A Quick Note on Hume, Miracles, and the Apologists

A small point: It seems to me that the apologists tacitly concede more to Hume than is often noted. Narrowly construed, Hume's point was that one couldn't rationally believe that a miracle had occurred merely on the basis of the testimony of others[1]. And in practice, it appears that sophisticated apologists of the likes of Swinburne, Craig, Habermas, et al. agree with this much. For they base their case for the resurrection not on mere testimony, but rather on an inference to the best explanation of a set of data, such as, e.g., the crucifixion, the empty tomb, experiences of the disciples that seemed to be of Jesus after his death[2], and the origin of the Christian faith.[3]

[1] although I think Hume's claim is probably too strong on that head, at least on the "in principle" (as opposed to the "in fact") interpretation of it. Earman's work has persuaded me that one could pump up the probability of a miracle claim high enough for rational acceptance if the number of (sane, rational) testifiers was sufficiently large. I'm not so sure of Earman's larger critique of Hume on miracles, though. See, e.g., MIllican's reply to Earman's critique of Hume's argument.

[2] And even here, the basis for believing they had such experiences is not merely their saying so, but rather because the hypothesis that they had such experiences is, in turn, the best explanation of a range of data, such as their transformed lives, their willingness to live lives of hardship for their faith, their willingness to die a martyr's death, etc.

[3] Here is a sketch of the main reason why I'm not convinced of this argument, and here is a related criticism.


James A. Gibson said...

Is this really a concession? It would be interesting to look into the deist controversy and whether those who defended the resurrection relied on the testimony of the text without also making use of something akin to IBE. My worry is that if we weaken Hume's central point to what you say at the beginning of the post, neglecting the content relevant to point [1] at the bottom, we risk treating Hume as saying something so insubstantial since it may not be attacking what anyone at the time thought. And that would be an interpretation which we should avoid. Maybe you can check into this if you don't already know the answer - I don't know it, but I would bet against the weaker reading. (Btw., Tim McGrew knows the literature at the time very well. You may consider asking him.)

exapologist said...

Thanks, James. It seems to me that Hume's point, even given the narrow construal I've given it here, is an important one (at least on the "in fact" interpretation of it): as a matter of fact, no miracle claim is adequately supported merely in virtue of the testimony of others. For it effectively defeats simple appeals to the testimony of special revelation and tradition, as is common even today.

I think Hume went wrong, not in thinking that testimony is insufficient (at least in fact) to justify a miracle-claim, but rather in assuming that the only way to support a miracle-claim is via mere testimony, as is demonstrated by contemporary arguments for the resurrection. Such arguments use the biblical critical tools of source, form, and redaction criticism, as well as the so-called criteria of authenticity (multiple independent attestation, embarrassment, early strata, etc.), to establish "core facts" that then require explanation via abductive inference. Of course, I think those arguments have failed so far (see fn. 3 for a sketch of my reasons), but that's a separate issue.