Saturday, April 02, 2011

Miraculous Stories - Can We Trust Them?

Imagine someone were to run into your classroom or workplace and shout out, ‘I just saw a dead man come back to life!’  Would you believe him?  Even if you believe in the possibility of miracles, would you trust his testimony?  In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argues, quite powerfully, that miraculous stories can never be trusted.

In my last Hume post regarding miracles, we looked at Hume’s argument against the existence of miracles.  We saw that he defined a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, and that the proof against miracles is simply the totality of experience which argues against them.  We always experience dead things staying dead; this is proof that death is followed by a continuation of death.  In order to believe in miracles, we would need a greater proof, a proof that the dead do indeed come to life; but such a proof does not exist.  And if it were to exist, this would make the ‘miracle’ non-miraculous, and simply another in the multitude of effects from a single cause.  We also critiqued Hume’s argument using Hume’s own prior arguments of cause and effect, and discovered the main problem: Hume was arguing against miracles given the non-existence of God.  Of course in a godless world miracles are impossible.  The plausibility of miracles, then, does not fall under any argument for or against miracles; it falls under the argument for or against the existence of God.

Throughout the rest of the chapter on miracles, Hume offers a second argument against miracles that has little to do with miracles per se: Hume argues that the human testimony concerning miracles can never be trusted.  Even if miracles were possible, we could never trust a secondhand experience of miracles.

This is why.

Hume’s Argument against Belief in Miraculous Stories

We know nothing apart from experience.  When we see the same effect coming from the same cause, custom or habit causes us to conjoin that cause with that effect.  If different effects are possible from a single cause, we assign each effect a probability based on its occurrence in the past.  It is the same with human testimony: observation tells us how often testimony is conjoined to reality (that is, how often humans tell the truth, through both a desire to tell the truth, and accurate observations of what the truth is), and then we assign the testimony-truth conjunction a probability.

In general, probability tells us to favour human testimony, because:

a)      The number of times that memories are faithful to the important details outweighs the number of times that memories are false. 
b)      The number of times people tell the truth in general outweighs the number of times they lie.
c)      The number of times people feel shame when they are caught in a lie outweighs the number of times that they stick to a lie when found out.

However, this probability is not equal for every human.  Some people are less trustworthy than others, and some people are known to suffer from delusions.  For these people, the testimony-truth conjunction has a probability weighted away from truth.

Given that probability is not a proof (remember, a proof is when a single effect follows from a cause 100% of the time), and given that some people are untrustworthy, we cannot automatically accept testimony as true.  When we read or hear someone’s testimony, we must balance their report with the possibility of the report not being true.  We therefore have two different realms of experience colliding: on the one hand, there is the experience that, in general, people tell the truth, and that, in general, this person is known to either tell the truth or not; and on the other hand, there is our own experience of what the person is telling us.  It will be easier for us to believe the person if they are known to be trustworthy and the story they tell fits with our experience; it will be next to impossible to believe them if they are known liars and the story is fantastic.  The in-between realm (a liar telling a story that fits with our experience; a truthful person saying something fantastic) is more difficult.

There are criteria we can use to help us weigh these two realms of experience.  We need to be suspicious of any testimony when:

a)      Witnesses contradict one another
b)      There are few witnesses
c)      The witnesses are known to be untrustworthy
d)     The witnesses have a personal stake in getting you to believe their testimony
e)      They hesitate while giving their testimony
f)       They give their testimony ‘with too violent asseverations.’
g)      And others...

Here is the key: remember how we can never find the necessary connection between a cause and its effect?  That is, there is no way for us to determine why a cause has the effect it has?  It is the same here: we can never find the necessary connection between testimony and reality.  This means that there is no a priori reason for accepting testimony as true. 

If we are told a fantastic or miraculous story, we must take our experience of the person telling the story, and our experience that their story lies outside our realm of experience.  Like a kid crashing toy cars together, our minds must cause those experiences to collide so that they annihilate one another.  The stronger experience is left standing, but only to the degree in which is was stronger.  That is, if we know the person to be truthful, and we know their story to be ridiculous, then their truthfulness is destroyed, but our faith in the ridiculousness of the story is also injured.  I might, in the future, be more inclined to listen if another trustworthy person told me the same story.

However, in general, given that human testimony is a probability, and it has going against it a proof (my experience that their story is impossible), it is inconceivable that a probability could ever destroy a proof.  Thus human testimony concerning miracles will always be annihilated, and can never be trusted.

Hume puts it another way:  if the person telling us the story is so blamelessly trustworthy and of such intelligence that they could not possibly be misled, that it would literally be a miracle for them to lie or be deceived, and this miracle of the lie is a greater miracle than the miracle that they are claiming to have witnessed, then, and only then, can their testimony be accepted.

