Saturday, March 19, 2011

Miracles - Real, or Delusions?

Are miracles possible?  They are certainly a common enough phenomenon, if you believe the reports of others.  People claim to have had visitations from angels, they see Mary’s face in pretty much everything, there are claims of faith healings and people rising from the dead.  Miracles are foundational to many religions but take an especially central place in Christianity, with the resurrection of Jesus.

Odds are none of us have experienced what we would consider a bona fide external miracle.  (At least, I have not).  Without such experience, though, with the only evidence of miracles being the reports of others, is there any rational reason for believing in the possibility of miracles?

No other thinker has had such an influential effect on the philosophy of miracles than David Hume.  Written in the 1700s, his arguments against the possibility of miracles and against the credibility of testimonies concerning miracles still reverberate with us today.  Here, I summarize his arguments against miracles, and suggest where I think Hume went wrong.  (You may need a Hume refresher - read Hume's Arguments in 10 Points)

Chapter X – Of Miracles

Part I

Hume begins his famous discourse on miracles by first mentioning a Dr. John Tillotson, and his ideas concerning the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation.  Transubstantiation (what Tillotson refers to as the ‘real presence’) is, in Catholic doctrine, the phenomenon whereby the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, while maintaining their normal bread-and-wine sensible properties.  Tillotson remarked that all of our knowledge of transubstantiation comes, not from our own senses (since all we see and taste are bread and wine) but from the testimony of scripture or the Church.  This testimony, in turn, ultimately comes from those eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, the apostles.  So we do not, with our senses, experience the miracle; we must rely on others who tell us of their miraculous experiences.  Their testimony must have less weight than our senses, since we are receiving their sense experience secondhand, whereas our sense experiences are primary.  The weaker evidence of testimony can never destroy our stronger evidence of sense, and thus, no matter how strongly a divine authority may speak of transubstantiation, we can never ourselves believe it.

What makes this argument against belief in transubstantiation so striking is that Dr. Tillotson was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 1600s.

This is not the argument that Hume wishes to make.  He believed he had uncovered a similar one, but one that does not apply only to transubstantiation or the Church, but universally to all miracles everywhere.  He boasts, ‘I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusions, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.’

Defining ‘Miracle’

Says Hume, ‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.’  This is going to be important to keep in mind later on.

Hume’s Argument Against Miracles

It is often asserted by Hume scholars that Hume did not have a problem with miracles in and of themselves, but rather believed that we can never trust human testimony concerning miracles.  But, as Fogelin pointed out in 1990, if you actually read Hume’s chapter on miracles, one can only conclude that Hume really did not believe in even the possibility of miracles.  This week we will examine his argument against miracles, and next week his argument against the testimony of miracles.

Hume’s argument is based on the nature of proof versus probability.  If, in our past experience, a single cause is always conjoined with the same effect, and if there is reason to believe that this customary conjunction is the same for all people everywhere, then we have 100% certainty that the next time we see that cause, the same effect will follow.  This is a proof.  A probability, on the other hand, occurs when a cause is conjoined with a host of effects.  Sometimes there is one effect, sometimes the other.  Sometimes a medicine heals, sometimes the same medicine harms.  We cannot predict, given the cause, the actual effect, but we can assign probabilities based on past experience.

Now, says Hume, a miracle cannot be a probability.  If a miracle was simply a rare effect from a common cause, there would be nothing miraculous or divine about it.   No, a miracle must be a violation of how the world works on its own accord.  A miracle cannot be an unlikely but possible effect of a cause; it must be an impossible effect from a cause.

But, says Hume, if this is so, then there is a proof against miracles, that proof simply being that a cause is always conjoined with the same non-miraculous effect.

Says Hume, ‘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 argument from experience can possibly be imagined.’

In other words, if I release a stone from some height, experience tells me that the stone will always fall. Always. It will never fly into the air.  It is a firm proof that the stone will fall.  Since a proof is as strong of an argument for predicting the future behaviour of a stone as can ever be realized, the only way to render a miracle (the flying of the stone into the air) credible is to present an opposite proof that is stronger.  But, since you can never develop stronger evidence than a proof, miracles can never be made credible.

