Hume on Miracles and Charles Babbage’s Response

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:

  1. People who believe in miracles do so on the testimony of eyewitnesses.
  2. We believe eyewitnesses because we have experienced in the past a connection between their testimony and things known to be true.
  3. 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).
  4. The probability of the eyewitnesses’ being mistaken, duped, or dishonest outweighs the probability that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred.
  5. 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.

By the way, check out Jenkins’s books Hidden Gospels (on the Jesus Seminar), Jesus Wars (on the argument over Christ’s divinity), and the Future of Christianity trilogy.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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10 Responses to Hume on Miracles and Charles Babbage’s Response

  1. Ginger says:

    “…In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” 2 Corinthians 13:1 I tend to put more stock in the words and witness of the prophets and apostles than the reason of man. Miracles, I’ve seen a few. Faith precedes miracles not sign seeking.

  2. Stan Szczesny says:

    You have oversimplified Hume’s argument in several ways. His lengthy chapter on Miracles can not be summed up in 5 points, and the chapter is part of a larger work that actually takes Babbage’s argument into account. Hume critiques inductive logic generally, not just as it applies to religion. Atheists have found Hume’s argument disheartening, for it really amounts to a radical skepticism of all things, including science. Anyways, I don’t have time to go into matters, but readers should sit down a) with Hume’s chapter on miralces, and b) with the rest of the book, and then decide for themselves. As far as I know, Hume has never been effectually refuted by either scientists or religionists, though both have wanted to. Religionists may take refuge in faith, which Hume is fine with, as long as they recognize that reason has nothing to do with it. The scientific may take refuge in pragmatism, though most of them don’t realize that this is what they are doing, and that the inductive method of science is, in fact, never a demonstration of fact, but only of probability, however high the probability may be.

    • Dr. J says:

      Stan, this post was an elaboration on one facet of the Enquiry, which I went through in its entirety a month or two ago in the Great Books Project I’m tracking on this site. I stated in the post that I knew there was a risk of oversimplification in summarizing it the way I did, but simply to say, “Go read Hume’s whole work before trying to discuss any of these ideas,” will not be very helpful to most people. Do I think people should read Hume? Yes.

      Greg Bahnsen made liberal use of Hume’s line of argumentation in crafting the transcendental case for the existence of God in some highly publicized debates with atheists in the 1980s.

      My own take is that Hume gives us the reductio ad absurdum of empiricism. If we accept empiricism, we end up concluding we know nothing or next to nothing, but our daily experience contradicts that conclusion.

  3. Stan Szczesny says:

    Thanks for clearing things up. Your reply is fair and accurate. I am not familiar with Bahnsen’s take on the matter. I took my claims about atheists and scientists having fits with Hume from Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” in which Russell, desiring certainty, laments not being able to defeat Hume. By the way, I enjoy your blog.

  4. Victoria says:

    Dr.J.,
    Where does Henry Adams fit into all this? I’m about to tackle ‘Mont Saint Michel & Chartres’ – I didn’t read the excerpt last year but am fascinated by the architectural approach to philosophy – and am wondering about his modernist (all is fiction; there are no objective truths) claims.
    Vicki McCaffrey

  5. Dr. J says:

    I’ve read “The Education of Henry Adams” in addition to the two excerpts we had in the program last year, but don’t know much more about Adams than that. Mortimer Adler says in the introduction to the “Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres” excerpt that Adams was drawn to the 13th century because its zeitgeist was so different from Adams’s own pessimistic “world is running down” view. Adams was not an orthodox Christian; I think he was essentially an agnostic.

    • Victoria says:

      Thank you! My impression so far is that he was the type of agnostic who would like to believe, but can’t quite bring himself to it. I suspect that he prefers Christianity to all the other ‘fictions’

      • Victoria says:

        Oops! Clicked too soon. Just to finish the sentence: … and I’m interested to know what were his particular stumbling blocks, whether psychological, moral or otherwise.

  6. Mick says:

    “My own take is that Hume gives us the reductio ad absurdum of empiricism. If we accept empiricism, we end up concluding we know nothing or next to nothing, but our daily experience contradicts that conclusion.”

    I agree that blindly accepting the empirical with no room for ‘exceptions’ to the rule is obviously silly… however (and its a big however) you’d be a lot safer and more accurate doing even that, however absurd… than accepting the opposite… that the exception is more common than the rule!

    Whats weird however is that there is a huge industry on this planet with ‘classes’ held on Fridays, or Saturdays or Sunday mornings…where the exception to these rules (although not demonstrated) is accepted as TRUTH and the demonstrated rule is accepted as somehow something to be overcome. More than just general idea the absurd thing is when a hole is found in the story and even more absurd ‘solution’ is used to fill that hole …. to the point where some religions have their hero flying to the moon on donkeys, engaging in conversations with snakes and other animals… changing the chemical composition of a compound of hydrogen and oxygen commonly referred to as water in to a complex fermented beverage.

    These are utterly ridiculous notions… they don’t need defending to be honest…

    So yes being utterly strict in interpretation of observations is too strong… but thats not a reason to run about claiming the opposite is the case with zero reason to think its the case.

    • Dr. J says:

      “You’d be a lot safer and more accurate doing even that, however absurd… than accepting the opposite… that the exception is more common than the rule!”

      I honestly don’t know of any religious group that claims this. Even Pentecostals who believe that miraculous works of the Holy Spirit occur in every one of their worship services would say that these occurrences make up a tiny fraction of all the events that take place around the world on an ongoing basis.

      Are the “utterly ridiculous notions” to which you refer the belief that any supernatural occurrence or miracles have ever taken place? If so, are you simply reiterating Hume’s position or adding something that I haven’t already discussed in the post above?

      “thats not a reason to run about claiming the opposite is the case with zero reason to think its the case”: But the people who believe in supernatural occurrences don’t have “zero reason to think its [sic] the case.” It may be that their reasons aren’t good ones, but if you’re evaluating those reasons according to the underlying assumptions of empiricism, you’re just begging the question, right?

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