I recently spent time studying Hume’s argument against justified belief in miracles. I’ll present a brief sketch of his argument, and then I will give some of my thoughts about it. I encourage you to read the argument for yourself, given that I will provide only a short summary. It can be found in Section X of his work Concerning Human Understanding, which is what I will quote from. Furthermore, what follows is definitely some “open musing” on my part and thus should not be taken dogmatically. This is just something to ponder about for those interested.
- Hume believes that there are laws of nature governing the various functions of the world. We uniformly experience these laws such that, for example, fire always consumes wood and water extinguishes fire. This uniformity of experience constitutes a proof. As Hume said, “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.” If, for instance, one were to experience a “miracle,” it would be better for one to doubt his or her own eyes than to believe a miracle actually occurred. This is because one is never justified in believing either the testimony about or “experience” of a miracle because a miracle, by definition, is entirely contrary to everything we experience in the way the world operates. To quote Hume: “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.”
- In considering his argument, I’d like to make a distinction between (1) an individual being convinced through a miracle testimony and (2) an individual being justified in believing a certain miracle took place. Whether or not an individual would be convinced by testimony about a miracle is probably a subjective matter pertaining to what each individual finds personally convincing. However, at least from what I’ve observed, people generally want more evidence than only one miracle report if they are to believe something. For example, if one someone is considering becoming a Christian, they will want to know about who Jesus was and what he taught. The testimony about the miracle of the resurrection would probably not be enough to convince most to convert. If, for example, Jesus said crazy things like “Sacrifice your first born child,” people would not likely follow him. (I mentioned this before in this article.) Now, concerning (2), whether or not an individual is justified, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve heard arguments before given by William Lane Craig, who uses probability calculus to rebut objections to the resurrection on account of the “miracles are too improbable” arguments. However, I’m not a master of probability calculus, so I am not in a good position to judge whether or not Craig is correct. I’m open to reconsidering the argument. You can find Craig’s argument at the 40 minute mark of this video.
Hume elsewhere states that “A wise man propositions his belief to the evidence,” which is a classic evidentialist position. I, however, am not epistemically an evidentialist. I fall into Alvin Plantinga’s camp of functionalism. It is my position that the functionalist approach to epistemology adequately incorporates both Homo sapiens’ religious nature as well as one informed by evolutionary science. (My personal views about epistemology might not be relevant to this discussion, but I thought I’d present myself honestly, so any reader can know my assumptions).
Hume’s basic concern is that it is highly improbable that any person would receive an amount of evidence or testimony that could justify one believing in a miracle. However, I would like to note that there is a difference between these two categories: (1) propositional knowledge based on evidence and (2) knowledge via acquaintance.
For example, I can know many facts about Barack Obama (category 1), but given that I’ve never met him or talked to him personally, I am not acquainted with Barack Obama (category 2). Both of these forms of knowledge are legitimate.
Now, concerning religious belief and faith, which ultimately deals with miracles, I think Karl Barth provided some significant insight. For Barth, our knowledge about God is derived from God’s self-disclosure — i.e., revelation. However, in a Barthian framework, revelation is not propositional (category 1). Rather, revelation is an existential encounter in which we meet God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ (category 2). To use alternative terminology, revelation is primarily the result of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit (or, as it could also be called, the “Spirit of Christ”).
This Barthian approach means that my belief in the resurrection of Jesus (a miracle) is not based primarily on evidence (category 1), but rather upon my existential experience/encounter with a God who chose to reveal himself in the crucified and resurrected person of Jesus Christ (category 2). I believe in the resurrection of Christ via a knowledge of acquaintance.
It seems to me that this is primarily how most people come to believe in Christianity. Usually, one does not become a Christian because certain evidence for the resurrection seemed impossible to deny. Rather, one becomes a Christian because one believes to have a true religious encounter with God as revealed in Christ.
However, that is not to say that there is no evidence for the resurrection. From my research, the following six facts are granted by the majority of historians (the following points are taken from William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith. You can find them elsewhere, but I like his wording. He also wrote a Phd. dissertation on this subject):
- Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin.
- The tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of women followers on the first day of the week following his crucifixion.
- Various individuals and groups thereafter experienced on different occasions and under varying circumstances appearances of Jesus alive.
- The first disciples came to sincerely believe in Jesus’ resurrection regardless of the historical influences from either Judaism or pagan religions.
- James, who was not a believer during Jesus’ lifetime, converted to Christianity after an experience with the resurrected Jesus, and became a leader in the church.
- Paul converted to Christianity after being its main persecutor.
This evidence suggests that my knowledge via acquaintance with God-as-revealed-in-Christ aligns nicely with the relevant historical facts. These facts thus provide some warrant for my belief in the resurrection. Admittedly, these facts do not constitute a “knock-down” proof. Belief in the resurrection of Christ is, after all, ultimately a matter of faith — if we define faith as a response to a revelation from God. However, this is not an unreasonable faith. I certainly believe it has warrant.