David Hume – On Miracles

This is my second post on Hume. To be honest, the reason why I like Hume is because he is really really dramatic. His leisure time activity is to mock religious monks. He mocks in such a way that it would make the religious monks feel extremely pissed off. For your information, Hume was born in a time where academic and general public knowledge was largely influenced by religious churches. A lot of teachings were propagated by religious organisations. At the same time, Hume’s philosophical works were developed during the scientific revolution, the period which we call the Enlightenment when a lot of influential scientific discoveries occurred. Hume is a classical example of empiricism, the philosophical doctrine which dictates that all of our knowledge about our external world must be derived from our experience or empirical senses. That is the reason why he hated religion. He thinks God doesn’t exist.

Today post is about miracles. We will examine miracles in a more philosophical ways. By that I mean we will see, after this post, whether miracles really happen, or are they just no more than a myth. Are we rational to believe in miracles? Do we have any concrete evidence for the existence of miracles? Let’s go, guys! I’m excited.

What is a miracle? 

You’re right. Before moving on to argue for anything, the very first thing we need is a definition. That’s when we have a common understanding of the word miracles then we can argue about its related issue. It is pointless to argue for or against anything at all when the definition is not clearly spelt out.

In layman term, a miracle is something like if Jun Vu just out of nowhere appears in my room, and tells me that she has been finding me and loving me for years. Surely, I would go out of my room and scream out loud “oh my holy God, what a miracle!”. For those of you don’t know who Jun Vu is, I will attach one of her photo here. She is a Vietnamese model working in Thailand now. She is really pretty, to my beauty standard.

Okay I digressed again. Let’s me take you another example. If one day, if time could be turned back on, I was able to live up to my experience of being a highschool student again, being a Hanoi Amsterdam student again, finishing what I wasn’t able to finish back then, telling things that I wasn’t able to tell back then, that is no doubt the happiest miracle ever happen to my life.

That’s what our everyday understanding of the word miracle. What’s about Hume’s definition? I think Hume will share with us the same understanding. For Hume, a miracle must satisfy two conditions in order to be legitimately considered to be a miracle in a meaningful sense of the word. The two conditions are definitive, that means they are necessary and sufficient conditions for an event to be a miraculous event.

Before moving into the two conditions, I think it will be comprehensive to introduce the distinction between sufficient and necessary condition. This is crucial to understand philosophy in general.

Let’s say it is necessary that I have to be a rich in order to win Jun Vu’s heart. That means the first condition that I have to satisfy is to be rich. If a person who is not rich, comes up to Jun Vu and ask for her love. Surely, the person is out. Because it is a necessary condition. Without the characteristics of luxuriousness, I wil never able to win Jun Vu’s heart. But is it a sufficient condition also? No, the other things that Jun require from her boyfriend is to be smart. So being smart and rich is necessary and sufficient condition for her boyfriend.

But let’s say, it is sufficient that I am rich in order to win Jun Vu’s heart. What does that mean? It means that I don’t need anything else except for being rich in order to be Jun Vu’s boyfriend. But note that, just by virtue of being rich, it is sufficient for me to be Jun Vu’s boyfriend. However, it is absolutely not necessary. Jun Vu can love another guy just because he is so smart and adorable. Let’s say it is sufficient to wet the floor by pouring a cup of water into the floor. But is it the same as necessary to wet the floor by pouring a cup of water? No, because the floor can be wet by other reasons.

I hope the distinction above is clear enough to help you distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions.

Let’s move on to our 2 necessary and sufficient conditions of miracles 

Hume thinks for an event to be called a miraculous event, the event must satisfy these 2 conditions

  1. It has to be a violation of law of nature
  2. It has to be brought about or caused by supernatural entity/God. 

Please note that these two conditions must be satisfied. If let’s say, a chair was pushed away by 3 meters without being applied any forces, and let’s say this was brought about by the hand of God. It is not a miracle. Why? Because only the second condition is to be satisfied, not the first one. Pushing the chair is not a violation of law of nature (I will get to that later). So, remember the two conditions must  be satisfied. Concurrently.

Objection to Hume’s definition

There are essentially 2 objections to Hume’s account of miracle definition. First, one may say the definition is not sufficient. Second, one may argue the definition is not necessary. We will see one by one.

Definition is not sufficient

As I have said earlier, what does sufficient mean? When a critique says the definition is not a sufficient condition for a miracle to take place, he means somethings need to be added. The “not sufficient critique” says a miracle has to need 2 more conditions for it to be legitimately called a miracle. What are the two additional conditions, according to the critique?

  1. A miracle has to be astounding and surprising
  2. A miracle has also to serve some beneficial and important purposes

Let’s me take an example why critics would think Hume’s definition is not sufficient. Let’s say a miracle is when a severely blind person suddenly happens to see the light again. Let’s further assume that this event has been brought by God, and a violation of the law of nature has also occurred. The critic may think, that is not really enough. There is something missing here. I mean, the blindness of a person is really astounding and surprising. It is also really beneficial because the man has been cured. That is truly a miracle. So Hume’s definition is short of these 2 conditions.

