In explaining Hume's critique of the belief in miracles, we must first understand the definition of a miracle. The Webster Dictionary defines a miracle as: a supernatural event; one of the acts worked by Christ which revealed his divinity; an extremely remarkable achievement or event; an unexpected piece of luck. Therefore, a miracle is based on one's perception of past experiences, what everyone sees. It is based on an individual's own reality, and the faith in which he/she believes; it is based on interior events such as what we are taught, and exterior events, such as what we hear or see first hand. When studying Hume's view of a miracle, he interprets or defines a miracle as such; a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, an event which is not normal to most of mankind.
Hume explains this point brilliantly when he states, "Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it has ever happened in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man seemingly in good health should die on a sudden." (Hume p.888) Hume states that this death is quite unusual, however it seemed to happen naturally. He could only define it as a true miracle if this dead man were to come back to life. This would be a miraculous event because such an experience has not yet been observed. Hume critiques and discredits the belief in a miracle merely because it goes against the laws of nature. Hume defines the laws of nature to be what has been "uniformly" observed by mankind, such as the laws of identity and gravity. He views society as being far too liberal in what they consider to be a miracle. He gives the reader four ideas to support his philosophy in defining a true miracle, or the belief in a miracle. These points leads us to believe that there has never been a miraculous event established.
Hume's first reason in contradicting a miracle is that throughout history there has not been a miraculous event with a sufficient number of witnesses. He questions the integrity of mankind and how we can trust the testimony of men. Throughout the passage, Hume is constantly looking for proof to support a miracle. He asks questions such as; Who is qualified? Who has the authority to say who qualifies? As there are no plausible answers to these questions, the validity of having witnesses to miracle becomes impossible.
Hume's second reason in contradicting the validity of a miracle is that he views all of our beliefs, or what we choose to accept, or not accept as a result of past experience and what history dictates to us. Furthermore, he tends to discredit an individual by playing on a human being's consciousness or sense of reality. An example of this is when words such as the individual's need for "excitement" and "wonder" arise from miracles. Even the individual who cannot enjoy the pleasure immediately will still believe in a miracle, regardless of the possible invalidity of the miracle because it leads the individual to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of pride. These individuals tend to be the followers within society and will believe faster than the leaders in the society. Miracles lead to such strong temptations, that we as individuals tend to lose sense of our own belief of fantasy and reality. As individuals we tend to believe to find attention, and to gossip of the unknown. Through emotions and behavior Hume tends to believe that there have been many forged miracles, regardless if the information is somewhat valid or not.
Hume's third reason in discrediting the belief in a miracle is testimony versus reality. Hume states, "It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous events, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous ancestors; or if civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from these barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend perceived opinions." (Hume p.891) In any case many of the miraculous events which happened in past history would not be considered a miracle in today's world, or at any other time in history. The reality most people believed at that period, as a result can be considered lies or exaggerations. Hume discredits the miracle as to the time period in which the miracle is taking place, the mentality, or the reality of individuals at that given time. Hume suggests that during certain times in history we are told of miraculous accounts of travelers. "Because we as individuals love to wonder, there is an end to common sense, and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority." (Hume p.890)
The final point Hume gives to discredit the validity of a miracle is that there must be a number of witnesses to validate the miracle. "So that not only the miracle destroys the credit of testimony, but the testimony destroys itself." (Hume p.892). This basically means that the witnesses must all give the exact same testimony of the facts of the event. Hume finds difficulty in the belief or integrity of any individual, and the difficulty of detecting falsehood in any private or even public place in history. "Where it is said to happen much more when the scene is removed to ever so small a distance." (Hume p.892) A court of justice with accuracy and judgment may find themselves often distinguishing between true and false. If it is trusted to society through debate, rumors, and man's passion, it tends to be difficult to trust the validity of the miracle.
Throughout the rest of the readings Hume states a few events which many believe are miracles. He discredits many of these miracles through his critiques. I have chosen to illustrate two "so-called" miracles from the New American Bible and to show how Hume would view these miracles. The stories are of Noah's Ark and The Burning Bush. The story of Noah's Ark took place when the Lord began to realize how great man's wickedness on earth had become. He began to regret the fact that he had created man on earth. The lord decided the only way to rid the wickedness would be to destroy all men, and all living creatures living on the earth. The only men which he would not destroy were to be Noah, his sons, Noah's wife and his son's wives. He also would save a pair of animals of each species. The rest were to perish from the earth. He chose Noah to be the favor and carry out the task. The Lord requested Noah to build an ark explained exactly how it was to be made. Noah spent six hundred years of his life building the ark. When the ark was finally completed, The Lord told Noah it was time to gather the selected few as the floods were about to come. These floods lasted forty days and forty nights. The floods wiped out all living creatures on earth, except those on the ark. In the six hundred and first year of Noah's life the floods stopped and the earth began to dry. As God states "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man's heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever strike down all living beings, as I have done."
In deciding upon whether this is a valid miracle in Hume's opinion of miracles, I believe he would consider it to be a miracle but would have a hard time validating the testimony of it. He would question the validity of the event because of the time period in which it happened and the few people that witnessed it. Although this miracle was an act of God, we can still question the validity of the event. Hume would not be satisfied with the integrity of the individuals or the amount of witnesses at the given time. Therefore we can only view this as a miracle depending upon our own individual perceptions of what we believe to be true. This leads to a non uniform event since we as individuals hold different beliefs of what we hold true, and false.
The second miracle which I will discuss was that of Moses and the burning bush. As Moses was working in the fields, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in fire flaming out of the holy bush. As he walked closer, he heard the voice, the voice of God telling Moses that he was the chosen one to take the Israelites out of Egypt and away from the cruel hands of the Egyptians. In disbelief that he was the chosen one he set forth on his journey to Egypt with God watching over him and leading the way. As Moses leads the Israelite's out of Egypt he comes to the Red Sea with the Egyptians close behind. As the Bible explains, the miracle takes place when the Red Sea splits allowing the Israelite's to gain freedom. As the Egyptians were crossing the sea in close pursuit, the sea "closed it's gates" and let them drown within the waters of the sea. In justifying whether Hume would discredit this miracle he would definitely see how one may say it is a miracle, but again would have a hard time validating the testimony of the miracle. Again we see the pattern that there is no one to testify for the event. We can only view this as a truthful experience through our belief in God and the Bible. It is what we are taught to believe through religious texts, and our house of worship. It is the individual's perception of reality and what he or she believes to be a valid event.
Following Hume's philosophy, a miracle is actually based on an individual's own perception of past and present experiences. The belief in a miraculous event tends to have no real evidence but appears to be based on man's hope and individual sense of reality.