“A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”1 When David Hume wrote this definition in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he said he had “discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.”2 This argument, however, is reliant on the rhetorically loaded definition he invented, which ultimately disproves something no one “wise and learned” actually believed.
Hume argues that miracles are logically impossible, because they are defined as breaking the laws of nature, and everyone knows through the sum of their empirical observation that breaking the laws of nature is impossible. He says that even if a miracle has a multitude of personal eyewitnesses, their testimony must be weighed against that of the sensory data we have received over a lifetime asserting that the natural laws are consistent and unbreakable and necessary for the continued function of the world and our sciences.
A God who created the world and its initial conditions with perfect knowledge of the outcomes would have no need of “miracles,” as defined by Hume. Hume uses the word “marvel” for what any other English speaker would call a “miracle.” Hume’s definition sets up a strawman version of the belief in miracles for him disprove.
“But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail,…”3
This method of reconciling contradictory proofs is epistemologically bankrupt. If two contradictory things seem to be proven, it is illogical to weigh which one is more proven than the other. When contradictory proofs appear, it should be obvious that one or both proofs are flawed, or, more likely, that the terms on which the proofs are evaluated are inconsistently used or poorly defined. Ignoring the problematic use of the word “proof” to evaluate empirical data, it’s quite clear that the words “marvelous” and “miraculous” are being used dishonestly.
The phenomena Hume classifies as “marvelous” are what typical English-speaking Christians would call “miraculous.” But in assigning a new definition to the term, Hume creates the appearance of a logical contradiction:
1. Impossible (Hume’s definition of “miraculous”) events have been witnessed.
2. Impossible events cannot occur
3. Therefore, the witness is invalid
If we use some definition of miracle that is more consistent with the claims of the believer, we would not assert that impossible events have been witnessed, only events that are unexplainable, or explainable only to God or a mystic. This removes the illusion of a logical contradiction:
1. Unexplainable (layman’s definition of “miraculous”) events have been witnessed.
2. Impossible events cannot occur.
Hume’s argument against miracles is only fatal to a conception of God and miracles that very few people, if any, actually hold: that God is subject to natural laws, that he did not create the world or as least did not fully anticipate the consequences of doing so, and that he cannot create miracles consistent with natural laws. It’s an argument that still shows up in contemporary atheism now and then, and it’s this kind of rhetorical slight of hand that demonstrates why we should always “doubt our doubts,” as President Uchtdorf counseled. We should always look for people being sneaky with their terms, and treat them like we would treat a magician’s trick.
Note: This essay was written in part for BYU’s Philosophy of Religion course (PHIL 215) in August of 2019 and was revised in June of 2021 for publication online. For a refutation of Hume’s epistemological framework and a proposed alternative, see my essay “Hume and True Skepticism: How Do We Know?“
1. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; repr., Project Gutenberg, 2003), Footnote 22, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm.
2. Hume, Enquiry, 86.
3. Hume, Enquiry, 90.
Top Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, circa 1601-1602.