Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed. Discuss.

“Hume’s Understanding Of Miracles is Flawed” Discuss (35 Marks)

The general definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws”. However it is often disputed whether these events should be attributed to some sort of divine agency or just be deemed coincidences. Stories of miracles have been around as long as humans have lived in communities and have caused many theists to believe that miracles are an example of God actively making a difference in the world, confirming their faith. This is evident in Christianity where Jesus is seen healing people and calming storms and Moses is seen to turn a staff into a snake. Similarly, in modern times, the statue Nandi in a Hindu Mandir has been seen drinking milk. Philosophers like David Hume have aimed to disprove the existence of God through the falsification of miracles. In this essay I will analyse Hume’s theory and use Richard Swinburne’s counter argument to confirm that Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed.

David Hume was a famous 18th century atheist philosopher. According to Hume, a miracle is “ a violation of the laws of nature”. To him the laws of nature were fixed, rigid statements that describe how the world works. Hume also puts forward two separate but closely related arguments against miracles.

The first argument is inductive is taken from his maxim “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. This means that the probability of miracles actually happening is so low that it is irrational and illogical to believe that miracles do occur. From this, Hume then goes onto suggest a process for looking at miracles; when investigating a miracle evidence can be collected, for example a witness testimony, laws of nature appear to be fixed and unvarying, for example as we know it, gravity is the same throughout the universe, miracles appear to violate the laws of nature and therefore we should conclude that it is more likely that the report of a miracle happening is incorrect that the laws of nature being violated.

A criticism of this argument is that the fact that something is more probable is not, on its own proof that it didn’t happen. This is true for detectives who often solve a case by showing that evidence proves that what is improbable is actually true. To add, another criticism of this argument is that you cannot attribute the actions of an omnipotent God to the word “probable”. As God by definition is all powerful, only he can choose when to perform an action and does not have to conform to any pattern that we, as lesser beings, would deem ‘logical’. Thus, the probability of God performing an action is not directly dependent on the frequency at which He does them, but in His ability to perform them at His own discretion. To add, Hume’s first argument is tautological as an atheist following his maxim will automatically believe that the miracle never happened due to its improbability. However a theist responding to Hume’s argument could state that the miracle did happen because the omnipotent God performs them at his own discretion and in an unpredictable manner. This therefore means that the question of the existence of God remains unresolved.

Richard Swinburne also comments on Hume’s argument and agrees that natural laws are based on people’s experiences of observing the world. However, contrastingly, he states that Hume does not recognise that laws of nature are simply generalisations as they only communicate a general picture of how the world functions. Additionally he claims that Hume fails to recognise that laws are “corrigible”. The law of nature is the best description of how the world works, as we currently can understand it but there may be soon be new discoveries that mean the “laws of nature” must be modified. This is shown in the fact that pre- socratic philosophers believed the world was flat but due to technology we know this to be incorrect. Swinburne also states that Hume is incorrect in saying that no evidence is reliable for us to say that miracles can happen as there are ways of collecting reliable evidence.Namely, through the testimonies of other people about their miraculous experiences, the understanding of modern science and knowledge of what is impossible, by means of memories of witnesses and through physical evidence i.e medical examinations.

On the other hand, the fact that Hume’s inductive argument can be challenged does not mean he is wrong. Instead the question is raised again of whether based on experiences of the world, the occurrences of miracles are improbable or not.

Hume’s second argument is that of practicality. He stated that often miracle accounts are taken from those who have a lack of education. This means stories can be exaggerated as gossiping is a part of human nature. Additionally Hume claimed that miracles only occur amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”. He argued that if you look at the histories of many countries, their earliest stories are full of miracles and visions, but, as the nation develops and becomes more civilised and educated, these kinds of stories disappear. This is a logical argument as it is true that newspapers of the 21st century do not tend to report many cases of miracles happening. In this argument, Hume also went on to say that reports of miracles happening in different religions contradict each other. He wrote that of one religion claims that a miracle proved their religion true, the value of their statement is cancelled out by the fact that other religions also claim the miracles that happen to them, confirm their religion.

