Hume Was Right about Miracles

In a recent article in New Scientist Hugh McLachlan took on both David Hume and Richard Dawkins in their analysis of miracles.  Dawkins, of course, follows Hume here, so it really is just Hume’s argument, though McLachlan says that Dawkins goes further than Hume does in his claims.  I think such is debatable, though I also think that such a debate is not very interesting, and writing about it here would get in the way of what I think is the larger issue.  Still, since I think I can make a case that Dawkins follows Hume very closely here, I will treat McLachlan as only criticizing Hume in this post.

McLachlan starts by stating Hume’s definition of a miracle from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:  a miracle is "a violation of the laws of nature…a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."  For my purposes I would rather use the latter part of that quote.  The reason is that the first part is really a description of a miracle by Hume rather than a proper definition, and there is quite a bit left out between those first seven quoted words and the rest.  So, to quote Hume without the ellipsis, “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

McLachlan starts immediately by saying that Hume’s definition is contradictory.  He writes, “The very notion of a miracle is either unintelligible or it has a meaning other than that given by Hume.”  He thinks that this is the case because anything that happens within nature cannot be a violation of of natural law. 

I would argue that, by definition, "laws of nature" are universal laws of the form "if A, then B", or "all As are Bs". Logically, they cannot be violated or transgressed, not even by God. If, even on one occasion, for whatever reason, there was an A without a B, then it would not be true to say "if A, then B". What had been thought of as a natural law would in fact not be one.

But, of course, this misses the point Hume was making.  The idea of natural law that Hume was using refers to the way things would behave were there nothing outside of nature interfering with the causal chains within nature.  God, as traditionally understood, is not within nature, but outside it.  (For our purposes I will just refer to Hume’s “Deity” as God as that is the deity that Hume had in mind, and this avoids confusion with some other notion of a god as inside nature, or nature itself, or whatever.)  This is what allows God to speak the universe into existence, stand outside of time, stand outside of space, etc.  God is not natural; He is supernatural.  So, if something outside of nature sticks its finger into the world and changes events, this is a violation of natural law in that things are now different from how they would have been had the rules that govern events within nature been allowed to happen without intervention.

What McLachlan has done is to attempt to use different notions of miracle, God, and even natural law than were intended by Hume.  Further, I think it is fair to say that Hume was relying on the common usages of those words rather than some strange, specialized definitions.  As such, it is strange and a little ridiculous that McLachlan should attempt to shift the definition in the way that he does in order to say that Hume has made some sort of logical error.  There is no error here.  Once you understand what Hume meant by natural law, and almost everyone reading Hume does as it is the common usage, then his description of miracles as being a violation of those laws, as an event that goes against what would be the case were events left alone by outside, supernatural beings, is perfectly reasonable.  There is nothing like the internal contradiction suggested by McLachlan.

At this point it gets even weirder, and, in my opinion, more dishonest. 

Here I should explain why Hume was talking about miracles in the first place.  His position was that, because miracles violate natural law, it is always going to be the case that some explanation that does not rely on violations of natural law are more likely than a miraculous event.  So, given the options of believing that someone flew without the assistance of any sort of device and believing that reports of that flight are the result of some event that doesn’t violate natural law, it is more reasonable to go with the latter.  That is, it is more likely that someone lied, someone hallucinated, someone was fooled, or that someone was simply mistaken, than it is that a person was able to fly under their own power.  For this reason, we are never justified in believing that miracles occurred.  The alternatives that do not violate natural law are always more reasonable.  And I would like to say that most everyone already buys into this in their everyday life.  I don’t know anyone who would take me at my word if I told them that I saw a man flying.  They might believe that I believe I saw a man fly, that I am not intentionally deceiving them, but they would not believe that there really was a man flying by will alone.  And that is exactly the position they should take.  I think we would find it odd and worrisome if someone believed that a man flew merely on the word of someone they knew.

