A Critique of David Hume’s On Miracles

Are miracles possible? Or at least can we ever know if one has graced the pages of history? This is the question David Hume attempts to answer in section ten of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume is anything but humble when he asserts that he has found a refutation for miracles: “I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.” He further hopes that his claims will “silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations.”

Hume is not the only one who has thought highly of his argument. Antony Flew calls Hume’s argument a “formidable force.” The sheer amount of writing dedicated to Hume’s argument also testifies to its historical importance. In fact, nearly every treatment of the topic, even to this day, uses Hume as a starting point in the discussion. Therefore, if miracles will have a biblical defense, the Humean tower must be pulled down.

The purpose of this article is to examine Hume’s argument in detail. We will show that Hume actually developed three separate arguments against miracles. Hume’s first argument seeks to show the impossibility of miracles; his second argues against the ability to know whether a miracle has ever occurred; and his final argument claims that miracles, even if possible and knowable, cannot accomplish their purpose of establishing a religious ideology.

In order to show the inherent weaknesses in Hume’s arguments, we must start with a brief summary of Hume’s epistemology. Having articulated Hume’s basic beliefs, we will summarize his arguments against miracles. Following this summary, we will examine why Hume’s arguments, even on a naturalistic worldview, fail. The next section will examine Hume’s presuppositions and show that his epistemology is self-defeating and his metaphysic fails to account for reality. Finally, we will examine a biblical, and therefore coherent, view of miracles grounded on the Christian worldview.

Hume’s Epistemology

Michael Levine says, “Hume’s position on miracles cannot be properly understood apart from his analysis of causation, a posterior reasoning and . . . his analysis of ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas.’” Too many have come upon this section of the Enquiry without knowledge of the broader epistemology and metaphysic of Hume. Inevitably, Levine claims, the reader misunderstands Hume, and their critique is thereby flawed. Wanting to avoid making Hume’s argument a straw man, we must look at the important aspects of Hume’s philosophy.

Atheist, Christian, Deist, Irreligion?

One important facet of Hume’s treatment of miracles concerns his metaphysical belief. Ronald Nash believes that Hume, much like Kant, was trying to make room for faith during an epoch of history that was rapidly losing belief in God. This led Nash to believe that Hume was at least a deist. Though some may say that Nash’s claim is ungrounded, Hume’s writing is anything but clear in this area. There are times it appears that Hume believes in a god. For instance, Hume says, “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.”

Paul Russell has devoted much time and writing to the question of Hume’s religious belief. He concludes that Hume cannot in any sense be called a theist. Russell even claims that calling Hume an agnostic or skeptic is inappropriate because “these labels fail to identify properly and highlight the wholly hostile and critical character of Hume’s general attitude towards religious doctrine and dogma.” Russell concludes that the most appropriate designation for Hume is irreligious, since it both avoids a dogmatic stance that God does not exist, but at the same time shows that Hume is critical and hostile towards religion.

William Lane Craig brings the discussion into its historical moorings by noting that the entire discussion surrounding miracles during Hume’s era assumed the existence of God. Therefore, this was a case of theism versus deism, not a case of atheism versus theism.

Overall, Hume had the attitude of an atheist, the stance of an agnostic, and the historically acceptable position of deist. What is important to note, however, is that whatever the designation, Hume assumed human autonomy. He could entertain the thought of a creator, but not a Sovereign One. There could be a god, but this god could have no authority over Hume. It is for this reason that Hume attacked so vehemently the possibility of the Christian God.

Hume the Empiricist

If one could identify Hume in one word it would be “empiricist.” He believed all knowledge came through sense experience. For Hume some knowledge is a priori, but at the core this knowledge is ultimately non-instructive. True knowledge is merely a reflection of past sense experience. When one thinks of an apple, for example, the only reason one can think of that apple is because of their past experience with an apple. So it is for every memory and piece of knowledge. The implications of this view are evident in the memorable conclusion to Hume’s Enquiry on Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

In sum, if a book is not grounded in the non-instructive a priori truth or in illustrative human experience, it must be pure speculation. Anything not based on human experience, then, is futile and should be burned since it is useless.

Hume the Skeptic

Van Til notes that Hume, contrary to most other empiricist “had the intellectual honesty to reach the conclusions to which a consistently empirical epistemology leads, namely, skepticism as to science, . . . as to selfhood . . . as to ethics . . . and of course as to religion.” So far did Hume allow his empiricism guide that Hume admits, “The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another.” The only remedy for his metaphysical quandary, he maintains, is to go on with the daily routine—essentially ignoring the mental issue until it no longer bothers the mind.

How did Hume’s empiricism lead him to skepticism? His strict empiricism led to a problem: there are some things, even essential things, which experience cannot validate. For instance, cause and effect cannot be directly experienced. Certainly it appears that two things happen in sequence, and they may happen in sequence a million times, but one cannot conclude that the first action causes the other. Thus, cause and effect cannot be known. But how can one continue life without a belief in cause and effect? Hume’s answer was that one must assume cause and effect even though it cannot be known, for the consequences of abandoning this belief are outrageous. Other foundational issues of human life, such as the self and the existence of an external world, are not known by experience but must be assumed if life is to be livable.

Why do humans choose to believe in things which cannot be known by experience? Hume attributed this to passion. Nash defines passion as “instinct, habit, and custom.” Hume places this subjective element over the rational element of a human’s thought. He states, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In placing such a high view on human passion, Hume abandons objectivity. In Hume’s own words:

“Thus all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ’Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinc’d of any principle, ’tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give the preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence.”

Hume’s empiricism led him to skepticism. Next we will see another aspect of Hume’s epistemology that strengthens and reaffirms his skepticism.

Hume on Analogical Knowledge

Hume’s view of analogical knowledge plays a large role in his irreligious attitude. Some commentators even find this as a central theme in Hume’s critique of miracles. Thus it is important to understand his unique perspective on analogy. The most important exposition of his view comes in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume presents his case in the discussion among fictional characters Demea and Cleanthes. Much like the chapter on miracles, this argument is set forth to show the impossibility of knowing the Biblical God.

Hume’s view of analogical knowledge, as it relates to the topic at hand, can be summarized in two points. First, man can only infer from an effect a cause that has the essential attributes to effect that cause. That is, if an analogy works, it only proves limited things about the cause. For instance, a footprint in the sand only speaks of a foot meeting the sand. One can infer that there was a person present who was walking along the beach, but all that is required of the effect is that a foot was present and was subsequently moved. Anything beyond this assertion is mere hypo­thesis.

Hume’s second point is more striking and poignant for the present purpose. He maintains that effects must be similar to their causes. If they are strikingly dissimilar, then how can they serve as an analogy? Hume says, “Now, it is certain, that the liker the effects are which are seen, and the liker the causes which are inferred, the stronger is the argument. Every departure on either side diminishes the probability, and renders the experiment less conclusive.” In sum, the more dissimilar the cause and the effect, the less that one can infer from the effect to the cause; i.e. the weaker the analogy between what is seen and not seen. Put to a specific situation, a finite effect can only be analogous to a finite cause. True, there may be an infinite cause, but man can never infer infinitude from a finite effect.

Hume’s view of analogical knowledge is a key feature of his epistemology. If all of man’s knowledge comes from his experience, then man will structure his belief according to that experience. What man experiences is pure nature. Therefore if something altogether foreign to nature occurs, he has no way of adapting this experience to his knowledge. Since he has never experienced the infinite, man cannot infer from the finite effect to the infinite cause. Hume’s analogical knowledge will play a key role as a presupposition in his arguments against miracles.

