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On Hume On Miracles

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A while back we had a preacher-man on Mizzou’s campus who looked and sounded like a younger John Malkovich with hair. I’ll call him John Malkovich in this article.

He approached me with the following strategy:  he would convince me to believe in the supernatural by appealing to David Hume’s empiricism, and relating his personal testimony of two miracles.  It’s not the worst strategy in the world, because he starts with what he has good reason to believe is common ground shared between us.  As a skeptic and naturalist, Hume is basically a hero of mine, so appealing to his philosophical principles and showing that something follows from them is a good way to convince me of something.  But showing that something follows from something else is hard to do. I helped him understand this, if only for a moment.

Empiricism holds that our beliefs about the external world are justified only insofar as the observable evidence supports them.  John Malkovich is a chemist, so he appreciates the value of empiricism, he said.  He starts his argument on this premise, that empirical observation is paramount when it comes to justifying beliefs.  He appealed to skeptic and empiricist David Hume to indicate that I, too, should adhere to beliefs that are justified by empirical evidence and observation.

I agree.

David Hume, Skeptical Badass

He then presented me with the following miraculous tales.  Initially, I was led to believe that these are first-hand accounts.

Miracle 1. An atheist in Germany leaves a hospital and observes a group of Christians gathered in prayer.  He approaches them and says, “The doctor just told me I have cancer.  Where’s God now?”  The Christians vow to pray for him.  One week later, the man returns to the hospital, and exits with good news.  He no longer has cancer!  Apparently, the Christians’ prayers were answered, and the atheist is now a firm believer.

Miracle 2. A woman’s apartment is full of ants.  She prays to God to get rid of the ants.  She falls asleep, and the next morning is telling her neighbor about how she had ants in her apartment before bed, but now they are gone.  The neighbor complains that before he went to bed last night, a veritable hoard of ants invaded his apartment, which is adjacent to hers.  She smiles knowingly.

What say thee, empirical skeptic? Canst thou even stand against this torrential current of evidence for the supernatural, or doth it knock thee over?  Even Hume himself would bend the knee to these tales!

My initial reaction, admittedly, was that Malkovich was telling me falsehoods, perhaps unintentionally.  I told him as much.  This was unproductive, as my reason for doubting that these events happened was not grounded in any particular observation.  My doubt resulted from the general beliefs I have about rumors, stories, and how they tend to become exaggerated and altered for the storyteller’s purposes.  So, I granted him that both of these things in fact happened as he told them.

In supposing that the events actually happened, I did get him to concede that these were not first-hand accounts, but rather at best second-hand.  This was useful because it undermined his own empirical grounds for the beliefs: he no longer observed the two potential miracles, but observed merely the report of miracles.  The two observations are very different.

I told him it was interesting that he should approach me with an appeal to Hume’s authority, as I happened to have David Hume’s Essay on Miracles handy in my bag.  I asked him if he would like to see what Hume actually says about miracles and empiricism.  He hesitantly said sure.  I think he was counting on me not knowing much about Hume other than that I should want to be like him, and then making claims about Hume that weren’t true, like that his position leads to the justified belief in miracles.  In fact, Hume explicitly lays out exactly why a belief in the miraculous is never justified.  For any purported miracle, there are at least two explanations:  1) it really is a miracle, 2) someone is mistaken.  In favoring an explanation, we must decide which is more probable.  It turns out, the second hypothesis is always more probable than the first.  So, Hume denies the justified belief in miracles on principle.

But of course, Malkovich now claimed to mean something different than Hume when he refered to miracles.  He didn’t mean that miracles are violations or interventions of the laws of nature, but rather the influence by God on events for the benefit of someone.  Okay, I’ll play along.

This got me the next concession: I am justified in believing these accounts of miracles only if there is no naturalistic explanation available.  This conforms to methodological naturalism, a basic tenet of empiricism and science generally.  He agreed, on the condition that I continued granting that everything actually happened as he presented it.

Here’s what I came up with.

Miracle 1. The atheist in Germany just received a false positive test result indicating that he had cancer.  Distraught, he exited the hospital and challenged the (perhaps annoying) Christians gathered near the hospital.  A week later (or however long it actually took to schedule a follow-up), he is tested again, and this time the results come back a true negative: he never had cancer in the first place.  Of course, the doctor may not have raised the possibility that the first test was a false positive, so the patient may not have been aware that he actually never had cancer.  The doctor himself may not have been aware that the first result was a false positive.  Thus, we have a completely naturalistic explanation accounting for the purportedly miraculous event.

Miracle 2. The ants moved on to the next apartment on their own, as ants sometimes do.

There we have it.  At this point, Malkovich was summoned by Brother Jed to return to his preaching, as Jed had need of the authority of a PhD chemist turned preacher-man.  I am interested for Malkovich to return to campus, because I’m eager to test my hypothesis that he will still be using this story to try and convince people in miracles.  What’s most alarming is that these are just not very impressive to non-skeptics.  Ants??


Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current, NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Professor Zac ErnstGreta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

2 comments on “On Hume On Miracles

  1. toholdnothing
    May 11, 2012

    I don’t think it takes very complicated philosophy to even justify why those stories don’t necessarily lead to belief in God. It’s just we seem to throw out any reasonable thinking when it comes to things that are unexpected in general. Both the stories can be discounted as leading to any genuine belief in God even if we just take the basic assumption that God affects people, not other people. If you genuinely experience God according to general Christian orthodoxy, God will affect you by grace and then you will believe. Otherwise, you’re just grasping at straws. Not that people still aren’t grasping at straws with special revelation anyway.

    Hume was at most a Deist and his belief was based in, iirc, a belief that since things are consistent, there must be something maintaining the consistency from the start. If anything, Hume might have been a Huxleyan agnostic by the same merit of his particular brand of empiricism, but it’s been a few years since I read his Essay on Miracles or Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

  2. Dylan
    May 30, 2012

    “For any purported miracle, there are at least two explanations: 1) it really is a miracle, 2) someone is mistaken. In favoring an explanation, we must decide which is more probable. It turns out, the second hypothesis is always more probable than the first. So, Hume denies the justified belief in miracles on principle.”

    How is it that the second hypothesis is always more probable than the first? Are you stating this just because that is what you and/or Hume believe, or is there actually a proof or empirically-based argument for this conclusion somewhere? Even if there is convincing evidence to make such a statement, Hume could not legitimately use it to deny the justified belief in miracles. On principle (again, IF it is indeed true), he has only denied the justified belief in events he did not personally observe first hand. As soon as he observes a potential miracle first hand, it’s suddenly vastly more complex for him than a simple decision based on probability theory.

    “The ants moved on to the next apartment on their own, as ants sometimes do.”

    Source please.

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2012 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, philosophy, Science and tagged , , , .
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