Hume's Argument That Miracles Are Absolutely Impossible

David Hume sets things up so that we would never find a miracle, however hard we look. Commenting on alleged miracles that occurred around the tomb of Abbe Paris, he concedes that many of them "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 theater that is now in the world" (1955, 132). That sounds pretty impressive. But Hume's response is this: "What have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events which they relate?" (1955, 133).

All reasonable people, he says, will take that assertion as a sufficient refutation. But how does he know that miracles (by his definition, transgressions of laws of nature) are "absolutely impossible"? The irony is that, according to Hume's own general philosophical principles, we cannot lay down in advance that anything is impossible. Experience is our only guide. Experience can only tell us what has happened so far, in our very limited life-span, in a small region of the earth. It cannot tell us what the future will be like or even whether the future will be like the past. It cannot tell us whether things are very different in different parts of the world or for people other than ourselves. It cannot tell us that there is any necessity in the laws of nature that renders them impervious to change or alteration.

One of the major conclusions of Hume's philosophy is that necessity cannot be shown to be an objective property of nature. We might think that the laws of nature are necessary, that there is some inner necessity that connects the same causes invariably with the same effects. But this is, he argues, an illusion. All we have is a "customary connection" made in human thought or imagination between two states, which have been observed always to have followed one another in the past (Inquiry, section 7, part 2).

Just because two states have been observed always to follow one another in the past, it by no means follows that they will always do so in the future. It does not even follow that they have always done so in the past, since we have only seen a tiny part of the past. So it seems that our belief that there are laws of nature that events necessarily obey is only a habit of thought, founded on very limited experience. It may very easily be wrong.

What on earth, according to Hume's own principles, could justify him in saying that an event that does not fall under a law of nature (such a law being no more than an invariable constant conjunction of two events) is "absolutely impossible"? Nothing more than habit or, we might as readily say, prejudice. It is not "all reasonable people" who will reject the possibility of miracles. It is incorrigibly prejudiced people who cannot rid themselves of ingrained habits of thought.

Hume actually concedes that events breaking laws of nature may occur, after all, but not, he says, where religion is concerned. "Should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion, men in all ages have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat" and would justify all men of sense in rejecting it "without further examination" (1955, 138). A careful initial skepticism about reports of miracles has been replaced by a full proof of deceit, a proof so complete that it needs no examination. Prejudice has rarely been quite so clearly expressed in the history of philosophy.

Is There a Firm and Unalterable Experience That Establishes Absolute Laws of Nature?

Hume says that no proof is needed in particular cases because "a firm and unalterable experience has established" the laws of nature: "As a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof . . . against the existence of any miracle" (1955, 123). But is it the case that a firm, unalterable, and uniform experience established the laws of nature? Whose experiences are we talking about here?

For thousands of years, nobody realized that there were any laws of nature. There were, of course, many observed regularities, but there were also many odd events that did not seem to fit into regular patterns at all. Common sense seems to show that things mostly happen regularly and predictably—the sun rises each morning and sets each evening. But common sense suggests that not everything in life is regular and predict-able—what my children are going to do next or whether a volcano will erupt; in terms of common sense, these events are anomalous and unpredictable. I am not suggesting these are miracles. I am just saying that the common experience of most people throughout human history is that there are both regularities and anomalous and unpredictable events.

The very idea of a law of nature is, at best, a late-medieval idea that came to fruition in the sixteenth century. To frame the idea required genius, not common sense. It required a leap of faith that mathematics is the language of nature and a determination to probe beneath sensory appearances to reduce phenomena to the operation of unwritten, mathematically specifiable laws upon unseen particles of which visible objects were said to be composed. This is a huge leap of imagination. So, whose firm, unalterable, and uniform experience establishes a law of nature? Only people who can solve differential equations, who are capable of postulating unseen "atoms" underlying the objects we perceive with our senses, and who can devise precise laws stating ideal relations between those atomic particles. The experiences in question are not experiences of common sense. They are the experiences of intellectual giants.

Since Newton's day, the laws of nature have become exponentially more difficult, mathematically, to the extent that hardly one person in a million can even state the laws of quantum field theory, let alone understand them. The firm atomic particles that were supposed to be the foundation of matter have disintegrated into the "particle zoo" of neutrons, gravitons, positrons, quarks, and goodness-knows-how-many other flickering and transient entities. Only highly trained people with graduate degrees in physics who work with particle accelerators are in any position even to identify such particles. And the deterministic laws of Newtonian mechanics have been subsumed into stochastic laws of quantum and chaos theory and models of multidimensional space/time that seem to most of us indistinguishable from the visions of science fiction.

It is, nevertheless, true that many laws of physics can be said to be well established and that the formulation of such laws constitutes the triumph of modern scientific method. It is still all a very long way from common sense. It is an equally long way from Hume's own empirical philosophy, whereby you just construct human knowledge by inference from immediate sensory impressions.

Observation is important in modern science. But it is not a matter of attending very closely to the sensory impressions that occur in everyday experience. A physical scientist has to build an apparatus in which such things as temperature and pressure, radiation background and electromagnetic fields can be precisely controlled. Then, a theory has to be constructed in accordance with which certain future observations in this closely controlled environment can be predicted. An experiment has to be set up, and the results recorded by the use of sophisticated instruments whose readings need to be interpreted by a highly trained observer. Finally, wherever possible, the whole thing is repeated, varying the boundary conditions and usually modifying calculations to fit the observed results more closely.

Good scientific work in physics is not something that just anybody can do. It requires great mathematical skill, a fertile imagination, the ability to think up fruitful experimental situations, a sort of intuitive feel for an elegant theory, and the courage to challenge established thinking and try out apparently wild ideas. Any physicist who talks about a firm, unalterable, and uniform experience as the backing for the formulation of a law of nature will be rightly laughed out of the laboratory.

 
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