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David Hume's Argument Against Belief In The Existence Of Miracles

2170 words - 9 pages

David Hume was a British empiricist, meaning he believed all knowledge comes through the senses. He argued against the existence of innate ideas, stating that humans have knowledge only of things which they directly experience. These claims have a major impact on his argument against the existence of miracles, and in this essay I will explain and critically evaluate this argument.

In his discussion 'Of Miracles' in Section X of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws”1. Basically a miracle is something that happens which is contrary to what would happen given the structure of the universe. He also states that a miracle is a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volation of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”2. Hume argues that it is impossible to deduce the existence of a deity from the existence of the world, and that causes cannot be determined from effects.

One of the most important aspects of Hume's argument is his understanding of probability. Hume states that belief is often a result of probability in that we believe an event that has occurred most often as being most likely. In relation to miracles this suggests that miraculous events should be labelled as a miracle only where it would be even more unbelievable for it not to be. This is Hume's argument in Part 1 Of Miracles, he states that if somebody tells you that a miracle has occurred you do not have to physically go out and look at the evidence to determine it, all you really need to do is consider the concept of the miracle and if it is a violation of the laws of nature, we have to reason in accordance with past experience and deem it false.
He goes on to state that that “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”3. In other words he is saying that no matter how good or reliable a testimony may be, it can never as it were on the basis of experience be justified to accept that testimony over and against what stands as testimony against the miracle happening. The testimony happens to be the laws of nature themselves. In this sense it is clear that Hume is giving us a priori argument in Part 1 in that he is saying that miracles are contrary to reason. However I think it would be easier to accept this view if Hume had not previously discussed his Induction theory. In regard that he thought that for example that just because the sun has risen every day so far, it does not necessarily follow that the sun will rise tomorrow, we have no rational basis in believing it will. However in regard to miracles he tells us to base our decisions on past experiences, if it is unlikely it is less likely to be true. So in that sense we should also be able to say that based on our past...

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