Nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument of this kind, which must at least silencethe most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane. (Hume, “Of Miracles”)
I attended a philosophy lecture yesterday afternoon on the subject of miracles. The lecturer, a beloved professor here at the college, gave a very clear, very interesting defense of David’s Hume’s claim about the irrationality of believing in miracles based upon testimony. The argument, as far as I could tell (and I haven’t read the section of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding “Of Miracles,” where this argument can be found, so, bear with me) was the following:
I. We have a sense of the way that nature works (and doesn’t work) based upon an overwhelming amount of inductive evidence. For example, in nature. dead men stay dead.
II. A miracle (by definition) is an event whose nature contradicts our established sense of how nature works. For example, dead men coming back to life.
III. The inductive evidence for the way that nature works (based upon our experience in the past) will always outweigh the (equally inductive) evidence that could be offered in support of any miracle by any witness.
Therefore, it will never be reasonable to believe in a miracle based upon testimony.
Questions about this argument occur to me now, which I wish I had thought to ask during the lecture (what about miracles that one experiences first hand? How is Hume evaluating the relative strength of inductive evidence?), but what is more interesting to me is the reason that these questions did not occur to me during the lecture. I was preoccupied by something else.
I felt uneasy during the lecture, like some part of me was vulnerable, at stake, in a way that I didn’t understand, despite the fact that I did (I think) at least manage to get a basic understanding of the material. The question that I wanted to ask of the lecturer after his lecture, but which I refrained from doing until later when I had a chance to speak to him one-on-one, was, “Do you believe in miracles?” Why was this the question that I wanted to ask? The man (who I admire) has just spent an hour defining and refining the definition of the word “miracle” and its various relations to nature, understanding, Christianity, and language itself? To ask this man, baldly, whether or not he believes in miracles, seemed, admittedly, like an impertinence, which-if it did not prove that I had not been listening, or did not understand the point of the lecture, might prove something still worse, that I objected, irrationally, to the enterprise of philosophy itself, within which this lecture was but another humble episode.
After some reflection (and some sleep) I decided that the most likely explanation for my desire to ask this man about his personal belief in miracles was that, in fact, I was objecting to something foundational about his approach, and, unselfaware as I was, the (admittedly, immature) way that I decided to object, was to ask this question whose purpose was, not to openly challenge, but to clandestinely dismiss the ground-floor assumptions of this kind of inquiry into the nature of miracles (and, of course, all conclusions).
I am a little embarrassed the whole thing. Believing as I do in the importance of dialogue, honesty, self-examination, integrity, I can’t help but feel that the unease I felt in the lecture yesterday afternoon got the better of me. Still, the questions remains: Why did I feel uneasy? What was it about the terms upon which this inquiry into miracles was based that threatened me into a defensive posture? I don’t have a committed position on miracles, either way, so it wasn’t any conclusion that the lecturer drew. I happen to admire and respect this lecturer a great deal, so it wasn’t animosity against the man himself. What was it, then, that made me feel like I was on the outside of a conversation which, though I understood the terms upon which admittance would be granted, I resisted entering?
The tradition of analytic philosophy, which, I realize as I write this now, I have to admit, I love and hate like the things that we most love, brings with it a set of claims—expressed and concealed by the apotheosis of rationality—which, though universalized within the framework of the tradition (for all people, it is claimed, can access this reason), nevertheless, are claims to a unique access to the truth about the human being. First, that her mind, in its structure, in its nature, in its experience, follows (or can and should follow) the path charter out by infinitely various set of relationships predicated by the basic axioms of logical reasoning: principally, the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the lovely consequence of the syllogism). Second, that as the human being seeks to know itself and its world (“All men by nature long to know” Metaphysics, Aristotle) the appropriate, only reliable, and the most respectable approach is to send our sense data into the crucible of this reason, and accept as knowledge—however odd, however insufficient—the alloy of experience and reason that emerges. These two claims, which, though they seem to me this morning to be the most important two, could be articulated differently, could be joined by other claims, but I imagine that the consequences of these other claims would be similar. If you define the human being as rational, according to a tradition of what constitutes and does not constitute reasoning, then, when (not if) you encounter a human being whose way of understanding themself, understanding her world, of reaching, as we all do, for truth, you will be compelled to face a very undesirable choice: let go of the premise upon which your whole system of knowledge is based, or fail—perhaps imperceptibly, but, finally, unmistakably—to recognize this human being as human.
To some, infinitely forgivable degree, the unease that I felt sitting in this clear, brilliant lecture yesterday afternoon, was the argumentative force of these fundamental analytic claims, keeping me, as it were, at the gates of the human community. Of course I could enter (and this is why the analytic tradition will always be able to defend itself against these broader ethical charges), but only upon the condition that I accept—even temporarily—that what made me human was this capacity for reason. In other words, for someone, like myself, who loves reason, but does not feel that it is the thing which makes him human, I was compelled to choose between betraying myself and a kind of human exile.
After the lecture I approached the lecturer to ask my question, “Do you believe in miracles?” Predictably, the question registered as a kind of impertinence (and for my social being, I was grateful that I didn’t ask the question in the lecture, thereby revealing my impertinence to a roomful of people whom I sincerely admire). He said, first, “I don’t know what miracles are.” Then, apologetically, “I hate to play the philosopher, but I guess I have to ask you what you mean by “miracles.”” This was a good, if predictable, question. I’m not sure that I myself knew what it was that I was trying to ask. While I was thinking, this lecturer offered an impressive, illuminating summary of the various ways that “miracles” have been defined historically. I told him that I understood his question, and that he need not apologize for being compelled to ask it, but I was at a loss to clarify further. A few moments of silences passed between us, then, he offered, somewhat to my surprise, since I had not repeated myself, in response to my original question, “No.” That of all the kinds of miracles he knew about and understood so well, he couldn’t (currently) think of one which he believed in. The clarity of his position, the elegance of the reasoning that led him to it, and, after all, despite my impertinence, his willingness to take my question, at least within his own framework, seriously, combined to make a moment that was touching, baffling, heartbreaking, and infuriating.
“Of Miracles,” David Hume: http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html