Essay on David Hume on Miracles

Essay on David Hume on Miracles

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Hume’s empiricist ideology clearly informed his position on the topic of miracles. In the following, I will examine Hume’s take on empiricism. From this it will be possible to deduce how Hume’s empiricism played a prominent role in influencing his belief on miracles. First, what were the principles of Hume’s empiricism? Hume claims that everyone is born with a blank slate (tabula rasa). The tabula rasa receives impressions which are products of immediate experience. For example, the color of the computer screen I am looking at represents an impression. Ideas, similarly, are derived from these antecedent impressions; we are not born with innate ideas, rather we achieve them from experience. There are three principles that connect ideas: resemblances, contiguity of time or place, and cause and effect (Hume, 321). Hume further advances that all reasoning concerning matters of fact are “founded on the relation of cause and effect” (Hume, 323). Hume’s empiricism also states causes and effects are not discoverable by reason (the theories advanced by Descartes) but by experience. We do not know the sun will rise because of reason, but we can speculate that it will rise because of experience. Hume’s primary argument is nature teaches us through experience, therefore we develop customs and habits through these experiences which give us our beliefs.
So what is Hume’s position on miracles? Hume first defines the term miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature” (Hume, 391). Laws of nature are established (according to Hume) by experiences. Because laws of nature are established by past experiences and miracles are violations of these laws, we can then conclude that miracles are violations of these experiences. However, though these laws are statements of past uniform regularities, they do not guarantee uniformity; it is not logically necessary for laws of nature to continue.
Hume is a skeptic of miracles. He claims that it may be possible for a miracle to exist. However, he says that there can never be proper evidence to provide rational acceptance of miracles. Thus, even if miracles existed, they could never be proven. Hume also attacks the testimony of those who report miracles. Hume asserts, “We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in an...


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...pleasure, pain” decision making process. The experiences allow us to adopt the laws of nature. I would not, however, consider myself an empiricist in the sense of Hume. I feel that some ideas are innate and we are not born with a tabula rasa. For example, everyone possesses the concept of self identity without having to experience anything. You at least know the “I think” as mentioned by Descartes. Not everything can be based on experiences.
Anyone who considers themselves an empiricist must adopt Hume’s position on miracles. If someone is an empiricist they must (by definition) base their beliefs on their experiences. The culmination of uniform experiences creates the laws of nature, as mentioned by Hume. A miracle, however, violates these laws of nature, thus violates a person’s previous experience. Keep in mind, however, that if a person is an empiricist, then their beliefs of the world are based on experience. To believe in a miracle is to discount prior experiences. If one discounts prior experience, they are not an empiricist. Thus, if you are an empiricist, you must view miracles as improbable (as noted by Hume). If you do not, then you are not an empiricist to begin with.

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