David Hume – Miracles

Hume’s Philosophy of Miracles


Definition of Miracles: 

“A transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity”

– Hume believed laws of nature were fixed and therefore a transgression from one would be miraculous

Hume’s Main Claim: Probability

“When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider myself whether it may be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsity of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event he relates then, and not till then, can he command my belief or opinion.”

– In his main claim, Hume outlines 3 possibilities when being presented with an account of a miracle (in this case, resurrection);
1) The man is lying
2) The man has been lied to
3) The man actually witnessed a resurrection

– He then weighs up the two miracles in order to reject the greater one;
1) Someone was brought back from the dead
2) Some form of deception took place

– Hume then rejects the greater miracle; in this case resurrection, as it is far more probable that someone is lying than that resurrection occurred

– If to lie about it seems more miraculous, then the event must have happened

– However, in what situations is it more likely that the “miracle” occurred than someone lied about it? If an event is mundane enough that to lie about it seems miraculous – can it even be considered a miracle by definition?

Hume’s Subsidiary Claims: 

  1. People with sense, education and integrity do not believe in miracles
  2. Unusual things happen, people find these exciting and want to attribute them to something
  3. Ignorant barbarous people believe in miracles
  4. All religions claim miracles (and rely on them for their validity) and therefore these cancel each other out

Criticisms of Hume

Hume makes the jump from improbability to irrationality 

  • We can all think of highly unlikely events which do happen
  • On balance of probability, Hume may even reject these
  • Hume makes the jump from an inductive argument to a deductive conclusion
  • Although he claims miracles definitively cannot happen – he does not deductively prove this, just inductively leads us to the probable conclusion that they do not happen 

There is an element of Myth in the Bible 

  • Miraculous events can still hold significant meaning
  • Especially at a personal, subjective level
  • Even if such events actually happening does not correspond with our world view, they can still hold significance
  • Anti real view

Hume’s 4th Subsidiary Claim is weak 

  • It doesn’t follow that if different belief systems make different claims, they must all be wrong
  • It is possible one could be true and the others false

Laws of Nature are Descriptive, not Prescriptive

  • Laws of nature come from what we observe empirically in the world around us
  • They evolve and change with new understanding – they do not dictate what occurs
  • Any transgression is simply an unusual event that adds to our understanding of them

Hume only considers Second Hand accounts 

  • What about physical evidence?
  • If Hume himself saw a miracle, does his main claim still stand?
    Yes, Hume would state that the same principles apply
    Either he has been visually deceived/his senses are lying to him, or the miracle has occurred
    He would then follow through and reject which is the greater miracle



An Introduction to Miracles

Oxford dictionary definition

– a surprising and welcome act or event which does not follow the known laws of nature and is therefore thought to be caused by a God

– a remarkable or unexpected event

David Hume Allan_Ramsay_-_David_Hume,_1711_-_1776._Historian_and_philosopher_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

– “A miracle may be accurately defined as a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”

Transgression: a deviation, a change from
Volition: the will
Interposition: Intervention

– If miracles existed, this is what Hume would define them as. Hume was an atheist, and so believed that in fact miracles have never happened

– Hume took a realist approach to miracles

Thomas Aquinas st_thomas_aquinas

– “That which has a divine cause, not that whose cause a human person fails to understand”

– Something which was caused by God (Aquinas was a monk and so believed in the Judaeo-Christian God) and not something which humans could explain with better understanding

– Aquinas took a realist approach to miracles

R. F. Holland124873340_holland_400170c

– “A remarkable and beneficial coincidence that is interpreted in a religious fashion”

– A positive event which is viewed by some as miraculous and caused by a deity

– Miracles are subjective, if a person believes an event to be miraculous then it is

– Holland took an anti-realist approach to miracles

Realism and Anti-Realism 


  • There are objective truths in the universe
  • These have and always will remain true
  • For example; the world has always been round. When people believed it was flat this wasn’t true, and they were incorrectly interpreting an objective reality
  • Something is only true if it corresponds to the actual state of affairs
  • In the context of miracles; something is miraculous only if it adheres to a certain objective definition of a miracle 


  • Truth is relative
  • If something corresponds with what you believe, it’s true
  • For example; when people believed the world was flat, it was. And now it is round as that is how people view it
  • In the context of miracles; something is miraculous if a person interprets it in that fashion 

Biblical Miracles 

What are the Key Purposes of Biblical Miracles? 

For Jewish People – Miracles are evidence of God’s care for his chosen people

For Christians – Miracles are used as proof by gospel writers to show Jesus really was the Messiah
– They’re used as an illustration of Jesus as the son of God and Jesus’ power over nature
– Used as indicators of what the kingdom of God will be like

Examples of Biblical Miracles 

Exodus 14:21-2 
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back and turned it to dry land” – the parting of the red sea so that the Israelites may cross

Isaiah 42:6-7 
“I will keep you and I will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles to open eyes that are blind”

Matthew 15:31
“The people were amazed when they heard the mute speaking, the cripple made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing”

The Nebraska Choir Miracle – 1950 

What happened: 

nebraska-church-explosionA Nebraska church exploded one evening just five minutes after choir practise had been scheduled to begin, however not one of the fifteen members of the choir were injured because every one of them were late to practise.
It was a one in a million chance  that for a variance of reasons, each member would be late to practise that night.

Hume – This is not a miracle, it can be explained through simple coincidence and probability. It does not deviate from a law of nature.

Holland – For those involved this could be considered a miracle depending on personal perception. As several involved view the event as a miracle, it is one for them.