How Hume’s going to respond to this. Not quite difficult. Hume makes the distinction between the invisible and visible miracle.

In the case of the man has been cured of blindness, this is a miracle that public can recognise the existence and occurrence of this event. What the 2 additional statements are doing, according to Hume, is to define the visible miracles that are present to the public eyes. How about a situation is when a leaf hovers 3 inches above the ground. Assuming that the law of nature is violated, and God has made the leaf to be on the air 3 inches above the ground. Surely, we should call such event a miraculous event but this kind of event is not recognisable to us. What Hume means is that if you are interested defining a visible miracle, then the 2 additional statements are required. But if you are only interested in defining a miracle in general, then the first 2 conditions are sufficient.

Definition is not necessary 

Another kind of criticism Hume has to take care of is saying that his definition is not necessary. That means one of the conditions is not necessary. Let’s me take you an example. Let’s say a child is playing on the train track, unbeknownst to him, there is a train coming close. The child has no awareness of the train coming, but luckily, due to a sudden heart attack, the train driver fainted, leaning forward the brake, stopping the train just millimeters away from the child. Obviously, the mom on the side road goes something like ” Oh thank God, my son got save”.

Poor the train driver. The person who she should thank is the train driver. Okay. Digress again. But note, in this instance, we consider this event to be a miraculous event. But there was no violation of law of nature involved, there is no God’s activity involved. It is just a natural cause that the driver has a heart attack and the child got save. But surely, we still call this a miraculous event.

How Hume is going to respond to this? He will draw us a distinction between a fortunate coincidence and a miracle. When we get this clear, the problem is solved. If there was in fact the law of nature has never been violated, God has nothing to do with this event, then surely, this event is just a happy or fortunate coincidence. It is just something like I did not study at all for the exam, but I got the 20 MCQ questions right. It is just a matter of luck.

But suppose, the timing of the heart attack was intervened by God and there was a violation of nature, then it is surely a miraculous event. So when the line between the fortunate coincidence and a truly miraculous event has been drawn. This criticism is no longer a problem for Hume.

As such, the two conditions are necessary and sufficient ones.

What is the violation of the law of nature?

You must have been asking, what is the law of nature? It is a vague term. It is philosophically loaded term. If you don’t understand what, for Hume, the law of nature is, you can never understand what his stance on miracle.

But before I come to explain what is the law of nature. It would be incredibly useful if I introduce 1 critical concept in Hume’s philosophy. That is his distinction between relation of idea and matters of fact.

Relation of ideas is a proposition where the predicate is contained in the subject. For example, a bachelor is an unmarried man. It is a prior knowable statement. That means the truth of this statement is a priori justified. Its truth is justified independently of experience. Just by examining the concept of a bachelor, you will come across the concept of an unmarried man. The predicate “unmarried man” is contained within the the concept of “bachelor”. Note that, the negation of this statement will lead to a contradiction, a bachelor is not an unmarried man. When you say such a thing, you are actually contradicing yourself.

Matters o fact is proposition where the predicate is not contained in the subject. For example, a bachelor is a depressed man. Its truth needs experience to justify. It has to be posteriori justifiable. If you want to prove this statement as true, you have to go out and ask whether truly a bachelor is depressed. Note that, the predicate is not contained in the subject and the negation of this statement is not leading to a contradiction. Let me take you another example, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

For Hume, matters of fact statement is a probabilistic statement. That means you cannot prove for sure the truth of this statement. For example, the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Hume thinks that we cannot observe every instance of the sun rising there is in this world in order to conclude for sure that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. This is a probabilistic claim. This is the first time the problem of induction is introduced.

To every action, there is equal and opposite reaction, the way the subject and predicate come together is through experience. How many scientists on earth can or has experienced all instances of actions? Any experience of action you have is finite action. Hume also criticism the classical mechanics law, which states that for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Full stop. This is an absolute claim. Hume disagrees. He thinks the classical mechanic physicists cannot legitimately make such a claim. Because the scientist hasn’t experienced every possible action there is to conclude there must be an equal and opposite reaction. All the physicist has done just to observe a certain number of instances of actions to absolutely conclude. They just observe a small subset sample of a population. That is why when you want to make a claim for the whole population, you have to make a probabilistic claim. Because there may be certain characteristics of a sample not be able to apply to the whole population. That’s how probability works.

One may say, how can we get out of this? One way of responding to Hume is through necessary connection. Okay Hume, you may be true that it is probabilistically initiated claim that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. How about there is a necessary connection between an action and a reaction? So if there is a necessary connection between an action and its reaction, we don’t have to observe every instance of action and reaction in order to conclude. Let me take you another example, lightning and thunder. Whenever you see a lightning, you hear the thunder comes after it. There may be a necessary connection between a lightning and thuder. So everytime I see a lightning, I immediately hear the thunder. I don’t have to observe every single case of thunder and lightning to conclude the relation between them, because there is a necessary connection, that must be the case.

