Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Revision: A Quick Thought on Hume, Miracles, and the Apologists

[Thanks to James Gibson for pushing me to get clearer on the point I'm trying to make here.]

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]

Here, then, is my suggestion to apologists. (Assuming a plausible interpretation of the text can support it,) Change your reply to Hume as follows: 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. To see this, consider contemporary arguments for the resurrection of Jesus. Apologists today use the modern 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 a set of "core facts", where these are to be taken as data that require an explanation via an abductive inference. They then argue that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the data. In this way, then, it's possible in principle to rationally believe a miracle-claim without relying on the mere testimony of others.

Now my own view is that arguments of this sort have failed to date (see fn. 3 for a sketch of my reasons), but that's a separate issue.

[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.

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