Many considered David Hume as one of the greatest skeptics

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Many considered David Hume as one of the greatest skeptics

Many considered David Hume as one of the greatest skeptics

Many considered David Hume as one of the greatest skeptics in the historical series of philosophy. According to John Laird, he has remained a complete Pyrrhonian with respect to all ultimate principles (Popkin, 1951). The concept of miracles as expounded by Hume has received both critical praise as well as denouncing. In any case, Hume’s conceptualisation about miracle remains one of the great debates in modern philosophy.

Concept of Miracles

Every religion always includes record of events related to miracle. Bible has tales about the ten plagues on Egyptians and about the parting of the Red Sea; Islam has tales about Mohammed rising to heaven from Jerusalem; and Hindus have tales about Lord Krishna, an incarnation. The definition of miracle according to religions or any faith may vary. It may be natural to some or it is unnatural.

Jewish and Christian scriptures include claims of miracles upon which major philosophical discussion about credibility of miracles has been focused. Until and unless the concept of miracle is clarified, arguments against or in favour of it cannot be evaluated clearly (McGrew, 2010). Sherlock described it as an interruption in the course of nature. St. Thomas Aquinas defines it as an event that exceeds the productive power of nature encompassing ourselves and any other substantially similar creatures. Further, Larmer describes such interruption as being caused by agents not wholly bound by nature. Samuel defined miracle “a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superiour to Man, for the Proof or Evidence of some particular Doctrine, or in attestation to the Authority of some particular Person” (McGrew, 2010) . This explanation of the term signifies involvement of violation of nature in order that an event is counted a miracle. However, Richard Swinburne (1970) noted such violation or counter-instance to a law of nature considered a miracle is non-repeatable in nature (Brown, 2011).


An analysis about the concept of a miracle produces three aspects, that of the supernatural, the psychological and the symbolistical. According to the first aspect, a miracle involves interrupting the course of the natural processes. Second aspect provides miracle as involving religious consciousness. The third aspect term miracle as comprehension of God that features religious level related to the evolution of human (Astapov, 2016). The philosophy of Hume belongs to supernatural aspect. A look at the phrase and definition coined by David Hume will throw another perspective and initiate a discussion around the concept and credibility claims of miracle and.

Hume’s Theory and Critics

Hume defined miracle “as a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any arguments from experience can possibly be imagined. 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 extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature” (LP Pojman & Rea, 2012). Thus, according to him, miracle is a violation of law of nature and he cited examples such as natural death of humans to be proof against existence of miracle. According to him, any event is not a miracle if it takes a common course of nature. Hume claims that witnesses are mistaken to belief in occurrence of miracles as they are not aware of the law of nature. He states that religion creates or is bound to miracles and in turn the scope of miracle is to establish the religious system, thereby creating an equal level of force behind the two strong enough to remove other existing system (Astapov, 2016).

In reply to Hume’s claim that miracle is a violation of law of nature, Mr. Starkie pointed out that a fact claimed to have occurred “cannot be contrary to one’s experience, unless that person was actually present at the time and place, and have seen the contrary of what is asserted.” He further state thus that miracles cannot be violation of law of nature. Continuing on this, he states that miracle or violation of laws of nature can indicate an event that was never observed earlier, or an event never observed before can be deemed to have violated laws of nature. He cited misapprehension on the part of Hume and his principle around the term contrary and states observed that an event never observed earlier be properly termed as being contrary to experience (Lawrence, 1970).

A miracle is considered to be out of the ordinary and apparently contrary to humans’ expectation about nature and attributed to something supernatural or extraordinary. Take the case of Miracle of the Sun that occurred on October 13, 1917 near Fatima in Portugal. Hume discarded this event as being miraculous by illustrating with a statement “just because the Sun has come up every single morning during our lifetime, that provides us with absolutely no guarantee that it will come up tomorrow” (Warwick, 2011).

