Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Hume's Miracle


“There’s probably no God (now stop worrying and enjoy the rest of your life)” it says on the bus atheist bus which by retaining its grip on the empirical and renouncing the a priori and all its works and pomps stays true to the Hume’s line laid out in his remarks on miracles. No doubt they took the advice of a member of the Philosophers chapel of the British Humanist Association, Peter Millican who has written extensively on the topic of Hume and the probability of the report of a miracle being a true account of what transpired. My mild tracing of the anfractuosities of Hume’s view was sparked by a reading of a chapter on it in Philosophers and Religious Truth by Ninian Smart. He takes the view which conforms to the apparently obvious contradiction in Hume’s writing between the rejection of induction as establishing a law of nature which would allow us to say that the sun will rise tomorrow and the reverence before the regular course of things that discounts any miracles.

Millican is not having this:

If there is indeed an inconsistency here, however, this is more a difficulty for Hume‟s philosophy of induction than for his position on miracles.
Most of his work – from the Treatise, through the Essays and Enquiries, to the History and the later works on religion – is thoroughly infused with the empirical scientific spirit of an investigator attempting “to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects” (as declared by the subtitle of the Treatise). In this respect, the inductive commitment of his essay on miracles is entirely typical. And in fact there is no inconsistency between Hume‟s philosophy of induction and his empirical method; quite the reverse. His inductive “scepticism” – as presented in Sections 4 and 5 of the Enquiry, is encapsulated in the claim “that, in all reasonings from experience, there is a step taken by the mind, which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding” (E 5.2). This unsupported step – the assumption of uniformity whereby we extrapolate from observed to unobserved and “expect similar effects from causes, which are, to appearance, similar” (E 4.23) – has instead a non-rational basis, in an animal instinct which Hume calls custom (E 5.6)
(from 20 questions)

The inherent unliklihood of a miracle is surely its point and I think that the term ‘likely’ is more apposite and in keeping with Hume’s general breeziness than the term ‘probable’ used in a modern sense that brings sage pronouncements on 0, 1 or .0000…..1 probability. Hume’s two for the price of one miracle is an example of his drollery:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish …” (E 10.13)

It’s true that not many philosophers are as enthusiastic as Millican. John Earman is scathing and he’s a non-theist - humes abject failureFor myself I believe in them when I have confidence in the supposed worker of them and in their witnesses. Otherwise I do not concern myself and as I said to a young sceptic recently – You shouldn’t believe in them. What I didn’t add was ‘because they don’t concern you’.

1 comment:

skholiast said...

"because they don't concern you".... yet.