Hume on Miracles
Hume’s inductive skepticism is in apparent tension with his writings on miracles. He says that occurrence of the past is no reason to believe in the likelihood of the future, and yet his statements about miracles relay largely on the improbability of said events due to our experience of nature. Hume, it seems, would claim our beliefs about a fork falling is more reasonable than a man walking on water because we’ve seen forks fall, we know objects have a tendency to fall generally, and yet through this knowledge of “things falling” and witnessing how bodies act in relation to water to assume a man walking into the deep end of a pool would fall to the bottom of it unless he proportioned his body as to float. This ultimately has to do with Hume’s belief that the world appears to be a universal order of natural laws; but is this not based on inductive reasoning? If we can never know about the “heart” of things, if all we can see is the sense perceptions of this world, then how can we ever be verified in this notion of Universal Law without making appeals to the inductive?
Our sense perceptions of the world and the consistency of them is similar to playing a game of Super Mario Bros and a miracle akin to an observed glitch. When we play we do not see and cannot as children know the true nature of the physical manifestation of silicone and programming. We see the Goombas and Koopas in their eight bit glory, ignorant of their “true” nature, or rather that which gives raise to the appearances on the television screen, just as for Hume we see and can know nothing but sense perceptions.
Now, a child playing the game religiously and becoming astute in the game mechanics would perhaps be convinced that he understands the game in all its possibilities. That bullet bill cannons do not fire if you are standing atop or right next to it, that green Koopas waddle back and forth while red Koopas like lemmings will waddle off the edge if given the chance. But video games, particularly video game technology of the mid ‘80’s is faulty like all human creation. And the otherwise unified laws of video game mechanics can become fragmented or upheaved in a way (especially if we use Hume’s theory of imagination) impossible for the child to guess at. He will be shocked when he is walking on air, the blocks having suddenly vanished, just as witnesses of any supposed miracle would be shocked to witness the Buddha purifying a well’s drinking water or Jesus of Nazareth turning water into wine.
Hume acknowledges there is a difference between believing it is likely that it will be warmer in June than a random day in December and be wrong, and believe that all men are destined to death and be wrong. One is based on weather, which we have experience of but our experience has shown it to be something very uncertain and prone to aberration, such as snow in June or a winter heat wave] ; but no one has ever been without death . Hume uses the consistency of us never witnessing someone not die or never witnessing someone walk on water, but this seems to be based entirely on the inductive claims he has largely made his name in discrediting.
The very nature of the religious claim is that it is meant to be extraordinary and incredible; that is to say, without credibility in the way we would naturally assign something through the sense-experience that Hume would have us use as weight of the unlikeliness of any said miracle – this is why he later says that the majority of the Christian faith is founded largely on just that and not upon reason. His rejection is seen in the second part of his Of Miracles. Relaying on the continuity of sense experience that I’ve already demonstrated is relaying on the inductive reasoning he found questionable.
Perhaps the most convincing argument, that which does not contradict or involve his claims of induction, is his claim that miracles only happen in “ignorant and barbarous nations.” (Of Miracles). It is rather astonishing to note that all peoples essentially of all the world believed in some form of magic or miraculous happenings, use it generally as “evidence” for their religion (not always in the same way or degree), and yet deny the miracles of competing faiths that also appeared in ignorant and backwards nations. The Christian does not believe the miracles of the Buddhist or Hindu. And the Hindu is unlikely to believe in the miracles described by the Muslim or Orthodox Jew. Religious people generally speaking, have a tendency, an eagerness as Hume points out (Of Miracles), to believe in their faith and sacrifice their reason to believe it.
Though my perception going into the reading was Hume’s stance was miracles are by definition impossible through his belief in Naturalism and a unified order, I find that his stance is not quite so (Of Miracles). It is merely that we should be skeptical, scrutinize the claims the way an honest man would want us to scrutinize his claims, the way we would put under scrutiny any claim we would wish to “really” believe were real; that is to say, the way we would examine a claim as if we were lawyers or scientists and not stop questioning simply because we are delving into the realm of religion (Of Miracles). Now in the quote given he says that people should search for an answer for the eclipse, which gives us reason to believe that he believes that there is a loosely speaking scientific or natural reason why such phenomena was witnessed by millions. Depending on your definition of miracle, it either would then no longer be a miracle when it could be explained, or it never was a miracle to begin with.
In my view he does not make an argument against the possibility of the supernatural but against the likelihood of a deviation from experience, specifically the majority of examples believed and the religious explanations about said things which are unlikely to have, but very well may have occurred. That is, he does not thoroughly discredit the supernatural conceptually (though in saying that incredible claims require incredible evidence he rightly says that the human motives for belief in the incredible is a more likely explanation of why such claims are believed the world over), but he does properly discredit the Christian or particularly religious explanation of the supernatural. It could be that Jesus walked on water – but this in no way shows he was the son of God . Perhaps a trickster deity thought it to be in great humor to trick Jesus of Nazareth into thinking he had magical powers and was descended from the alleged Creator when in actuality Jesus was only given these powers momentarily (the moment this trickster god knew Jesus wanted to use them) through this trickster.
The example given about the eight day solar eclipse as an accepted deviation from “natural law” shows his willingness to accept such things if the evidence is convincing; though once again to weigh it against repetition of the contrary would seemingly to use the induction that he said was groundless.
 The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resembles those, of which we have; 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. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority.
 It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present.
 The smallest spark may here kindle into the greatest flame; because the materials are always prepared for it. The avidum genus auricularum, the gazing populace, receive greedily, without examination, whatever sooths superstition, and promotes wonder.
 I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.
 Here then we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of a state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: of our fall from that state: of the age of man, extended to near a thousand years: of the destruction of the world by a deluge: of the arbitrary choice of one people, as the favourites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author: of their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing imaginable: I desire any one to lay his hand upon his heart, and after a serious consideration declare, whether he thinks that the falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates; which is, however, necessary to make it be received, according to the measures of probability above established.