Did David Hume “Banish” Miracles?

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September 5, 2012 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by Rick Kennedy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Did David Hume “Banish” Miracles?

Alvin Plantinga’s series on Divine Action in the World gives considerable attention to the question of miracles and whether they are “contrary to science”. To follow up on this contentious issue, we’d like to feature this excerpt from Rick Kennedy's book Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion. During Rick’s climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierras of California, he reflected on why historians are so loath to accept accounts of supernatural events. Many academics point to the Enlightenment scholar David Hume as offering the most compelling argument against the possibility of miracles.

For more of Rick Kennedy’s reflections, see his full BioLogos series.

Keeping History Safe

In the cold morning air with the sun not yet over the ridge, the place to begin preparation for summiting Mount Darwin is to ponder the reasonableness of miracles. Many Totalizers would like to ban miracles from university consideration and inquiry. Trouble is: human history is awash with credible people reporting miracles.

Modern academic tradition tends to try and maintain order. For historians it behooves us professionally to avoid accounts of alleged spiritual events. We find comfort in a little logical gymnastics that keeps history safe for us to wander in, a deceptively formulaic avoidance method that helps us avoid what people are telling us about extraordinary events in the past.

David Hume popularly articulated this logical gymnastics in an essay titled “Of Miracles” that was eventually printed in Enquires Concerning Human Understanding (1748). “I flatter myself,” Hume triumphantly proclaimed, “that I have discovered an argument . . . which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.”

His everlasting check on superstition begins with a circular argument that because miracles can’t happen, a reasonable person should not even listen to reports of them. Hume taught that though the normal job of a historian was to listen to the testimony that comes down to us from the past, there is a point at which you can close your ears. Hume knew that historical testimony can get wild, so he came up with a way to domesticate the wildness, a way to make history a zoo rather than allow it to be a jungle. His “Of Miracles” has been tremendously influential in the discipline of human history over the last two hundred and fifty years, not because his ideas are strong, but because his ideas are useful. Get rid of “superstitious delusions,” and the discipline of history can be turned from a safari into a form of home economics. Hume’s domestication of history is seductively simple. Instead of following the Aristotelian tradition of linking the credibility of hard-to-believe testimony to the credibility of the testifier, Hume recommended disregarding the testifier and focusing only on the testimony. This effectively removed the persuasive power from hard-to-believe testimony. Miracles need the credibility of an eyewitness in order to have persuasive power. Hume cut the power source from the unwanted testimony.

Essentially, Hume adopted the modeling technique that Darwin later used and is best seen in Global Positioning System (GPS) units. Hume recommended gathering testimony from the past and every region to create a general model of what humans generally experience. Using this mass of information, one should generalize standards of common experience. Now if anyone reports a miracle, the alleged event can’t be true because it does not conform to the generalized standards of common experience. (Of course, Hume had already refused to allow that any reports of miracles could be used even to generalize common experience.) It’s tricky. Its logic is circular. But it works to weed out awkward, quirky information. It is as if a domineering GPS unit created a sphere to serve as an abstraction for the earth, then insisted that the earth can’t have wobbling poles and flattening in the upper latitudes because the sphere in the GPS shows it can’t be true. Given a useful and trustworthy GPS, don’t listen to a scientist who might tell you something different than what the GPS tells you.

The circularity of this argument has been noted ever since Hume first proposed it, but Hume was a good writer and said what a lot of people wanted to hear. Miracles are impossible so miracle reports can’t be true. Don’t even listen to reports of them.

Balancing Likelihoods

Also embedded in Hume’s essay is the awkward “rule of logic,” most often called “Balancing Likelihoods.” By combining math and logic in an odd way, Hume’s “Of Miracles “ offered another way for historians to avoid thinking about miracles. Balancing Likelihoods has many names but is probably best stated by David Hackett Fischer, in his Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, as “the rule of probability:”

“[A]ll inferences from empirical evidence are probabilistic. It is not, therefore, sufficient to demonstrate merely that A was possibly the case. A historian must determine, as best he can, the probability of A in relation to the probability of alternatives. In the same fashion he cannot disprove A by demonstrating that not-A was possible, but only by demonstrating that not-A was more probable than A. This is the rule of probability.”