In evaluation of Hume’s second argument, he wrote at a time where the support for miracles came from word of mouth. However, today, miracles are supported by unbiased, scientific evidence. This is shown at Lourdes, a place of Christian pilgrimage, where 68 carefully arrested claims of miraculous healing have occurred. The documents provided in support of their claims have been given by doctors whose evidence is incontrovertible. Furthermore, another criticism of this argument is that Hume sets so many criteria for the acceptance of miraculous events that he is not keen to allow himself to say that any extraordinary event could be miraculous. To add Hume ignores the significant effect that miracles have on their environments and those affected. For example Cardinal de Retz saw someone physically grow back a new limb- surely this would be a convincing account.

Richard Swinburne further criticises Hume by saying that he provides no method of recognising when one has a suitable large group of educated people and does not state which level of education is required for their intelligence to be sufficient. Swinburne considers what counts as “ignorant and barbarous” and suggests that it could mean a lack of familiarity with science. This gives more problems for Hume as many educated people claim to experience miracles. Additionally, Swinburne question whether miracles in different religions cancel each other out. He states that because most miracles concern God helping someone they are not about proving one religion’s beliefs correct and proving another religion’s beliefs wrong. To add Swinburne is a sceptic and automatically rejects stories about miracles without considering the evidence.

Swinburne then goes on to give his own definition of a miracle as “an occurrence of a non- repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”. This means a miracle is an event that does fit in with the laws of nature as we understand them, but equally, the event on its own is not enough to prove the law of nature inaccurate. He ensures that laws of nature are good general descriptions of how the world works but that does not remove the possibility of a miracle occurring. He then goes on to state the process in which you should devise an argument for a miracle; having identified the reliable evidence in any debate you must assess the evidence and deduce a conclusion. Swinburne’s process for dealing with claimed miracles that happened in the past is to devise a main argument, then subsidiary arguments. For the main argument you must accept as many sources of evidence as possible. The more evidence, the stronger the probability of the miracle happening. For the subsidiary arguments, different sources should be consistent and supportive of each other. Additionally, the value you place on a particular piece of evidence should depend upon its “empirical reliability” i.e of the witness is a known liar, similarly you should avoid rejecting, without good reason, evidence that may be relevant to the said miracle.

In conclusion I believe a miracle can be defined as a violation of the laws of nature as we know them which subjectively can be attributed to a divine agency. Overall, I believe that Hume’s argument is weak as it is tautological, generalises the term “laws of nature” and in being sceptical, fails to recognise the unchanging nature of science as we being to make new discoveries. I have used the support of Swinburne for my evaluation of Hume’s argument as he convincingly denotes Hume’s argument as being limited in its methods and unaware of the miracles experienced by intellectuals. For this reason I am more likely to favour Swinburne’s criteria for an argument in favour of miracles as it is logical and takes into account the profound effects that miracles have on people.

 

My comments:
A-grade essay.

Hume’s argument should be seen as a whole – so many criticisms seem to separate the two parts of his argument but they actually make much more sense together. Given that he says in part one that a sensible man weighs the evidence, and given that the evidence from the nature of miracles is going to be as entire as possible (because a miracle is by its very nature a one-off compared to the usual experience to the contrary), then a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. And if the evidence is a one-off testimony – from a suspect source – then that testimony is really not worthy of consideration. The clever thing here is that the testimony cannot be considered apart from where or who it comes from, so that part one and two of the argument really need to be considered as a whole.

The second thing to say is that Swinburne seems to want to have his cake and eat it in your essay. If laws of nature are generalisations and corrigible, then what was thought to be a miracle isn’t really one, as it fits in with a revised law. But Swinburne makes other points. He does say that the laws of nature are statistical rather than prescriptive, but he also examines the possibility of ‘non-repeatable counter-instances of a law of nature’. This would prevent the miracle from being explained by a future revision of a law of nature.

I think then, in general it would be worth doing a little more of the AO1 explanation for both Hume and Swinburne, so that the examiner can see you clearly understand the argument.

A2 OCR Philosophy of Religion Predictions 2016

Well here we are again, with just over a week until the exam, what is likely to come up this year? I have compiled a list with various questions that it might be worth practising, and some of them I provide links to exemplars for those questions. I do this most years, always with the caveat that it is never a good idea to base your revision on just these predictions, but it can’t do any harm to have a good look at them.

 

1.Miracles questions. Both myself and Peter Baron think the Miracles topic has been under-represented in past years; I think there could be a question on Hume’s understanding of miracles, which there has never been, and at Peped (Peter Baron’s site) they think there could be one on coincidence miracles. My question is:

‘Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed’. Discuss. (35) (exemplar here) (discussion here)

and Peped:

Assess the claim that miracles are simply coincidences given religious significance. (35)

There has apparently never been a question on Holland and coincidence miracles.

