Miracles: fundamentalist misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

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by Neil Godfrey

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd are widely reputed among fundamentalist circles for having authored a “most important book . . . for critical assessment of the Gospels”, “a powerfully argued defence of the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels”, “a thoroughly compelling cumulative argument – one of the very best available – for the reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition”, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition. Average Amazon.com rating is 4 and a half stars out of a max possible of five!

I have repeatedly been urged by fundamentalists to read it for myself. So now I have begun to do that. I really had hoped for something substantial after the hype, but so far have been a bit disappointed.

To take just one point here, — Eddy and Boyd’s argument against eighteenth century Enlightenment sceptical philosopher David Hume‘s writings against belief in miracles — pages 61-63 of The Jesus Legend. (I have already addressed another point or two of theirs and will, no doubt, address more. The complete set will be found in the Eddy and Boyd link under BOOK REVIEWS & NOTES on the right margin of this blog.)

Here’s how Eddy and Boyd sum up David Hume’s argument against believing in miracles:

Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agents.” With this definition in hand, Hume concluded that it is always irrational to believe a miracle had occurred. To Hume’s way of thinking, one must weigh the probability of a claim that a “transgression” of a natural law (a miracle) had occurred against . . . every confirmed instance of this law being confirmed . . . (pp. 41-42)

Thus against a report that one man had risen from the dead must be counted the number of times people who die stay dead. Eddy and Boyd rightly conclude that such an argument means that no historian can ever rationally believe a report that one man rose from the dead. But they go further and argue that this argument is invalid, and they argue it is invalid by directly misrepresenting what Hume actually wrote. (I’d like to think they had not read Hume directly for a long time, or being rushed they over-relied on common wrong assumptions about what Hume wrote.)

They continue:

The Perfect Bridge Hand – A Circular Straw Man Fallacy

(E&B cite N.Geisler’s The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 1999, for this)

One problem with Hume’s line of reasoning is that he seems to associate rational thinking with adding up evidence rather than weighing evidence. To rationally determine whether one has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand, for example, one wouldn’t simply add up all the possible alternative hands one could have been randomly dealt and compare it with the odds of getting a perfect bridge hand (1,635,013,559,600 to 1) Were this the case it would obviously never be rational to accept that one had been dealt a perfect bridge hand — even if, as a matter of fact, one was holding one!

Eddy and Boyd have subtly twisted Hume’s argument in the above passage. Where Hume made a case about the likelihood of predicting a certain event, Eddy and Boyd give the impression that Hume would dispute the possibility of a past event known to have happened.

Eddy and Boyd:

The way a rational person goes about determining whether or not he or she has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand is by looking at the empirical evidence. Is the person in fact holding a perfect bridge hand?

And THAT is exactly what David Hume was arguing. Eddy and Boyd appear not to have brushed up on Hume’s argument before attempting such a “refutation”.

So to let David Hume speak for a moment from his famous passage on miracles, Section 10 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty . . . . All events follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. . . .  so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

In other words, Hume is arguing that the odds of experiencing worse weather in any one week in June than in December are small, but not impossible. And the mathematical odds of being randomly dealt a perfectly bridge hand are so astronomical that it would be irrational to expect to be dealt one, but if one was dealt one, then one knows just how astonishingly rare such an event is.

Hume says that past experience teaches us that we can have absolute certainty about some things happening or not happening (e.g. the sun rising or dead cats not rising). Our experience teaches us that there has never been an exception to those events so we can have the highest assurance they will remain true tomorrow.

The chances of being dealt a perfect bridge hand are quantifiable numerically, so they are not infinite. One can say that a tossed coin will have a 50-50 chance of landing heads up, so one can have a rational fifty-fifty assurance that it will land heads. But experience also teaches us that a coin may land tails up many times before it really does land heads up. The rational expectation (50 -50 chance) is not invalid, however. The question of the perfect bridge hand is merely an extension of the degree of expectation, of assurance, one can have. One knows it is possible by the “laws of probability” while at the same time confessing that one is not likely to see it happen in one’s lifetime.

In between these two extremes one might place the odds of “YOU” winning the Lotto. Not likely, but possible, so “you” keep dreaming, and paying.

Eddy and Boyd distort Hume’s argument. Hume is arguing that it is our physical senses, including reason, that inform us of the likelihood of an event happening. And that it is our physical senses, including reason, that also inform us either directly or indirectly whether an event has really happened. Hume would not deny that he had been dealt a perfect bridge hand if indeed he had, but he would be extremely confident he never would be dealt a second, and that he may even have been the only person in history who ever will be dealt such a hand. It is a straw man argument for E & B to say he would not believe it if it happened because the odds, not even infinite odds, are against it.

