation, and have nothing to gain by sharing their experience of a miracle:

“there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves”  

             “Hume, [2], Section X, Part II, Paragraph 92.”

Hume here seems to lack articulation on what exactly he means by a “sufficient number” How many would he accept? And what type of education is needed? It seems we are left unsure on which type of people Hume is willing to accept.

To continue, Hume’s second reason against the likelihood of miracles is that of vested interest. Those who claim the miracle happened are said to have a tendency to support their belief, disregarding reason.

“A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.”

            “Hume, [2], Section X, Part II, Paragraph 93.”

Hume here seems to say that if you want to believe something is true, you will create a reason, and convince yourself of this reason that indeed it is true, regardless of its actuality.

Hume’s third reason concerning miracles addresses the location of which the miracle was claimed to occur.

“a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.”

            “Hume, [2], Section X, Part II, Paragraph 94.”

Hume fails to tell us what he means by ignorant and barbarous nations, but he hints towards nations that contain “prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements”. Hume seems to say that any country which has grounds of any kind of supernatural involvement would be a barbarous nation; and therefore any testimony of a miracle would be false.

Hume’s fourth reason considers the existence of all the different religions; and concludes that if they all promote miracles; they all cancel each other out.

“It is impossible that religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation…In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established”

            “Hume, [2], Section X, Part II, Paragraph 95.”

So as religions indirectly aim to overthrow every other religion, they themselves destroy their own credit on which they were established. It seems that this is based on the premise that each religion is autonomous from another.  

From listening to Hume’s points, we can gather that he sees miracles as improbable based on the premise that it is necessary for miracles to go against natural laws. The natural laws that are in place have been founded for centuries, over countless examples:

“Why is it more 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.”

            “Hume, [2], Section X, Part I, Paragraph 90”

Because of these examples, any violation of the natural law has to overthrow the countless examples of evidence that established the law. So miracles, according to Hume, would rather have been improbable; and more easily explained by some kind of deception, than outweighing a natural law.

However, a critical point to make here is that, the whole point of a miracle is to go against a law. And so we could conclude that it in no way challenges Hume’s rule of fighting the evidence of natural laws.  “Jordan, [4], p.177, A Critique of Hume’s argument”

According to Hume, “a miracle could be accepted only if it were even more miraculous that the evidence for it was false” “Harrison-Barbet, [3], p.316”. The problem here is that the existence of miracles may not be as straightforward as weighing up the strength of evidence or degrees of probability. “Ibid

If we take a closer look at Hume’s account I see a few areas of discussion. Firstly, let us discuss Hume’s pursuit of bringing forward a critique against miracles. Hume must have thought it was of value for him to tackle the subject; otherwise he wouldn’t have discussed them at all. After all, what use is it talking about something that he is certain doesn’t exist? Or rather; what is the purpose talking about nothing? Surely then, he must have been affected by socialism; by people claiming to witness miracles. We have to take into account of his spite for these people. My assumption of spite is generated from his work; he would not publish something that he felt must be heard to the masses.

If one were to not like someone; or someone’s beliefs, they would probably build an account as to why and justify their claim. This does not make it anymore true; its subjectivity remains. And this is what may be contained in Hume’s argument.

Secondly, the idea of planning. In accordance to my own definition; miracles are unplanned events. If something was planned, let’s take for example: I wanted to write a best selling book. I would firstly have to write a book, followed by acquiring a literary agent, proceeding to contact publishers and then to advertise my published book. It would then be of no surprise if my book ended up being a best seller, because it was due to my planning, know-how and input.

However if I, overnight, became a best seller, without any work, any publishers or agents, then it is safe to conclude that it was a miracle. A seemingly impossible event, an unplanned event, became true.

The former process that I took, according to Hume, made it probable for my work to become a best seller. The latter example of this miracle, Hume would say would be highly improbable. His reasoning behind this may be due to an investigation of my personal character; with points such as my vested interest to lie, the country which I live in, the evidential figures suggesting it has become a best seller, and so on.

Analytical processes like these consider all the options before reaching a decision, however this process itself may be a flaw. The following quote is the reply from the Buddha after having his ways questioned philosophically.

“It is as if a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow and when attended to by a physician were to say, “I will not allow you to remove this arrow until I have learned the caste, the age, the occupation, the birthplace, and the motivation of the person who wounded me.”

Adapted from the Majjhima Nikaya, [5], p35”

What this means is, acceptance to something may be better than staying in a state of questioning. Accepting what feels right, using your intuition. The quote outlined the main problem with questioning and using such analytical processes; you spend your time and efforts into trying to formulate an answer after having seen the arguments, but you do not come to any view.

Let us take another example, say for example God came down to Earth, and said to an infertile mother “I will now perform a miracle onto you; by making you pregnant tomorrow”. If indeed, she did end up pregnant tomorrow, I don’t think the question would be “was that a miracle?” but rather it would be exchanged to “why did God to that to me?” Because it renders the question of miracles useless; that was no doubt that it was a miracle; God told us so. A criticism of this point is that, it was a planned event, because God told us, and even so, it still is a miracle; so the definition of miracles as an “unplanned event” is useless.  

But what if God changed his speech to “I will perform an act of good will onto you tomorrow” would you still call the pregnant woman as having a miracle performed onto her? Furthermore, what may be called into question is the reason why has God chosen her out of all the other infertile women, surely that is another miraculous thing.

I think from the above examples we see that miracles get tied into our definitions of words and what they mean. It can get confusing if people have different definitions of miracles. Miracles may have a tied connotation to religious events. If we delete the association of religious events, do we then extinguish miracles? For something non-religious, which has qualities of miracles, may be better off just being called “an event that seemed unlikely; coincidence” rather than a miracle.

Overall I think Hume’s argument for miracles is a significant one as far as philosophy is concerned. However the key issues remain; the complexity and differences of language; and the value of using an empirical based investigation process before reaching a conclusion. His work seems to lean towards disproving miracles rather than giving an objective account. Examples of this include his keenness to pick up certain points: a decent amount of witnesses to the miracles, the location of where it took place, and the religion of the witnesses, but fails to pick up on others: “he did not explain what a “sufficient number” would be” “Jordan, [4], p.178, A Critique of Hume’s argument” and also, what specific nation(s) is qualified to observe miracle?

Going back on Hume’s second critique, it says: “imagine he sees what has no reality” “Hume, [2], Section X, Part II, Paragraph 93.”

It seems Hume’s best judge would be an atheist; as he could argue they have the best authenticity to not feel the need to support their own beliefs of a God; meaning the event will not be tailored towards it. And so, the atheist would never imagine seeing such things.

But turning this round; what if there really was a miraculous event; it was not imagination; imagine he sees what has reality; his atheism will cover up the event because of his set beliefs about what should not happen. So this surely is a flaw within itself? The atheist has vested interest in making sure miracles do not exist. If a miracle really did happen, he would be quick to disprove this claim. I am only applying Hume’s own rule. We now begin to see real problems; just who is qualified to be objective?

It seems the problem is not miracles itself, but rather, the people who are witnessing them.


[1]                                                        Collins Pocket English Dictionary, New Colour Edition, Harper Collins, 1992

[2] Hume, D.                                       An Inquiry concerning human understanding, Sect.     X, “Of Miracles”

[3] Anthony Harrison- Barbet             Mastering Philosophy Second edition, Palgrave, 2001

[4] Anne Jordan                                  Philosophy of Religion OCR Edition, Nelson Thornes, 2004

[5] Various                                          Teachings of the Buddha, Shambhala Pocket Classics, 199