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UFOs and Resurrections: Why there can be no evidence for miracles, according to Hume
If an object falls from a tree and then suddenly starts to rise back up, there must be a natural explanation. For example, the object must be a bird or other animal that can fly, or a sudden gust of wind might have carried the object back up. In any case, a law of nature was not violated and the event was not a miracle. For extreme cases, such as the supposed resurrection of the dead claimed in the Christian Bible, philosopher David Hume states there can be absolutely no evidence. This is because of four specific reasons. First, "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." In other words, there has never in history been an instance of a credible source. Hume states that although testimony of others is usually reliable and sometimes the only way we can make sense of the world, that such testimony can be fallible.
Second, Hume notes that "what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations." Again, Hume underscores personal, direct experience. Moreover, Hume notes "the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous," which causes people to want to believe in miracles, even against common sense and reason.
Third, Hume states somewhat politically incorrectly that "It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations." In other words, most religions are based on superstition not science. Fourth, "there is no testimony for any, even those which have not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite number of witnesses." The religions of the world contain many different claims for miracles, and the claims often contradict each other.
David Hume argues that there can be no evidence for miracles, in spite of the many claims made for miracles throughout historical and religious literature. If there were evidence for a "miracle," then it would no longer be a miracle, but rather just a new scientific fact. Hume provides a logical proof of his claim against miracles in his essay "On Miracles," which is Section Ten of "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." Hume defines a miracle in Part One of the section as any "violation of the laws of nature." Therefore, he rules out situations in which a person or group of people believed they saw a miracle when in fact it was just a misperception. For example, if a person thinks he or she saw a UFO but later learned that it was a fighter jet, then that sighting was definitely not a "violation of the laws of nature." Furthermore, if a person experienced something that seemed to be a miracle because they had never experienced it before, but later discovered that there was a scientific explanation for it, then the instance it not a miracle. An example would be a person from Florida who had never heard of the Northern Lights and then saw them while on vacation in Alaska. At first he or she would think they had witnessed a miracle, when in fact it was just aurora borealis.
"Hume defines the laws of nature as those which are based on human experience and by extension, science. Any "violation of the laws of nature" would therefore be impossible, unless the law itself was false to begin with or misunderstood. Early in the essay "On Miracles," Hume acknowledges the importance of direct, immediate experience. "Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses." Historically, most of the claims to miracles are not based on the personal experiences of the readers or listeners. For example, the miracles in the Bible supposedly occurred millennia ago and the stories were handed down from generation to generation. Modern cases of "miracles" would include UFO sightings or visions of the Virgin Mary. Most people hear about UFO or Virgin Mary sightings from second-hand or third-hand stories. It might be comforting or tempting to believe in the miracles claimed in the Bible but in fact, they are only stories. There is no scientific evidence to support something like a body being resurrected from the dead. Scriptures in fact contradict common sense and experience. According to Hume, "A wise man ... proportions his beliefs to the evidence."
Therefore, the laws of religion cannot be classified as the laws of nature. Miracles are in most cases permitted by the laws of religion but not by the laws of nature. Hume does not deny the efficacy of religion, but he does want to distinguish the laws of religion from the laws of science. The laws of science are based on direct human experience, which is backed up by the experiences of others and found to be consistent and reliable over time. Few people know someone who has experienced a "miracle," let alone having experienced one first hand. When we do experience a "miracle" first hand, there is usually a scientific explanation for the experience.
According to Hume, evidence is based on one of two things: direct experience or on second-hand testimony. Both direct experience and second-hand testimony are fallible, however. Therefore, it is impossible to prove a miracle simply through one of these means of evidence. Moreover, if an event was corroborated then it would probably not be a miracle but simply the discovery of a new law of nature. For example, when the first solar eclipse was witnessed by human beings, they might have thought they were experiencing a divine miracle. However, because the eclipse was visible by all human beings it was not a miracle but rather just a phenomenon that they didn't quite understand.
Furthermore, direct experience is often fallible and "apt to lead us into errors ... all effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes." We cannot trust everything we see, hear, or experience because even our senses are unreliable sometimes. For instance, when we are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or when we are sleep deprived, we cannot trust our senses.
Miracles are mostly based on claims and testimony, and not at all on hard evidence. The more outlandish the claims, the more probable it is that the testimony is false, even if the witness is credible. Hume quotes an ancient Roman maxim to illustrate his point: "I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato." Evidence for the existence of a miracle must be so overwhelming that it renders the claim, however outrageous, true. Examples of ways Hume would accept evidence for a miracle besides experiencing one himself include having a large number of credible sources asserting the fact. However, even if a hundred college professors claimed to have witnessed the resurrection of the dead, Hume might not believe that was actual evidence for a miracle because as he states in part two of the essay, "it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages."
Hume claims that human beings are predisposed to believe in miracles even though no evidence for them exists, or can exist: "The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous." Hume does not deny the meaningfulness…[continue]
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