McLachlan brings up Richard Dawkins’ assertion that it is absurd to believe that Jesus really was born of a virgin.  Dawkins asserts that it is much more likely that something else occurred than a virgin actually having a child.  McLachlan responds to that in this way:

If Jesus was born of a virgin, it does not follow that a law of nature was violated. To say "if A, then B" is not to say that there will be a B only if there is an A.

For instance, human clones could be born of virgins – without violating a universal law. In the Humean sense of a violation of a law of nature, virgin births and the examples of "miracles" that Dawkins gives are not, if they occurred, necessarily violations of natural laws. They are uncommon, possibly astonishing, but as Hume himself said when he was defending suicide, all that occurs is natural, whether or not it occurs frequently.

This to me smacks of dishonesty.  Of course Dawkins was not referring to clones.  Of course Dawkins would not take that to be miraculous, and neither would the proponents of Christianity who maintain that Christ’s birth was, in fact, a miracle.  I will say more about this at the end, but if McLachlan’s purposes in writing this article have anything to do with defending religious beliefs from being labeled irrational, he has not done so here.  On the contrary, what he has done is belittle them by misrepresenting them in such a patronizing fashion.  Christians think there is something different from Christ’s birth and the process of cloning an organism and implanting that fertilized egg in the womb of a virgin.  Clearly, the latter is not literally miraculous, and I am skeptical that anyone would suggest otherwise.  To equate these two kinds of events is not only to misrepresent Dawkins, it is to misrepresent the beliefs of the religious as well.

From here McLachlan attempts to show that one can accept scientific explanations alongside with miraculous ones, and that miracles can even have scientific explanations.  He says that “some people might think of ‘miracles’ as particular juxtapositions of events, each of which has a correct and acceptable scientific explanation.”  As an example of this he talks about the Azande tribe:

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.

Except, of course, there is a clash with a scientific explanation of the event, regardless of what anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard might say.  Though such an explanation might not be immediately available to us, there is some physical description of the events that took place, of the natural causal chain that led that person to be standing under that branch at that time, and there will be no room for either witchcraft or sorcery.  There will be no place in that explanation for spell-casting or voo-doo dolls.  Moreover, it is irrational for anyone to think that bad mojo was to blame given the lack of evidence in favor of that position and the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But it’s worse than that.  It just makes no sense to label an event with a fully naturalistic explanation as “miraculous,” which is exactly what McLachlan says is acceptable.  If that is the case, what could a miracle even be?  What does the word even mean?  How could we distinguish between miraculous events and non-miraculous events?  By attempting to justify the belief in miracles and reconcile such with scientific explanation, McLachlan just goes off the rails and leaves the reader without any idea what he even thinks a miracle might be.

At this time I want to say something about McLachlan’s motivations.  It is clear that he is attempting to reconcile religion with science.  This has become a major pastime for some religious individuals and those sympathetic to their plight.  The first paragraph of McLachlan’s article reads:

These days most people think it unscientific to believe in "miracles", and irreligious not to believe in them. But would the occurrence of miracles really violate the principles of science? And would their non-occurrence really undermine religion? David Hume and Richard Dawkins have attempted to answer these questions in their different ways, but I am not convinced by their arguments, and for me they remain open questions.

His goal is to leave open the possibility that belief in the miraculous and belief in scientific explanation are compatible.  But in the process of attempting that argument, he had to change the definition of ‘miracle’ to something unspecified and unrecognizable.  Further, he had to reduce the miraculous beliefs of many of the religious to a caricature of those beliefs, something in no way generous to them.  And this is the problem I see over and over in these kinds of arguments.  In order to achieve some kind of compatibility the positions of both sides have to be altered to such a degree that the characterization offered in no way line up with the actual positions that are supposed to be reconciled with each other.  The result is something that is insulting to all sides, and that includes the reputation of the person attempting the reconciliation.  This is the primary reason why so many of these kinds of arguments fail, and this one is no different.

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One Response to “Hume Was Right about Miracles”

  1. pikardi Says:

    Interesting topic….

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