Does It Make Sense To Believe In Miracles?
Thomas Ash

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, gave one of the most famous definitions of the word 'miracle.' His aim in giving this definition was then to show that it would never make sense to believe in miracles, but his definition is one that many people, religious and non-religious would agree with, though it is not of course the only possible one.

Hume identified a 'miracle' in his An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section 10, as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent." According to Hume, a miracle is an event which breaches the uniform laws of nature which otherwise, as we can observe, govern how objects behave with unbroken regularity. These laws of nature are learnt by observation and scientific deduction of patterns. An example of a law of nature would be gravity, and here Jesus' walking on water, a miracle told of in the Bible, would be a violation of this natural law.

To all religious people, a miracle would be an act'from above' of God, who intervenes so that what would normally have happened according to the laws of nature does not happen. A miracle is generally seen as not meaning just any breach in the laws of nature, but one with a religious significance, performed for a purpose by God. (In his formulation, Hume allowed for a miracle to be an act not just of God - "the deity" - but also "some invisible agent", also outside the laws of nature. Of course, religion would not allow for any such thing, and the phrase shows his rather mocking scepticism about the whole concept more than anything else. It does, however, contain the interesting implication that the exact cause and origination of a miracle is never knowable, and all that can be known for sure is that it is a breach of the otherwise absolute laws of nature.)

David Hume's arguments against ever believing in miracles reflects one of the most common attitudes to them. He sets out to show that belief in them can never be rational if you weigh up the evidence for them and for the alternatives, the only rational way of deciding. One the one hand you have the chance that the natural law was actually broken and the miracle happened, and on the other the chance that the person you are hearing about the miracle from is either sincerely mistaken or lying. The evidence against thinking that the former happened, Hume argues, is always stronger than or at least as strong as the evidence against the latter. Natural laws have by definition the infinitely strong evidence behind them of every single observed occurrence having always followed them, in any and every circumstance including scientific experiments. Past experience shows that people lying or being mistaken, on the other hand, is all too common. There are bound to be several more probable alternatives to the unexceedable improbability of the miracle actually having happened.

Hume further shows the flawed nature of most accounts of miracles. Among the points he makes are that people have a tendency to want to believe fantastic and interesting stories of miracles whether they have good evidence or not, that stories often get exaggerated, that claims about miracles are often made by people who have much to gain, and - the most powerful point of all - that you would expect miracles to occur in this day and age as well as in earlier times, accounts of miracles come disproportionately from primitive, old, distant and prescientific societies. Finally, he points out that all the different religions - Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on - have miracles to back them up, and that these miracles contradict each other, effectively cancelling out. All these points show how much more likely it is that any account of a miracle is mistaken or a lie.

Hume's point is powerful as it puts miracles in a balanced, scientific perspective, far from the wishful thinking often applied to them. It could be objected that it does not take into account the possibility of your directly experiencing a miracle yourself, rather than hearing an account, but in fact it still shows that this experience was most likely mistaken, and many of the other points, such as the widespread 'occurrence' of contradictory miracles still stand. There could be a more powerful criticism, however. If you hear accounts of miracles occurring repeatedly, so as to build up evidence of a miracle-filled world, then Hume's criticism no longer succeeds. The evidence would then point to a world in which God's active intervention was very much a part of nature, rather than one with unvarying natural laws.

The theologian Maurice Wiles has made another argument against thinking miracles would ever occur. He points out that an omniscient and omnipotent God would not step in to perform miracles in the world he has created , as this would mean his altering the state of affairs he first set up, implying he made a mistake. As omniscient, he would have known all the consequences of his creation, and had he wanted to avoid them, he could have changed the way he created the world in the first place. This point does have significant strength in that a God who occasionally steps in to cause miracles seems far more like a human actor responding to events, and fits poorly with the idea of a transcendent, timeless, spaceless God. However, this could be seen as a good philosophical objection if you are working on the model of an abstract, deist God, but one which fails to take into account the fact that many religions see God as personal, involved with humans' lives and the world.

But perhaps the most powerful argument against believing in miracles is their apparent arbitrariness. There are hundreds of places where a miracle is surely deserved, yet it does not happen. God apparently reserves his time for trivial events like statues weeping and ambiguous, small-scale cases. Yet innocent people die young of diseases like cancer which strike arbitrarily and are in no way their fault, without him effortlessly lifting an omnipotent finger to help. Given this state of affairs, it clearly is more likely, as Hume showed, that miracles do not happen and the reports we have of them are mistaken. To have faith that they do would make God seem to be far less than the benevolent being he is made out to be.

© 2002

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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