But, says Hume, this will never happen.  There is no one above inventing a story, or of being deceived.  People lie.  Says Hume regarding the miracles that abound in ancient texts, ‘It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days.  But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.’ 

Given the impossibility of miracles, Hume could conceive of no possible way in which it would really be a greater miracle for the person to lie or be deceived, than for the miracle to be true.  Thus his argument against miracles themselves is a strong and important component within his argument against miraculous stories.

The Truth of Hume’s Argument

Hume’s argument is so powerful because it is so cynical.  We can never know the complex motivations of people we know, let alone of ancient writers, so how can we trust them on anything?  Especially if their testimony involves talking donkeys, the sun standing still, an invalid being healed simply by having the shadow of a healer pass over him.  All of these sound patently absurd, and there is certainly no one alive today who has ever experienced any of these things.  I say that with some hesitation, as I have not surveyed the entire world; but at the very least the sun has not stood still in my lifetime.  And yet all of these are found in the Bible.

And we know people lie.  Especially if they gain recognition or power by telling the story.  And so it is difficult to disagree with Hume here.  In my own life, I remember there was a lady going around to certain Christian charismatic groups, giving an inspiring talk while miraculously shaking gold dust from her hair.  I did not see this myself, but many women that I know were taken in by her, only to find out later that she was a fraud.  My teenage mind wondered how such an obvious ruse could have made it into the church in the first place, but many, many people believed.  I can only look at televangelist healers with scepticism bordering on righteous anger, at both the preacher spreading lies, and the deluded Christians so anxious for a miracle that they have stopped all rational thought.  So how could I disagree with Hume, when clearly, today, Christians are spreading stories of miracles that never happened?  How could I not agree that Hume’s criteria seem fair?

And yet the Bible is full of miracles.  And I have myself seen some pretty strange things at charismatic services, and have very good friends who are exploring things like speaking in tongues, and are experiencing them with no prior history in the charismatic movement.  These two different streams are difficult for me to reconcile.

At the very least, I can say that Hume’s insights are sharp, and will be difficult to deal with.

A Critique of Hume’s Argument

The first main objection is that Hume, by disregarding the existence of miracles in the first place, is using this argument against miraculous stories rather facetiously.  Of course, if miracles are impossible, then stories about them can never be trusted.  This bias against miracles blinds him to the two major exceptions to his argument.  The first is that, if the miraculous story aligns with the listener’s experience, then they will have reason for accepting it as true.  Hume did not allow this to be a possibility, but, as we saw last week, his argument against miracles was not as strong as he would have liked.  Given the existence of God, there is no reason why this could not happen.

But what do we mean by ‘listener’s experience’?

I think there are two things that can be meant:

1. If the listener has experienced a similar miracle in a similar setting, and the story-teller is known to be trustworthy, there is sufficient reason to accept the testimony.

2. If the story is told in a religious text, and that text has been supported through a consilience of evidence, from the truthfulness of its historical details, to the copy integrity of the text, to the miraculous or near-miraculous change in character that is brought about through an experience with the Presence underlying the text, to a knowledge that that God is by necessity trustworthy, to the evidence of that trustworthiness through the fulfilment of promises, then there is sufficient reason for accepting the testimony of miracles recorded in that text, even if the miracle itself lies outside the believer’s realm of knowledge.  For example, if there is sufficient reason for concluding that the Bible really is God-breathed, and our knowledge of God is such that it would really be a greater miracle for God to lie, than for the miracles to be true, then we can accept those miraculous accounts.  This is especially true if the foundational miracle of scripture, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, is experientially validated in the life of the believer through a relationship with the living Word.

I agree with Hume that there is no a priori way to accept testimony, but both of the above are based on the experience of the believer.

The second exception has to do with the nature of miracles.  Hume takes it for granted that our past experience of how the world works is a sufficient proof against miracles.  But as we saw last time, God is a different cause than human or natural causes, and therefore can do things that humans and nature cannot.

Thus when we bring human testimony into collision with our own past experience, our past experience is not as strong of a proof against the miracle as Hume would have liked, because we should always have the doubt that God may operate differently than our past allows.

Again, like Hume’s argument against miracles, Hume’s argument against the testimony of miracles is really based on whether or not God exists.  If you reject God’s existence, then you will reject miraculous stories; if you accept God’s existence, then this should at least give you pause before rejecting miraculous stories.  But you should not just accept every story as true.  Hume’s criteria about when a story should be rejected (does the teller have ulterior motives?  Are there conflicting accounts? Etc) are good, and should be brought to bear by every Christian who hears about miracles.  One would also benefit from doing a scriptural study on what a miracle is, and what the point of a miracle is, before accepting the validity of a miracle, but that is for another post.

