Why do many people embrace a worldview that won’t even consider evidence for miracles? Sometimes they assume that science opposes miracles, but that assumption goes back not to scientific inquiry itself but to an 18th-century philosopher. Knowingly or unknowingly, many people have followed the thesis of Scottish skeptic David Hume (1711–1776).
Hume was probably the most prominent philosopher of his generation, and surely the most influential from his time on subsequent generations. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, sometimes very insightfully but sometimes (as with his ethnocentric approach to history) in ways that would not be accepted today.
Hume’s intellectual stature, earned from other works, eventually lent credibility to his 1748 essay on miracles. In this essay, Hume dismisses the credibility of miracle claims, appealing to “natural law” and uniform human experience. Although an appeal to natural law might sound scientific, Hume was not a scientist; in fact, some of his views on causation would make scientific inquiry impossible. Hume’s essay on miracles also contradicts his own approach to discovering knowledge.
Moreover, Hume’s essay has generated serious intellectual counterarguments since the time it was first published. One of these counterarguments was history’s first public use of Bayes’ theorem, today an essential staple in statistics.
Mathematician and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes originated the theorem but died before publishing it. His close friend Richard Price, also a mathematician and minister, published it and then used Bayes’ theorem to refute a probability claim Hume had made in his essay about miracle witnesses.
Hume himself acknowledged the force of that argument, though he did not adequately revise his essay in light of it. Mathematician Charles Babbage, designer of the first mechanical computer, also issued a refutation of Hume’s probability argument against miracles.
Most early English scientists believed in biblical miracles. Such scientists included Isaac Newton and early Newtonians. Modern science originally developed in contexts that affirmed that a superintelligent God created the universe and that it therefore should make sense. Newton popularized the idea of natural law—and saw it as a design argument for God’s existence.
Likewise, Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry, used his discoveries about nature to argue for an intelligent designer. Boyle, Newton, and Newtonians believed in biblical miracles: They affirmed that the God who set up the universe to normally work in an orderly way was not subject to that order. Some modern scientific thinkers concur, such as John Polkinghorne.
Most early modern scientists worked from a Christian worldview. Examples include Blaise Pascal, the mathematician who developed the precursor of the modern computer; Andreas Vesalius, the founder of the modern study of human anatomy; Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the founder of microbiology; William Harvey, who described the circulatory system; Gregor Mendel, a monk and early leader in genetics; Francis Bacon; Nicolaus Copernicus; Galileo Galilei (despite conflicts arising from contemporary academic and ecclesiastical politics); Johannes Kepler.
More recently, we have Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and George Washington Carver—the list could go on. The myth of a historic war between science and religion stems especially from two late 19th-century books that historians have subsequently debunked as antireligious propaganda.
It was not, then, scientists who came up with the idea that miracles violate natural law. It was other thinkers such as Hume. Hume liked Newton’s mechanistic universe; he used it, however, in a way quite different from Newton. Hume adopted much of his argument from a movement of his day called deism. Deists believed that God designed the universe, but they often denied that he acted in the world much after that. Hume developed much of his argument precisely to oppose the sort of evidentialist apologists who had led England’s scientific revolution.
Hume’s argument was twofold: First, miracles are violations of natural law. Second, uniform human experience warns against trusting miracle reports.
Although some earlier writers had viewed miracles as beyond laws of nature, Hume treated them as “violations” of laws of nature. Once he adopted this definition, he insisted that miracles are miracles only if they violate natural law. Then he argued that natural law cannot be violated, so therefore miracles do not happen.
Although this clever play with words does not fit Hume’s own normal way of arguing, he conveniently defines miracles this way in hopes of defining them out of existence. This approach spares him the trouble of having to argue against them one by one.
As Hume’s critics have always pointed out, this language loads the deck of the argument. No one who believes in a God who created laws of nature believes that God is subject to such laws—as if God illegally “violates” them by doing a miracle.
Hume’s god that cannot violate natural law is not the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Nor do “violations” of nature correspond with most of the biblical miracles that Hume wished to undermine. Hume was thus refuting a straw man—a caricature of what people actually believed.
In the Bible, God often acts through other agents. When Judges 20:35 says that God struck the tribe of Benjamin, the context makes it clear that God executed this judgment through human warriors.
Likewise, when God gave the Israelites Canaan, the Bible claims that he accomplished this gift through their military victories (Deut. 3:18; 4:1). When God sent swarms of locusts into Egypt by a strong east wind (Ex. 10:13), he was not breaking any natural law. This was not the only time locusts struck Egypt; it was simply the most severe and timely—the one that came right after Moses predicted it. And we already discussed the parting of the sea.
Human beings regularly act within nature; they do not, for example, “violate” the law of gravity by catching a falling pencil or lifting an eraser. Nor does a surgeon violate natural law when she restores someone’s sight. Why should a putative creator be any less able to act within nature than those he created? One must essentially assume deism or atheism from the start for Hume’s argument to work at all.
Another problem with Hume’s argument today is how he viewed natural laws. Today philosophers of science tend to define laws of nature in primarily descriptive ways. That is, these “laws” describe what happens rather than causing it. If scientists find some things that do not fit the pattern, they may rethink the law, but they do not ordinarily say that something violated the law.
Moreover, laws of nature describe nature at particular levels and under particular conditions; they function differently in settings such as superconductivity or black holes. Why should special divine action not create a different set of conditions than those to which we are accustomed?
This excerpt was taken from Miracles Today by Craig S. Keener, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.
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