Hume’s Argument on Miracles

Having given a brief overview of Hume’s epistemology, we can turn to his discussion of miracles. His essay divides between two sections. Ironically, the first section is very short but is exceptionally controversial and will require much attention. The second section is much longer, but is fairly straightforward. We will examine each section in turn.

Section One

Hume begins his essay with the statement that the evidential basis of the Christian religion is comparably less substantial than the evidence gained by his reader’s experience. Two essential points emerge from the very beginning. First, Hume is laying bare his intention in this essay—to invalidate the Christian faith by invalidating miracles. Second, he asserts, as he has through the entirety of Inquiries, that experience is the key to knowledge and truth. How is the truth of Christianity less than the reader’s senses? It is less because it is based on the testimony of apostles. They claim to have had eyewitness accounts, but Hume’s readers are more than a century removed from the apostles, so they must rely not only on their testimony, but also must believe that the teaching of the apostles has been passed down correctly. Here Hume inserts the principle he will maintain throughout the work; one must believe in the stronger evidence.

A central tenet of Hume’s approach is that “A wise man . . . proportions his belief to the evidence.” Evidence, like meats, cheeses, and gold, can be weighed. Hume’s writing portrays a wise man before a scale putting experience and facts on each side and affirming which side is heavier; the greater the difference of weight, the greater the assurance.

Hume presents a test case for his readers—human testimony. If a man were to present a fact in the form of a testimony, that testimony must be weighed against the probability that the man is lying. If he is known as a liar or has a financial interest in the testimony, the weight of his testimony decreases in proportion to the doubts of his character. Further, if what the man reports is of an extra­ordinary nature, then one must weigh against two factors: (1) the probability of deception, and (2) the probability that the man was himself deceived.

The next point in Hume’s argument remains somewhat enigmatic. Here are his words:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. . . . Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. . . . it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

To any able reader, Hume’s comment here smacks as begging the question. This appears to be Hume’s argument in this paragraph:

  1. A miracle is a violation of a law of nature
  2. Firm and unalterable experience has established the laws of nature
  3. Anything that has been experienced conforms to the laws of nature
  4. Nothing has been experienced which does not conform to the laws of nature
  5. All experience, since it is uniform, unites as a proof against a miracle

All Hume appears to do is define miracles out of existence. But is this really what Hume meant to express? Commentators, unlike Hume’s laws of nature, are not unified.

Antony Flew is the leading advocate of a less dogmatic interpretation of this paragraph. He claims that “[Hume] is asking whether and, if so, how—even supposing that a miracle had occurred—we could know, repeat know, that it had.” Nash sides with Flew by noting that, according to his own philosophy, Hume recognized that the laws of nature are descriptive and not prescriptive. Thus, “we must conclude—assuming that [Hume’s] system does not contain the grandest example of a contradiction in the history of philosophy—that Hume was not attempting to prove that miracles are impossible.”

Despite the interpretation of Flew, some commentators remain convinced that Hume’s argument is question begging. William Lane Craig puts the matter succinctly, “To say that uniform experience is against miracles is to implicitly assume already that miracles have never occurred. It seems almost embarrassing to refute so sophisticated an objection by such a simple consideration, but this answer nevertheless seems to me to be entirely correct.”

Robert Larmer, in a recent essay on this very topic, also concluded that Hume intended to exclude miracles at the very outset. According to Larmer, Flew’s essay on Hume in 1961 was a watershed in interpretation. Previous to Flew’s publication there was a consensus between friends and critics that Hume meant to exclude the possibility of miracles. However, after the essay consensus shifted to assume that Hume merely excluded the knowledge of a miracle. Larmer provides three reasons to believe Hume assumed at the outset that miracles were not only improbable but also impossible.

First, the clearest and most direct reading of Hume’s argument in part one is question begging. Had interpreters no other writings of Hume, they would certainly assume Hume was arguing that miracles are impossible.

Second, part two of Hume’s essay continually refers back to part one as authoritative and conclusive. For instance, when Hume speaks of the Jansenist miracles, he does not deny that the Jansenist fails one of the stringent criteria of a witness posited in section two. Rather Hume asserts, “What have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.” Thus, Hume drops the pretense of section two and falls back to the a priori argument of section one.

Third, extra-textual facts seem to indicate that Hume believed he had proven the impossibility of miracles. (1) Hume wrote to George Campbell concerning an argument against miracles he had structured and with which he had shaken a learned Jesuit. Larmer points out that the letter indicated an argument and not a group of arguments as is presented in the treatise. (2) The pride exuding from Hume concerning his argument seems to rule out the possibility that he merely thought he had succeeded in showing the impossibility of knowing a miracle. Further, others had written the same arguments as he presented in part two, which leads one to believe Hume’s source of pride was his original contribution—part one of his argument. (3) Every critique of Hume during his lifetime assumed Hume was trying to prove that miracles were tout court impossible. Had his argument been seriously misunderstood, it is inexplicable why he never responded to the false interpretation. Hume’s silence on this point, even when responding to a critic, appears to be a tacit acceptance of the critic’s viewpoint.

Having examined the major views on Hume’s first argument, it appears that there is a way that can take both viewpoints seriously. Richard Purtill hints at it when he maintains that Hume gives both arguments. On one hand, he presents an a priori reason to exclude the possibility of miracles. On the other hand, he attempts to show that no amount of proof could lead one to believe a miracle had ever occurred. Purtill does not explain why he adopts this position. But it appears, based on the argumen­ta­tion above, that Purtill is essentially correct. Hume appears to offer two distinct arguments. The first argument, offered in section one, is his main contribution, and should be understood as an a prior attack on miracles. This was the argument he submitted to Campbell, the one he had skillfully crafted to shake the faith of the Jesuit. But recognizing that his argument would not convince everyone, Hume added another layer to his argument. If someone did not accept his a priori argument, then they would have to overcome his a posterior argument.

If the interpretation above is correct, one must handle two separate attacks on miracles from Hume. There is not one humean tower, but two. Ironically, the tower Hume was fondest of is built on the sandy foundation of circularity. One cannot presume that a particular miracle “has never been observed, in any age or country,” and then propose that miracles are impossible. Hume, intelligent as he certainly was, fell prey to an elementary logical fallacy. The remainder of this paper, then, will focus on Hume’s second argument. However, reference will be made to the first argument to show that Hume’s worldview denies him the right to posit such an argument.

Before we move on to the second section of Hume’s On Miracles, it will be useful to construct Hume’s secondary argument here:

  1. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
  2. Natural law is by definition a description of regular occurrence.
  3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
  4. Evidences must be weighed.
  5. A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
  6. Therefore, a wise man should never believe in a miracle.

Notice that this argument lacks the dogmatism of the last, and also avoids being prima facie a logical fallacy.

Section Two

Norman Kemp Smith, in agreement with the above interpretation, argues that section two is the strength of Hume’s position: “The strength of [Hume’s] position lies not in the more formal features of the ‘decisive’ and ‘elegant’ argument to which he attaches such weight . . . but in the circumstantial evidence which he adduces as corroborative of it.” Rather than merely being a tag along, Hume’s second section provides meat to the bones of his a posterior argument. Hume neatly divides this section into five parts. The first four are arguments concerning the unreliability of witnesses, and the last is a series of illustrations to enhance the arguments provided in the rest of the text.

