Two Philosophers of worldwide repute one ancient the other modern have launched formidable attacks on the concept and credibility of miracles. These were the 18th century Scottish Philosopher David Hume and the 21st century British Philosopher Antony Flew.
I strongly doubt that Flew would have maintained his position against miracles had he lived long enough to revisit his earlier works, since, in 2004 he abandoned atheism though he still did not believe in a personal God. His last book (2007) was titled There is a God. Flew died in April 2010.
In his last book he gives three phenomena that cannot be explained from a naturalistic perspective. These are the origin of life from non-life, the origin of reproduction (without which natural selection is a late non-starter) and “the origin of the coding and information processing that is central to all life-forms…” These phenomena Flew contends make sense only if you invoke God.
Here now is a condensed summation of the central arguments Hume levelled against miracles as provided by Philosopher Norman Geisler.
Geisler says Hume, if read in his ‘softer’ view of natural law, did not argue “…for the impossibility of miracles but for the incredibility of accepting miracles. The argument can be stated this way:
- A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
- Natural law is by definition a description of regular occurrence.
- The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
- A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracle.” (See In Defence of Miracles edited by Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, p.75.)
This argument is formidable but not insuperable as we hope to show shortly.
How might one respond to Hume? When Hume claims that there is uniform experience against the reality of miracles he is guilty of the informal logical mistakes called begging the question and special pleading.
Since Hume is not omniscient he cannot know that all experience is against miracles without looking at the evidence including future evidence, hence he is guilty of begging the question.
On the other hand if by uniform experience Hume simply means the select experience of some persons who claim that they have never encountered a miracle, he is guilty of special pleading because there are other persons who claim to have encountered miracles.
The only way of escape for Hume is to prove that miracles can never ever happen, in other words that they are either logical absurdities or practical impossibilities.
Geisler indicts Hume for not weighing evidence for miracles but simply adding evidence against them. A rugged but not incorrect version of Hume’s argument is that since human death is normal and regular no one should believe in a few claimed resurrections since deaths will always outnumber resurrections.
This position is not worthy of a really rational person though. Rare but real events will always be outnumbered by regular events but sensible folk scrupulously examine the evidence for the rare they do not simply reject out of hand every claim for a rare event.
Here now is a really cute and deadly indictment of Hume by Geisler. Geisler says that Hume’s argument “…equates quantity of evidence and probability. It says, in effect, that we should always believe what is most probable (in the sense of ‘enjoying the highest odds’). But this is silly.”
“On this basis a dice player should not believe the dice show three sixes on the first roll, since the odds against it are 63 or 216 to 1 [the odds of being dealt a perfect bridge hand are more mind-boggling, about a trillion to 1 but it has happened]…”
“What Hume seems to overlook is that wise people base their beliefs on facts, not simply on odds. Sometimes the ‘odds’ against an event are high (based on past observation), but the evidence for the event is otherwise very good (based on current observation or reliable testimony). Hume’s argument confuses quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence. Evidence should be weighed, not added.” (In Defence of Miracles, p. 79)
Another flaw in Hume’s obsession with uniform past experience and his almost knee-jerk aversion to strange new events or exceptions to the norm is that it is unscientific. Think about it, as Geisler urges, science makes advances and discovers new laws by “established or repeatable exceptions to past patterns…When an observed exception to a past ‘law’ is established, that ‘law’ (L1) is revised and a new ‘law’ (L2) replaces it…Without established exceptions, no progress can be made in science.” (p. 81)
Another dimension of the unscientific nature of Hume’s position is that at times just one solidly attested fact can be all that’s necessary to validate or refute a scientific hypothesis or theory.
The over 50-year old SETI project (the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) will be declared successful if only one message from outer space is received by a radio telescope. By message we mean a sound that is mathematically distinguishable from the regular noise that is normally emitted. Scientific validation from one single event.
Hume’s naturalism was his philosophical undoing because he could not and would not countenance anything beyond the natural. If Hume was around to have read Flew’s last book, he too like many naturalists would have had a most difficult time countering Flew’s challenges to naturalism.
Add to Flew’s three-fold challenge to naturalism how self-consciousness could arise from mindless matter and the problems are aggravated.
At the risk of belabouring the criticism of Hume let me make the point that even if one might wish to say the world now operates exclusively on natural law you could hardly deny miracles or supernatural events (to adopt Prof. John Lennox’s preference) at the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of genetic coding.
Listen to Allan Sandage (winner of the Crafoord prize, astronomy’s equivalent of the Nobel), “I find it quite improbable that [the order in the universe] came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence — why there is something rather than nothing.” (Cited in John Lennox, Gunning for God, p. 35)
But there’s an overlooked point highlighted by Roy Varghese who co-authored Flew’s last book.
Since Hume is so hooked on the inviolable regularity of the laws of nature one must ask if these laws came into being miraculously or supernaturally with the origin of the universe or they developed gradually over time.
Varghese asks then answers an uncomfortable set of questions in this regard. He queries, “How were [the laws of nature] conceived, and just as important, how were things forced to follow the laws? What compels the protons and neutrons in an atom to be bound by strong nuclear forces that are strong enough to overcome the positive charges that could blow apart the nucleus?…who keeps the underlying laws of nature in place? Ultimately it’s God who ensures their continued operation…Thus, God did not simply invent all things but constantly holds them in being.” (In his The Wonder of the World: A Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God, 173, 63)
Scientist and theist Richard Bube goes even further with this line of reasoning. For Bube “The natural order exists only because God is constantly active in upholding it. God does not use natural processes as if they existed without him. God does not take advantage of natural laws to accomplish his will as if the laws existed without him…Thus miracles are not some kind of interference by God in the normal course of events, as though events would go on in their own way without him if he didn’t intervene, [a miracle is] a particular way in which God’s unlimited free activity manifests itself.” (My emphasis, cited in Ronald H. Nash, Faith & Reason, 242-243)
Contrary to Hume then if one defines properly and thinks cogently one would have to concede the reality or at least the possibility of miracles.
If miracles are possible then the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ deserves examination, at least, for its probability.