Miracles are Impossible… Right?
Many find miracles hard to believe, myself included. Stories of raising the dead, healing a man simply by touching him, walking on water, are not stories I would readily believe. This predisposition against miracles is partially intuitive due to their perceived improbability. In our culture, this attitude finds much of its basis in David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
He dedicates the tenth section of this essay to demonstrate why a wise man should never postulate that a miracle has occurred, because “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”1 This at first appears to be a common-sense notion, but on further examination his arguments are encumbered by fallacious reasoning. Hume unsuccessfully argues that miracles are impossible, consequently, miracles may be seen as possible when properly understood as supernatural events.
In his essay, Hume seeks to deliver his contemporaries from the “impertinent solicitations”2 of the supernaturalist, encouraging them to conclude with the wise man, who, “proportions his belief to the evidence.”3 Hume makes a common-sense plea. Yet, subtle assumptions damage his argument. Hume argues in two parts: first, he attempts to define miracles as prohibitively improbable events, then describes them as events not supported by evidence.
Defining Miracles as Improbable
As Hume establishes his definition of miracles, he begins to formulate his argument, claiming that miracles are immensely improbable. Like other thinkers of his time, Hume defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”4 He explains that the laws of nature are firmly established as a fact of uniform experience, reasoning further that nothing can be called a miracle that has occurred naturally. This is in fact an excellent definition of miracles if naturalism (the belief that only natural laws and forces govern what occurs in the world) is assumed. However, a Christian means something different when she speaks of a miracle.
Before I propose my preferred definition of a miracle, it bears noting that Christians often use the term miracle informally. Many would consider a miracle to be a highly improbable event resulting from divine intervention. So, situations where someone beats cancer against the odds, or receives a large sum of money at the eleventh hour, while wonderful and perhaps of divine origin, are not miracles. These types of events all have much more probable natural causes and do not require a supernatural cause.
The loose usage of this term hinders clarity in this discussion. Therefore, when we speak of miracles formally, we mean that “they are naturally (or physically) impossible events, events which at certain times and places cannot be produced by the relevant natural causes.”5 The difference between the two definitions may seem trivial at first, but it is quite important.
The difference lies primarily in the allowance for causation made by the latter definition. Hume’s definition assumes the impossibility of miracles because it excludes any provision for their occurrence, whereas this definition allows a supernatural cause to be posited. For this argument, God’s existence is assumed on the basis of arguments like the Kalam Cosmological argument and the Moral Argument. If a deity exists capable of creating the visible world, it is at least possible that he could cause an event to occur which would otherwise be impossible. Miracles are thus a contingent aspect of a theistic worldview.
Properly understanding what a Christian means when she speaks about miracles shows that much of Hume’s critique aims at a straw man. To show that a miracle cannot occur, it is necessary to show that there cannot be a supernatural cause.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the first section of Hume’s argument that miracles are immensely improbable does not fare much better. First, he derives his evidence for the improbability of miracles from individual experience. On his view, this constitutes “a full proof of the future existence of that event.”6
The difficulty in using human experience to disqualify the possibility of a miraculous (and thereby incredibly uncommon) event, is that Hume would need to know the entirety of human experience to make such a claim.7 Moreover, Human experience contains many claims of miracles, so to justify the assertion, Hume has to make the a priori assumption that all miracle claims are false.8 Thus, Hume begs the question by assuming the conclusion in the premises. Hume’s conclusion that miracles are improbable is correct, but he fails to prove this on his arguments. Rather, they are improbable because they can only occur as a result of supernatural intervention.
Describing Miracles as Non-evidential
Hume articulates his argument in the second section of his essay on miracles, “there was never a miraculous event established [by] evidence.”9 He contends that we ought to weigh the reliability of witness of a miraculous event against the probability of its occurrence.
He continues that confronted with an abnormal occurrence in place of a common outcome, “we ought to give preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.”10 His argument continues in much the same vein for the rest of his essay on miracles, encouraging an “enlightened” and “wise” proclivity against miracles because of the “infinite number of witnesses”11 that stand against the testimony of a miracle.
Again, Hume proposes what seems to be a common-sense notion; believe the majority. Yet, his conclusion carries unintended implications. For instance, consider a game of poker. The best hand that can be dealt is a royal flush. Now, the odds of being dealt a royal flush are remote (1 in 649,740), so based on Hume’s reasoning it would be foolish to believe anyone who told you they had been dealt a royal flush because you have 649,739 “past observations” which doubt this man’s testimony. Others have noted the potential historical ramifications of this rationale:
What is the probability and frequency of a man almost exterminating an entire race? Hitler is erased. What is the probability and frequency of a man conquering the known world before his thirtieth birthday? Alexander the Great is erased… Historical claims, it is seen, cannot be based on probability and frequency. Therefore, miracle claims, as a part of history, cannot be weighed based on probability and frequency.12
Unfortunately, this mindset is not only illogical but unlivable. With this evidential requirement, many unlikely events that regularly occur must be discounted on the sheer improbability of their occurrence. Indeed, the supernaturalist is not yet arguing that miracles have occurred, only that they can occur. Hume’s argument based on weighing probability against reliability fails to refute this claim.
So, Miracles are Possible
It would seem that the wise man would be unjustified in rejecting the possibility of miracles on Hume’s reasoning alone. His argument defines miracles improperly, makes claims that would require the entirety of human experience, assumes a priori that miracles are impossible, and exhorts a weighing of probabilities that would encourage disbelief in any improbable event–which are legion in history. Hume’s reasoning does not demonstrate that miracles are impossible. With a correct understanding of miracles, the supernaturalist is justified in claiming that miracles are possible.
1. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Informations Inc., n.d.), X, I, 90.
2. Ibid, X, I, 86.
3. Ibid, X, I, 87.
4. Ibid, X, I, 90.
5. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 263.
6. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, X, I, 87.
7. Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 79.
8. For an academic treatment of Miracle claims, see Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
9. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, X, II, 92.
10. Ibid, X, II, 93.
11. Ibid, X, II, 95.
12. Tim Miller, “A Critique of David Hume’s ‘On Miracles,’” Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal 3, no. 1 (2013): 41.
Craig, William Lane. “Colin Brown, ‘Miracles And The Critical Mind:’ A Review Article.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 4 (1984): 473–485.
———. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Third. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.
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Geisler, Norman, and Ronald Brooks. When Skeptics Ask. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.
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Stewart, Jim A. “Humbling Hume: A Concise Way To Force Humeans And Neo-Humeans To Wrestle With The Evidence For Miracles.” Global Journal of Classical Theology 11, no. 1 (2013).
Witmer, John A. “The Doctrine of Miracles.” Bibliotheca Sacra 130, no. 518 (1973): 126–134.