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On Hume’s Argument Against Miracles
by [?]


Hume’s argument against miracles is simply this:–Every possible event, however various in its degree of credibility, must, of necessity, be more credible when it rests upon a sufficient cause lying within the field of what is called nature, than when it does not: more credible when it obeys some mechanical cause, than when it transcends such a cause, and is miraculous.

Therefore, assume the resistance to credibility, in any preternatural occurrence, as equal to x, and the very ideal or possible value of human testimony as no more than x, in that case, under the most favorable circumstances conceivable, the argument for and against a miracle will be equal; or, expressing the human testimony by x, affected with the affirmative sign [+x]; and expressing the resistance to credibility on the other side of the equation, by x, affected with the negative sign [-x], the two values will, in algebraical language, destroy each other, and the result will be = 0.

But, inasmuch as this expresses the value of human testimony in its highest or ideal form, a form which is never realized in experience, the true result will be different,–there will always be a negative result= [-y]; much or little according to the circumstances, but always enough to turn the balance against believing a miracle.

‘Or in other words,’ said Hume, popularizing his argument, ‘it will always be more credible that the reporter of a miracle should tell a falsehood, or should himself have been the dupe of appearances, than that a miracle should have actually occurred–that is, an infraction of those natural laws (any or all) which compose what we call experience. For, assume the utmost disinterestedness, veracity, and sound judgment in the witness, with the utmost advantage in the circumstances for giving full play to those qualities; even in such a case the value of affirmative testimony could, at the very utmost, be equal to the negative value on the other side the equation: and the result would be, to keep my faith suspended in equilibrio. But in any real case, ever likely to come before us, the result will be worse; for the affirmative testimony will be sure to fall in many ways below its ideal maximum; leaving, therefore, for the final result a considerable excess to the negative side of the equation.



Such is the Argument: and, as the first step towards investigating its sanity and its degree–its kind of force, and its quantity of force, we must direct our attention to the following fact, viz., that amongst three separate conditions under which a miracle (or any event whatever) might become known to us, Hume’s argument is applied only to one. Assuming a miracle to happen (for the possibility of a miracle is of course left open throughout the discussion, since any argument against that would at once foreclose every question about its communicability),–then it might happen under three several sets of circumstances, in relation to our consciousness. 1st, It might happen in the presence of a single witness–that witness not being ourselves. This case let us call Alpha. 2dly, It might happen in the presence of many witnesses,–witnesses to a vast amount, but still (as before) ourselves not being amongst that multitude. This case let us call Beta. And 3dly, It might happen in our own presence, and fall within the direct light of our own consciousness. This case let us call Gamma.

Now these distinctions are important to the whole extent of the question. For the 2d case, which is the actual case of many miracles recorded in the New Testament, at once cuts away a large body of sources in which either error or deceit could lurk. Hume’s argument supposes the reporter of the miracle to be a dupe, or the maker of dupes–himself deluded, or wishing to delude others. But, in the case of the thousands fed from a few loaves and small fishes, the chances of error, wilful or not wilful, are diminished in proportion to the number of observers; [Footnote: ‘In proportion to the number of observers.’–Perhaps, however, on the part of Hume, some critical apologist will say–‘Doubtless he was aware of that; but still the reporters of the miracle were few. No matter how many were present, the witnesses for us are but the Evangelists.’ Yes, certainly, the Evangelists; and let us add, all those contemporaries to whom the Evangelists silently appealed. These make up the ‘multitude’ contemplated in the second case.] and Hume’s inference as to the declension of the affirmative x, in relation to the negative x, no longer applies, or, if at all, with vastly diminished force. With respect to the 3d case, it cuts away the whole argument at once in its very radix. For Hume’s argument applies to the communication of a miracle, and therefore to a case of testimony. But, wherever the miracle falls within direct personal cognizance, there it follows that no question can arise about the value of human testimony. The affirmative x, expressing the value of testimony, disappears altogether; and that side of the equation is possessed by a new quantity (viz., ourselves–our own consciousness) not at all concerned in Hume’s argument.