Another aspect to Hume’s theory in miracle is when he stated that religions, including Christianity are rooted in irrational emotions rather than reason. He said:

“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 believed by any reasonable person without one, Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of it veracity. And whosoever is moved by Faith to asset 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” (LP Pojman & Rea, 2012).

There are several questions to argue against the philosophy that Hume has laid down above. One question was determining the factor that distinguishes between an event that falsifies law and an event caused by supernatural and causing intrusion into natural law. What and where is the proof of natural causation leading to violation. Some claimed that Hume’s definition of miracle is reportive and need supplementation of religious significance, as mysterious events of nature are not considered miracles (Norton, 1993).

Considered most celebrated, Hume’s article “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” lay down his beliefs against miracles. He put forth his views seeking out to Scottish Presbyterians who are his readers, by stating a proof made by Dr. Tillotson against the Roma Catholic transubstantiation doctrine of presence of body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Hume laid emphasis that people cannot believe in this doctrine by relying on Dr. Tillotson’s argument that this doctrine always contradicts the rules of reasoning and human senses, and that the truth of this doctrine cannot be more evident than that of sense and cannot destroy the truth of senses. Hume also stated that a belief has to have some evidence just like the existence of evidence of laws of nature. He further states that miracles are not logically, but theoretically possible and he applied laws of nature in demanding people not to have any belief in it. He cites various instances of existence of nature that any witness to miracle occurring is outweighed by law if nature. If there is a claim of miracle, nobody is justified to believe in it until and unless the natural cause of this event is found (LP Pojman & Rea, 2012).

The philosophy of Hume leaves many open questions to fellow beings in their belief of existence or non-existence of miracle. An answer needs to be found for questions around possibility of or justification of believing in miracle. Hume’s statement against believing in miracle is based on deployment of law of nature to remove report of miracle reporters (Example: Resurrection). Such report and associated supports act as testimony to occurrence of miracles. The law of nature provides solid experience of regular course of events and is sufficiently enough to attract preferences than the report of miracle reporters ruling out occurrence of miracles and discarding the testimony (Benjamin F. Armstrong, 1992). Hume drew criticism from Clive Staples Lewis, who showed an important weakness in Hume’s argument. He stated that Resurrection has sufficient evidentiary values and provides sufficient evidence for its occurrence (Wielenberg, 2008).

Hume’s views and criticism on miracle has led to a few important matters of concern. Firstly, there are no facts, but evidence in the form of witnesses regarding an event that is considered miracle. The problem is to determine the competency of the witnesses. Secondly, similar nature of evidences in various religions prevents retains the falsehood tag on miracles. This further reinforces the view that a miracle that is non-repetitive in nature is rare to find. St. Thomas Aquinas stated that supernatural events or religious miracles are one of natural occurrences, but they differ because of their rareness and ability to create influence upon religious consciousness (Astapov, 2016). John Locke concurred with Aquinas and he stated:

“The evidence of our Saviour’s mission from heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles that he did, before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God and unquestionable verity” (Locke, 1823).

J.L. Mackie stated Hume did not rule out the probability of existence of miracle. Studying Hume’s take on miracle, Mackie states that reason need not necessarily depend on uniformity of nature as deductions using reason may sometime be invalid. However, M.P. Levine defied this probability arguments of Mackie and stated Mackie’ misunderstanding of Hume’s theory. According to Hume, arguments deducted from cause and effect and are rid of uncertainty are proofs, and those ridden with uncertainty are probability (Levine, 1989).

Hume observed on his theory of cause and effect that rational behind causes and effect is based on instinct of human nature and the rational may be fallacious and deceitful. This may be interpreted as taking rational leading to partial demonstration or that there is an element of probability. Hume posed “the problem of induction” in 1739 that aimed to show that there is no justification for any opinion about things that have not been observed. There is a rational in this statement in that for what is not observed, any prediction does not entail any degree of confidence. It therefore includes the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, and any opinion to be justified shall be limited to the “narrow sphere of our memory and senses” (Lange, 2011). Mentioned may be made here of Bayes and Price rejection of the straight rule of induction of Humes. According to them, consideration arising from rationality rules that the level of belief shall conform to the principle of probability and that earlier distribution of probability need to feature a prescribed form. The rule of uniformity as described in Hume’s theory is not certainty but probability and that the highest level of uniformity and frequency of events occurring do not guarantee or proof that the event will occur in future or will always occurs in future (Earman, 2000).