Hume would say no. Why? Hume may ask can you show me the connection that you are bragging about? I don’t see any physical, observable wire, or you call connection, between thunder and lightning. In so far as you cannot show me the physical connection, you are not justified in assuming there is a necessary connection between them.

With that, Hume finally gives us an account of what he think what should best represent the idea of law of nature. He thinks we should replace the idea of necessary connection with the idea of constant conjunction. He thinks that the law of nature is a system of regularity, not a system of strict causal determination. Let’s move back to the example of thunder and lightning. He thinks necessary connection when applying is bullshit. Instead of saying there is a necessary connection between lightning and thunder, rather, it would be more correct to say there is a constant conjunction between lightning and thunder, it would be more correct to say it is regular  that when I see a lightning, I will see the thunder. Why should I believe in this regularity. Hume would say past experience has taught you so.

So for Hume, law of nature is a system of regularity. And how does this system of regularity impress on human mind? Through past experience. So if anything goes against past experience, you are not rationally justified in believe in it.

Please note that Hume doesn’t say that it is always the case that there is a lightning, there is a thunder. Hume says that the event must happen otherway round that there is a lightning, but there may not be a thunder. Or the sun is going to rise tomorrow, Hume doesn’t say that it is impossible for the sun not rise tomorrow, Hume is saying that it is possible for the sun not rise tomorrow, but the possibility is really low. Why the possibility is really low, because past experience has taught us about this regularity.

Another way to put it is that, Hume has put all of his egg of rationality into one basket, which is the basket of past experience. For Hume, it would be irrational to believe in miracle.

Constructing argument against miracle

Premise (1) The evidence from past experience in support the law of nature is extremely strong
Premise (2) A miracle is a violation of law of nature 
Premise (3) The evidence from past experience against miracle is extremely strong
Premise (4) Therefore, it would be irrational to believe in miracle 

Please note that Hume doesn’t make a metaphysical claim about the miracle, meaning Hume doesn’t say that miracle doesn’t exist at all. Rather he is making an epistemological claim. Hume thinks it is possible for the miracle to happen but it would be irrational of you to believe in miracle because past experience in supporting of law of nature is really strong. To believe in miracle is to believe in the statement that the sun is not going to rise tomorrow. Hume says it is possible that the sun is not going to rise tomorrow. But you are irrational to believe in such a thing because the past experience has taught us that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.

Let’s me take you another example. When you play billard. Do you wear a protection mask? Of course, you don’t. Why? Because you think that the possibility of a ball hitting another ball and bouncing back to hit your face is really low. You are rather stupid to wear a mask when playing billard. But that doesn’t mean that ball is not possible to bounce back and smash your face. But you are not rationally justified to wear a mask when play billard.

Weakness of Hume’s argument

This was developed by Karl Popper. He is interested in distinguishing between science and psudo-science. For Popper, this distinction is not derived from verification. Reason is that, it is the same as Hume’s reason, you cannot verify all the instances. So there is weakness with verification. Sometimes, non-scientific hypothesis can be accidentally verified as well.

What, according to Karl Popper, makes a scientific theory a scientific theory is the ability to open for falsification. That means if there is an counter example that the current theory cannot account for, that theory needs to be revised. That is when you can have the progess of science, othewise, science cannot progess. Karl Popper thinks that Marxism, Astrology are the instances of psudoscience.

As we have already known, in the distant past, people used to believe in the geocentric system of the universe, that means the earth was the center of the universe. Through the development of telescope, there are anomalies observed, the model has shifted from geocentric to heliocentric (sun-centered) system.

So what does this mean for Hume’s argument? Let’s consider three  situations

  1. The leaf was hung over in the sky due to a gust of wind holds it up (according to the present law of nature)
  2. The leaf was hung over in the sky due to anomaly (the principle of gravity false as stated)
  3. God’s activity (no natural force or cause can explain the suspended leaf)

The problem for Hume is how can he distinguish between (1) and (2). Because he thinks that anything that goes against past experience, you are not justified to believe in it. So Hume, how can you account for the situation of (2)? How can you tell the difference. So Hume, if you put all the test of rationality in the basket of past experience, isn’t that you are not recognising the possibility of anomalies? If you not taking anomalies seriously, how can science progress?

How Hume can respond? Okay, it may be true that anomaly can happen. But if anomaly happens, this has to be repetitive. That we are able to observe it several times before we revise our current theory. Meanwhile, the miracle is some sort of happening one-off kind.

Surely, we can see that Hume’s account of anomaly can make sense. But the only problem is that he puts so much weight of his argument on past experience. He may neglect the possibility of a genuine anomaly.

I will let you decide on this.



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