 

2.Religious language. Specifically verification. It hasn’t come up before. Therefore:

Critically assess A J Ayer’s theory of verification. (35) (Exemplar here) (powerpoint here)

(my guess)

or what amounts to something similar:

‘God-talk is meaningless’. Discuss. (35)

 

3. Religious experience came up twice last year (yes revelation falls under religious experience), but Peter Baron’s site has a great question on this which as he says, has never come up:

‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)

 

4. A few from the nature of God/life after death (just for s**ts and giggles):

God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with human free will. Discuss. (35)

Critically assess the belief that God is omnibenevolent. (35). (from Peped)

‘Resurrection is more coherent than reincarnation’. Discuss. (35)

 

C S Lewis Doodles

On Sexual Morality by C S Lewis.

I was introduced to these excellent doodle videos recently by another RE teacher who uses them with her A Level classes. The one above would be great as an introduction to A Level Sexual Ethics.

There are other good ones for other topics in the Philosophy and Ethics modules – just find C S Lewis Doodles on Youtube.

Last Thoughts on Exams

I’ve just had a look at my 2014 predictions – out of 5 questions that I suggested 3 came up although only two were on the specific area – numinous experience and body/soul distinction, whereas one – Biblical miracles came up instead of Hume on miracles. The two (or three if you count Hume) that didn’t come up then I’ve rolled over to this year because – hey the longer it goes not coming up the more likely it is to come up in the future right? Not sure what Hume would say about that…

Anyway, that’s Hume, Ayer and Revelation as three of my guesses for this year. Check out my A2 predictions post for the others. I do hope you get the questions you want dear students – and good luck!

The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Robin Williams, 1998, (c)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collec

My somewhat odd blog post here describes a dream I had recently about hell. The concept of hell (and indeed of heaven) raises a number of philosophical questions, perhaps the principle one of which is: Would an all-loving, perfectly good God condemn someone to unending suffering in hell as punishment for a specific sin or sins? On the face of it, it seems too unbalanced – for even the most heinous of crimes, surely there will come a point where the punishment must end?

There are significant disagreements among theologians upon this point. Some modern theologians, notably Hans Urs Von Balthasar have taken the position that universal salvation is possible, in other words that God will condemn no-one to hell for eternity. Others think this a betrayal of scripture and the Church Fathers – indeed, Christ spoke of the hellfire and eternal punishment in various places in the Gospels (eg. Matt 5:22, 10:28, 23:33)

huvb

click here for an excellent discussion of this book

The question needs to be placed in the light of the considerable problem which the existence of evil raises for believers. In order to make sense of the evil actions of certain people, some of whom escape earthly punishment for their crimes, believers usually turn to the explanation that justice will be done in the afterlife, that God will set right the wrongs done in this life.

It therefore makes sense that some afterlife punishment and reward would be needed in order to maintain belief in a just Creator. The problem is the separation of God’s mercy and God’s justice. A God who forgives all no matter what they have done would be just as unjust as a God who punishes all. There is another problem with arguing that God forgives all. Johannes Bokmann puts it like this: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.”

The OCR exam board has focused on this area in the past with questions such as: “To what extent is belief in an afterlife necessary in resolving problems raised by the existence of evil?”. The suggestions for answering this are that candidates can focus on the theodicies, or discuss whether reincarnation is less problematic than belief in heaven and hell. The key thing to do though, in the A02, is to evaluate what kind of God is implied by punishment/reward models of the afterlife, and whether, given some of the inconsistencies which arise in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence on these models, whether such models are necessary to solve the problem of evil.

I will end this post with some quotations from Balthasar’s book:

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

“Every shutting up of the creature within his own mind, is – in the end – hell” (C.S. Lewis)

“Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration.”

I want to end with a parable from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, which Von Balthasar quotes. It seems to me to completely capture the intricate connections between free will, sin, evil and God’s divine omnibenevolence better than pages of philosophical and theological analysis:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”

 

The concept of miracle – including an understanding of Hume.

As soon as we take Hume’s definition of miracle: “violation of a law of nature”, we are thrown into the heart of the problem, because a law of nature is supposedly (according to Hume) fixed and regular, established by a uniform past experience.