Essentially, then, miracles, by being violations of natural law, can never happen.  The very definition of a miracle makes it impossible.  Water does not change into wine; virgins do not give birth; people do not rise from the dead.  Experientially, these are impossibilities.  Nature does not allow them.  The proof of past experience renders any evidence for a miracle obsolete.

Hume indirectly offers a second argument against miracles as well, although he does not expressly state it:

Proofs are based on experience.  If I were to release a stone and it were to fly into the air, this becomes one event out of millions that go against it.  One event is not a stronger proof than the proof that dropped stones always fall. 

In fact, what one flying stone out of millions of falling stones becomes is a probability, not a proof, and thus not a miracle. 

Remember what Hume says earlier on about causes and effects: any effect can logically be associated with a cause; we cannot see a cause and know what its effect will be using reason alone.  The only way we know that a certain effect follows a certain cause is because we have experienced it.  Thus, if we were to actually experience a stone flying into the air, we would have to conclude that this is a probability – although stones usually fall when released, very rarely they will fly.  Our supposed miracle thus becomes, not a miracle at all, but another possible effect of a single cause.

A Possible Exception
In a footnote, Hume offers one example of an extraordinary fact that should not be rejected outright by the person hearing the testimony.  In this example, a person from a warm climate (say, India), who has no access to the outside world and can only know what he experiences, would reject the testimony of a northerner who claims that water from their land freezes when it is cold.  This, Hume says, is the wrong approach.  If someone were to claim that water had frozen in India, the Indian could safely reject such testimony.  But to reject the northerner’s testimony is illogical, as the Indian has no experience of water outside of his own climate.  He shouldn’t just believe it, but will require sufficient proof, such that the evidence outweighs his own inherent scepticism.

Refuting Hume’s Argument Against Miracles
Is Hume correct in his assessment of miracles?  No other writer has dominated the philosophical enquiry into miracles like Hume.  Despite having written in the 1700s, any discussion on the validity of miracles must still overcome Hume’s objections.

My attempt at a refutation of Hume’s argument comes from a Christian perspective, and is centered on three things that Hume has said, both in this chapter and earlier in his book:

1. Hume’s definition of miracles as violations of natural law
2. The argument that causes are not logically connected to their effects apart from experience
3. The argument that experience is central for knowledge – if we lack impressions (experiences), then we lack their corresponding ideas.  A blind man cannot think of colour, for instance.

My refutation can be summarized as follows:

1. Miracles are products of divine volition:
            a) Much as the effects of human volition would seem miraculous to a rock, the
    effects of divine volition must be logically unpredictable to humans
            b) To treat past experience of nature as a proof against miracles is a categorical
    mistake, as past human experience has no bearing on what something with
    greater freedom and power can do

2.  The subjectivity of experience refutes Hume’s argument: all Hume can say is that he and those he knows have had no experience of the miraculous – God does not seem to be performing miracles among middle-class white Enlightenment-era European sceptics.  Other than that, he must be silent.

My refutation can be explained as such:

Hume defines a miracle as a ‘violation of natural law.’  There has been much disagreement over what he means by ‘natural law’, but I think it is safe to say that he is not referring to Newtonian laws of physics, but rather to how the world normally works on its own.  By defining everything common to the world as non-miraculous, Hume has no choice but to conclude that a miracle is a violation of how the world normally works.

Argues Hume, since violations are impossible, so are miracles.

But this is a rather circular argument.  By defining miracles in a negative sense (violations), we have no choice but to agree with Hume: of course water cannot turn into wine.  Of course people do not rise from the dead.  Our own common sense experience of how the world works tells us this.  These proofs are sufficient evidence that, all things being equal, miracles are impossible.

But this is exactly the point: miracles do not fall under all things being equal.  Water could sit out for ever, and never, of its own accord, turn into wine.  Water could also never turn into Koolaid on its own, yet we drink Koolaid all the time.  How?

Human agency (volition, will) ‘violates’ the course of nature.

A rock shoots up into the air.  This is so unnatural – rocks don’t fly!  But wait, it didn’t just fly on its own, it was thrown by a human agent.  I think this is the core difficulty with Hume’s argument: will plus power can overcome the normal course of nature.  It is definitely true that, given the laws of nature, given the normal ways in which the world works, trees will not spontaneously form houses.  But humans can build houses from trees. 