Hume’s Argument is Really about Human Testimony in General

In the 1800s numerous satires were composed that mocked Hume’s argument.  It was recognized that miraculous stories are really historical claims, and that all of history rests on the testimony of others.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these satires showed that ‘one may legitimately require more evidence for a miracle story than for a mundane story; but in exaggerating this sensible requirement into an insuperable epistemic barrier, Hume and his followers are applying a standard that cannot be applied without absurdity in any other field of historical investigation.’  Thus, for example, one play set out to prove that the character of Napoleon was too fantastic for anyone to ever believe in, and that he was in fact a mythic invention of the British government.  Because if you cannot, from the outset, accept the testimony of miracles, how much less can you accept the testimony of a comically tiny man with nearly miraculous powers of military prowess?

Today we could apply Hume’s argument to the sciences, and immediately see that a true application of Hume’s principles would result in the destruction of most, if not all, of our scientific knowledge.  Although we like to think that science is some grand truthful mechanism, the reality is that its existence relies exclusively on the testimony of others.  I myself have done an experiment and published its results, so I am aware of the truthfulness of that paper.  But no one else has replicated my experiment.  Yes, people reviewed my paper, but they could not know whether or not I was lying; all they can do is determine whether I used the right statistics, and whether the experimental method looks like it was appropriate for answering the question.  As to whether I actually got my results, or I just made them up, they can never in principle know without repeating the experiment.  And the vast majority of experiments go unrepeated.

A few years ago I read about these animals called rotifers.  They live in water, and if the water dries up, they shut down until the water returns.  In the process of shutting down, their DNA gets shredded; when they ‘come back to life’, repair mechanisms patch their DNA back together.  The authors of this paper examined the DNA sequences of these rotifers, and found within them genes from bacteria and fungi.  They concluded that, when rotifers repair their broken DNA, they pick up any other DNA that is floating around in the water, thereby dramatically changing their genetic makeup.  This is amazing stuff, and certainly lies outside my realm of experience.  Using Hume’s critique of testimony, was this verified by other witnesses?  No.  Do they have a personal stake in getting me to believe what they are saying?  Absolutely – this paper was published in a prestigious journal, and certainly aided their career.  Does it fit within my realm of experience?  Absolutely not.  I have never seen a rotifer, yet alone come across an animal who can survive its DNA breaking down.  By Hume’s principles, then, I must reject this paper until I am given sufficient evidence through my own experiences.

The same argument could be made for virtually any other science paper, or any other sort of historical evidence.  Although this does not mean that we should reject Hume’s argument, we need to realize that there is no reason to elevate miracles above any other historical evidence unless we wish to admit that we have an a priori bias against miracles.  But that would be intellectually dishonest.

Part II

More Reasons to Not Believe in Miracles: No Good Testimony

In Part II of this chapter, Hume offers a number of other reasons for rejecting miraculous stories.  I would just like to quickly go through them, and address them as we come across them.

‘There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all of which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.’

This is a pretty strong claim that Hume is making, and should certainly give us pause – for how does he know this for certain?  Has he investigated every miraculous claim?  Later, Hume turns to three testimonies of miracles that he considers first-rate.  These are three testimonies that are difficult, if not impossible, to refute, due to the integrity of the eyewitnesses, their unwillingness to believe the miracles themselves, their lack of motive for propagating the miracle, and the public nature of the miracle.  One involves Vespasian’s healing of a blind man on the orders of the god Serapis, as recorded by Tacitus; one was of the regrowth of a leg in Saragossa, as attested by Cardinal de Retz; and one was of the miracles that occurred at the tomb of a famous Jansenist in France, recounted by Jesuits who had strong motives for trying to discredit their Jansenist enemies.  Unfairly, these three examples came from non-Protestant traditions; knowing that his audience would reject them for this reason alone, Hume offers them with the implication that, if these well-attested miracles cannot be believed, then how much less can Protestant miracles. 

I think this is a fairly dirty trick.  These three stories fit all of Hume’s criteria for accepting miracles, but he does not engage with them.  He knows that his readers' biases against these miraculous sources is argument enough.  Instead he says, ‘And what have we to oppose such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate?  And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as sufficient refutation.’

The miracle itself becomes sufficient proof for rejecting the miraculous story, because miracles are violations of natural law.  Testimony, then, really has nothing to do with anything.  Hume will never believe testimony, because he will never believe in miracles.

The Nature of Miraculous Stories Makes Them Easy to Spread

There is a peculiar fact of human nature, that we are willing to reject as improbable any ordinary fact that has a weaker probability of being true; but when something so unlikely as a miracle is declared, we readily accept it!  Why is this?  It is because miracles arouse in us surprise and wonder, and these two emotions are agreeable and therefore are desired by us.  People get pleasure out of listening and talking about miracles, and this increases the spread of miraculous stories.  It is the same with gossip – people will gleefully spread stories about relationships beginning or ending before they have the facts.  If we get these seemingly innocent and readily verifiable stories wrong, how much less can miraculous stories be trusted?  And given the number of miraculous stories that are debunked, how can anyone pretend that others are true?  Indeed, ‘if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end to common sense.’

