David Hume: When
should I Believe
Prof. Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
California State University, Sacramento
What is a Miracle?
A common usage is to call any fortuitous and
unusual event a “miracle.”
Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time
March 3, 1999 | Issue 35•08
HOPE SPRINGS, AR—The holy and sacrosanct miracle of birth, long revered by human
civilization as the most mysterious and magical of all phenomena, took place for what
experts are estimating "must be at least the 83 billionth time" Tuesday with the
successful delivery of eight-pound, four-ounce baby boy Darryl Brandon Severson at
Holy Mary Mother Of God Hospital.
Seriously, if a miracle is to count as
evidence for the existence of God, then we
can’t let every unusual (and not so
unusual) event that we are happy about
Some People See
Ontario man, Fred Whan
claims a fishstick from a TV
dinner that he burned a
year ago bears the image of
The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich
A decade-old toasted
cheese sandwich said to
bear an image of the Virgin
Mary has sold on the eBay
auction website for
An internet casino confirmed
it had purchased the
sandwich, saying it had
become a "part of pop
It would appear that Jesus prefers
sour cream and onion.
The Virgin Mary: Lurking Under a Chicago
This water and salt
stain appeared in a
Hundreds of the
faithful rushed to
see it and pay their
You never know who will appear in your toast in the
Miracle= a violation of the laws of nature.
What’s the difference between our
understanding of the laws of nature and
the actual laws of nature?
We have changed our minds often about
what we thought were the laws of nature,
particularly in cases where we observed
When they invented the locomotive, people
used to think that if you propelled the
human body faster than 22 mph it would
So a miracle should be
understood as a violation of the
actual laws of nature.
• Jesus walks on water.
• Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
• Jesus is resurrected from the dead.
• Muhammed splits the moon.
• An ardent devotee of the Lord and child, Prahlada, is protected
from being killed by fire, trampling by elephants, and other means.
• Moses parts the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee Egypt.
Many purported miracles are
Radio transmitters: James “The Amazing” Randi exposed popular
televangelist Peter Popoff.
Prayer trolling: Other televangelists describe people with vague
illnesses when they pray, and then claim to have healed those
Deceptions: Faith healers offer “complimentary” wheelchairs to the
sick and then “heal” them from their affliction by taking the
Fakes: Others use plants in the audience.
Gullible Audiences: And all of them capitalize on the excitement,
expectations, enthusiasm, and the power of suggestion in their
Many purported miracles are
At Lourdes, France, the spring waters are alleged to have
miraculous healing powers.
Over 80,000 pilgrims a year visit the site, and have done so for
over a century.
That’s over 8 million pilgrims, most of them going with the strong
1) miracles have occurred there,
2) they will be miraculously healed as well. And
3) Many of them, probably most, leave believing that
one has occurred.
Officials at Lourdes (themselves also strong and enthusiastic
believers) have officially recognized 66 healings.
What Leads Us to Find so Many
Confirmation Bias: the disposition to search for and find evidence
that supports a pet hypothesis while ignoring or neglecting evidence
that would refute it. Check enough water stains on enough bridges
and you’ll find one that looks like Danny Devito too.
Religious pareidolia: humans have a well documented disposition
to find patterns where none are present. Religious contexts boost
this tendency and give us strong suggestions.
Believers are the investigators: very often the people investigating
miracle claims are enthusiastic believers who have an uncanny
knack of finding what they are looking for.
When the miracle is in another language,
the fallacy is even clearer.
This is the name of
Allah (in Arabic) written
in a watermelon. Does
God speak English?
Arabic? Hebrew? Is
writing in watermelons
what you would do with
your power if you were
1. In all of my experience, nature has been uniform.
2. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, or the
uniformity of nature.
3. If someone testifies that they have seen a miracle, then
there are several possible explanations:
a. He is mistaken.
b. He is lying.
c. He has been deceived.
d. A real miracle has occurred.
4. My experience and my evidence will always favor
a, b, or c more than d.
5. Therefore, it will never be reasonable for me to
believe miracle testimony.
So What Sort of Testimony Would
Hume says, “Thus, suppose, all authors, in all
languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600,
there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight
days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary
event is still strong and lively among the people: that all
travelers, who return from foreign countries, bring us
accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation
or contradiction: it is evident, that our present
philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to
receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes
whence it might be derived.”
Suppose We Had Compelling Evidence that
Some Miracle Had Occurred:
Would that give us evidence that some
supernatural agent was responsible?
Would that give us evidence that the being
responsible was omnipotent?
Miracles Would Be Evidence
Against the Existence of God
1. If God did intervene in the course of things to make
one good thing happen, or prevent an evil thing, then
we would have to ask, “Why not more?”
2. An omni-being wouldn’t manifest himself through mere
healings, images, cryptic intimations.
3. Only a petty, superficial, short-sighted being would
bother with such insignificant party tricks.
4. If there were real miracles, then all the purported
solutions to the problem of evil that asserted evil has a
divine purpose, or this is the best of all possible
worlds, or that God must be hidden must be rejected.