2. Arguments Against Miracles

One of the most damaging arguments is to do with their prevalence. One blogger has argued:

If a doctor travels to an African village with enough polio vaccine to inoculate 1,000 children, but only gives 10 of them the shot and throws the rest of the vaccine away, and then watches the remaining 990 die or be crippled, we would conclude that doctor was a monster, not a saint. Even if some supernatural force were to reach out and instantaneously eliminate all of the suffering in the world today, one would think that an omnibenevolent being would have done it sooner. What was he doing yesterday? Was he busy? Off on errands? And what was he doing in 1945 during Auschwitz, or while the bubonic plague was ravaging and killing millions in Europe during the middle 1300s? Much to our surprise, the classical problem of evil is made worse by cases where God is alleged to have done something good for someone. Every case where someone claims that their prayers led to their rapid recovery from terminal cancer, or that their piety helped bring back a loved one safe from the fighting in a war zone shines a powerful spotlight on centuries of gratuitous suffering that went unabated despite heartfelt prayers, decent lives, and fervent piety…

From a purely strategic perspective, the Christian theist should view miracle claims with a great deal of caution and skepticism. If God is bothering with those sorts of petty and inconsequential problems in the world, how could one plausibly argue that he’s also the Alpha and the Omega, the grand author of the universe? It seems to me that a God who bothers with statues that cry blood, clouds that resemble the name of Allah, or raising Lazarus from the dead (and not 6 million Jews in the Holocaust) is a harder one to defend and believe in than no God at all (http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/miracles-make-it-harder-to-prove-god-is.html ).


What arguments could be made against this view?


David Hume argued against the existence of miracles, especially s they are used to prove God’s existence.

The Philosophical Argument

He argues that miracles are intrinsically impossible. He argues that the “wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence” (Enquiries: 110).

Let us take an argument between two people. Greg says that he sawDr Holt in school on Wednesday, while Dr Holt sys that is impossible because he was in London. Who do we believe?

We can’t really decide because one is as likely as the other. But what if more witnesses say that they saw Dr Holt in school on Wednesday? A number of other considerations then enter our mind.

…the opposition of contrary testimony, from the character or number of witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning a matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in wht they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or, on the contrary, with too violent assertions. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony (Enquiries:).

The argument so far is that if we are faced with an event about which there are conflicting reports, our inductive reasoning is what we use to decide the truth. This is fine with Hume, and though we may come to an erroneous conclusion we have at least tried to reason logically. As an example Hume uses the example of an Indian Prince

…who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had constant and uniform experience. Though they were contrary to his experience, they were not comfortable to it (Enquiries:).

In this argument Hume is saying that a person must weigh the evidence based on experience and logic. If we use the walking on water as an example- is it more probable that the witnesses are deceived in what they have seen or that an adult male has levitated over the water. Thus natural law based on all of human experience suggests that this act is impossible. For Hume the balance of evidence lies with those who deny the miracle- for bsed on human experience it is the logical thing to do no matter who the witnesses are.

Are miracles therefore nothing more than tricks or deluded observations?

There cannot be a miracle and a law of nature, for all of human experience has shown that the laws always hold true. He calls this the proportionate lack of evidence.

There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of fact, against the existence of any miracle… (Enquiries: ).

He also concludes this section with the weighing of evidence.

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.

Hume therefore rejects any miracle. Spinoza (even though he was a theist) rejected the premise of miracles.

[A] miracle is an event of which the causes cannot be explained by the natural reason through a reference to ascertained workings of nature; but since miracles were wrought according to the understanding of the masses, who are wholly ignorant of the workings of nature, it is certain that the ancients took for a miracle whatever they could not explain by the method adopted by the unlearned in such cases, namely, an appeal to the memory, a recalling of something similar, which is ordinarily regarded without wonder; for most people think they sufficiently understand a thing when they have ceased to wonder at it. The ancients, then, and indeed most men up to the present day, had no other criterion for a miracle; hence we cannot doubt that many things are narrated in Scripture as miracles of which the causes could easily be explained by reference to ascertained workings of nature. . . .