Further to Hume’s rule of uniformity applied to define a miracle, an aspect of presumptive law has been drawn to Hume’s statement:

“When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. 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 falsehood 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” (Hume, 2012).

It is stated that it would be impossible to prove the existence of miracle as defined by Hume and that overturn the presumptive law. Also, the concept of miracle laid down by Hume does not seem to clarify the difference between miracles and marvelous events that are rare and unusual. Therefore, his definition faces criticism in that the kind of miracle he defines is near to impossible to find, and he does not create any space to cover anything marvelous. Hume’s definition of miracle as violation of laws of nature is self contradictory as it shows law is not a law, and as supernatural interruption is also self contradictory as it does not indicate any violation (Earman, 2000).

As a criticism against Hume’s views on miracle, it is stated that Hume erred in two significant ways. Firstly, he erred in claiming that evidence of laws of nature determines the assessment of probability of occurrence of a miracle. Secondly, existence of improbability of occurrence of an event is itself a probability of truth of miracle report of the event. Some of Hume’s statement implied that there can be no miracle report that satisfactorily explained that it contains error, as the report was created with recounts of actual events (Houston, 1994). Hume's argument around miracle focused on the human’s experience about miracle as being infrequent relative to that of natural law and that violation of natural law contains direct destruction of the credibility of testimony to miracle. Hume apparently placed the destructive aspect as obstacle to credibility of miracle reports (Breggen, 1994).


    1. Popkin, R. H., 1951. David Hume: His Pyrrhonism and His Critique of Pyrrhonism. The Philosophical Quarterly , 1(5), pp. 385-407.
    2. Brown, C., 2011. Issues in the history of the debates on miracles. In: The Cambridge Companion to Miracles. s.l.:Cambridge University Press, p. 273.
    3. Astapov, S., 2016. THREE CONCEPTIONS ON THE NATURE OF A MIRACLE. European Journal of Science and Theolog, 12(3), pp. 1-9.
    4. LP Pojman, L. & Rea, M., 2012. Philosophy of religion: An anthology. s.l.:Cengage Learning.
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    6. Lawrence, A. H., 1970. An Examination of Hume's Argument on the Subject of Miracles. s.l.:University Microfilms.
    7. Warwick, P., 2011. Hume Miracle. Philosophy Now, Volume 83, pp. 16, 17.
    8. Norton, D. F., 1993. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
    9. Benjamin F. Armstrong, J., 1992. Hume on Miracles: Begging-the-Question against Believers. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 9(3), pp. 319-328 .
    10. Wielenberg, E. J., 2008. REASON AND RELIGION. God and the Reach of Reason, pp. x, 243..
    11. Locke, J., 1823. Reasonableness of Christianity . In: The Works of John Locke in Ten Volumes. London: s.n.
    12. Levine, M., 1989. Hume and the Problem of Miracles: A Solution. s.l.:Kluwer Academic Publishers.
    13. Lange, M., 2011. Hume and the Problem of Induction. s.l.:North Holland.
    14. Earman, J., 2000. Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles. s.l.:Oxford University Press.
    15. Hume, D., 2012. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Dover Philosophical Classics.
    16. Earman, J., 2000. Hume's abject failure: the argument against miracles. s.l.:Oxford University Press.
    17. Houston, J., 1994. Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume. s.l.:Cambridge University Press.
    18. Breggen, H. v. d., 1994. Hume, miracle reports, and credibility (David Hume). Electronic Theses and Dissertations , p. 2333.
    19. Larmer, R., 1996. David Hume and the Miraculous. In: R. Larmer, ed. Questions of Miracles. London: McGill's Queen Press, pp. 26-39.
    20. Sherlock, T., 1729. The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus. s.l.:Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication.

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