This is no doubt true, but as he admits, it is also true for normal gossip.  There is no reason to elevate miracles as something special or distinct; this is not a question of miraculous stories, but a question of human testimony in general.

Miracles Are Believed by the Ignorant

Hume’s third point is perhaps the most insulting to the several billion people on this planet whose religions contain the miraculous: Miraculous stories are ‘chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.’  As we ‘advance nearer the enlightened age, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case…’

It is definitely an open question what he means by barbarous.  Were the Greeks an ignorant and barbarous nation?  Because miracles certainly abound in their tales.  What of the great rise in spiritualism that occurred alongside the Enlightenment, both in Britain and America?  Were these people barbarous and ignorant?  Or is Hume calling these nations barbarous, simply because they record miracles? 

As for the claim that, the more we learn, the more we discover that the miracles have a natural basis, C.S. Lewis says that this ignores common sense.  People know how the world ordinarily works; miracles stood out, even to ancient peoples, precisely because they did not fit with their normal experience.  The sun does not normally stop in its course through the sky; for it to do so would be a miracle.

Different Religions Contradict One Another

Here Hume says that the Hindus have miracles, and so do the Muslims.  Yet they worship different gods, and claim that the other side is wrong.  How can they both have miracles, if one is wrong?  The solution can only be that miracles do not exist, that both sides are lying in the hopes of reinforcing their religious beliefs.

I cannot speak for other religious traditions, but within Christianity and Judaism miracles among other religions have never been an issue.  In the Old Testament, Moses performed miracles by the power of God; Pharaoh’s magicians performed the exact same miracles through some other untold power.  The Old Testament law expressly forbids the practice of witchcraft and fortune-telling – why would this be, if there was not something real about them?  King Saul at one point consults a medium and has a discussion with what appears to be the ghost of Samuel, and all of this was done apart from the power of God.  In the New Testament, there was a girl telling the future through the power of a demon.  There is the recognition within Christianity that God has allowed lesser spiritual forces to work in this world, and that they do not all follow the ways of God.  It is therefore no contradiction on the Christian’s part to say that miracles could be performed in different religions.  Now, this is a very dark argument, and assumes that evil forces are deluding other religions, but this needn’t be the case at all – it is also likely that the God worshipped by Christians makes himself known to people of other religions as well.  Indeed, we find in the Old Testament, through the story of Melchizedek, that there is more to God’s purposes than we are told. 

Miscellany and Conclusion

Hume offers a few other arguments, which I have responded to already:

1. There is a strong temptation for people to assume the status of messiah, especially when the general populace is willing to believe in anything that promotes wonder.

2. The number of religions that have begun but failed, which claimed miracles, certainly testifies against the validity of miracles.  Given all of the numerous and contradictory claims of all of the world’s religions, it makes more sense to reject them all; indeed, this is what experience tells us we must do.

3. When something occurred in the ancient past, it is difficult to really ascertain its truth or falsehood.  How much more so with religions, when the very evidence that would allow us to debunk them has disappeared?

4.  We can only then debunk based on the testimonies themselves, but often it turns out that the evidence that disproves religion can only be understood by the learned, while the ‘vulgar’ (read: religious) are too dense to comprehend it.  [Although this sounds insanely offensive, there is certainly truth in this, although perhaps not as a general maxim.  Look, for example, at how geneticists and archaeologists have debunked many claims in the Book of Mormon, and yet those believers dogmatically go on.]

To summarize, Hume says that there is no testimony to ever give a miracle the status of probability, let alone proof; and even if it did amount to a proof, it would be destroyed by the proof of our own experience.  ‘It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature.  When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder.  But…this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.’

A Surprise Twist

Just when you think you have finally understood Hume, though, he pulls the rug out from under you.  It would seem that he is this whole time attacking, and not so subtly, the Christian religion. 

He says that, even if we were to say that God performed these miracles, there is still no reason to accept their testimony, as we do not know enough about God to conclude that he would produce such a miracle.  What we do know about God, we experience in the day-to-day activities of the world he has created, and this world does not seem to include the miraculous.

But then Hume declares that this entire chapter against miracles has, in fact, been a defence of Christianity!  Many people, Hume says, have tried to use reason to defend Christianity.  He says that this is a trial that Christianity was never meant to endure.  The Bible is full of so many things that lie outside of our experience, from a pre-Fall state to lengthened lifespans to talking donkeys, that most people would have to admit that it would be more of a miracle if everything in the Bible were true, than that the Bible is full of lies.

But that is a rational argument, whereas Christianity is based, not on reason, but faith.  ‘Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.’

Whether Hume’s assessment of faith is correct (it is certainly steeped in sarcasm), I will leave to you to discuss.

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