Many philosophers offer proofs of the existence of God: Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibnitz. Atheists, however, rely on David Hume, who, they commonly claim, has refuted these proofs. This seems to be something like an article of faith to atheists.
But has he? This would come as a surprise to David Hume. He himself claimed to be a theist and a Christian, and, specifically, to accept the proof from design as conclusive. It is hard to believe that he did not understand his own philosophy.
The passage the atheists commonly point to is Hume’s piece on miracles, chapter ten of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Here Hume defines a “miracle” as a violation of the laws of nature, and then argues that this is so intrinsically improbable that no report of any such thing can be taken as sufficient proof.
But there are several problems with this argument. First, as noted, Hume did not himself consider this a disproof of God. And why would he? It is, if correct, a disproof of miracles, not of God.
Does the argument for the existence of God rely on miracles? It does not. None of the philosophical proofs do; and neither does Christian teaching. Jesus says “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”: expressly, a faith based on miracles is not true faith. And Hume himself states this; and he himself notes that bishops tend to be skeptical of such things.
Christianity seems to share this view with other religions: Buddhism, for example, considers miracles a rather tasteless sideshow, not something to be emphasised.
But it seems to me that Hume has not even disproved miracles. For, even if Hume’s argument holds, that no testimony of miracles can be persuasive, it is really epistemological, not ontological. That is, it only addresses our ability to know whether a miracle has happened—not whether it really has or not. It demonstrates, in other words, only that we cannot prove a miracle; but, by the same token, neither can we disprove one. For all Hume knows, miracles may be happening all the time.
And even to get this far, Hume seems to me to have played a few tricks. For one thing, Hume’s definition of a miracle is not quite the dictionary definition. He defines it as something that defies the laws of nature. Oxford defines “miracle” as “an extraordinary and welcome event attributed to a divine agency.” There is a wide gulf between being “extraordinary” and “violating the laws of nature.” The burden of proof is much lighter to prove that a thing out of the ordinary happened than that something happened that broke the known laws of nature.
Moreover, is Hume right to reject anything that violates the known laws of nature as too improbable to be true? Because if he is, it is not just miracles which are disproved. So is science. For science progresses by observation—observations that seem to contradict the laws of nature as thus far recognized. Thus, Newton’s proposed model of the universe was superseded by Einstein’s when it was realized that the observed data did not properly conform to Newton’s thesis, albeit in a small minority of cases. Similarly, Copernicus’s model succeeded Ptolemy’s on the observation that the observed data did not conform as well to Ptolemy’s system. But given Hume’s principle, any such deviation would merely be dismissed as too improbable to be true; Ptolemy and Newton would still rule.
In one striking example, Hume rejects all prophesy as obviously impossible, despite any evidence to the contrary. We cannot, he avers, know the future.
But can’t we? If so, science does not work, Science is based on reproducible results, which is to say, on its ability to foretell future events.
As this suggests, Hume’s claim seems to depend on circular logic, on tautology—a fault to which Hume seems prone. He dismisses all testimony of miracle as too improbable to believe. But how does he know the probability, unless through observation? And how can his observations be accurate, if he is dismissing some of them? And aren’t those he has not dismissed then logically just as likely to be inaccurate? So how does he know the probability of anything in the first place?
Hume has been called a philosophical dead end. He is, for atheism. They need to find another champion.