Miracles – Do They
Hume’s Skeptical Challenge
Which – if any - of these are
Someone who has been pronounced dead
comes back to life.
A person correctly predicts a future
A large tiger suddenly disappears from a
cage in front of a large audience.
Water is changed into wine.
Brief Review of Empiricist
Empiricism is the view that all claims to
knowledge must be based on:
sense experience (evidence or “matters of fact”
truths of reason (conceptual relations or “relations of
Knowledge developed from these bases must
follow all the rules of careful reasoning.
Empiricism and belief-formation
Because the strength of evidence can
vary, “wise men” will “proportion” their
beliefs to the evidence.
Frank brought flowers home to his wife. He
must be having an affair.
Frank’s credit card bills show charges for a local
motel, and he has been spotted leaving the hotel
once with Joan.
Frank was caught having sex with Joan multiple
Beliefs should only be as strong as the
evidence supporting them.
Claims with prima facia implausibility
should not be accepted without strongly
supportive evidence and argument.
The authority of witnesses derives from
witness reliability and “conformity” with
other facts and other witnesses
Empiricism and Miracles
Definition: “A miracle is a violation of a law
of nature.” p. 513. Thus:
the “argument” against miracles from the start is as
powerful and compelling as natural law itself.
only equally powerful and compelling
argument/evidence can override this presumption of
Hume’s Basic Position
“…no testimony is sufficient to establish a
miracle, unless the testimony be of such a
kind, that its falsehood would be more
miraculous, than the fact, which it
endeavours to establish…” p. 513
In other words – the miraculous claim should
be so obviously true that the conditions under
which we would question it are not apparent.
Argument for Skepticism - 1
No miracle is affirmed by enough of the
right kind of witness, to dispel our doubt of
their testimony. p. 514
Possessing a good reputation they would not
want to lose
Attesting to facts that are/were widely public
Argument for Skepticism - 2
Certain human emotions tend to override
our normal skeptical tendencies with
respect to that which is called
Our thinking is naturally and usefully conservative:
we tend to give credit to thinking/observations
supported by past experience.
In contrast, our fascination and wonder at the
unusual and exotic tend us to believe in the
Argument for Skepticism - 2
People respond as much to eloquence as
to evidence and reasoning.
There are many instances of forged
miracles or supernatural events.
Argument for Skepticism – 3 & 4
Testaments to miracles tend to occur more
frequently in “ignorant and barbarous
nations,” or as handed down from such
Every miracle confirming the beliefs of one
religion counts, eo ipso, against those of
every other religion, in a mutually
destructive pattern. p. 515
Swinburne and the
Philosophical Issues Connected
A New Definition of “Miracle”
An event of an extraordinary kind – but
what counts as “extraordinary”?
An event caused by a God – or perhaps
by any rational agent with unusual
An event of religious significance – but
what counts as religiously significant?
These are events that do conflict with
natural law, in the strong sense, as Hume
A miracle is a “non-repeatable
counter-instance” of a law of nature (it
would not happen again under similar
instances), no matter how laws of
nature are interpreted.
Natural Law - 1
Universal laws – those which state what
Example: All material objects are subject to the law of
Universal laws by definition do not allow
for natural exceptions or extraordinary
but still actual events.
Natural Law - 2
Statistical laws – those which state what is
likely to happen in a particular population
of things or events
Example: in a large sample of coin tosses,
half will result in “heads” and half in “tails”
Statistical laws allow for individually
unpredictable or highly improbable, but
still actually possible events.
How Can the Extraordinary
All natural laws apply, only given certain
It’s not the case that “all objects fall.”
It is the case that, given an object’s being in a
certain state under certain conditions, it will fall.
A “miracle” could be the result of
extraordinary initial conditions which still
follow natural law given those conditions.
God’s Hand in Miracles
Unusual events are not “miraculous,” in the
common-sense understanding of the term.
Correctly predicting an event in the future is unusual
but not necessarily miraculous, in the sense that the
prediction could have been correct for purely natural
or coincidental reasons.
Miracles, then, are also considered the work of a
unique power – be it God, or gods or even some
rational agent acting intentionally
“… an event must contribute significantly
toward a holy divine purpose for the
world.” p. 520
Unusual, and purposive – but this could be
the activity of a malevolent being. To retain
the common-sense understanding of a
miracle, Swinburne adds this condition.
Summary of Swinburne’s Definition
Statistical natural laws may allow of
extraordinary but not miraculous events
Universal natural laws are consistent with
Miracles - or
Demonstrations of the limits of our
current understanding of natural law
Response to Hume
Are there sufficient numbers of witnesses
whose testimony does agree?
Is there historical but non-testamentary
forms of evidence (confirmation of
Miracles aren’t necessarily offered as “proof”
of specific theological doctrines (answers
to prayers, v. resurrection of Christ)