For instance, I have always, when letting go of an object like a pen, experienced that object falling towards the ground. My past experience of that happening is entirely uniform. If one day I let go of a pen and it floated up to the ceiling I would be extremely shocked and probably conclude that a law of nature (gravity) had been broken.

However, given that neither I nor the vast majority of mankind have ever experienced this, not reported it to have happened, if someone told me that it had, I would, according to Hume, be unwise to believe them. I would use experience, observation, evidence and probability to examine the testimony of the levitating pen, and be forced to conclude that no such thing had happened.

From the nature of the case, given that it is more reasonable to believe what is more probable, it seems unreasonable to believe miracles have happened, as they are by definition highly improbable, because they supposedly go against a great mass of past experience.

So Hume says, for the wise man this high improbability amounts to a full proof against miracles. Notice that he doesn’t say it is a proof against miracles – merely that for all practical purposes the extreme improbability of it functions as a proof against it for those who are able to use reason correctly to weigh up testimonies for and against.

Therefore, you can view this ‘proof’ in two ways:

1. If you accept a definition of ‘proof’ to mean having considerable and weighty evidence for something, then you might be persuaded by Hume. This would be a looser definition than many require, but would still mean that something was highly likely to be the case.

2. However, on a more precise definition, proof means something more strict – an a priori state of affairs. As Ninian Smart says:

‘We cannot rule out a priori, i.e. without recourse to observing the way the world is, the possibility of miracles; and therefore we  cannot frame a rule about believing in them which would rule out the legitimacy of believing what we see, if we were to see a miracle’

In other words, given that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, but the only way we have to judge that a law of nature is actually a law is past experience, we are unable to rule out their impossibility, because at any point an experience may happen to us which goes against what has previously happened.

Another way of saying that is that laws of nature are not like judicial laws – they are not prescriptive but descriptive. In other words they don’t say what can and cannot happen, only what has or has not happened so far in our experience. This is called the problem of induction. Russell’s Turkey is a good way of remembering it.

So there are large flaws in Hume’s argument, if you are not willing to give him a little latitude with his definition of ‘proof’. But even if you are, there is also a problem with another definition – the ‘violation’ definition.

There is a paradox in the idea that a miracle actually disregards or violates the laws of nature, but if such a thing does occur, how can it be a law of nature – it no longer operates as a reliable occurrence all the time?

To finish I want to quote from an unknown source (I really must take note of where I get things from – if anyone knows who wrote this I will be happy to credit them!):

“Hume’s argument against miracles (if it doesn’t rely on an overly simplistic account of induction) goes through only if it is assumed from the outset that my religious beliefs (as well as other religious beliefs for that matter) are highly antecedently improbable from the outset. But Hume’s argument is intended to show that my beliefs (and other religious beliefs) are highly antecedently improbable from the outset. So Hume’s argument succeeds only if it begs the question.

Yes, of course, if you can show that my religious beliefs are highly improbable from the outset on grounds other than Hume’s argument, then you will have provided me with a good reason to be incredulous about those beliefs. But Hume’s argument itself fails, without begging the question at least, to accomplish what it was intended to accomplish, regardless of your success or lack thereof in that endeavor.”

Last minute exam tips

Over at Philosophical Investigations they have some very useful tips on answering specific questions, including some useful tips on Natural Law, about which I have a student answer on here .

I would be surprised if a question about either the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument from Aquinas and Hume’s criticisms of them didn’t come up this year. Then again, I’ve been wrong before, so we shall see! Just remember, never skip revision on any area – you must be prepared for any question on any individual point of the spec. Eg. a question such as ‘Explain the relationship between the Forms and the Form of the Good (25)’ , or ‘Explain the relationship between concepts and phenomena (25)’. If that kind of question came up how much could you write? Equally in Ethics, if a question such as ‘Explain the concept of moral relativism (25)’ came up, you would need to know about these fairly abstract areas of the course. Don’t just go “Oh Plato, yeah I know the Cave; I’m fine.”!

Finally, good luck for tomorrow AS students! I will try and post some more last-minute revision stuff on here today.

What is a self-authenticating religious experience?

Looking at the 2014 examination predictions over on Philosophical Investigations I was interested to see the question ‘”Religious experiences are self-authenticating.” Discuss’. The word ‘self-authenticating’ doesn’t occur in the spec itself, nor is it an obvious element of James’ argument, so what does it mean?

