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David Hume

Hume’s Miracles

Paul Warwick considers Hume’s argument against testimony concerning miracles.

I have a friend who was once deeply immersed in the occult. Now he’s a Pentecostal Christian who has renounced his former beliefs and broken with the practices of that way of life. Even so, I can’t help thinking that there is at least one common strand that runs through from his past life to his present one – a strong desire to believe that the laws of the natural world can be set aside by supernatural powers.

I saw an instance of this when he invited me to his church to hear a visiting preacher. “He’s a genuine miracle worker!” I was told enthusiastically. “This guy has already raised seven people from the dead!” This did pique my curiosity.

I went along to the sermon, but wasn’t much impressed. It raised more questions than it answered. If this man can work miracles, I wondered, why doesn’t he do something about his hair? On a serious philosophical note though, the experience set me wondering about miracles in general, and sent me back to read David Hume’s famous writings on the subject.

In Hume’s ‘Of Miracles’ in Section X of his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he sets out what he considers a decisive case to show that we are not justified in believing in miracles. Beginning with the proposition that we should proportion our belief in accordance with the strength of the available evidence, Hume observes that the sole evidence most of us ever have for any miracle is usually that of the testimony of others. But hearsay is not particularily strong evidence. He goes on to conclude that the testimony in favour of a miracle can never balance, let alone outweigh, the evidence a gainst it, especially when it contravenes accepted natural law.

I thought that it might be interesting to apply Hume’s argument to an example of a comparatively recent and reportedly spectacular event that was recognised as a miracle, and for which the evidence of testimony seems very strong indeed. ‘The Miracle of the Sun’ occurred on 13 October 1917, near Fatima in Portugal. It was witnessed by a crowd variously estimated at being thirty thousand to one hundred thousand, comprising believers and sceptics; in fact, an array of people from all walks of life, including a number of newspaper reporters and at least one Professor of Natural Sciences. Despite minor inconsistencies, all present agreed on what happened that day. After a shower of rain, the clouds broke up to reveal the sun, less bright than usual (or else they would not have been able to watch it so closely), but dancing about in the sky, at one point moving towards the Earth in a zig-zag pattern. This display was observed by people scattered up to eighteen kilometres from the site where the main crowd had gathered; photographs exist (although no cinematography) purporting to show the movements of the sun, thus apparently precluding mass hysteria and hallucination.

Various scientific explanations were proposed, although none could account for the fact that the crowd had gathered at Fatima that day only in response to an earlier prediction supposedly made to three children by an apparition of the Virgin Mary that a miracle would be performed. The Roman Catholic Church officially recognised ‘The Miracle of Fatima’ on 13 October 1930. Twenty years later, in October 1950, Pope Pius XII himself claimed to have witnessed another Miracle of the Sun from the Vatican Gardens on four different days. On these later occasions, the Pope appears to have been uniquely privileged. Sadly, no one else in Rome seemed to notice.

David Hume, Miracle Unworker

Any philosophical discussion regarding attitudes to miracles should probably begin not only with an example, but also with an attempt to define what a miracle might be. However, this is not easily done. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that the word ‘miracle’ derives from the Latin mirus meaning ‘wonderful’, and refers to an event due to supernatural agency. Since most religions hold that the universe itself was created by a supernatural agency, it seems to follow from this definition that every ordinary thing in it must also be miraculous. But if every ordinary thing is a miracle, then what word can we use for something out of the ordinary?

A miracle is usually considered to be something well out of the ordinary. It is an event that seems contrary to all our expectations about nature which can only be attributed to extraordinary or supernatural intervention in the workings of nature. Indeed, this is how Hume defines it. A miracle, he writes, is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” So let’s stick with that.

