David Hume

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David Hume (1711-1776) is often cited by skeptics to dispute miraculous claims and to dismiss Christianity. Hume wrote about it in Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding:

Our Evidence, then, for the Truth of the Christian Religion is less than the Evidence for the Truth of our Senses; because, even in the first Authors of our Religion, it was no greater; and ’tis evident it must diminish in passing from them to their Disciples; not can any one be so certain of the Truth of their Testimony as of the immediate Objects of his Senses.

Evidence for Christianity has primarily relied on testimonial evidence (textual evidence). Hume claims “Truth of the Senses” (observational evidence) is stronger than testimonial evidence, particularly when it is not first hand accounts.

A wise Man, therefore, proportions his Belief to the Evidence.

Don’t disagree with this.

All Probability, then, supposes an Opposition of Experiments and Observations; where the one Side is found to over-balance the other, and to produce a Degree of Evidence, proportion’d to the Superiority.

There are a Number of Circumstances to be taken into Consideration in all Judgments of this Kind; and our ultimate Standard, by which we determine all Disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always deriv’d from Experience and Observation.

He asserts direct observational evidence is the strongest type of evidence and not testimonial evidence. In a court of law, this is not actually true. If someone confesses guilt to a crime, it is one of the strongest forms of evidence.

A Miracle is a Violation of the Laws of Nature; and as a firm and inalterable Experience has establish’d these Laws, the Proof against a Miracle, from the very Nature of the Fact, is as entire as any Argument from Experience can possibly be imagin’d, Why is it more than probable, that all Men must die; that Lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the Air; that Fire consumes Wood, and is extinguish’d by Water; unless it be that these Events are found agreeable to the Laws of Nature, and there is requir’d a Violation of these Laws, or in other Words, a Miracle, to prevent them? Nothing is esteem’d a Miracle if it ever happen in the common Course of Nature. ‘Tis no Miracle that a Man in seeming good Health should die of a sudden; because such a Kind of Death, tho’ more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observ’d to happen.

Hume states since direct observational evidence of miracles is lacking, we should be skeptical of miraculous claims. I don’t disagree with this too much, but I would disagree that because we do not personally observe miracles that it means all miracles can be categorically ruled out. There are many things that we do not have direct observational evidence for, but it does not mean they do not exist. Dark energy and dark matter supposedly makes up for 95% of the universe, but there is no direct observational evidence of either of them.

Violating the laws of nature also does not rule out the existence of something. Singularities do not follow the laws of nature, but few claim that singularities do not exist.

But ’tis a Miracle, that a dead Man should come to Life; because that has never been observ’d, in any Age or Country. There must, therefore, be an uniform Experience against every miraculous Event, otherwise the Event would not merit that Appellation. And as an 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 destroy’d, or the Miracle render’d credible, but by an opposite Proof, that is superior.

True, nobody has observed a bona fide dead person come back to life. And in particular, someone that has been beaten, scourged, crucified, pierced in the side, and interred in a tomb for over 36 hours and then to walk out alive. But because it has not ever happened is not “proof” it cannot happen. It only means it is improbable to happen.

The Big Bang has never been observed to happen. And as far as we know, it has not happened more than once. So, using Hume’s logic, therefore the Big Bang never happened.

The plain Consequence is (and ’tis a general Maxim worthy of our Attention) “That no Testimony is sufficient to establish a Miracle, unless the Testimony be of such a Kind, that its Falshood would be more miraculous, than the Fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that Case, there is a mutual Destruction of Arguments, and the Superior only gives us an Assurance suitable to that Degree of Force, which remains, after deducting the Inferior.”

This is a false dichotomy. He says the only way to accept the testimony of a miracle is to compare it to the testimony of another miracle.

When any one tells me, that he saw a dead Man restor’d to Life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this Person should either deceive or be deceiv’d, or that the Fact he relates should really have happen’d. I weigh the one Miracle against the other, and according to the Superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my Decision, and always reject the greater Miracle. If the Flashood of his Testimony would be more miraculous, than the Event, which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my Belief or Opinion.

Someone being deceived is not a miracle. Hume defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.” So, his argument and usage of the term miracle are not consistent.

However, I will agree if there is a viable naturalistic explanation, it should be accepted over any miraculous claim.