Hume’s first argument sets forth the requirements needed for a witness of miracles to be credible:

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

At least two requirements emerge; the first has to do with the witness, and the second concerns the location of the event witnessed. First, in order to have his testimony accepted, the witness has to be educated, truthful, reputable, and must have something to lose if found deceptive. Second, the witness must testify to facts that were publicly witnessed in a reputable city. Unless every one of these conditions is met, a wise man does not have to accept the testimony.

Hume’s second argument concerns the instability of the human mind. Hume claims that humans must base their acceptance of truth on past experiences. Those things closest to past experience are considered more probable than those least like our past experience. Thus, miracles should never be accepted. However, Hume notes that the mind does not always accord with this rule. That is, people act irrationally. Instead of affirming what has been experienced, the human mind tends towards the miracu­lous. Hume notes, “The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.” In other words, humans tend to accept fanciful stories simply because they are fanciful. Even those who do not allow their reason to go astray by believing the absurd, propagate absurd claims anyway in love of the fanciful.

Hume concludes this point, “Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?”

The source of miraculous stories is the basis of Hume’s third argument. He maintains that miracles and supernatural manifestations “are always found to originate in “ignorant” and “barbarous” populations. These curious stories may be found outside these populations, but only after they originated from such a situation and were passed along to modernized society. These barbarous populations should not be fully faulted; they were ignorant of the laws of science, and they believed nearly every event was miraculous. The enlightened world has been freed of these childish assumptions, and now the world must cast off the miraculous vestiges of that pre-modern world.

Hume’s final argument notes the multiplicity of miraculous testimony. Each testimony, in as much as it contradicts the claims of other miracle testimonies, brings disrepute on human testimony as a whole and on the particular stories themselves. So Hume states, “Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions . . . as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force . . . to overthrow every other system.” If a miracle is proved, then the wise, Hume maintains, have an obligation to weigh the evidences of one miracle against another. Having done so, the learned will recognize that nothing can be learned from the miracles. The testimony of each, as far as it seeks to establish its own religious system, destroys the credibility of every other.

Colin Brows described Hume’s fourth point as “the copestone of Hume’s entire argument. At the same time it was kind of a safety-net. For even if miracles could be proved true, nothing conclusive could be proved from them.” In one way, this could be called the third tower of Hume’s attack—his final defense. This is Hume’s third argument. If miracles were deemed possible (contra Hume’s first argument) and were able to be known (contra Hume’s second argument), then the wise would still be unjustified in believing the miracle had any meaning.

The fifth part of Hume’s second section is composed of a scattering of proofs for his previously mentioned arguments. A few of the anecdotes should be highlighted here. First, Hume maintains a difference between a miracle and an incredible event. An incredible event can be compared to a great darkness covering the earth for a period of ten days. If there are a sufficient number of witnesses from a broad spectrum, it should be accepted that such an extraordinary event occurred. A miracle, on the other hand, can be compared to a resurrection from the dead. Even though there is sufficient witness from a civilized city, testimony of such nature should never be accepted. What is the primary distinction between a miracle and an extraordinary event? Hume maintains that an extraordinary experience can be understood via other human experience, but the truly miraculous contradicts human experience. Since this is the case, that which is conformable to human experience can be accepted, but what is contrary to it must be rejected.

Second, in this section Hume addresses the issue he knows is at the center of the argument—God. Hume states, “Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be . . . Almighty, it does not . . . become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature.” This statement can only be properly perceived in connection with Hume’s analogical knowledge. Since God, in the Christian tradition, is vastly different than his creation, he cannot be comprehended by his creation. Only faint and naturalized glimmers remain of God in his work. Thus, even if God were to perform a miracle, humans would still only be able to use past experience to judge that miracle. This fact “obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable.”

The third anecdote in the fifth section Hume states with tongue in check. In the last paragraph Hume announces that he actually does believe in a singular miracle—the miracle that people believe the Bible even when it “subverts all the principles of his understanding” and “is most contrary to custom and experience.” With this smack of irony Hume ends his discourse on miracles.

Summary of Hume’s Argument

Before turning to a critique of the argument presented above, it may be helpful to provide a summary in the form of an example. How would Hume have responded to the testimony of a miracle? We will examine a miracle central to the Christian faith: the miracle of inspiration and preservation of the Scriptures.

According to Scriptural testimony, the Bible is God breathed (2 Tim 3:16). Every verse is written by inspiration of God. The manner of recording God’s revelation was through human vessels (2 Pet 1:20). These vessels were not vacant, but wrote with their own style what the Spirit guided them to write. Since the Scriptures come from God, they are free of error, not only in spiritual matters, but in every other area as well.

Hume would apply all three levels of attack against this miracle. At the first level, if Hume would be honest to his argument in the text, he would merely note that human experience excludes God’s interaction in the way described. The laws of nature, which are established by firm and unalterable experience, has established that nothing outside of the natural realm can interfere with the natural realm.

His second argument, which again is his strongest, would maintain that no one could ever justifiably believe in inspiration. Inspiration would have to be weighed against the probability that the Scripture writers were lying when they wrote about inspiration. Since men are known to lie by experience and experience has not established inspiration, then it would be unjustified to conclude the Scriptures are inspired. Inspiration would also have to be weighed against other aspects of man’s experience such as the fact that texts become corrupted over time. When combined, the weight against inspiration is so strong and definitive that a wise man would never be justified in believing it.

Hume’s third argument would pit the Bible against every other “inspired” writing. Since many religions claims the miracle of inspiration for their own writings, then nothing can be proved by the assertion. The Koran, Book of Mormon, and the Bible each by their claim to inspiration discredit the claims of the others. In the end, their contrary claims prove that nothing definitive can be said about inspiration.

Critique of Hume’s View of Miracles

Undeniably, Hume’s argument in On Miracles has been the champion of the irreligious camp since its publication. The hundreds of publications devoted to his argument are testimony enough to the impact of his writing. His genius is shown clearly in his second argument. Despite this, however, I believe that Hume’s argument fails. The purpose of this section, then, is to show why and how it fails. We will begin with an internal critique, which will show how Hume’s arguments are unsuccessful even from the vantage point of other naturalists. The following section—the systemic critique—will examine Hume’s presuppositions and show the foundational reasons Hume’s arguments fail.

Internal Critique of Part One

Hume’s a priori argument has already been examined and shown to beg the question it is trying to prove. His a posterior argument will be the focus of this section. Here again is Hume’s a posterior argument:

  1. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
  2. Natural law is by definition a description of regular occurrence.
  3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
  4. Evidences must be weighed.
  5. A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
  6. Therefore, a wise man should never believe in a miracle.

Many commentators have critiqued Hume based on his limited scope of evidence. That is, Hume only allows testimonial evidence in favor of miracles. Ronald Nash is a good example of such a commentator. He notes that there can be residual circumstantial evidence in favor of an event. Residents on vacation during a catastrophe do not have to take the testimony of others concerning the tornado, which devastated their house. The evidence remains scattered throughout the neighborhood. In the same way, many miracles leave remnants physical and immaterial (healed people, changed lives, etc.). Further, couldn’t there also be direct experience of a miracle? Hume assumes that miracles can only be testified to and not experienced.

As helpful as this critique appears on the surface it does very little to minimize Hume’s argument. First, Hume mentions in the essay that those who spread miracle stories are deceived. Experience, though the guide to knowledge, is not perfect. Therefore, Hume would ask: “Is it more reasonable to believe you have been deceived or that the laws of nature were broken?” Any wise man, Hume would maintain, would proportion his belief to the evidence. Second, Hume’s argument was specifically designed to dispel Christianity. As such, the evidence for miracles came through Scripture, which Hume believed to be mere human testimony. Even if one were to point to the circumstantial evidence for, say, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Hume would claim that those evidences are themselves testimonial because they are embodied in the Scripture.

