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Hume's Argument Against Miracles Fails

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/20/2011 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 2,955 times Debate No: 17586
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (11)
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I hope to have an enlightening discussion. If you take up this debate I'm intending that you begin with opening remarks and a stating of Hume's position. I think this will serve us better rather than my own attempt to state it in case you would like to present it somewhat differently.


After wrapping up my first debate, I was searching my mind for a perfect topic to propose. My mind fell blank. Fortunately, you came up with the debate I would have proposed if I would have proposed the perfect debate. So thanks, good luck, and let's do this.

As the opening argument, I will let Mr. Hume speak for himself:

"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 be possibly imagined. Why is it more than probably, 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 with 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 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 appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is a full and direct proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle be rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior." [1]

Hume writes at length detailing and expanding his argument, but this is the base of his contention. And as I understand it, and as I shall argue it, Hume's (and my) position is this: since by definition a miracle is the suspension of the laws of nature (ie. the definition of a miracle), and throughout human history no miracle has been empirically proven to have suspended nature's laws, then we can conclude that miracles do not exist.

Hume's argument relies on the assumption of empirical knowledge to work, but since this notion informs our modern notion of scientific truth, it is a safe assumption to presume in this debate- given that citation of a scientific fact is constantly accepted as "evidence" on this site and in debate in general.

When I took this debate, I thought the main challenge would be the burden of proof that defending Hume's assertion would imply. But as I reread Hume's argument against the existence of miracles, I realized that Hume's assertion is actually a negative one, and that the burden of proof is yours. See, Hume's argumentation is inductive- that is, since no miracle has ever been proven, it's absurd to believe in them. So you must either prove that a miracle is not a violation of nature's laws, which by the dictionary definition it is [2] or prove that a miracle has indeed occurred and can be proven, in which case the burden is yours.

Obviously Hume's argument is more complex and relies on other points, but this being the basis, I will end now and see where we're at based on your refutation. Cheers

[1] Hume, David "Of Miracles" in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 10 Part 1
Debate Round No. 1


Thanks for accepting and enjoy.

A few initial thoughts and then on to the main points;

  1. Look again at your 2nd citation. You claim that by “dictionary definition” a miracle is a violation of nature’s laws. However, your citation says nothing close to this. (You seem to claim that it does in the comment section, but you will have to support this by more than just the outright claim that human affairs are subject to physical/natural laws. In doing so you have just ruled out a good majority of discussions within philosophy of mind among other topics.) I think what you mean to say is that this is Hume’s definition of a miracle. I’ll discuss this claim below. (Also, just a quick suggestion to be wary of “dictionary definitions.” Especially in philosophical discussions.)
  1. You define miracle in two different ways: 1st as a suspension of laws and 2nd as a violation. These are not the same. Again, I assume you mean Hume’s definition which is the latter. (If you don’t wish to accept Hume’s definition then we can retire and begin a new debate on the definition of miracle. This debate concerns Hume’s view so we will keep it at that.) The distinction between “suspension” and “violation” is an important one in that according to the former a miracle will only “put a law on hold” whereas, for the latter, a miracle, if possible, would show the law to have failed. In other words, it would act as a defeater for the experience we have concerning a given law. This is, quite obviously, much worse than a mere suspension of the law. Furthermore, the use of “violation” becomes problematic for Hume which I will discuss below.
  1. You claim that I have to prove that a miracle is “not a violation of nature’s laws.” However, this is to assume that you have a correct definition of miracle—which, as I will, show is not the case. That said, (and ignoring tiresome and useless “burden of proof” discussions) my only “burden” is to show that this definition is false. I will do so in the following.

Moving on:

You have provided a dilemma for me: either prove a miracle is not, according to the “dictionary definition”, a violation of the laws of nature or I must prove that a miracle has happened. However, given (1) you have failed to show that it is by “dictionary definition” a violation and even were Merriam-Webster to have defined it as such this is contestable. (Likely, that is the reason why MW did not define it as such.)

Yet, let’s be charitable, ignore the mysterious definition, and attempt to restate your position. What I think you mean to argue is that I must show that Hume’s definition of miracle as “a violation of laws” is, at the very least, contestable and, at most, unlikely. I will attempt to do this, but before I do a few remarks about proving a miracle.

One claim made above is that “no miracle has been empirically proven.” For the sake of argument let’s assume Hume’s definition of miracle. Now if a miracle is the violation of a law how would we go about empirically proving it to have happened? Of course, we would have to reproduce it, but that would require an agent capable of violating laws to do so. Thus, if I’ve witnessed a block of iron floating in mid-air, decide to tell someone else about it and they require a demonstration I will be unable to do so. My only recourse becomes testimonial evidence even though the event has been “empirically proven” as I have witnessed, assessed it, etc. (Assuming all the necessary steps I should have taken, favorable conditions, etc.) In short, what is being required is not simply empirical proof in the sense that it has been experienced, but repeatable and immediate empirical proof. (FYI - Hume’s own definition of proof concerns “possibilities” for which all doubt has been removed.) This is an interesting problem because now we have determined that a miracle, which is apparently a violation of natural laws, ought to be repeatable in order that we may have adequate proof it did, in fact, happen. Yet, recall that, for Hume, a law is a regularity drawn from our experience. What becomes of the miracle if it is repeatable and immediate to our experience? From this it follows that now the miracle becomes a regularity and either introduces a new law or modifies an existing law. (I use exist only in the common sense usage and not implying any metaphysical realism in regard to laws.) The implication is that either Hume has ruled out miracle claims because they are violations of laws or, if the supposed miracle is reproducible, then it is simply a regularity that becomes a law itself and, presumably, a part of the natural order.

