How Much Historical Evidence Is Sufficient To Go Beyond Doubt?

Scottish thinker David Hume (d.1776) was the king of skeptics. Compared to Hume, most of the modern skeptics and agnostics are but amateurs, and many of them follow the same line of reasoning that originated with Hume.

Hume carried his skepticism to an art form, and he was indeed a great thinker in this regard. His case against miracles is perhaps the greatest critique ever written on the subject. His case against the biblical writers has inspired a gaggle of critics in every generation since his time. Hume was devilishly consistent, which is the hallmark of most great thinkers. He was so consistent that in the end he had to swallow a bitter philosophical pill, one that was his ultimate undoing. But for now we will deal with the one of the main thrusts of his skepticism, as it applies to the biblical accounts.

Hume was wise enough to realize that one cannot logically prove a negative, so disproving God is futile. So he came up with a rather strong argument that attacked Christianity from a different position. He claimed that for any extraordinary claim, extraordinary evidence is required. If the claims are highly unlikely, we need a greater amount of evidence. We know that miracles are violations of nature, and a wise man would never believe a violation of nature except upon the case of numerous credible witnesses, none of which have ever existed. Uniform experience has shown us that things like this do not happen. Therefore since we cannot prove a fantastic historical account, a wise man would never believe such a thing.

Though Hume’s writings were held to be valid for a generation or so, trained thinkers finally showed the fallacy of his thinking. Writer Richard Whatley, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, wrote the book Historical Doubts Relative To Napoleon Bonaparte. In this book, Whatley applies Hume’s process to the case of Napoleon. The French leader led a rather fantastic life, with multiple defeated armies followed by quick creation of others, repeated wars that resulted in his swift defeat of larger, more experienced military forces, returning defeated only to be crowned king, deposed again and banished to an island in punishment, where he becomes king and returns to Europe in a serious attempt to overthrow the government with a mere 600 men. Whatley applies Hume’s skepticism to the story of Napoleon in a humorous manner, ultimately concluding that if we follow the skeptical line of reasoning, a wise man would not believe the story of Napoleon.

Whatley demonstrates that Hume’s strict skepticism proves too much. For if a logical process ends in the doubt of a truth, it is a process that cannot be trusted. Ultimately, strong skepticism is logically fallacious and is applied inconsistently, generally only to areas the skeptic does not agree with in the first place. Pure skepticism is self-refuting, for it cannot be skeptical of skepticism.

Further, C. S. Lewis showed the circularity of Hume’s argument against the historical accounts of miracles:

Now of course we must agree with Hume that, if there is absolutely “uniform experience” against miracles, if, in other words, they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately, we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports of them to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.

In the end, strong skepticism such as Hume’s is found to be logically untenable.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Much Historical Evidence Is Sufficient To Go Beyond Doubt?

  1. William says:

    so you’re really comparing a violation on natural law, to an unlikely course of natural events (events that transgress no natural law)?

    And with history, people are still skeptical of the “larger than life” claims, while lending some merit to the ones that are more credible, the ones that need no supernatural explanation. There is a lot of skepticism on the number of reported enemy killed in the revolutionary war, because the armies may have exaggerated such numbers in an attempt to engage in psychological warfare. may the number have been accurate? certainly. There is nothing miraculous about people being killed in battle, but we’re skeptical all the same.

    Or should be believe that the gods actually helped Achilles kill Hector?

    And maybe we should be a little more careful how we use the term “prove.”

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