Laying aside the scope of evidence Hume allows, the actual problem in Hume’s argument comes at points 4 and 5 (outlined above). With some clarification, most people would accept Hume’s proposals of point one through three. However, point four, which maintains that evidence must be weighed, is not so obvious. Norman Kemp Smith, a commentator inclined towards Hume’s view, notes that Hume inappropriately adhered to a Newtonian physic. This physic causes two significant problems. First, Hume views all experiences as equally weighted; the only advantage is frequency. Second, he assumes that natural law is prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, natural law determines what can happen, rather than what happens determines natural law. What effect does this have on Hume’s argument?

Hume’s Newtonian physic causes many problems if led to its logical end. First, according to this hypothesis science is impossible. Any data appearing to conflict with known laws of nature should be tout court disregarded since the weight of evidence is against it. However, finding data that does not comport with known laws is precisely how science progresses. Science seeks to organize and make sense of the world. When something fails to fit into what humans call the laws of nature, then science must adjust to the new information. If science, in this age of enlightenment, assumes that all evidence is equally weighted, as Hume’s weighing analogy seems to require, then science is impossible.

Hume’s Newtonian physic causes more problems when it is applied to history. Since testimony to a miracle is a historical question, Hume misapplies his scientific theory. The formulation of scientific laws is properly based on probability and frequency. History, however, cannot be. 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. The pencil designed for science could continue, until every unique and important event of history 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.

Hume’s assumption of Newtonian Physics not only creates problems for the way forward (science) and the past (history), but it also creates problems for today. How could someone live according to a probabilistic mindset? Victor Reppert notes the problem well: “If the theory of probabilistic inference . . . is taken literally, it has the consequence that if the Arizona Republic were to report that I won the lottery, you should disbelieve the report, because my chance of winning the lottery is less than the percentage of erroneous reports by the Republic.” To use an example from another field, patients who have been diagnosed with ultra-rare diseases should also disbelieve their doctor, since the chance of the doctor being wrong is greater than the chance of having the disease.

Norman Geisler succinctly notes the primary issue: “What Hume seems to overlook is that wise people base their belief on facts, not simply on odds. . . . Hume’s argument confuses quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence.” Therefore, while it may be true, as proposition 5 of Hume’s argument claims, that wise people base their beliefs on the greater evidence, Hume has missed the point that evidence weighs differently. People do not proportion their beliefs to probability, and any theory based on such an antiquated notion fails to convince.

Michael Levine contends that the probability argument inherent within Hume’s thesis can be used to reduce his argument against miracles to absurdity. Imagine Hume witnessing the Israelite nation being chased by the Egyptians at the Red Sea. God’s hand works miraculously to open the deep waters and allow the Israelites to pass over on dry ground. Next, the sea collapses in great fury covering the Egyptian army at the same moment the last Israelite exits to the other side. How would Hume respond? It seems illogical to conclude that something natural had happened; yet this is precisely what Hume’s probability argument demands. Levine argues that Hume would have been forced to conclude a genuine miracle had occurred. If Levine is right, then Hume’s argument is proved to reduce to absurdity.

If Hume were alive, it appears he would not agree with Levine’s assessment. First, Hume would have maintained that the position Levine puts him in would be impossible. Why? Because a miracle has never been seen in “any age or country.” When Hume’s a posterior argument cannot answer a question, Hume draws back to his a priori argument. This tactic is elsewhere employed by Hume in response to the Jansenist miracles. A second reason Hume would argue against Levine’s conclusion stems from the distinction in Hume’s thought between a miracle and an unusual event. Hume would argue that the parting of the sea was a natural event, which has not yet been explained. Though it seems incredible that someone would deny a miracle in this instance, the Bible is clear that even a miracle as extravagant as the parting of the sea does not of itself convince the unbeliever. Pharaoh, instead of repenting, hardened his heart in the face of incontrovertible evidence (Exod 9:34). According to Jesus, the brothers of the rich man, in the story of Lazarus, would not believe even if Lazarus were brought back from the dead to deliver the message (Luke 16:19–31). These examples powerfully exhibit the strength of denial one can have in the face of the miraculous.

As Levine’s hypothesis has shown, Hume must differentiate between the miraculous and the extremely rare. He attempts to do this in his essay by noting the difference between two extraordinary events. The first is a report of darkness over the earth for ten whole days. If human testimony were “extensive and uniform” concerning the event, then one must look for a reasonable explanation, and not doubt the event’s authenticity. The second extra­ordinary event he describes is the resurrection of the queen Elizabeth. If testimony were likewise extensive and uniform in England concerning Queen Elizabeth’s death and subsequent resurrection, human testimony must be denied. Why should one deny the latter while allowing the former? Hume states that he would not believe in the resurrection story because “the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.” But this does not answer the question. How did Hume determine that the first instance was within the laws of nature and the second was outside the bounds of human experience? The answer is given in the context of the first extraordinary event. Hume says, “The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.”

The difference between the truly extraordinary and the miraculous, as indicated above, is that the extraordinary can be understood through various analogies to what has already been experienced. Miracles, however, can never be justified because they are not analogous to human experience. Here is a major presupposition of Hume’s argument against miracles. This presupposition will be examined below.

Internal Critique of Point Two

Section two of Hume’s argument does not contribute to Hume’s a priori argument; it merely reinforces Hume’s a posterior argument. If it is unreasonable for someone to believe a miracle has happened because it is more likely that the witness is lying or deceived, then part two exemplifies why human witness is weak. He seeks to show this weakness through his first three arguments. The fourth argument is simply a safety net. Here again are the four arguments:

  1. To be accepted, testimony of a miracle must be given by multiple people who are honest, educated, and have something to lose if they are lying. Also, the miracle had to be witnessed in a “celebrated part of the world.”
  2. People tend to believe the miraculous simply because it is miraculous. That is, the tendency of men is to accept that which elicits surprise and wonder.
  3. Miracles stories come from barbarous peoples and simple times.
  4. Even if a miracle were proved, all other miracles would prevent it from establishing the religion it was purported to support.

Hume’s first argument in section two weighs the deck against the possibility for testimony to the miraculous. But one could certainly question the parameters Hume mentions. What could be at the back of these requirements? Colin Brown notes “the qualifications [Hume] demands of such witnesses are such as would preclude the testimony of anyone without a Western university education, who lived outside a major cultural center in Western Europe prior to the sixteenth century, and who was not a public figure.” It appears that Hume’s requirements are a product of a bias towards the modernly educated. He appears to believe that those prior to the enlightenment are incapable of testifying to the truth, or at least their understanding of the truth was so flawed that it cannot be trusted. Nash is right to conclude that Hume’s first argument is actually only a dogmatic assertion, which, taken to its logical end, would make the historian question major portions of known history.

A second counter to Hume’s first point is that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was certainly not done in a corner (Acts 26:26). The proximity of Jerusalem to many of the other major centers of human history (Rome, Corinth, etc.) would lead many people to claim that Jerusalem is a “celebrated part of the world.” Further, it appears that Paul meets the requirements of Hume as a witness to a miracle. Paul was honest (he did not charge for people to hear his message, and he eventually died for its truth [1 Cor 9:18; 2 Tim 4:6]), educated (had the equivalent of two doctoral degrees [Acts 22:3; Phil 3:5]), and had something to lose (lost his position in Judaism and eventually his life for the truth [Phil 3:4–7; 2 Tim 4:6]). If Paul does not meet the requirements Hume has proposed, then it appears that no historian has ever met them.

