The Greater Miracle
Testimony can be a powerful witness; it is a convincing way to understand the world. But when someone else’s testimony conflicts with our own personal experience, which one do we have epistemic reason to doubt? At the heart of this question lies a fundamental distinction between two sources of information: sensory experience and testimony itself. These are by no means disparate things; in fact, the latter is derived from the former. Thus, both originate in our sensing of the natural world, and the two must not contradict in order to gain any reasonable facts about the world. Herein lies the dilemma that David Hume sought to outline in his work, Of Miracles. It is a dilemma that throws a wrench in the transfer of information concerning the world when the two sources come into opposition, especially when one of those sources concerns the divine, the supernatural, or points to the power of God. Hume says that because experience is infallibly linked to natural reality, testimony cannot cast even a shadow of doubt on sensory information, and the two cannot epistemically oppose each other.
Sensory experience and testimony are linked by what Hume refers to as the law of nature—that natural occurrences are uniform—and it is in this relation that we find one source of information to be epistemically weaker than the other. Senses take information directly from nature, while testimony is based on two assumptions: first, that the relayed story is as close content-wise to sensory experience as possible, and second, that there is no deceptive intent in the witness. This second-hand and conditional evidence of testimony supposes a weaker epistemic significance than that of sensory experience, which is as close to a primary source for natural information as humans can hope to attain. Hume writes, “It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature.” Both sensory information and testimony derive their epistemic authority from the law of nature, but testimony is one step further removed from it. So, testimony as a source of information is epistemically weaker than sensory experience, and it remains to be exposited how this relation affects the veracity of these two sources when they tell two different stories.
Hume chooses to address this issue by examining the phenomenon of miracles. A miracle, he says, is a “violation of the laws of nature”—something that violates the uniformity of the natural world. Since “firm and unalterable experience has established these laws,” every violation proves itself to be untrue by the very fact that it is a violation of established law. Both testimony and sensory experience are involved in the propagation of information regarding such supernatural happenings, but their connection to the law of nature differs. Hume equates experience to the law; they are one and the same by definition. Accordingly, no relation of translation or interpretation mediates between natural reality and our sensation of it. Testimony, on the other hand, merely serves to confirm that which experience conveys.
Miracles, then, being outside of the laws of nature, by definition cannot be experienced at all because experience and natural law are the same; an occurrence beyond one is also beyond the other. So the burden of explanation for the prevalence of miraculous events must fall to the other source of knowledge: testimony—or rather, false testimony. There are two assumptive miracles that must be acknowledged before any thought is given to the miraculous phenomenon itself: the first miracle, that it actually occurs, producing testimony from experience, and the second miracle, proving the testimony’s veracity. These two must be true if we are to believe that miracles actually occur. Hume rejects the first because miracles, by definition, cannot be experienced and are not a part of natural reality. The second, he claims, is the greater miracle to consider: that testimony of miracles is epistemically meaningful. He says that the thought of believing a testimony about miracles to be true is an even greater leap of faith than believing in the miracle itself. There are three conditions that diminish the authority of testimony in this case: first, the number of witnesses; second, the nature of humans to love marvelous things; third, that testifying to miracles itself is a contradiction.
First, he claims that there was never such a miracle attested to by a sufficient number of men of good character as to establish beyond suspicion its veracity. A possible counter argument for this point is the plight of Galileo and his heliocentric theory of the solar system. The majority of the populace uniformly experienced the sun ‘revolving’ around the earth. Yet, even in the presence of sufficient witnesses of good character, the phenomenon was neither natural nor true. Then Galileo discovered the ‘miraculous’ truth: that earth was not the center of the solar system.
Hume deals with this by saying that if enough people bear testimony to any new ‘miraculous’ thing— extensively and uniformly—then it is no longer called a ‘miracle’ but a marvelous aspect of the law of nature newly discovered. The law of nature—still unchangeable and absolute—can be made clearer as man’s understanding of the world unfolds. Hume posits that the law of nature is discoverable and unchanging, driving convention; we as humans do not define the law but merely seek to understand it. The law is knowable by a uniform and sufficient number of experiences, but an unenlightened majority will fall to falsehood as readily as a single man might. An unenlightened experience of the world is just as false as a miraculous testimony. All of what we know about the law of nature is subjective, and, in this subjectivity, we find the danger in Hume’s position. If Hume’s natural law is unchanging and absolute, we may never have a true experience of it in our ignorant state, and worse, never know we are deceived. In essence, by definition, Hume has made the law of nature unknowable, and, even if we were to discover it, we could never know for sure that we have. Thus, if we can only know truth by the law, which we can never know for certain, we have no business even claiming that anything we discover—including miracles—is true, let alone false.
Second, in order for a testimony to be valid (even apart from the miraculous), human nature must be “strictly examined.” Hume argues that the “manner of delivery” is named as one of the three causes for suspicion concerning any testimony, let alone a miraculous one. The manner in which humans tend to deliver information is in accordance with our own nature and cannot be otherwise. We are more prone to believe in miracles when the very fact that they are miracles should deter us from falling into the lie that miracles are real. Hume says that falsities of the miraculous kind are “detected by contrary evidence or…by their absurdity,” but passions cloud this judgment. Hume further states that unlearned men are more susceptible to the passionate part of their nature, which is enraptured by the supernatural. And if only ignorant people believe such “lies,” it further discredits the validity of any sort of miraculous testimony, for the character of its supporters must be taken into account when assessing its truth. The lack of judgment feeds our unreasonable passions, and our passionate nature causes us to love falsehood rather than reason.