At first glance, Hume’s writings on miracles seem to contradict his views on scepticism. Hume was critical of the role of inductive reasoning (the attempt to draw inferences from examples to establish general laws) in establishing what counts as true knowledge. In his most striking example of this scepticism, he tells us that just because the Sun has come up every single morning during our lifetime, that provides us with absolutely no guarantee that it will come up tomorrow. Bertrand Russell famously illustrated Hume’s objection with the example of the turkey who was greeted every morning with a bucket of grain from the friendly farmer. By inductive reasoning, the turkey determined that the more often this happened, the more secure he could feel that it would happen again. Until, of course that Christmas morning, when the farmer appeared with an axe to demonstrate the drawback of inductive reasoning.

In such everyday matters as expecting the Sun to rise (and not dance about in the skies over Fatima), we reason on the basis of experience, but really, according to Hume, this can never be justified. On the other hand, when Hume looks at whether or not we should believe that a miracle has occurred, he seems to take an opposite view. Concerning miracles, he tells us to reason on the basis of experience, from which reasoning it will always be apparent that there are better reasons for not believing in miracles than for believing, including reference to the laws of nature. (It is important to emphasize that Hume confines his argument to belief on the basis of testimony.)

Mitigated Scepticism

A reconciliation of these opposing views is to be found in what Hume called ‘mitigated scepticism’. According to this doctrine, Hume concedes that the radical arguments of sceptics like Berkeley, that we cannot prove the existence of the external world through either experience or logic, are valid theoretically. However, Hume makes the point that in practical terms one cannot actually live as a sceptic. Day-to-day living requires us to make decisions on the basis of our beliefs about reality, despite the fact that we can never be sure that these beliefs are true. Our everyday decisions will be determined on the basis of our imperfect beliefs, and our expectations of the likely consequences will be formed by unreliable experience.

According to Hume, ‘mitigated scepticism’ should involve us rejecting all forms of dogmatism: one should act on the basis of past experience, while remaining open to revising our views in the light of new experience. Hume’s views on miracles seem to fit this outlook. He doesn’t argue that miracles are impossible. He says that, on the basis of testimony alone, we can never be justified in believing that a miracle has occurred. ‘The Miracle of the Sun’ is a good illustration of Hume’s point that, no matter what the weight of testimony, testimony is always outweighed by other considerations. It provides two good examples of what should otherwise be reliable testimony. Some might consider that the mutually-corroborative testimony of tens of thousands should strongly influence our judgement on whether or not a miracle has occurred. Others might say that the Pope’s personal report came from an unimpeachable source. Yet, in both cases, we are reluctant to accept either testimony, because our scientific knowledge (itself gained through experience) suggests that such an event would have repercussions throughout the Solar System. We can also produce evidence that no astronomical observatories reported any unusual solar activity on either day.

Even if we allow that the vision might have been vouchsafed only for the privileged few, this requires us to accept that God has deceived either them or the rest of the world, and this is contrary to most ideas of God. As Albert Einstein once commented: “God is subtle, but he is not malicious.” Certainly, for the monotheistic religions, the traditional significance of miracles is that they are one means of recruiting non-believers to the true faith. The apparition of Mary that allegedly appeared to the children at Fatima is quoted as saying that the events of 13 October 1917 would occur “so that all may believe.” However, if the Miracle of the Sun were in some sense true, then at best it supports the idea of a universe subject to mischievous supernatural forces. Some evangelicals, such as my friend, characterise the Miracle of the Sun as a deception. Rather than a ‘true’ miracle, it was the work of the Devil, an illusion wholly unlike raising people from the dead, for which there is an impeccable biblical precedent.


I have not seen anyone raised from the dead, nor have I seen the Sun dance in the sky. On the other hand, I do not wish to seem rude by impugning the integrity of people who do claim to have witnessed such things. I suspect that such events will be fondly remembered as highlights of their lives. Therefore, with Hume, I take the polite course, and can only comment that, not having seen it for myself, I will always have better reasons for not believing such reports than for believing them.

© Paul Warwick 2011

Paul Warwick holds a postgraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Queensland, and is now the Deputy Director of the National Pharmaceutical Program for Australian War Veterans.

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