Hume’s second argument in section two can be admitted to an extent. It may be accurate to say that people love the marvelous. The sci-fi industry has built an empire on tapping into this love in people. But it does not follow that people necessarily believe the marvelous. Hume’s anthropological assertion of the love of the wondrous can be matched by another anthropological assertion—people tend to be skeptical. For instance, the ones who would be most likely to accept the miraculous—the apostles—doubted the greatest miracle Christ performed. They did not at first believe that Jesus rose from the dead even though it was reported to them. If the apostles, who had been primed and prepared for a miracle such as the resurrection, doubted the authenticity of human testimony to the resurrection, then skepticism played a larger role in the lives of the original witnesses to the miracles than Hume would allow. Hume’s assertion of human’s love for the miraculous, then, must be balanced by human tendency to skepticism.

The third argument of this second section again contains a Western bias. Apparently, all people before the enlightenment were barbarous and could not discern the laws of nature. This fact allowed them to posit such ridiculous and fanciful miracles. If they had only known the laws of nature, it is assumed they would not have believed in and passed along such nonsense. But Hume’s bias is unsubstantiated. True, people in antiquated times did not know the scientific advances that marked Hume’s age. However, it would not be proper for modern readers to dismiss Hume’s writings because he lived in an antiquated age among “barbarous” peoples. What Hume seems to miss is that while those before him were not privileged to his knowledge, they certainly knew that women who were virgins did not have children (Matt 1:23). They knew that the sea does not naturally split at the motion of a hand (Exod 14:21). Colin Brown notes Hume’s problem well, “It is absurd to demand of a witness that he should share the same world view as oneself or have the same level of education and culture.” The witness to miracles in the Bible may not have had Hume’s education, but that did not prevent them from recognizing the regularity of natural law and the truly miraculous.

The final argument in part two of Hume’s On Miracles fails as a safety net. First, Hume assumes that every miracle must objectively support the religion of the speaker. That is, every miracle must substantiate one particular religion against all other religions. But this does not have to follow. A miracle used in support for one god may in fact have been executed by the true God. For instance, the actions of God through his apostles were sometimes misunderstood by onlookers as works from another deity (Acts 14:11). The onlookers certainly saw a miracle and would undoubtedly attempt to substantiate their religion through the testimony of the miracle. In the end, however, testimony for that miracle does not work against Christianity—it actually supports it once understood properly.

There is a second problem with Hume’s analysis; he seems to believe that if one miracle is accepted, then all miracles have to be accepted. Again, this does not follow. The Christian faith, not to speak of other faiths, has criteria by which a miracle is judged to be genuine. Because one believes miracles are a genuine work of God does not mean they believe all purported miracles are genuine works of God. Further, miracle stories are not supported evenly as Hume assumes. Some have tremendous support, while others are questioned even by adherents to a religious following that is to be substantiated by the claim. In conclusion, the safety net is unsuccessful because it assumes if one miracle is true, then all miracles are true, and because it assumes that a miracle must objectively signify what is subjectively communicated.

Systemic Critique of Hume’s Argument

The internal critique above showed the failure of Hume’s arguments. His first argument—that miracles can be tout court rejected—was found to beg the question. His second argument—that no one could ever justifiably believe a miracle had occurred—was found to be fraught with inconsistencies due to Hume’s Newtonian physic. His third argument—that claims of the miraculous, as much as they are given to establish a particular religion, serve to contradict one another and invalidate the power of each—was found to make sweeping generalizations that were unwarranted.

The purpose of this next section is to show the more fundamental failures of Hume’s arguments. We will dig into Hume’s thought and show how Hume’s presuppositions do not allow him to critique miracles in the first place. Further, this section will show that Hume is borrowing the Christian framework in order to attack the Christian framework. These two tasks will be accomplished by looking at the failure of Hume’s epistemology and the failure of his metaphysic.

The Failure of Hume’s Epistemology

Hume’s metaphysic and epistemology complement one another. In Hume’s thought, his epistemology fed his metaphysic, so we will examine them in his order of priority. The essential aspect of Hume’s epistemology is his empiricism. Historically Hume is aligned with the British empiricists (Locke, Berkley, Bacon, and Reid). The common factor between these men was a focus on sense experience. The general rule of the group was that nothing could be accepted as true knowledge that does not come through sense experience. Here then is the major problem with empiricism; it cannot be proved experientially. That is, if everything must be based on sense experience, then empiricism itself must be based on sense experience. Empiricism is self-defeating because it cannot be proved by its own system. No one can be a consistent empiricist, since the basis of his or her view is assumed by rather than proved through empiricism. In order to prove empiricism, then, proponents are forced to argue in a circle. They assume the truth of empiricism even as they try to prove its truth.

The most damning critique of Hume’s empiricism actually comes from Hume himself. The concluding paragraph to Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding states,

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Unfortunately for Hume, his assumption of empiricism (and naturalism) is neither an analytical truth (true by definition) nor an empirical truth. On his own criteria, it seems that Hume has to throw his own writing to the flames, for it is nothing but mere sophistry and illusion.

The failure of empiricism can be shown from another angle. C.S. Lewis describes the situation well: “Experience . . . cannot prove uniformity, because uniformity has to be assumed before experience proves anything.” In order to posit empiricism, Hume has to assume the uniformity of nature, but the uniformity of nature cannot be proved by empiricism. No matter how long someone experiences the world, he cannot be certain that he has discovered the uniformity of nature. Hume testifies to this in the story of the Indian prince.  The Indian prince did not believe that water could have the properties of frost. In fact, Hume said the prince was justified in believing that water did not have those properties, since the prince’s experience was limited. In sum, no one ever experiences all that can be experienced. Therefore, uniformity remains an assumption of which empiricism cannot account.

A further problem with Hume’s epistemology emerges as a result of his skepticism. Van Til was correct when he noted that Hume had the intellectual integrity to follow empiricism to its logical end—skepticism. However, it appears that Hume did not have the intellectual honesty to follow his skepticism to its logical end. Instead of abandoning dogmatic claims, Hume asserted them. For instance, a true skeptic cannot say that miracles are impossible, as Hume’s primary argument claims. It is intellectually dishonest to say on one hand that empiricism inevitably leads to skepticism and then on the other hand to claim that empiricism disallows the miraculous.

Hume further abandoned his skeptical stance when he developed the idea of uniform natural law. Hume states, “That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood.” However, if skepticism leads one to believe the sun might not rise, what prevents one from assuming that a person could rise from the dead? Hume can allow the former, but will not allow the latter. On his own criteria, it seems that he would attempt in vain to demonstrate the falsehood of a miracle, just as he says it would be in vain to attempt to demonstrate the falsehood of the sun not rising tomorrow. Hume’s skepticism, therefore, eliminates the possibility of him positing either the a priori or a posterior argument.

Why does Hume assert his dogmatic stance when his epistemology does not appear to allow it? The answer lies in his view of analogical knowledge. Basically, as was noted above, Hume believed that only experiences analogous to our own could be understood. Therefore, miracles are impossible since they are experiences altogether contrary to other human experiences. J. Houston states Hume’s view succinctly: “Miracle reports are to be rejected because they cannot be accommodated by any experience-based analogical extension of relevant experience, which is the only principle on which reasonable formation of beliefs about the unknown can proceed.”