Early in his argument, Hume reveals a key assumption in his reasoning: sensory experience and natural law are epistemically equivalent and they are not subject to any mediating relation. But as ideal as this sounds, when humans receive input from our senses, we automatically interpret the information to understand it, turning sensation into perception. In reality, it is not nature and sensation that are inseparably linked, but sensation and personal perception. The first statement must be presumed, but the second is something we all know to be true, and it is one of the founding principles of our existence (cogito ergo sum). The possibility of a mediating relation between nature and experience creates another layer of complexity and vulnerability in Hume’s argument. Because this counter argument critiques his main assumption and directly addresses his statement that passions cloud reasonable judgment, it puts another nail in the coffin for his disproof of miracles. Hume says that human interpretation is faulty, but we cannot separate our interpretation from our experience. We are only human, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot be otherwise.
The third, and Hume’s most determined condition against miracles, states that “not only [does] the miracle destroy the credit of [its] testimony, but the testimony destroys itself.” If experience is inseparably linked to the law of nature, and testimony is merely the communication of this connection, then—as previously established—there are no such things to even be testified about. Rejecting the existence of miracles, Hume concludes that there is no testimony that exists beyond deceit or delusion. If there were, it would go against the law of nature, and nothing in all our experience can go against the law of nature, which our experiences establish. It seems that Hume’s circular reasoning of natural law leading to sensation, and sensation to testimony, and testimony to veracity, and veracity back to natural law, serves as an airtight check against believing anything of questionable occurrence. Therefore, any testimony concerning miracles is automatically proof that the testimony itself is false. So, not only can testimony be diminished by the two reasons posed previously, but testimony of miracles “alone [is] a sufficient refutation.” Hume firmly holds that “no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to . . . a proof,” and just as it cannot even hope to prove the unnatural, it stands no chance at altering our faith in sensory experience for good reason.
Experience “assures us of the laws of nature” and “gives authority to human testimony” in accordance with those laws. Hume does not address how they came to be, only how they are confirmed. Any law without enforcement is an ephemeral suggestion, but Hume’s law of nature somehow possesses the power to determine truth from falsehood. Is its authority baseless? In order to function the way that Hume intends, the law must have a judge, and this entity must be beyond nature—in other words, supernatural. Man cannot be this mediator for, as Hume notes, his judgment is fallible and easily deceived. Hume seems to attribute this authority to nature itself, but this cannot be. The power to enforce comes from something or someone removed from the plane of judgment, vertical rather than horizontal. So for nature to be absolute, a higher, final, and absolute power must exist. We might call this entity “God.” If this is so, the law of nature is contingent on a being who has authority over nature, transcending the limits of the law, and able to perform what Hume calls impossible: miracles. Herein we find the most convincing contradiction, that Hume requires the miraculous in order to maintain that there are no miracles.
Hume was an atheist, and he strove to remove the supernatural from our experience. But I believe that the counterarguments above, while not necessarily proving him wrong, are sufficient to cast doubt on his theory. According to Hume, testimony cannot give reasonable grounds to undermine experience because that which is natural forbids discord between the two sources of information. Experience must be inseparable from natural reality in order for us to know any factual information about the world. If testimony ever opposes experience, it miraculously opposes nature, which “even supposing it amounted to a proof, would be [contradicted] by . . . the nature of the fact, which it would endeavor to establish.” But the true contradiction lies in the derivation of this absolute law. Its formation is tempted to subjectivity and misperception, and cannot be absolute without an absolute enforcer. Since Hume’s contradictory conclusion remains unsatisfactory, testimony may yet cast doubt on the senses, though this occurrence may be rare. Although Hume strives to reject the miraculous altogether, his proof ’s dependence on the law of nature requires a greater miracle—the ultimate miracle: God.
1 David Hume, Of Miracles. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 98.
2 Hume, 87–88.
4 Ibid., 98.
5 Hume, 90.
6 Ibid., 96.
7 Ibid., 98.
8 Ibid., 91.
10 Ibid., 92.
11 Ibid., 99.
12 Hume, 93.
13 Ibid., 92.
14 Ibid., 93.
15 Ibid., 94.
16 Ibid., 89.
17 Ibid., 99.
18 Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method.
19 Hume, 95.
20 Hume, 98.
21 Ibid., 86.
22 Ibid., 96.
23 Ibid., 86.
24 Ibid., 98.
Hope Chang (CC ’18) is a writer, a photographer, a metaphysicist, and a dreamer. Currently a struggling amateur designer, she wistfully hopes one day to earn a living wage sitting in a comfy chair philosophizing. She believes wholeheartedly in the transforming power of God’s love in her own life as well as in the lives of everyone around her.Tags: apologetics, atheism, David Hume, epistemology, Galileo, metaphysics, miracle, reason, science, truth