This seems to be practical but is impossible. Balancing Likelihoods, in the way described by Fischer, cannot be used by historians in any normal practice. It is a talisman to keep history mentally safe from the wildness that is reported to exist. Logicians, especially mathematicians, have long criticized intellectual constructions like this. The “probability” that Fischer writes about is seemingly mathematical, but the math is simply implied to give a sense of strength to human feelings.

Before Hume wrote “Of Miracles” probabilistic logic had been advancing rapidly and there was a great hope that mathematical analogies would strengthen human thinking—even Christian apologetics. “Pascal’s Wager,” the most famous mathematical apologetic from the seventeenth century, equated eternal salvation with mathematical infinity and then applied it to a gambling formula. Antoine Arnauld, in The Port-Royal Logic (1662), and John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Discourse on Miracles (1706), carried probabilistic math and logic into the handling of reported miracles. A half-century later, however, Hume reacted against Arnauld and Locke’s teachings that mathematical analogies could help in the discussion of the credibility of miracles. Hume insisted that to handle a reported miracle, a historian had to create two separate ratios, pro and con, for believability. The ratios were then to be weighed against each other. This is Fischer’s “rule of probability” quoted above. In the language of Hume’s era, this was proclaimed as the “calculus of good sense.”

Lorraine Daston, in Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (1988), offers an excellent study of Hume and the many eighteenth-century mathematicians who wanted to help bring rigorous quantitative thinking to what today would be called the humanities. Daston writes that by the 1840s, mathematicians realized that “the ‘calculus of good sense’ had become antithetical to good sense,” and that today most of what these early probabilists were trying to do is considered “patently absurd.”

In 1901, one of America’s preeminent philosopher-mathematician-logicians, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote three essays attacking the way historians had adopted Hume’s bad logic: “A Preliminary Chapter, Toward an Examination of Hume’s Argument Against Miracles, in its Logic and in its History,” “Hume’s Arguments Against Miracles, and the Idea of Natural Law,” and “On the Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents especially from Testimonies.” Peirce showed that historians are in error when they talk of judging testimony by balancing probabilities because “in a scientific sense, there are no ‘probabilities’ to be judged.”

Probability, Peirce wrote, “is the ratio of the frequency of occurrence of a specific event to a generic event.” A testimony “is neither a specific event, nor a generic event, but an individual event.” Peirce further pointed out that what people were justifying by claiming Balancing Likelihoods was really simply relating “what they prefer to do” to what they don’t prefer. “Likelihood is merely a reflection of our preconceived ideas.”

Historians like me who teach in universities about the reasonable credibility of Jesus’ resurrection need to be students of Peirce not Hume on the subject of assessing the credibility of reports that come down to us from ancient history. Dealing wisely with reports of events verging on the incredible is just part of the normal job of being grounded in the social study of our complex human past.

“Come to history as a doubter,” Richard Marius advises in a historical methods manual. “Skepticism is one of the historian’s finest qualities. Historians don’t trust their sources. . . . Nothing is quite so destructive to a historian’s reputation as to present conclusions that prove gullibility.”

But Marius is wrong. In practice, historians have to trust more than doubt. In practice, historians, especially ancient historians, can’t rely on doubting. Historians have to be close listeners, discerning listeners, wise listeners, who sometimes have to make harmonies and stretch for belief.

Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), and Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #72459

September 5th 2012

While I do not agree with Hume’s worldview, it is true that everyone has or needs a standard of evaluation for imformation. 

To say that we believe in miracles is not enough.  Why do we believe in Christian miracles and not in Muslim or Buddhist miracles? 

For Christians imho miracles are not an important issue.  The message is the issue. 

Is Jesus the Christ/Logos?  Yes or No?  What difference does that make in how we think and how we live?

Jon Garvey - #72467

September 6th 2012

“Come to history as a doubter,” Richard Marius advises in a historical methods manual. “Skepticism is one of the historian’s finest qualities. Historians don’t trust their sources. . . . Nothing is quite so destructive to a historian’s reputation as to present conclusions that prove gullibility.”

Richard Bauckham develops the arguments against such a position thoroughly in a chapter of his book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” which is primarily about the eyewitness character of the Gospels.

It’s hard to overestimate just what a pernicious effect Hume (and the intellectual climate of which he was a part) has had on our worldview. There is clearly something to be said on its influence on the scientific mindset and methodology, but it’s sobering to think that Marius’ kind of approach has also dictated most of the “mainstream” approach to the study of the Bible for 200 years. Kennedy is pointing to a real issue, and we should thank him.