Reading Hume’s argument in this way sheds much light and brings a little bit of confusion. It sheds light because it explains Hume’s distinction between extraordinary experiences and genuine miracles. The confusion emerges because Hume’s experience based analogical system does not comport with his a priori argument. According to the experience-based analogical system one would never be able to understand a miraculous event even if miraculous events are possible. Hume apparently makes a jump from knowledge to reality. He assumes that if one cannot know something, then that thing it is not possible. Thus, Hume assumes at the outset that miracles are not possible. In fact, he must if he is to get rid of miracles, for if miracles have happened, then they are analogous to other experiences and are knowable, since the miraculous would be a genuine human experience. Only if miracles were never a part of human experience could they be unknowable.

The current author believes this to be a central issue in Hume’s treatment of miracles, but two problems emerge with this hypothesis. First, Hume has to show what is qualitatively different about the Indian prince acknow­ledging the effects of frost, and the Indian prince acknowledging that the laws of nature can be broken. It appears that if he has experience of either, he can modify his belief structure to comply with the new material. Second, on his assumption of experience-based analogical knowledge Hume would contend that a miracle could never be known. If he is to maintain this, however, he has to assume that a miracle is not possible. For if a miracle were possible and actual, then it would enter into the experience-based analogical knowledge. If it entered this knowledge sphere, then far from not being able to be known, miracles are known. This may explain why Hume was so fond of the a priori argument. His epistemological assumption of analogical knowledge allowed him (after he made the jump from knowledge to possibility) to broaden the circularity of his a priori argument and may have made him believe his argument had legitimacy.

One last inconsistency should be pointed out before leaving this topic: Hume’s experience-based analogical system has a central flaw. It does not appear that empiricism can defend Hume’s system. How can one prove empirically that knowledge comes through experience-based analogy?

Why, as has been shown, does Hume continually beg the question concerning the possibility of miracles? It appears that he did not want to acknowledge a personal God. James Henry Thornwell acknowledged this truth many years ago when he said, “[Whether miracles are possible] is simply the question concerning the existence of a personal God.” John Polkinghorne agrees, “[Hume’s] essential problem is not scientific in character. . . . The real problem is theological.” Edward Carnell makes the point more specifically, “If a scientist refuses to consider the possibility of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, when historians show that there is credible evidence for its historicity, we may be assured that the problem of miracles is moral and philosophical rather than scientific, for the scientist is using his laws, not to explain reality, but to explain reality away.” Colin Brown summarizes, “Hume’s argument against miracles was intended to be precisely the kind of rearguard action that would defend him from having to come to the point where he would have to acknowledge that a miracle had occurred and see any religious significance in it.” Thus it is seen that Hume’s problem is not epistemological after all; it is metaphysical.

The Failure of Hume’s Metaphysic

Contrary to Hume’s belief, his metaphysic did not stem from his epistemology; his epistemology stemmed from his metaphysic. As an unbeliever the scripture states that Hume sought to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). Hume knew God, but did not want to acknowledge God. Thus, his metaphysic of naturalism informed his epistemology of empiricism, not the other way around.

Hume’s metaphysic can be called metaphysical naturalism. Richard Purtill arranges the argument for naturalism this way:

  1. Metaphysical naturalism is true.
  2. If metaphysical naturalism is true, then the laws of nature are inherent tendencies within matter/ energy.
  3. Such inherent tendencies do not allow for exceptions.
  4. Nothing outside of nature can cause such an exception, since there is nothing outside of nature.

If one asked why Hume assumed metaphysical naturalism is true, he would respond by citing a belief in empiricism. However, empiricism depends on the uniformity of nature which naturalism supplies. Thus, at the very core of Hume’s belief structure, he betrays circularity by assuming metaphysical naturalism. Setting this aside, however, it is important to note that Hume’s strict epistemological empiricism is conjoined to his metaphysical naturalism. If the latter is shown to be faulty, the former suffers in a similar manner. The last section showed the faults inherent within empiricism, now this section will show the faults in naturalism.

C.S. Lewis, in his work Miracles, sought to show the deficiencies of naturalism. Lewis takes seriously the fourth point of metaphysical naturalism outlined above. Lewis’ point is that everything must be explained in terms of naturalism if naturalism is true. If only one thing does not cohere with the system, then there must be something outside the system. If this is the case, then naturalism fails.

There are at least three things that are inexplicable in terms of naturalism: reason, morality, and uniformity. Naturalism asserts that nature is all that exists. Reason, then, must be explained by nature, but nature is ultimately non-rational. In addition, Lewis rightly notes that rational­ity cannot be derived from the non-rational. If rationality is grounded in the non-rational, then rationality is merely the way things appear, and not the way things are. Lewis stated,

All possible knowledge . . . depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words, like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Ronald Nash brings out the implications of Lewis’ critique: “Unless human reasoning is valid, no arguments by any metaphysical naturalist directed against Christian theism or offered in support of naturalism can be sound.” In sum, on their own view of the origin of rationality, the naturalists cannot account for reason. If reason is merely a product of chance, as must be the case in naturalism, then arguments do not comport with reality and are meaningless. If reason should have its true course, as all naturalists demand, naturalists have to abandon naturalism.

The argument against naturalism as it applies to morality is similar to the argument as it applies to reason. Much like the non-rational cannot give rise to the rational, so the non-moral cannot give rise to the moral. Hume appears to recognize a lack of justification for morality in his philosophy. In a mock conversation, Hume’s friend states, “All the philosophy . . . in the world, and all the religion, . . . will never be able to carry us beyond the usual course of experience, or give us measures of conduct and behaviour different from those which are furnished by reflections on common life.” Hume responds to his friend by noting that many people base their morality on the idea of a Deity. This is not a problem, notes Hume, the real problem is with those who would take that standard away from them: “those, who attempt to disabuse them of such prejudices [belief in moral God], may, for aught I know, be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians; since they free men from one restraint upon their passions, and make the infringement of the laws of society, in one respect, more easy and secure.” Hume seems to recognize, though he never overtly states it, that morality has to have its basis in something other than nature itself. Lewis concludes, “If we are to continue to make moral judgments . . . then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom . . . which exists ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.”

The final unwarranted assumption of naturalism, is essential to Hume’s argument against miracles. Naturalism cannot explain order and uniformity. If at the core nature is governed by chance, then order cannot exist. Again, Lewis poses the problem almost poetically: “Try to make Nature absolute and you find that her uniformity is not even probable.” Order is inexplicable if chaos is king. Thus, the very core of Hume’s argument—the uniformity of nature—is made suspect by his metaphysic. Hume recognized that his epistemology did not allow for uniformity, now it is seen that his metaphysic denies uniformity. Since Hume cannot, on his own presuppositions, formulate the laws of nature, then he cannot condemn miracles as being contrary to them. In this way, Hume’s argument fails before it even begins.

Naturalism as an explanatory hypothesis for ultimate reality is fraught with problems. Three have been shown in this essay. Christian theism is the only alternative that can account for reason, morality, and uniformity. In fact, the strongest argument against Hume’s essay on miracles is that he relies on a Christian theistic framework in order to attack the possibility of the Christian theistic framework. Only if there is a personal God can there be reason, morality, and uniformity. Human rationality and nature’s compliance with it can only be explained by a rational Creator. Morality, which Hume appeared to recognize was lacking in the metaphysic of naturalism, has its basis only in the God of the Scriptures. As for uniformity, Lewis notes, “The [Christian] philosophy which forbids you to make uniformity absolute is also the philosophy which offers you solid grounds for believing it to be general, almost absolute.”

