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Hume on Miracles

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Hume's empiricist ideology clearly informed his position on the topic of miracles. In the following, I will examine Hume's take on empiricism. From this it will be possible to deduce how Hume's empiricism played a prominent role in influencing his belief on miracles. First, what were the principles of Hume's empiricism? Hume claims that everyone is born with a blank slate (tabula rasa). The tabula rasa receives impressions which are products of immediate experience. For example, the color of the computer screen I am looking at represents an impression. Ideas, similarly, are derived from these antecedent impressions; we are not born with innate ideas, rather we achieve them from experience. There are three principles that connect ideas: resemblances, contiguity of time or place, and cause and effect (Hume, 321). Hume further advances that all reasoning concerning matters of fact are "founded on the relation of cause and effect" (Hume, 323). Hume's empiricism also states causes and effects are not discoverable by reason (the theories advanced by Descartes) but by experience. We do not know the sun will rise because of reason, but we can speculate that it will rise because of experience. Hume's primary argument is nature teaches us through experience, therefore we develop customs and habits through these experiences which give us our beliefs.

So what is Hume's position on miracles? Hume first defines the term miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature" (Hume, 391). Laws of nature are established (according to Hume) by experiences. Because laws of nature are established by past experiences and miracles are violations of these laws, we can then conclude that miracles are violations of these experiences. However, though these laws are statements of past uniform regularities, they do not guarantee uniformity; it is not logically necessary for laws of nature to continue.

Hume is a skeptic of miracles. He claims that it may be possible for a miracle to exist. However, he says that there can never be proper evidence to provide rational acceptance of miracles. Thus, even if miracles existed, they could never be proven. Hume also attacks the testimony of those who report miracles. Hume asserts, "We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in any kind of prodigy" (Hume, 393). A testimony may not be entirely accurate because the surprise and wonder of an apparent miracle may invoke emotions that cause the person to believe in the miracle, without exacting necessary scrutiny. However, he does not claim that they are impossible, just improbable. Therefore we are able to conclude Hume does accept the possibility of miracles, but would examine them with scrutiny.

So, how does Hume's empiricism relate to miracles? As previously mentioned, Hume contends that there exist uniform laws of nature. These laws are derived from uniform experience. A miracle, on the other hand, provides a contradiction to the uniform experience. Hume notes, however, that laws do not guarantee conformity, leaving the possibility of miracles. Hume also says that if you do accept these laws then you are not rational, therefore you are an empiricist. Furthermore, if you do not believe these laws necessitate future conformity, then you are not rational because our beliefs about future events are a result of prior experiences; you are in essence a fool or a madman. Also, if these laws appear to be broken then a rational person would not believe in them, therefore these laws are not true laws of nature and should not be accepted as such. Thus, a miracle, though possible, is improbable. Hume elaborates by saying, "a uniform experience amounts to a proof, 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" (Hume, 392). Hume uses the example of the resurrection of a dead person. He states that through experience we know that no person has risen from the dead. If a person were to rise from the dead, this would constitute a miracle. Recognizing the improbability of a miracle, Hume invokes "the hidden variable thesis," which means miracles, as violations of natural law, are less probable than any set of natural events required to explain the known facts. Essentially, there must be some other variable operating that is within the realm of the law of nature that would explain an apparent contradiction to our law of nature. In the aforementioned example, the apparent resurrection of a dead person might result because the person wasn't really dead, various nerves in the body were still operable-resulting in motion, or the person who reported this miracle was lying. Thus, Hume's explanation of the laws of



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