For once I find myself agreeing with Francis. Nobody contributing to these threads is going anywhere near the Televangelist thing of “Don’t examine my message too closely - just watch the crutches being thrown away.” Clearly The Gospel is the news, though to a large extent it’s tied to the news of the resurrection (to the extent that in Acts Luke uses “Jesus and the Resurrection” as a synecdoche for the whole Gospel). But I for one would not dismiss as mistaken Jesus’ own advice in John 14.11.

In this age (as opposed, perhaps, to mediaeval times) the fear of being too focused on miracles, like the conservative Reformed tendency to cessationism, probably owes more to Humeans than we care to recognise. Our Enlightenment prejudices get everywhere, just as they do in the case of both materialists and Creationists’ use of Genesis. It’s just so hard to see the world any other way.

Merv - #72471

September 6th 2012

“Pernicious effect” is a strong label—but I’m with you, at least most of the way.  And we are steeped in it so that even the most devout believers today still carry that influence with them.   The question I have is:  Is there any silver lining to this cloud?  It seems a bit simplistic to think Humean thinking needs to just go out the window.  Its opposite extreme is the most naive gullibility to every claim; remniscent of superstitious times and contexts in which most Christians would look like “Humeans”.   And I trust that we all agree this isn’t a bad thing, right?


Jon Garvey - #72473

September 6th 2012

Hi Merv

Naive gullibility is bad, but Hume did not air his thoughts at such a time, and it’s no more clear that negating his arguments would lead to it any more than belief in miracles makes you believe that the law of gravity doesn’t apply half the time.

Superstition (as opposed to belief in the supernatural) has varied a lot, for reasons that are often not clear. I understand, for example, that mediaeval Christianity before the Inquisition (and even during it, to an extent) sought to show that belief in witchcraft was misguided, not demonic. There was a sea-change around the start of the 17th century for uncertain reasons, and the Puritan age, for all its strengths, had a streak of superstition that led, as we know, to evils like the Salem witchhunts.

Yet at the same time, belief in contemporary miracles was uncommon (cessationism having taken hold). Yet throughout the mediaeval and early modern periods God’s providential hand was seen in natural blessings and disasters.

And though (or because??) we’re all influenced by Hume, there are still hosts of followers for Televangelist charlatans. Is “the silver lining” to refute them not by saying “Miracles can’t happen!” but “Your doctrine stinks and so do your party tricks!”

bren - #72472

September 6th 2012

Seems to me that Hume’s arguments have historically been the keystone in a cultural habit of hard-edged skepticism that has been both fruitful and wrong.  This skepticism has helped us to be more wary of our sources and their motives, as well as providing us with more effective tools to weed out any unwarranted conclusions in science or history, but it has never been truly justified in any strict logical sense.  Still, we can’t afford to throw out the baby with the bathwater; we can jettison Hume’s argument as not being logically rigorous while still accepting that there is an element of truth that can be taken from it.

After all, it seems reasonable to say that when we have ample testimony and experience as to how events tend to occur in the world, with no direct evidence of any deviations to these patterns, we need to be very careful about events that don’t fit, especially when we have very common alternative explanations available for the quirky testimony (modern psychology seem to have brought together a great many examples of complex mental, pathological and social causes that can explain all sorts of wild testimonies).

That said, if the miracles seem to be well attested to and they dovetail into a larger pattern of events (say, a history of progressive divine revelations that seem to form a cohesive whole), then we are better placed to take these events seriously.  As mentioned above, we simply have no justification for trying to domesticate history.  Just as science fails to meet our expectations as we explore its limits, so history is unlikely to match our preconceptions or limited worldview as we open ourselves up to its evidence.

Overall, it seems to me that there should be a balance of both skepticism and openness, and that neither Hume’s observations, nor the historical accounts of divine revelation should be dismissed without careful thought.  Right now, it makes sense to try to correct an unbalanced and almost pyrrhonian skepticism that is a part of our cultural baggage to a healthier and more open balance of skepticism and warranted faith, without lapsing into the opposite extreme of open-mouthed credulity at whatever comes our way and happens to fit with our unquestioned preconceptions

wesseldawn - #72496

September 7th 2012

here, here

Merv - #72474

September 6th 2012

Very balanced, Bren.  Amen.