Hume refused to recognize God. Following his desire, deeply rooted in man, to rebel against the Creator, Hume sought to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. As he attempted to smother the truth, he constructed a matrix of beliefs to give a form of legitimacy to his suppression. Hume’s problem with miracles was merely a smokescreen for his problem with God, for if you admit miracle, you must admit a personal God. Thornwell said that unbelievers “get quit of miracles only by getting quit of God.” Hume refused to understand God and therefore was never able to understand miracles. His complex matrix of fabricated presuppositions allowed him to deny the possibility of miracles. The purpose of this paper has been to untangle the matrix and lay bare the presuppositions. When examined closely, the presuppositions are found wanting. They do not explain reality and cannot even explain the ability of Hume to critique miracles in the first place. In an indirect way Hume’s essay On Miracles, far from destroying the credibility of believing in a personal God, establishes the necessity of a personal God. Van Til liked to say that a child sitting on a father’s lap could only smack the father because he is supporting her. The same holds true for Hume. The only reason he was able to critique the possibility of God and miracles is that God upholds all things—including Hume.

Coherent View of Miracles

William Lane Craig notes correctly, “Once the non-Christian understands who God is, then the problem of miracles should cease to be a problem for him.” Truly, the one who is regenerated and has been renewed in mind (Rom 12:2) does not have a problem with miracles. Richard Bube states how the problem of miracles disappears in the Christian worldview: “When it is realized that the very existence of the world from moment to moment depends on the creative and sustaining power of God, that no natural law has any power of its own to continue, that no ‘expected’ circumstance has any ability to bring itself into being, we come to the conclusion that God’s activity in a miracle is not qualitatively different from God’s activity in natural phenomena.” Miracles, rather than being unnatural, are another reflection of what is natural. The Bible maintains that the back of all reality is the will of God. Miracles are simply a less common way that God interacts with his creation. This does not mean, however, that miracles are unnatural. From the human standpoint, miracles do appear unnatural, but whatever God does defines what is natural. This brings up a pressing question; why would God, who arranged his creation in logical operation, impede on that logical operation?

C.S. Lewis provides the best answer to the question. Lewis compares God’s creation to a poem. Poetry contains many “laws” by which the wise poet will submit his arrangement. When submitted to these “laws,” the poem will have unity, clarity, and forcefulness. However, sometimes an able poet will vary from these “laws.” Elementary poets will critique the able poet for his apostasy from the traditional “law.” Other able poets, however, will recognize that the place in which the poet abandoned the “law” is the central point of the poem. The able poet abandoned the “law” in order to draw attention to the point of interest. When the able poet abandoned the “law,” he did so to bring greater unity to the poem as a whole. C.S. Lewis concluded his analogy this way:

By definition, miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of nature; but if they are real they must, in the very act of so doing, assert all the more the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level. They will not be like unmetrical lumps of prose breaking the unity of a poem; they will be like that crowning metrical audacity which, though it may be unparalleled nowhere else in the poem, yet, coming just where it does, and effecting just what it effects, is (to those who understand) the supreme revelation of the unity in the poet’s conception.

Lewis rightly notes that miracles are a supreme revelation of the unity of God’s will only to those who understand. The problem for Hume, and all unbelievers, is that they refuse to understand. If nature is absolute, then miracles are impossible. If God is absolute, miracles are more than possible – they are expected. Miracles are nothing more than God’s intervention in the world in a different way than he normally acts. God’s interventions are not arbitrary or random. Rather, they are the focal point of history. Only during the great soteriological epochs of history did God allow his power to be known through the miraculous. Hume assumed that if miracles happened in the past, then they should happen today as well. But God expects people to respond in faith to the proclamation of his Word. Thomas was privileged to have experienced the miraculous, but Jesus said to him, “because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus calls all men—including Hume—whether they experience a miracle or not to repent and believe. Hume was given more than enough proof for the existence of both God and miracles that he will not be able to stand in the Day of Judgment.


Hume sought to produce an argument against miracles that would amount to an “everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.” Rather than presenting one argument, Hume presented three, but it has been shown that none of the arguments are convincing even granted a naturalistic worldview. His a priori argument amounts to nothing less than begging the question, his a posterior argument relies on a probabilistic view of reality that is fundamentally flawed, and his final argument is fraught with unproved assumptions.

Though the internal critique of Hume’s argument proves its insufficiency, the best critique of Hume’s argument tests the very foundations of Hume’s belief. Every person has presuppositions, which guide their thoughts allowing him to hold certain beliefs and deny others. If a person has the wrong presuppositions, every fact he interprets will be interpreted wrongly. Hume’s presup­positions are epistemological empiricism and metaphysical naturalism. Pure Empiricism was found to be self-defeating, since it cannot be proved by its own hypothesis. Naturalism fails to account for mundane aspects of human reality such as reason, morality, and natural order. Thus, the two foundational presuppositions of Hume’s belief structure are flawed; and if the foundations are flawed, any argument based on that foundation could only be true by a fluke.

Colin Brown summarizes Hume’s situation well:

To his credit, it has to be said that Hume sought to establish his world view. But once established, nothing was allowed to change it. It acquired a quasi-religious character beyond further verification and falsification, because no fact could be admitted that could conceivable count against it [i.e. miracle]. It has to be said that world views . . . are not disproved by single facts. Their validity and usefulness lie in their capacity to account for the world we live in. . . . in the field of science, when an existing view is so beset by anomalies and qualifications that a change is needed, there occurs . . . a paradigm shift involving the adoption of a new frame of reference.

Hume’s worldview was beset by anomalies and a change needed to occur. Although Hume recognized this to an extent, he was not willing to accept the only paradigm shift that would have given meaning to life, reason, morality, and the uniformity of nature. Instead, Hume chose to sever beliefs from reality, so that he could continue with life in spite of the problems in his presuppositions. In this way, Hume is a prime example of the extent man will go to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. If Hume had abandoned his faulty presuppositions and accepted the presuppositions by which he actually operated, then his problem with miracles would have disappeared.

Hume had hoped to eliminate the possibility of miracles. He recognized that eliminating miracles effectively eliminated the possibility of a personal God. His argument ultimately failed because his hidden, suppressed presupposition, which allowed him to write the article On Miracles in the first place, was that the personal God of Scripture is real and upholds all things by his mighty hand. He essentially tried to remove the ground he was standing on. He may have thought that he had accomplished his goal, but his article, instead of opposing the possibility of God, added to the unimaginable weight of evidence in favor of the biblical God.

 David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Under­standing,” Harvard Classics, 10.1, http://www.bartleby. com/37/3/.


 Flew does see some problems with the argument and seeks to address those in his introduction to Hume’s work. Nonetheless, Flew believes the basis of Hume’s argument is still powerful and effective in accomplishing what Hume originally set out to prove. See Antony Flew, Introduction to On Miracles, by David Hume (LaSalle, Ill: Open Court, 1985).

 Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1988), 226.

 Michael Levine, “Miracles,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/ #hum.

 Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 259.

 Ibid., 257.

 David Hume, “The Natural History of Religion,” University of Idaho, 1995, Introduction, http://www.class.uidaho.edu/mickel­sen/texts/Hume-Nat%20Hist%20Rel.txt.

 Paul Russell, “Hume on Religion,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-reli­gion/#10.


 William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 111.

 Though Hume never mentioned Christian miracles in his essay, nevertheless, it is obvious to any reader that he chose examples based on their similarity to Christian miracles. See Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 87.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 3.3.

 Greg L Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), 337, fn162.

 David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” University of Idaho, I, 4, http://www.class.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/ToC/hume %20treatise%20ToC.htm.

 Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, 256.

 David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” 3.8.

 Ibid., 1.7.