The classical arguments for God’s existence have all faced major challenges from what might be called evidentialism. This is the position that a belief can only be justified in proportion to the available evidence for it. Contemporary debates about whether it is possible to know God revolve around the question of whether evidentialism should apply to religious beliefs.

The usual form the evidentialist argument takes when it comes to religious experience is that because of the private, subjective nature of religious experience combined with lack of publicly agreed evidence for a God, no experience of God is sufficient to establish proof of God, and indeed the experience is more likely to be a delusion.

Various solutions have been proposed to get around this challenge. Philosophers such as Swinburne, Alston and Plantinga have developed variations on what might be called a ‘self-authentication’ account of religious experience, whereby a purported experience of God is itself enough to justify believing in God on the basis of it. For instance, Plantinga calls religious beliefs ‘properly basic’. In other words they can act as the axioms of a belief system (they can be foundational to that belief system).

So to claim that an experience is self-authenticating is to deny that there is any point to external tests of its veridicality. Does this work? Alston has pointed out that religious believers themselves do not do this – they have actually consistently sought out external tests to verify them. For instance, within the Catholic tradition, a highly developed system of tests to distinguish between real experiences of God and false or delusional experiences (coming from the Devil) can be found.

Nonetheless, within religious traditions, Alston claims a certain degree of self-authentication occurs. This can be compared to the wine-tasting community. Once you learn the rules of wine-tasting you can begin to know what is being talked about, but before this you would not be able to fully enter into the experience and might criticise the language of the wine tasters as fanciful. Equally, a mystical tradition has its own set of ‘doxastic practices’ (Alston’s phrase), which authenticate the experiences which happen within it.

This sounds to me a bit like Wittgenstein’s language games, that you can’t criticise the mystical language game from outside of it. Is this just another form of fideism then?

Don’t forget to check out my posts on Rudolf Otto here and here , for more discussion on the nature of a self-authenticating experience. Otto and James to some extent based their arguments on this concept, which goes back to Schleiermacher.

 

Religious Experience – Voices

In a question on religious experience and voices you would want to examine possible physiological, psychological or sociological explanations (just like you would in most essays on religious experience), as a way of evaluating what is called the veridicality of the experience (ie. does it refer to a genuine reality or is it an illusion?).

This clip on Youtube examines the current medical model of auditory hallucinations and shows (in a slightly comical and definitely sceptical way) the links between head trauma, other mental health issues and hearing voices. You would want to take into account such a physiological or psychological account to give a non-religious explanation of voices.

However, you would also want to look at some more sympathetic material, which doesn’t start off with quite such a materialist bias. This website has an excellent overview of different accounts of hearing voices, as well as St. John of the Cross, they have material about Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc and William Blake. Here is an excerpt:

“St Teresa of Avila, a colleague of St John’s, noted that people who heard phrases heard such as “It is I (God), fear not” found them exceedingly powerful, calming and influential, and the memory of these voices could last for a lifetime. Such powerful and positive voices are still reported today. For example, Heathcote-James (2001) cites a contemporary account of a healthy woman, in a distressing situation, hearing a voice saying “But you have trust in God”. As a result of this, the woman described how she “felt great consolation and joy. I just cannot describe the sense that I felt, it was so beautiful it was indescribable”. These voices often seem to occur when people are in danger, under stress, or under physical or existential threat. For example, the mountaineer Joe Simpson, after a horrific climbing accident, was forced to crawl for four days back to his friends’ base-camp. During the latter stages of his agonising journey he began to hear a voice which was “clean and sharp and commanding” and which told him to “Go on, keep going”. In a biological/medical model that ignores the meaningfulness or usefulness of voices, such experiences get swept under the carpet.”

Practice Questions A2

On a certain other Philosophy and Ethics website they have put their advice about what areas they think will come up this summer in the OCR Religious Studies exam (June 7th). However, you have to buy a copy of one of their books to find it. I don’t have the time to write a book on this, but I will have a go at telling you what I think it might be wise to revise, simply based on areas of the spec that haven’t come up for a long time. So here we go, four questions:

Critically assess Rudolf Otto’s concept of numinous experience.

‘Hume’s definition of miracles makes them impossible to believe in.’ Discuss.

‘Plato’s arguments for the soul are ineffective.’ Discuss.

Critically assess the view of scripture as revelation.

You could do a lot worse than have a go at writing an answer to these questions as part of your revision.