We cannot gain knowledge of the existence and providence of God by means of miracles, but we can far better infer them from the fixed and immutable order of nature. By miracle, I here mean an event which surpasses, or is thought to surpass, human comprehension: for in so far as it is supposed to destroy or interrupt the order of nature or her laws, it not only can give us no knowledge of God, but, contrariwise, takes away that which we naturally have, and makes us doubt God and everything else. . .

Scripture nowhere states the doctrine openly, but it can readily be inferred from several passages. Firstly, that in which Moses commands (Deut 8) that a false prophet should be put to death, even though he work miracles; “If there arise a prophet among you, and gives thee a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder come to pass, saying, Let us go after other gods . . . thou shalt not hearken unto the voice of that prophet; for the Lord your God proves you, and that prophet shall be put to death.” From this it clearly follows that miracles could be wrought even by false prophets; and that, unless men are honestly endowed with the true knowledge and love of God, they may be as easily led by miracles to follow false gods as to follow the true God; for these words are added: “For the Lord your God tempts you, that He may know whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your mind.”

Further, the Israelites from all their miracles, were unable to form a sound conception of God as their experience testified: for when they had persuaded themselves that Moses had departed from among them, they petitioned Aaron to give them visible gods; and the idea of God they had formed as the result of all their miracles was — a calf!

Nearly all the prophets found it very hard to reconcile the order of nature and human affairs with the conception they had formed of God’s providence, whereas philosophers who endeavor to understand things by clear conceptions of them, rather than by miracles, have always found the task extremely easy — at least, such of them as place true happiness solely in virtue and peace of mind, and who aim at obeying nature, rather than being obeyed by her. Such persons rest assured that God directs nature according to the requirements of universal laws, not according to the requirements of the particular laws of human nature, and that, therefore, God’s scheme comprehends, not only the human race, but the whole of nature. (Spinoza, Baruch. A Theologico-Political Treatise. R. H., Elwis trans. Copyright 1951 Dover Publications: 84-88)


1. Miracles are violations of natural laws. 2. Natural laws are immutable. 3. It is impossible for immutable laws to be violated. 4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.


What are the problems with Hume’s philosophical argument?

Hume does not consider Aquinas’ definition of a miracle, though one would imagine that he would discard the intervention of God as improbable. Here Hume takes over the role of Swinburne as ‘Mr Probability’, elsewhere Swinburne has argued that the most probable explanation is God, here Hume argues that probability stacks against the miraculous.

However, Hume’s definition of natural law excludes the possibility of a change in the laws of nature and perhaps necessitates against the development of new scientific knowledge. Broad argued;

Clearly many propositions have been accounted laws of nature because of an invariable experience in their favour, then exceptions have been observed, and finally these propositions have ceased to be regarded as laws of nature. But the first reported exception was, to anyone who had not himself observed it, in precisely the same position as a story of a miracle, if Hume be right (1916-17: 87).

He is not, however, content with the philosophical argument and goes on to extend this theory in his practical argument.


The Practical Argument

The Insufficiency of Evidence

Hume argues that the corroborative testimony for m miracles is never very good. Indeed, “there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence” (Enquiries: 116). He breaks this down into four sections.

  1. The quality of witnesses

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

  1. Human suspense of sound reasoning when faced with the miraculous.

But though… we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in any ordinary degree… [When faced with the recitation of a miracle a reteller’s]auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgement to canvasss his evidence: what judgement they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations.

  1. Miracles tend to be found amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”.

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed ciefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilised people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions… It is trange… that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.

  1. Religious systems are incompatible.

Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so it has the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other systems.

Because miracles are in all the religions, they can’t all be right, and so must all be wrong as evidences a persons own psychological experiences being transposed onto an event. For example in an episode of the Simpsons, all people have a (gas induced) vision of heaven, but all of these visions reflect a person’s views and personality- they are not all the same. Hick would argue that the differing emphases (and religions) are a result of our environment and culture but nevertheless “the universal presence of the Real… is transformed into inner or outer visions or voices” by our own psyches (2004: 169).