“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event.”
Hume, David. “
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.”
David Hume, father of logical positivism, a scientific school of thought which only allows self evident statements and only considers quantifiable and measurable propositions to be meaningful. In Hume’s critique of miracles, he provides a valuable check against flippantly assigning the miraculous to the unknown or mysterious.
Positivism should actually have its appeal to the Christian mind, some may say. Christians hold that there is a world of truth out there, which is independent of our minds and that the human element in discovering truth is an unwanted admixture, especially with regards to subjective emotions. However, completely factoring out the human element in discovery is just not possible and positivism is not without its problems, because it gives us an unrealistic expectation of the world and cannot account for truths which are not quantifiable, such as morality and logic itself. Hume’s essay can be summed up as, “Show me any event which you call a miracle and I will find a natural law with which to account for it.” Hume is, for the most part, correct. There are “normative” laws of nature which typically govern the way the world operates, and that the likelihood of a miracle is outweighed by the likelihood of a natural explanation accounting for the event. Again, this poses no problem for Christianity, because Christianity teaches that the laws of nature are so recognizable and regular any exception to them would be obvious and that God is a primary cause who operates through secondary causes, the laws of nature. However, the trail seems to have gone cold. The purported miracles in the Bible, by their very nature, are unrepeatable. We live in a world where axe heads sink, the dead stay dead and where wine requires a fermentation process. Furthermore, there is no DNA evidence or remaining crime scene to verify events like the crucifixion of Jesus and His resurrection. Even in the gospels Jesus seems to have fallen off the face of the earth throughout the rest of the Bible, after the first chapter of Acts.
In Cold Case Christianity, cold case detective, J. Warner Wallace notes that while the forensic trail of evidence can go cold, we still have access to eyewitness testimony, which can be more valuable than hard evidence. But why should we prefer testimony over hard, physical, evidence? People, not the evidence, are what lies to us. Physical evidence is passive, while a person’s memories can become clouded or distorted over time. This is more beneficial than it is problematic, because the physical evidence isn’t saying anything and there are investigative techniques through which one can uncover the prime source of information which informs secondary sources, and offer an interpretation of the evidence.
Philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, notes that we live in a theory laden universe which we understand through our paradigms and our paradigms are what we use to account for the event in question, but our paradigms or framework for interpreting evidence are not the phenomenon itself.
Wallace notes that our expectations, while normal, can often make us biased toward the evidence and that our paradigms prevent us from seeing what has happened or being able to properly account for the event. He points to a case where he and his partner showed up to a murder scene, where a woman was found dead. His partner, given his greater experience at the time, had assumed the woman’s husband committed the crime, because random murders are less frequent than ones of familiarity and he based his hunch that she was married on a picture of her and a male, on her nightstand, and male clothing in her closet. As it turned out, the male was her brother who kept his clothing at her house, and the actual murderer was her neighbour.
Before continuing, it is important to note the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism is a method of discovery which looks for natural causes, while philosophical naturalism assumes that only natural causes are possible and will be the case. While the former is no threat to Christian theism, as mentioned earlier, the former is the paradigm which is a threat to Christian theism.
Wallace deals with this, however, and notes that the mind espousing philosophical naturalism goes into the inquiry, in this case into the discussion of miracles, front-loaded, or with an anti-supernatural bias. While the supernaturalist is able to take into consideration natural explanations, the naturalist has an a-priori commitment to naturalism–which is, independent of experience they are assuming the cause, while unknown, will be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms. The naturalist has adopted a paradigm which makes them totally blind to the occurrence of miracles, even if one has truly taken place. Where this reasoning is fallacious is, it makes a god of the gaps type argument, which is all too often what atheists charge theists with, however in this case, the charge is assuming naturalism will fully account for any and all events. While the theist is just as free to appeal to natural explanations, alongside the naturalist, the naturalist, by virtue of their worldview, finds themselves shutoff to other explanations even if they are the true explanation.
David Hume, while he offers a powerful argument for exercising discernment in appealing to the miraculous, he errs in assuming that probabilities determine truth, rather than single events which falsify the regular. No matter how unlikely it is that one has won a lottery, given the odds, facts, not odds determine truth.