David Hume's argument against miracles: Contemporary attempts to rehabilitate it and a response

Francis Joseph Beckwith, Fordham University


Chapter X of David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, "Of Miracles," is without a doubt the most influential work written in defense of the position that belief in supernatural occurrences is not reasonable. Using Hume's work as my point of departure, I have tried to answer the two most important epistemological questions asked about the miraculous: (1) Is it ever reasonable to ascribe a divine source to an anomalous event in order to identify it as miraculous?; and (2) What theoretically entails sufficient evidence that a miracle has actually taken place? Prior to my analysis of Hume's argument, I briefly present and defend a broad definition of what most religious people generally mean when they call an event miraculous (chapter 1): a miracle is a divine intervention which occurs contrary to the regular course of nature within a significant religious context. Chapters 2 and 3 consist of a critical examination of Hume's argument. I conclude that Hume's argument does not succeed in overturning the possibility that one may have enough evidence to make one's belief in a particular miracle-claim epistemologically reasonable. In attempting to defend Hume's argument in a contemporary context, a number of philosophers have put forth Humean-type arguments. From among these, I have chosen to deal in chapter 4 with the ones I believe are the strongest, as put forth by the following thinkers: Antony Flew, Alastair McKinnon, and Patrick Nowell-Smith. As with Hume's argument, I conclude that the contemporary arguments are unsuccessful in overturning the possibility of one being within in his epistemic rights in believing that a particular miraculous event has occurred. Given my negative appraisal of the anti-miraculous position in chapters 2-4, I make some suggestions in chapter 5 as to what direction the believer in miracles should go in showing the historicity of miracle-claims. Hence, in the first four chapters I answer the first epistemological question in the affirmative, and in chapter 5 I answer the second question by showing that it is possible, by employing evidential criteria used in legal reasoning, that one may be within his epistemic rights in believing that a particular miracle has occurred.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Philosophy of religion|Theology

Recommended Citation

Beckwith, Francis Joseph, "David Hume's argument against miracles: Contemporary attempts to rehabilitate it and a response" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8910751.