A few weeks ago, I deferred commenting in my weekly Great Books post on David Hume’s argument in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding against miracles, writing that I wanted to devote an entire post to the subject. Between my travels, difficulty in finding a source, and sheer laziness, I am only now making good on that commitment.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Enquiry, Hume constructs an argument against miracles based on experience and probability. At the risk of oversimplifying his line of reason, I summarize it as follows:
- People who believe in miracles do so on the testimony of eyewitnesses.
- We believe eyewitnesses because we have experienced in the past a connection between their testimony and things known to be true.
- One who has never experienced a miracle is forced to choose between two authorities: his own uniform experience and the testimony of the witness(es).
- The probability of the eyewitnesses’ being mistaken, duped, or dishonest outweighs the probability that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred.
- Thus, no testimony of a miracle can ever be accepted.
Hume elsewhere comes very close to defining a miracle as simply “something that can’t happen,” and then concluding tautologically that because miracles can’t happen, they don’t.
I was alerted to the existence of an important 19th-century reply to Hume by Philip Jenkins’s article in the December 2011 issue of Chronicles magazine. Charles Babbage, the English mathematician who first came up with the idea of a programmable computer, authored a work titled the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Creation in 1837. According to Jenkins, Babbage claimed that Hume didn’t really understand probability and misapplied it in his argument against miracles.
Here’s Jenkins’s summary of one of Babbage’s main points:
Babbage illustrated his case by comparing the universe to a great calculating machine. Imagine, he says, that you are watching the machine perform a lengthy series of calculations, and you observe that it is producing a sequence of square numbers. But when the machine produces one number that does not fit the pattern, its maker explains that he has from the beginning programmed it to produce these odd results, and that this programming is fundamental to the very structure of the machine. The ” contriver of the machine . . . has power to order any number of such apparent deviations from its laws to occur at any future periods, however remote, and that each of these may be of a different kind.” God intervening to part the Red Sea is very impressive–but how much greater is the overarching power and knowledge of a God who had preprogrammed such exceptions to natural law into the workings of the cosmic machine!
Babbage’s argument is one of “natural theology.” In other words, it is not uniquely or specifically Christian, but could be employed by anyone who believes in an omnipotent Creator. It shows that Hume’s argument is not sufficient to disprove the rationality of believing the testimony of witnesses to miracles.
Now that this argument has been rediscovered, I expect all the textbooks to be updated to include this important response to Hume! Actually, you probably shouldn’t hold your breath; that inclusion wouldn’t fit the dominant narrative of religion as passé in the modern world.