It is also a circular argument that E & B make, because they are assuming that the resurrection of Jesus can be proven. It is only with this assumption that the odds against a raising the dead can be reduced to a finite, and therefore a technically possible probability ratio.

The Unusual and The Impossible – they really are not in the same peapod

Eddy & Boyd further stretch (distort) Hume’s argument by writing:

Second, if carried through consistently, Hume’s methodology would render it unreasonable to conclude that anything unusual ever happens, since, by definition, there are far more usual events than unusual ones. . . . In fact, Hume’s methodology would justify denying that a miracle occurred even if one witnessed it personally. (pp.61-62)

The same passage from Hume that I copied above demonstrates the failure of Eddy and Boyd to understand Hume’s argument.

Hume indeed discusses unusual experiences (e.g. having a finer week of weather in June than in December). All that this means is that we are surprised that something unusual has happened, and we talk about it. The fact that something happened against the odds is the very definition of a “surprising” or an “unusual” event.

Eddy and Boyd cite the conquests of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte as so “unusual” (they use the adjective “mind-boggling” to describe the exploits of these men) that according to Hume’s argument, a sceptic must not believe they ever happened.

Thus, E&B conclude, one must “weigh” the evidence, not merely “add up” the evidence. They mean one must not judge the likelihood that an event has happened according to mathematical probability (adding up the evidence). Rather, they argue that one must “weigh” the evidence. “Weighing” is (instructively, I would suggest) left as a vague and undefined concept in their book.

But of course E and B know as well as anyone that there are very real naturalistic explanations (economic and geo-political etc) for the unusual moments of conquests of extraordinarily large areas by military leaders throughout history. There are no naturalistic reasons for believing that cats, or any other mammal, run over by trucks or skewered to stakes, ever comes to life again.

Eddy and Boyd vainly try to squeeze a supernatural event, a defiance of the laws of gravity, of physics, of cellular biology, into the realm of “possible” and therefore “probable” to some extent.

Hume, in fact, argues that while our experiences teach us that some events may possibly happen, they can be expected to happen only very rarely, and maybe never in our own lifetimes. A wise man looks at the evidence, including that of his own experience, Hume wrote, and from there he makes a rational assessment of the probability of a similar event happening again. If there are NO instances at all of inexplicable gravity defiance (an apple or man “falling” upwards and taken up by the clouds and angels “into heaven”) then the likelihood of such an event happening in the future is zero, infinitely improbable.

E&B conclude by effectively charging Hume with biased reasoning against the supernatural:

Hume’s reasoning about miracles, it seems, was filtered through his a priori convictions about the probabilistically inviolable laws of nature, which rendered it virtually certain that miracles do not occur. (p.62)

Note E&B’s reduction of the laws of nature, let’s take gravity as an example, to a matter of (finite mathematical) probability and to what is “virtually certain”. Is it really a matter of finite mathematical probability that a rock will sink if you throw it into deep water? Is it only “virtually certain” that if you are caught out in the rain without cover you will get wet?

I find it somewhat amusing (also somewhat hypocritical) that fundamentalists resort to the relativity of post-modernism to push their anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment and psychologically and socially retrograde agendas of black-and-white absolutes.

There’s another side to David Hume’s argument about belief in miracles that Eddy and Boyd do not address at all in their book, but I’ll save that one for another post.

(P.S. Yes, yes, I know that the laws of physics don’t behave in the same way the closer we get to the singularity or the speed of light etc, but fundamentalists don’t believe in the big-bang anyway. Also I know that one day something might crash into the earth knocking it to smithers so there’s no more rising of the sun, etc etc. But the discussion that interests me is the one of human experience in the here and now)

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Miracles: fundamentalist misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument”

  1. Very interesting post. Brings to mind Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”.

    My experience with “quaints” has been in the economic realm, not the religious realm.

    Will have to say when I asked a “quaint” two years ago if the Dow would fall below 10,000 again he said “not possible”. Investors following his advise are now looking for work.

  2. You blew it with this comment:

    “I find it somewhat amusing (also somewhat hypocritical) that fundamentalists resort to the relativity of post-modernism to push their anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment and psychologically and socially retrograde agendas of black-and-white absolutes.”

    You confuse uniformity (or non-uniformity in physics) with a discussion about (philosophical/moral) relativism. It almost comes off as a straw man.

    You also might want to be careful in that you appear to throw the term “fundamentalists” around a little like a racial slur, or pejorative.

    I’m reminded that bigotry and “intellectual racism” has its own hated people groups just as “color-racism.”

    Beware of angry anti-fundamentalism as you would angry fundamentalism. Just a word of caution.