Now, humans are of course still subject to the normal workings of nature.  They live for a brief period and then die; they require food to produce energy; they are no more a miracle than the rest of life.  But if inanimate objects had reasoning powers, they would certainly consider the workings of humans to be miraculous, violating their normal experience of nature.  Perhaps miracles are less about violating nature, and more about violating our expectations of what can be done within nature.  Miracles then become contextual and relative.  This has been explored to no end in science fiction, with pre-industrial cultures worshipping technological peoples (or aliens) as divine.

But outside of science fiction, none of the things humans do on their own are considered miraculous.  We have tested the world and know exactly what a human can do.  But what if there was a will greater than the human will, with greater power, that called the world and all of its workings into being?  What sorts of things could such a Divine do?

In the New Testament Jesus performs things that the Bible calls ‘signs and wonders’, and which are considered to be miracles.  But is healing people with a word, walking on water, turning water into wine, rising from the dead, are these miracles really violations of nature, and thus impossible?  Or are we seeing here what a greater will, with greater power, can do when operating on nature?

According to the Christian faith, no one on earth before Jesus or after was God in the flesh.  Jesus was a new being on earth.  Prior human experience does not apply to one like Jesus, just as the prior experience of a rock could not prepare it for what humans could do.  God-in-flesh, one would expect, should be able to do things that fall outside of our cause-and-effect knowledge.  Similarly, all other beings of the spiritual realm should also produce effects that are different than what our own experience would allow. 

In short, when Hume says that past experience acts as a proof against miracles, he was forgetting that the experience that humans have of what humans and nature can do is different in kind than an experience of what God can do.  An active interposition by God on to nature is a different cause than natural causes and human causes.  Since there is no logical connection between a cause and its effect, it is logically possible for God to produce any effect.  Only experience can tell us what effects a God can have. 

By defining miracles as a violation of natural law, Hume sets up the self-evidence of his argument: of course a rock can never fly into the air, of its own natural accord.  But volition changes the name of the game.  A miracle, defined as divine will interacting with the natural world to produce an outcome that is only possible through a divine will, is not the logical absurdity that Hume had thought.  It is simply an impossible effect (by human standards), brought about by a divine cause.

The strength of an argument for or against miracles thus cannot rest on the nature of miracles themselves.  Rather, it must rest on the existence (or lack thereof) of something Other (God), and the nature of such a God (for miracles to be possible, God must be able and willing to interact with the world in a way that is distinct from simply creating and sustaining the world).

Now, you will have probably noticed that my refutation of Hume still takes experience into account.  We can only know what the actual effects of God’s divine interventions are through experience.  Yet for Hume this seems to be part of the point: experience shows us no miraculous deviations from the way the world works.  Whenever I get water from the tap, I always expect water.  I never expect it to turn into wine.  Why?  Because water turning into wine is a logical impossibility?  No.  (Clearly not, seeing how water in a sense turns into wine through the normal course of nature all of the time – grapes are, after all, using water and sunlight to form their juice – Jesus’ miraculous conversion of water into wine is thus not as much of a violation of nature as Hume would perhaps wish).  Rather, I do not expect it to happen, because I have never experienced it happening.

But by introducing experience, Hume removes any power that his objection to miracles could have.  What Hume is really saying, when he says that humans have no direct experience of miracles, is that he himself, a white European 18th century Enlightenment-era middle-class sceptic male, and all of his friends and acquaintances, had not experienced miracles.  Would he be so quick to dismiss miracles if he had been raised among the tribesfolk of Papua New Guinea?  Or among present-day Pentecostals?  Like the Indian who did not believe that water could freeze, Hume cannot really argue that miracles do not happen; all he can say is that in his particular context, they do not appear to.   

Have I successfully refuted Hume’s argument against miracles?  Perhaps, but I would be open to hearing your thoughts.  It is certainly possible that I have misunderstood Hume, in which case again I would love to hear from you (politely of course).

What I have not done is provided a defence of miracles.  I have only suggested that Hume’s argument against miracles is not sufficient cause for rejecting the possibility of miracles.   I also have not completely dealt with Hume’s treatment of miracles.  Next week we will look at his more famous and, I think, more useful (and thus powerful) argument concerning the validity of peoples’ reports about miracles.  After that, in Part II of Hume’s chapter, he offers several other difficulties with miracles which will also require careful attention.

1 comment: said...

Then I await next week.