Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hume, David -"Of Miracles"

Rough Sketch of Hume's Argument


Hume's chapter 'Of Miracles' is divided into two parts. Part I can be described as proceeding loosely according to the following argumentative structure:
  1. A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence
  2. He weighs the opposite results to come to a conclusion
  3. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature
  4. The evidence for the law of nature will be previous experience
  5. This previous experience in favor of the law of nature will necessarily be uniform (or approach uniformity)
  6. Evidence for a miracle is testimony
  7. Evidence for the veracity of the testimony will be previous experience with testimony
  8. This previous experience for the veracity of testimony (is?, will usually be?) less than uniform
  9. Thus, the evidence for the law of nature (has always?, will always? necessarily must?) outweigh the evidence for the veracity of the testimony for the miracle[1]


This sketch should be taken as rough and provisional. As noted above, much of the philosophical debate revolving around Hume's 'Of Miracles' is intertwined with interpretive issues. Different scholars give diverse accounts of Hume's argument as well as varied appraisals of its cogency.


In Part II, Hume offers a number of empirical factors counting against the veracity of testimony for the occurrence of particularly religious miracles, including:
  1. There are never sufficient, reliable witnesses to the occurrence of miracles
  2. Individuals have an innate propensity to gossip and tell tales about the occurrence of miracles
  3. The occurrence of miracles is chiefly reported by ignorant and barbarous peoples
  4. The miracles from various religions all act as counter-evidence against each other


In Part II, Hume also contrasts an instance in which he would not accept testimonies of the occurrence of a miracle, widespread reports that the Queen of England had died and was resurrected, with an instance in which he would accept reports of the occurrence of a secular marvel, widespread reports that there had been a worldwide 'enduring darkness' for a number of days.[2] It is crucially significant that Hume claims the ability to discriminate between secularly marvelous events and religiously miraculous events; he accepts reports of marvels, while rejects testimonies to miracles. Whether Hume's argument actually entitles him to this distinction has become a central interpretive and philosophical point in discussions of 'Of Miracles.'[3]


[1] Adapted from Patricia Kitcher, "History of Philosophy II: Aquinas to Kant Lecture" (Columbia University, New York, Spring 2009), 4/06.

[2] Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and the Posthumous Essays 'Of the Immortality of the Soul' and 'Of Suicide' and from An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 'Of Miracles', 122 - 123

[3] Related to this distinction is Hume's famous discussion in Part I of an Indian Prince who, according to Hume, unjustifiably rejects reports that water can freeze (Ibid., 110). Whether Hume's discussion of miracles entitles him to this judgment is also the subject of interpretive and philosophical debate. In the following, however, this passage will not be directly addressed. Instead, Hume's direct comparison of the secular marvel and religious miracle will be analyzed as it provides the most explicit contrast between Hume's positions and largely subsumes the former passage.


PS: This is an excerpt from a longer paper I wrote dealing with interpretive and philosophical problems in Hume's argument. This is the rough sketch of the argument, what is basically accepted by everyone, before a delve into the more complicated issues. If you want that paper, I can send it to you. (YYB)

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