Jon, regarding your last paragraph, I don’t follow how throngs following charlatans could be laid at Hume’s feet.  I realize you put question marks there and so may be in the middle of developing the thought.  But what direction was that going?  As wrong (and self-contradicting) as blanket skepticism is, one wouldn’t expect its practitioners or their admirers to be caught buying into religious quackery, right?  Especially since that’s what they so fancied they were reacting against!

As a fellow Christian I appreciate your distinguishing between superstition and a belief in the supernatural, but since the former is a pejorative term we would never apply it to ourselves.  Others would, however.  No matter how informed or evidenced we may take our own beliefs to be, others will insist that the body of evidence was lacking.  So I think the distinction is merely in the eye of the beholder.


Jon Garvey - #72486

September 6th 2012


My query marks were indicating some half-formed ideas about actions and equal and opposite reactions. If the prevailing worldview (which one grows up sharing) has excluded the supernatural, then being convinced by apparent examples of it puts people in a cognitive dissonance situation. One result could be complete rejection of the original worldview (“scientists are godless fools”) and uncritical acceptance of a charlatan’s miracles. The worldview guarantees its own backlash.

That’s speculative, but based on someone’s dictum (C S Lewis?) that when people stop believing in God they don’t end up believing in nothing, but in anything.

But behind my half-thinking there is the truth that most people in a culture don’t adopt a conscious philosophical position like “Miracles are impossible”, but imbibe into their worldview an unconscious accommodation to it such as “Of course, God could do miracles, but not very often, not in these days, not in this particular case, not in the natural order” etc. That’s parallel to how Creationism can be seen as a product of, as well as a reaction to, Enlightenment thinking: they reject the naturalism, but still have an unconscious Enlightenment concept of the material world.

As for your last para, I guess that’s a fact of life - Christianity was called a superstition by the Romans (though the term had a different nuance then). That’s no different, though, from one group of scientists’ “major development” being called a “fiasco” by another group of scientists yesterday. Rehabilitating a category like “miracle” from a blanket ban just means you have to do the work of discovering how to deal with it rationally rather than dismissing it out of hand.

wesseldawn - #72475

September 6th 2012

The bottom line is…who has been witness to a bona fide “miracle”? Not that I don’t believe they can’t happen, it’s just that in all of my time in Evangelical circles I have yet to see a “real” miracle (healing of serious diseases, a paraplegic walks again, sight is restored to the blind, raising the dead!!).

I would be happy just to see a so-so miracle (a severe toothache disappears and the tooth is miraculously well again). However, the only supposed miracles I’ve heard of happening cannot be proven (a short leg grows to match the other leg, gold fillings in teeth, etc). There’s always a lot of hoopla but no real evidence of something truly miraculous.

On the otherhand I’ve personally experienced what I call “timely” little miracles that defy chance. I’ve lost something valuable and worried that I have tossed it in the garbage (and after franctically praying and sifting through miriads of stuff) it shows up shortly afterwards right under my nose.

I believe that the God of the Bible wants to do miracles but one would think that we would see and hear of them much more frequently than we do. Instead miracles are the exception rather than the rule even amongst those that profess to believe in them!

All that said, I can understand why the sceptics (Hume) feel as they do!

GJDS - #72480

September 6th 2012

A lot depends on how we view miracles; do we want to see miracles so that we can believe in, or prove, God? Do we want a physical/miraculous basis to ensure that we would have Faith in Christ? Arguments such as those provided by Hume are motivated by any number of factors, but none of such motivations pertain to Faith in Christ. There outlook is often anti-faith and this is the motivation behind such an argument.

I think that in many instances, Christ would use phrases such as, “your faith has healed you”. In the case of the centurion’s servant, Christ could see the Roman understood authority and thus Christ commented on his faith. Superstition has been a hallmark of most, if not all, pagan beliefs and practices. The issue is not that, but how communities have responded to superstitions; mistaken beliefs abound, and perhaps the greatest miracle is that we can believe in God in such a sea of confusion and error. Believing that God may perform miracles is not difficult; seeing those things that bring us and our neighbours what is good and beneficial, whatever our outlooks, is greatly desirable and stems from goodwill amongst all human beings, whatever we may think on miracles.

