Modern History Sourcebook:
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) launched an
effective critique of miraculous claims. This sceptical rationalism
was a major challenge to religious belief throughout the later
18th and 19th centuries.
From David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm
and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof
against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire
as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why
is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot,
of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood,
and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events
are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required
a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent
them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the
common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly
in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of
death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently
observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should
come to life; because that has never been observed in any age
or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against
every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that
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....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored
to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it 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 falsehood of his testimony
would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then,
and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony,
upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire
proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real
prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal
too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous
event established on so full an evidence.
From David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
L. A. Selby Bigge, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997