David Hume (d. 1776) was arguably the greatest skeptic. He certainly is the most well-known and systematic of the historical skeptics, and set the stage for all modern critics of Christianity. Many, if not all, of the skeptical arguments leveled against Christian truth claims have their origin in David Hume.
In chapter 10 of Hume’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he argues in several lines of reasoning that the miracle accounts in the Bible should not be trusted. Here we will deal with but a couple of Hume’s claims:
- Hume says the following holds true:
- Things which are most usual are most probable.
- We should believe that which has the greatest number of past observations.
- Miracle stories have the least number of past observations and are the least probable.
- Therefore we should not believe miracles.
- The next is very similar:
- What is repeatedly experienced is what always happens.
- We never see fantastic miracles in our day.
- Therefore miracles did not happen in the past.
In these instances Hume is guilty of adding together evidence as if they were a math formula. He is saying that if we have 999 observations where a miracle did not happen, then it would prove that the one instance where someone claimed to see a miracle, it is false. But we are not measuring all the instances where something did not occur; what is important is whether in the one instance, a miracle happened or not.
Further, the definition of a miracle is not that it happens regularly, but that it is rare. If miracles happened routinely, they would not be called miracles. Perhaps they would be called ‘regulars’ or not noticed at all due to their being so common. By definition, miracles are rare, and therefore cannot be disproved by counting all the times where they did not occur.
Still further, Hume is guilty of a circular reasoning, a logical fallacy. He assumes the conclusion in the premises, then uses the premise to make a conclusion. In the second example above, he is saying, in effect, that: ‘we never see miracles, therefore we never see miracles.’ As C. S. Lewis rightly observed:
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 to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.
In the end, Hume worshiped at the alter of reason and was broken upon it. His arguments did not disprove the Bible, and in the end, Hume was an interesting footnote in the history of philosophy. Hume would have done well to read the Bible for what it is, an eyewitness account.