 For a clear treatment of Hume’s attack on the teleological argument, see Paul N. Tobin, “Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: The Teleological Argument,” Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, 2005, http://www.rejectionofpascalswager.net/design.html#2.

 The implication of this point for traditional arguments for God is obvious. Hume states it this way: “Let your gods, therefore, O philosophers, be suited to the present appearances of nature: and presume not to alter these appearances by arbitrary suppositions, in order to suit them to the attributes, which you so fondly ascribe to your deities.” Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 11.

 Hume, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” 5.

 Hume states, “By this method of reasoning, you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the Deity. For, as the cause ought only to be proportioned to the effect, and the effect, so far as it falls under our cognizance, is not infinite.” Ibid.


 Flew, Introduction to On Miracles, 4.

 Nash, Faith & Reason, 227–9. See also Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 81 and C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 110.

 Craig, Apologetics, 121. See also John C Polkinghorne, “The Credibility of the Miraculous,” Zygon 37.3 (2002): 571.

 Robert Larmer, “Interpreting Hume on Miracles,” Religious Studies 45 (2009): 325.

 Ibid., 327–28.

 Ibid., 329–31.

 In fact, Hume admits they meet many of the requirements of a credible witness: “But what is more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world.” See Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.2.


 Larmer, “Interpreting Hume on Miracles,” 335.

 Ibid., 336.


 Richard Purtill, “Defining Miracles,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 65.

 Larmer, “Interpreting Hume on Miracles,” 335.

 Hume’s second argument is described as a back-up plan, but this may not be the most adequate way to put it. Certainly one cannot easily distinguish two arguments in Hume. He seemed to believe that his first argument was sufficient, and he called the reader’s attention back to the a priori argument often. However, there are distinct traces of the second argument throughout the paper. This has been the source of confusion for modern interpreters. Hume appears to fluctuate between the two arguments. It appears that he believed both were powerful and had the potential to dispel superstition.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” X, 1. See also, Purtill, “In Defense of Miracles,” 65.

 Adapted from Norman L Geisler, “Miracles and the Modern Mind,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 75.

 Norman Smith, Introduction to Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947), 49.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.2.





 Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 87.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.2.





 Corner provides a slightly different example, which was the inspiration for the example used here. See David Corner, “Miracles,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 11, 2009, http://www.iep.utm.edu/miracles/.

 Again the question of Hume’s intent comes to play. As noted before, however, I believe that the second argument is inherent throughout the essay. The first argument only convinces the convinced. His second argument is the meat of his thought and must be dealt with in like measure.

 Adapted from Geisler, “In Defense of Miracles,” 75.

 Nash, Faith and Reason, 233–34.

 Smith, Introduction to Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 46.

 Craig notes that the advent of quantum physics decimated Newtonian physics. When quantum physics appeared, the scientific community realized that humanities’ formulation of natural law is never complete. Craig, Apologetics, 113.

 It must be noted that Hume’s weighing and his “uniformity of nature” are dependent on one another. Humans can weigh evidences because human nature is uniform. How is nature known to be uniform? It is uniform because humans have weighed the evidence.

 Richard Whatley wrote a treatise in 1819 showing how, on Hume’s analysis, one could not believe in the historicity of Napoleon Bonaparte. See Whatley, “Historical Doubts Regarding Napoleon Bonaparte,” Rowan University, http://elvis.rowan.edu /~kilroy/christia /library/doubts-napoleon.html.

 Evans, Philosophy of Religion, 110.

 Victor Reppert, “Hume on Miracles, Frequencies, and Prior Probabilities,” Infidels.org, 1998, http://www.infidels.org/library /modern/victor_reppert/miracles.html.

 Geisler, “In Defense of Miracles,” 79.

 Levine, “Miracles.”


 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.1.

 This was discussed above in section one of the summary of Hume’s argument.

 James Thornwell recognized that the unregenerate, if consistent, would deny evidence of a Creator. He said, “If [an unbeliever] should be induced to admit [a miracle’s] phenomenal reality, he could easily resort to subterfuges and pretexts to explain them away as he can dispense with intelligence and wisdom in accounting for the arrangement and order of the universe.” See James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 264.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” X, 2.


 Ibid. Italics mine.

 Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 97.

 Nash, Faith and Reason, 236.

 M. J Larson, “Three Centuries of Objections to Biblical Miracles,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160.637 (2003): 90–92.

 Evans, Philosophy of Religion, 114.

 Larson, “Three Centuries of Objections,” 91.

 Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 98.

 Purtill, “In Defense of Miracles,” 63.

 Evans, Philosophy of Religion, 114.

 Richard Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle (London: Macmillan, 1970), 60–61.

 The principles here are explained above when Hume’s epistemology was discussed. See that section for the broader context of Hume’s quote.

  Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 12.3.

 Norman L Geisler, ed., “David Hume,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 343.

 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 163.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.2.

 Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 337. Fn 62.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 4.1.

 Hume says, “It is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.” Ibid., 10.1.

 This point shows the circularity of Hume clearly. He would state it is impossible to know whether the sun will rise tomorrow. However, it is impossible that miracles will happen tomorrow. Why? Because a miracle has never been experienced (or is contrary to human experience). A major problem emerges: if miracles are impossible because they have not been experienced (or contrary to human experience), then the sun not rising would have to be impossible since that has never been experienced either. One cannot hold to the validity of empiricism while maintaining a skeptical stance at the same time.

 J. Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 65.

 Levine, “Miracles.”

 Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, 263.

 Polkinghorne, “The Credibility of the Miraculous,” 753.

 Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense of the Trinitarian-Theistic Faith, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 252.

 Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 96.

 Purtill, “In Defense of Miracles,” 69.

 Ward does an excellent job showing the problem inherent in Hume’s supposition: “[metaphysical naturalism] is a hypothesis . . . which purports to give the best explanation for the way things are. Given its character as an explanatory postulate, it logically cannot be used to rule out any events which seem to cast doubts upon it [i.e. miracles].” See Keith Ward, “Miracles and Testimony,” Religious Studies 21 (1985): 136.

 Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 18.

 Ibid., 38–39.

 Ibid., 21.

 Ronald Nash, “Miracles and Conceptual Systems,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 125.

 Ibid., 130.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 11.


 Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 60.

 Ibid., 169.

 For an exposition of Hume’s treatment of probability and the impossibility of uniformity see, Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 342, Fn 167.

 Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 169.

 Hume is a perfect historical snapshot of man suppressing truth in unrighteousness. Hume recognized that his epistemology was bankrupt; it could not lead one to truth. Instead of abandoning his irrationality and following the rational truth to its end—the personal God of the Scripture—Hume clung to his irrationality. He would rather lose the meaningfulness of reason than have his reason subject to God.

 Thornwell, Collected Writings, 264.

 Craig, Apologetics, 125.

 Richard H Bube, The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and the Christian Faith (Waco: Word, 1971), 114.

 Carnell says, “From man’s point of view, the regularity of the universe is called ‘law,’ but from God’s point of view it is ‘will.’” Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, 251.

 Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 97–98.


 Of course much more could be said about a precise definition of miracle. For the present purpose, a miracle can be defined as a work ordained by God which suspends or alters the natural order God has placed on creation. For a fuller definition see Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 355.

 The scope of this paper does not allow for an examination of whether miracles happen today. The author’s view is that miracles are reserved for certain times in history where God’s power is specifically shown to advance God’s soteriological plan in this world.

 Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” 10.1.

 Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 100.

 Hume’s admission of skepticism, and his despair in light of it, appears to show that Hume recognized there were irreconcilable issues inherent within his worldview.