It forms a very strong Presumption against all supernatural and miraculous Relations, that they are always found chiefly to abound amongst ignorant and barbarous Nations;

This is an ad hominem argument and fallacious.

Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no Testimony for any Kind of Miracle can ever possibly amount to a Probability, much less to a Proof; and that even supposing it amounted to a Proof, ‘twould be oppos’d by another Proof, deriv’d from the very Nature of the Fact, which it would endeavour to establish. ‘Tis Experience only, which gives Authority to human Testimony; and ’tis the same Experience, which assures us of the Laws of Nature.

I would agree only probabilities exist for testimonial claims and is not proof of it being true.

I would also agree if a testimony aligns with normal human experience then it is generally to be accepted over other explanations.

When, therefore, these two Kinds of Experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an Opinion, either on the one Side or the other, with that Assurance, which arises from the Remainder. But according to the Principle here explain’d, this Subtraction, with regard to all popular Religions, amounts to an entire Annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a Maxim, that no human Testimony can have such Force as to prove a Miracle, and make it a just Foundation for any such System of Religion.

Not really sure what Hume is claiming here about subtraction, popular religions, or annihilation. But it seems like what he is saying is religions can all be discounted if they only rely on human testimony. Well, almost all human history relies on human testimony. Artifact evidence alone cannot fully reconstruct historical events. Even with an artifact, a narrative account needs to be written or drawn on it to know what happened in the past.

Our most holy Religion is founded on Faith, not on Reason; and ’tis a sure Method of exposing it to put it to such a Trial as it is, by no Means, fitted to endure.

I would disagree that Christianity is founded on faith and not reason. Skeptics like to claim this, but it is a false accusation. Out of all the religions, Christianity has a large contingency of apologists now and throughout history. And they base their arguments on rational reasoning and not merely on theological assertions.

To make this more evident, let us examine those Miracles, related in Scripture; and not to lose ourselves in too wide a Field, let us confine ourselves to such as we find in the Pentateuch, which we shall examine, as these pretended Christians would have us, not as the Word or Testimony of God himself, but as the Production of a mere human Writer and Historian.

OK, let’s look at the evidence Hume presents to argue against the Pentateuch.

Here then we are first to consider a Book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant People, wrote in an Age when they were still more barbarous, and in all Probability long after the Facts it relates; corroborated by no concurring Testimony, and resembling those fabulous Accounts, which every Nation gives of its Origin.

The argument is an ad hominem and a fallacious argument. As CS Lewis notes, it is chronological snobbery to think people in the past were barbarous and ignorant people and we are the smart and sophisticated people.

Upon reading this Book, we find it full of Prodigies and Miracles. It gives an Account of a State of the World and of human Nature entirely different from the present.

Yes, things in the past were different than things are now. We even see this in the fossil record where living things in the past were much larger than they are now.

Of our Fall from that State: Of the Age of Man, extended to near a thousand Years:

If living things in the past were much larger, then obviously they also had lived much longer.

Of the Destruction of the World by a Deluge

Actually, the evidence of geology is better explained by a worldwide flood as I discussed earlier in this thread.

Of the arbitrary Choice of one People, as the Favourites of Heaven; and that People, the Countrymen of the Author

Don’t see any relevance of this to the Bible being fictional.

Of their Deliverance from Bondage by Prodigies the most astonishing imaginable

I’m assuming he’s referring to the exodus from Egypt. I’ve also discussed this earlier in this thread.

I desire any one to lay his Hand upon his Heart, and after serious Consideration declare, whether he thinks, that the Falshood of such a Book, supported by such a Testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the Miracles it relates; which is, however, necessary to make it be receiv’d, according to the Measures of Probability above establish’d.

After serious consideration and study, I lay my hand on my heart and I do declare the truth of the Torah and literally accept all the major claims in it.

So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion, not only was at first attended with Miracles, but even at this Day cannot be believ’d by any reasonable Person without one. Mere Reason is insufficient to convince us of its Veracity: And whoever is mov’d by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued Miracle in his own Person, which subverts all the Principles of his Understanding, and gives him a Determination to believe what is most contrary to Custom and Experience.

I conclude the opposite. The Christian religion is found to be truthful when one deeply studies it, which involves looking at extra-Biblical evidence from many disciplines. Those who reject the Christian claims have to resort to fallacious arguments and simply just reassert skeptical claims without a deep study of the topic.