Monday, April 21, 2014

Anscombe on Hume

In her essay on "Hume on Miracles," Elizabeth Anscombe offers a compact critique of Hume's celebrated attack on miracles:

A strong reason for the fame of the Essay, I should judge, is the literary skill, which is greater in the Enquiry than in the Treatise. Literary skill is independent of the soundness in argument or truthfulness in reporting. One of the most agreeable passages in Hume's chapter, for example, is that in which reports an account by Cardinal de Retz of an alleged miracle in Saragossa. 
But if one looks up the passage one has to conclude that Hume was probably relying on his memory to report it, and his memory cooked it up a bit in the interests of his argument. E.g. you would think from Hume's passage that de Retz had questioned the townspeople, whereas all he reports is what the Dean and cantors (elevated by Hume into the greater dignity of canons) told him. The comic effect, from the point of view of pious credulity, of a story of being cured by lamp oil, is taken away by making it "holy oil"; the Cardinal's own caution in committing himself as to whether the people, whom he saw at a day's journey away covering the roads on the way to Saragossa, really were going there to celebrate this miracle–which suggests that he wasn't sure it was not a leg pull on him–is transmuted into his having found that the whole company in town, by their zealous devotion, were thorough believers in the miracle. 
The accusations against Hume's arguments by his critics, which seem sound enough, can be listed quite briefly: 
1. Hume dodges about between different definitions of a miracle as (a) anything contrary to the uniform course of experience, or (ii) a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent. 
2. The first definition is question begging, as may be seen from his remark: "It is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country." 
3. Indeed Hume carries the first definition to an extreme point of absurdity: "There must therefore be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." This is self-defeating, as the alleged miraculous event, having possibly happened, would be enough to call its miraculous character in question–since if it had happened, there would not be uniform experience against it; and hence its miraculous character could not be adduced as an argument against it having happened. 
4. Hume's aim is to procure (what has indeed been procured) that the miraculous character of an event shall be sufficient reason to reject the story of its having occurred without investigation of any evidence. This is a strange termination of an argument which starts with the thesis that a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. 
5. Hume misdescribes the role of testimony in human knowledge. "The reason," he says," "why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a context of two opposite experiences." 
Well, I have not merely not often, but never, experienced an earthquake; yet there is no conflict, no principle of experience which in this case gives me a "degree of assurance against the fact" that witnesses to earthquakes endeavor to establish. 
6. On the point of consistency with his own philosophy, there cold hardly be a defense. Hume is so clear that no amount of uniformity of experience can possibly be a rational ground, or evidence, let alone proof, that the like must happen in a similar case, that it really looks as if his tongue were in his cheek when he says that the occurrence of a miracle is disproved just by the fact of its being a violation of the laws of nature; that it is ruled out as an impossible event. In the very next chapter but one he repeats his constant position that, reasoning a priori, we must grant that anything may produce anything. "The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun." and yet in his chapter we get him saying "The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle. The raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of force requisite for that purpose, is as real a miracle, though not so sensible with regard to us" In short for purposes of this chapter he is adopting the mechanistic determinism–the picture of nature bound fast in fate by inviolable laws–which belong not to Hume's conceptions but to those of his century–the effect of Newtonian science (?). His own view is: 
That there is nothing in any object, considered in itself, which can afford us a reason for drawing a conclusion beyond it; and That even after the observation of a frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have had experience; I say, let men be once fully convinced of these two principles, and this will throw them so loose from all common systems, that they will make no difficulty of receiving any, which may appear the most extraordinary. 
The essay is brilliant propaganda…The argument for Hume's account of causality, that this is just the avoidable way we do think, is as silly if addressed to believers in miracles as the proof of God from universal consent addressed to atheists. 
G. E. M. Anscome, Faith in a Hard Ground (Imprint Academic 2008), chap. 4.


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  2. Maybe I'm just playing armchair philosopher here, but doesn't it seem like Hume's argument against miracles is in tension with his problem of induction? In the argument against miracles, he indicates that "There must therefore be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." But in the problem of induction, we have no reason for assuming a uniform experience, since there is (supposedly) no non-question-begging basis for believing that the future will resemble the past. Am I missing something here?

    Maybe Hume was just trolling the philosophical community left and right.

    1. In fact she makes that very point. Hume's attack on miracles presumes a view of induction which he elsewhere repudiates.