As for tricksters, I think that matter is ‘as old as the hills’; if memory serves, wasn’t that motivated a magician (Acts) to suggest that he and the Apostle Peter would rake in the gold if they combined their respective talents? Such people see the Apostles (and the Gospel) as perhaps a better way to have ‘grip’ on the crowd, so if they combined their business acumen with the Apostle’s ‘bag of tricks’ the two would get very wealthy very fast. I think the point is clear; relying on miracles for faith is a risky proposition, but tricksters can use this to fool gullible people.

wesseldawn - #72497

September 7th 2012

True we should not need miracles to believe in God but at the same time miracles are (or should be) the norm rather than the exception as was in Jesus’ case. Again, it’s the lack of such that bothers me and should bother others too. Afterall, why would Jesus be any different today than he was two thousand years ago!!

Francis - #72483

September 6th 2012

Without “Christian miracles” - first and foremost of which is the real, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ – Christianity would be just another Golden Rule religion/philosophy. (Many atheists say they abide by the Golden Rule.) And Jesus Christ would be just another “wise guy” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_founders_of_religious_traditions.


“if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Corinthians 15:14-19]

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72489

September 7th 2012

Francis and Jon,

To relegate the Resurrection to the role of a miracle is a serious mistake.  The Resurrection and the whole birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ is God’s fullest revelation of Godself to humanity.  One cannot separate any aspect of this revelation from the rest without damaging the whole.

Again I have no problem with miracles as miracles.  They are an important signs of the power of God.  They point to Jesus as the Messiah, but they do not provide the message of the Logos.  The Creation is not a miracle nor is the Resurrection.  We believe that all believers will be resurrected, so this is not a one time event, but a pressage of the future when Jesus returns.     


wesseldawn - #72495

September 7th 2012

I don’t question Jesus’ unusual birth nor his resurrection, I question the lack of miracles today. Can you blame sceptics when they fail to see consistency between historic Jesus and present Jesus!!

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. (John 14:12)

The question remains, “If miracles are a natural outworking of being in Christ, then why aren’t they happening today?” 

God cannot be suspect as He wants miracles to take place so the fault must be with us. The usual reply for failure is that the church is not what it’s supposed to be…a lack of faith is the culprit! The verse previous however, states the real reason why we fail: “he who believes on me ” - so obviously the failure is that the church is not “believing on Jesus”!

wesseldawn - #72498

September 7th 2012

Or to put it more succinctly: the lack of true miracles is sure evidence that the spirit of Christ is not in the churches!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72499

September 7th 2012


If you believe that miracles are the mark of the spirit of Jesus, then that shows how little you understand about the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72501

September 7th 2012


Christians do not believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe in Jesus Christ.

As long as we allow people to lump us in with all others who believe in the supernatural in one form or another, such as witchcraft, then the weaker we are. 

wesseldawn - #72503

September 7th 2012

I’m not sure why I’m bothering to reply, Roger, as you don’t believe that all of the Bible is inspired…therefore, any point I would make would be a moot point with you.

Nevertheless, the scripture verse I quoted previously is Jesus’ own words - do those count?:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. (John 14:12)

Of course Christians believe in the supernatural - and - Jesus Christ. They’re one and the same.

Further, your censorship of Merv is evidence of cultish thinking.

Merv - #72505

September 7th 2012

Roger, I believe in God.  And I believe in Jesus Christ who is God revealed to us in human form.  I also believe that creation (nature) does not equal God.  I.e.  God transcends nature and is separate from it.  Most people would call that ‘supernatural’.  So yes—I do believe in something—someone rather—who is supernatural.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72509

September 7th 2012


My point is that talk of the supernatural dilutes our view of God.  God is a person.  Jesus emphases this important point, while most people see the supernatural as impersonal.

The other problem is the debate between theism and atheism.  I am first and foremost a Christian, not a theist.  Jews are theists, and while I respect jews and Judaism, I am not a Jew nor a Muslim nor a Hindu who is a polytheist, nor a Mormon, who is a semi-polytheist, etc.  

God defines Who God is.  God is the dualistic alternative to nature.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72510

September 7th 2012


Since when do works equal miracles?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72604

September 10th 2012

I see I made a mistake above.

That sentence should read “God is NOT the dualistic alternative to nature.” 

A expect that Merv did not really mean to say that God is, but the way he stated it it can be taken that way and by many that is what they take God to be. 

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