There are various issues with this, but to begin notice that all of this rests on the assumption that his definition of miracles will hold. So the first question we should ask is what reasons does Hume offer in support of this definition? Unfortunately, we are left disappointed as Hume simply assumes that it is the correct definition and, thus, we are free to reject it because there is no a priori justification. However, despite our disappointment a closer examination will still prove to be fruitful.

There are two difficulties with Hume’s definition. The first is “what exactly does it mean for a law to be violated” and the second “what is a natural law?” I’ve already mentioned some difficulties with a regularity account above. If we consider laws to be regularities and a violation happens then:

“…an apparent “violation” would most naturally be an indication, not that a supernatural intervention in the course of nature had occurred, but rather that what we had thought was a natural law was, in fact, not one.”[1]

If violations merely show that our previous understanding of the natural order was misguided then whatever event caused the disruption will influence a new natural law. As a result Hume has begged the question by ruling out miracles via the way in which he has defined them.

The second problem is that, as of yet, we simply do not have an account of laws that is robust enough to do the leg-work Hume desires. For example, it is certainly possible that we could have a set of laws which includes various “putative laws” that allow for certain counter-instances of other more common laws.[2] In this sense of laws miracles no longer become a violation because their occurrence does not rule out the previous law. (Other theories of laws of nature abound, but are unnecessary for our present discussion.) “Surely,” one might say, “what we mean by laws is only what happens in the physical universe and doesn’t that rule out the possibility of miracles?” One could, of course, go this route and dogmatically assume some type of materialism. Personally, I would rather pursue the issue and attempt to rationally discover what is true rather than drawing a conclusion from my own bias.

Clearly, Hume's definition of miracles is inadequate, but I won't be too hasty in saying that he has not ruled out the possibility of a miracle. Recall that for us to accept the possibility of a miracle (let's just assume we have an adequate definition) most of us will have to accept it on the testimony of others given that very few have experienced one or, at least, claimed to have experienced one. However, the idea of a miracle is so contrary to our experience that the testimony required will need to be exceptional. In fact, as Hume argues, miracle testimony must be so exceptional that its denial will be considered more of a miracle than the miracle the testimonial proposes to have occurred. Thus, Hume's argument becomes focused on the epistemology surrounding testimony rather than a metaphysical argument against miracles. But, unfortunately, space is limited so I will resume discussion of this in my next post.

[1] McGrew, Timothy. Miracles. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1.2

[2] McGrew, 1.2.



waylon.fairbanks forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


Without anything to respond to it kind of takes the fun out of it. Maybe we can redo this sometime in the future.


I really, really hate to do this, but I am not going to argue in this round. As it is round 3 and we are still setting definitions, there is just no point. This is my fault, as if I wouldn't have forfeited round 2, this would not be a problem. You deserve to win this debate, if not merely because of my bad conduct. I am sincerely sorry for screwing this up, but I hope we can debate again in the future.

Debate Round No. 3
11 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by modivarch 7 years ago
Nah - no bad conduct, you just got busy. Life happens and that is understandable.
Posted by modivarch 7 years ago
No problem - it happens.
Posted by waylon.fairbanks 7 years ago
Damnit, my work schedule is killing me. You can argue further in the next round or simply wait for me closing argument. I am sorry.
Posted by waylon.fairbanks 7 years ago
Well I'll await your post. This debate is going to be fun!
Posted by modivarch 7 years ago

The problem is that your attempt to define miracles is running in all different directions. Hume's own definition is a "violation of the laws of nature." (You do mention this at one point, but also give two other definitions.) The two dictionary definitions you provide do not coincide with this. I'll address this more in depth when I post.
Posted by waylon.fairbanks 7 years ago
Darknes- I am not sure why you put your first comment in quotes, as that phrase doesn't even appear thus far in the debate. As for your second, "human affairs" are subject to the physical world and to natural laws. Under this assumption, a divine intervention would have to surpass natural laws to enter human affairs. Another dictionary definition is this: "an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause" from
Posted by Darknes 7 years ago
Sorry to double post, but Con's own source defines a miracle as this:
: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment
Christian Science : a divinely natural phenomenon experienced humanly as the fulfillment of spiritual law
Posted by Darknes 7 years ago
I would not not define a miracle as a "suspension of the laws of physics".
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
Thank you kindly!
Posted by ReformedArsenal 7 years ago
Pro is affirming the resolution that "Hume's Argument Against Miracles Fails" so he would be indeed arguing that "Hume's Argument Against Miracles Fails."
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by socialpinko 5 years ago
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Total points awarded:40 
Reasons for voting decision: Conduct for forfeit. Interesting case altogether by Pro. Since Con never contested, Pro's arguments, among them that a suspension of natural laws might just as well mean our previous understanding of them was incomplete, go uncontested.
Vote Placed by Gileandos 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:70 
Reasons for voting decision: FF