Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hume and the burden of proof

Hume famously made this influential, programmatic claim:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.

Many critics have pointed out the blatantly circular character of his argument. However, I’d like to make a different point.

Hume’s objection is based on experience. Especially his claim that we don’t experience miracles. That miracles are absent from human experience, or at least the overwhelming preponderance of human experience.

For him, this creates a presumption against reported miracles. Indeed, it creates a daunting presumption against reported miracles.

But that raises the question: if miracles occur, to what extent will we experience their occurrence?

Let’s take a paradigm-case:

1Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. 2And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, "Put your hand under my thigh, 3that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, 4 but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac." 5The servant said to him, "Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?" 6Abraham said to him, "See to it that you do not take my son back there. 7The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, 'To your offspring I will give this land,' he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. 8But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there." 9So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.
10Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor. 11And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water. 12And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14Let the young woman to whom I shall say, 'Please let down your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels'—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master."

15Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. 16The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. 17Then the servant ran to meet her and said, "Please give me a little water to drink from your jar." 18She said, "Drink, my lord." And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, "I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking." 20So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. 21The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the LORD had prospered his journey or not
(Gen 24:1-21).

Let’s examine some features of this miracle:

i) This miracle is an answer to prayer. It’s what we call a coincidence miracle. Outwardly speaking, it seems to be a perfectly natural event. Yet it’s actually a miracle of timing.

ii) Abraham’s servant is the only direct witness to this miracle. Others could witness the event, but only he could perceive the special providential character of the event.

That’s because it involves a private understanding between just two parties: God and Abraham’s servant.

Abraham’s servant asked for a sign. And, outwardly speaking, there’s nothing “extraordinary” about the sign. What makes it miraculous is the conjunction between the petition and the answer.

iii) Abraham’s servant shared his prayer with others, but that’s after the fact. That’s dependent on his testimony.

Likewise, you and I only know about it because it was recorded for posterity in Scripture. It’s not the type of miracle that leaves any trace evidence of its miraculous character.

iv) In a way, the resultant births of Jacob and Esau are just as miraculous as the birth of Isaac. Yet Isaac’s birth was overtly miraculous whereas their birth was covertly miraculous.

There was nothing miraculous about the immediate circumstances their conception. Yet their conception was contingent on a miraculous answer to prayer–further back. If God hadn’t guided Abraham’s servant to find Rebekah, Jacob and Esau wouldn’t be born.

v) In addition, there’s a chain of events leading up to Rebekah’s arrival the well that day. For instance, unless her parents were born, unless they married each other, unless they happened to be living there or move to that area, where she was born and bred, she wouldn’t be there to come to the well that day. So there’s a series of seemingly ordinary events leading up to that particular event. Rhe miracle of timing wasn’t confined to coordinating her arrival with the arrival of Abraham’s servant on that particular day, at that particular time of day.

Behind that lay a carefully coordinated series of events stretching back for centuries, so that all the salient variables would line up to yield the desired result. Many prior events had to occur, and occur just so, for that one event to occur. So many other things had to happen at a particular time and place for this event to happen at a particular time and place. God’s hand is behind the entire process. Not just one “coincidence,” but an interconnected sequence of opportune “coincidences.” Yet to a human observer, there was nothing special about any of this.

vi) Not only does this miraculous answer to prayer presuppose an orchestrated past, but it also has long-range future repercussions. For one thing, it contributes to a genealogy. Because Isaac and Rebekah married, they had Jacob and Esau. And, of course, as a delayed effect of that event, Jacob and Esau also found wives, by whom they had kids one, and grandkids, and great-grandkids, &c. So you have a family tree that branches out in a very different direction than if that prayer went unanswered.

vii) And, of course, this isn’t just anyone’s family. This event has worldwide consequences. It’s a link in the lineage of the Messiah. Moreover, it’s a conduit of the Abrahamic promise.

Billions of human beings experience the effect of that answered prayer. And yet the miraculous character of the precipitating event is indiscernible. Unless we had a record of the event, including an interpretation of the event, we’d have no idea that this was a miracle.

Mere experience is blind to the ulterior significance of this event. It looks like any other “natural” event. Yet that’s just one answer to prayer.

In terms of antecedent probabilities, the evidence doesn’t point in one direction or another.


  1. And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. Matt. 16:1-4

  2. "Mere experience is blind to the ulterior significance of this event."

    I'm thankful for Special Revelation.

  3. Nice to see another shot against the seemingly all consuming mantra that Hume's arguments were fatal for Christian faith.

    When I read some Hume again (after being tortured by it over 25 years ago), the other year, I was struck by the I just don't like religious ideas so I just don't think they are true approach.

    I thought what a wonderful enlightened childish approach. I don't like it so its not true.