[David Hume’s well known remark, ‘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,’ was quoted with approval by Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Prof. Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin—who I take to be a thoroughgoing naturalist—regards Hume’s principle as a fallacy. Being a scientist, his line of attack (which can be found below) is empirical: he discovers an exception that disproves the generalization, just as one black swan disproves the generalization that all swans are white. A more concise and philosophical objection to Hume’s argument is that it contains a logical fallacy. That fallacy may be stated as follows: It is irrational to cite as an argument against the truth of some postulate consequences which are inescapable if the consequences are well within the realm of possibility. (In Hume’s case, the fallacy lies in the fact that it is not unreasonable to suppose that miracles may occur, even if most reports of miracles are unreliable, or, at least, incapable of being authenticated.) Note that this fallacy is the logical addendum of the type of reasoning known as reductio ad absurdum, which, for purposes of comparison, may be stated as follows: It is rational to cite as an argument against the truth of some postulate inescapable consequences which are manifestly absurd, or wildly unreasonable.]
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume formulated what has come to be called “the principle of minimum astonishment:” He basically argued that no amount of testimony could suffice as proof of a miracle, because the possibility of fakery or fraud would be so much more likely. Hume used the example of a claim, supported by many reliable witnesses, of the King of England dying and being restored to life. If the alleged interval were short, it would be more likely that the king had really not been dead but merely in a deep coma. If the interval were longer, say a month, he would conclude that fraud was at work. It would be far more likely that the king and his courtiers would fake the death and hide the king for a month than that he could really come to life.
A more commonplace example is claims of a perfect bridge hand; a player getting cards of only one suit. Lots of people have claimed to have seen or played such a hand, but there haven’t been enough bridge hands dealt in history to make even one case remotely possible. It’s far more sensible to conclude the witnesses are mistaken or the cards weren’t shuffled well.
Hume’s position is sometimes summarized by saying that to prove a miracle, it would have to be an even greater miracle for the evidence to be faulty. Since we can never achieve that level of certainty, goes the argument, therefore there can never be evidence capable of proving a miracle.
Or can there? As my thought experiment shows, Hume simply didn’t think on a large enough scale. You could hide the King of England and fake a funeral. What if London itself simply vanished? A more or less mundane event that is claimed to be a miracle could be faked. But what if the event itself is so far beyond the scale of normal experience that no imaginable explanation of fakery would work, perhaps even no imaginable method could produce the effect?
Right off the bat, then, we see that one often-made statement about miracles is flatly wrong. It is possible, indeed easy, to imagine a singular event for which fraud is out of the question. But what about less extraordinary events? Although fraud or error is a possible explanation, being a possible explanation doesn’t prove it is the explanation.
Also, Hume committed a fundamental fallacy of confusing the evidence for a phenomenon with the phenomenon itself. Suppose in 2100 someone examines the claim that two successive golfers in the 2004 Masters hit holes-in-one on the same hole. The odds of a hole-in-one in the Masters are about 4,000 to one. Figure 100 golfers per tournament and 4 rounds each, and an average of ten years between holes in one (there were 7 holes-in-one on that hole in 68 years.) The odds of two successive holes-in-one at that tournament and [on] that hole is one in 16,000,000, or one successive pair every 40,000 years.
Our future analyst watches the videotapes, but video can be faked. He reads eyewitness accounts, but eyewitnesses are notorious for describing famous events they never actually witnessed. There are the newspaper stories, but once a news hoax gets rolling, it has a life of its own. The Masters official statistics are maybe the most compelling evidence, but given a choice between the records being doctored and believing something happened that shouldn’t happen before the next Ice Age, he concludes the story is a myth.
The reasoning is perfectly sound. It only has one tiny flaw. The event actually happened.
Hume is probably right in saying that no alleged miracle could ever be documented well enough to rule out fakery for all time. However, as the example above shows, charges of fakery can be used to rule out real phenomena as well. Although fraud or error is a possible explanation, being a possible explanation doesn’t prove it is the explanation.
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