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  4. I’m shocked to hear you classify Greg Boyd as a fundamentalist. Really??? I was born and raised deep in Southern Fundamentalism, and in those circles, Boyd is anything but “reputed”… “reviled” would be closer to the truth. (My self-avowed Fundamentalist father calls Boyd a heretic because Boyd doesn’t believe in a literal hell.) Anyway, in my long journey out of fundamentalism, Boyd has been a kind of savior to me. If it weren’t for him, I would have long ago abandoned all faith; sermons of his such as “The Evil of Religion” and his talks on non-violence have proven to me that Christianity can be so much more loving than the hate-filled rhetoric that I grew up with.

    Now, I don’t know anything about his philosophical writings; I just know that he saved me from a warped view of God as wrathful-avenger-just-waiting-for-me-to-screw-up-so-he-can-send-me-to-hell.

    1. Well there ya go. Everything’s relative after all! To me, from secular Australia where more people believe in space aliens than believe in God, despite the fact that more people have been to church than have been abducted by UFOs, Boyd is a fundie.

      Seriously, however, I probably described him as this because he argues against Enlightenment values and naturalism.

      Pataki has listed ten characteristics of fundamentalism that cover this across a range of religions.

      I imagine fundamentalists in one sect or part of the world will look askance at people with essentially similar mindsets but who apply them to a set of different teachings or beliefs. That’s one reason I originally labelled my archive of posts relating to fundamentalism in the plural, fundamentalisms.

      1. Ah. I took the time to read carefully Pataki’s list, but I have to say that I disagree. Trust me, I grew up with people who precisely met every criterion on it… and I still say that Greg Boyd is a whole different animal. Again, I’ll qualify that I know nothing of Hume’s philosophy or Boyd’s response to it, and it’s possible that I agree more with Hume than Boyd on the probability of miracles. (Also, I do not know anything about Eddy, so I refrain from expressing any opinion of him.)

        But to take your list item-by-item:
        1) Counter-modernist. I’ll grant you that.
        2) Assertive, clamorous, and violent? Not on your life. Assertive, maybe… but can you name any leader of any school of thought who is not assertive? And you just have to listen to Boyd’s sermons on non-violence–truly “revolutionary” to someone like me.
        3) The “chosen.” No, not really. Not only is he not a determinist, but Boyd created quite a stir among the fundamentalists on our side of the pond when he dared to suggest that people would get a opportunity for salvation *after they die*–that the right to choose does not end at death.
        4) Marks of distinction. Possibly, depending on your point of view. I’d say no, because he’s careful to dress and act in a way that’s likely to blend in with the crowd–any crowd. But there is a cross on the podium where he usually speaks.
        5) One religion. I’ll grant this one, too, with Greg’s caveat that we don’t know all the ways that God works, and that people around the world can and do experience the “true God” within their own cultural constructs.
        6) Inerrant holy book. Greg believes the Bible is inspired, but not all parts ought to be taken literally, i.e., Genesis is a metaphor, the Mosaic law was intended for a specific culture, etc.
        7) Law comes from God. Please check out this NYT piece on Boyd’s rejection of the convergence of religion and politics in America: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/us/30pastor.html?ex=1311912000&en=28c82f6fb9327ad1&ei=5088
        8) Female oppression. Nope. I was raised in fundamentalist patriarchy, and Boyd is not one of them! In his own words: http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/essays-church/women-in-ministry/.
        9) (Homo)Sexual repression. Again, I’ll point you to his words: “There is absolutely no justification for the way many Christians today make homosexuality out to be worse than other types of sin… while we have at most six verses in the Bible that mention homosexuality, we have around 3,000 passages that address greed, gluttony and the need to care for the poor.” http://www.gregboyd.org/qa/christians-social-issues/is-homosexuality-a-sin/
        10) See point (7) above.

        Sorry to be long-winded! Not that I think Greg Boyd is the best thing since sliced bread; I’m a fan of his, but I don’t agree with him even on all the points I just listed. I just don’t think it’s accurate to call him a fundamentalist, even by your own definition. But feel free to check out my blog on recovering from fundamentalism to get a better idea of where I’m coming from.

      2. Anyone who helps another out of fundamentalism is a “Good Thing”. One who helped me was John Shelby Spong (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism). I think I made him grimace a bit when I thanked him for helping me on my way to atheism. 🙂 Another, to a lesser extent, was John Dominic Crossan with his Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography. But quite a few people did. What disappointed me as I was on my journey was that all those I was speaking face to face with came to a point where they wanted to stop questioning. Usually it was the Bible per se, but especially God. I felt that it was quite legitimate, even responsible, to continue questioning the foundations of other foundations that had proved false.

        Boyd is certainly not a fundamentalist in the sense my old cult was fundamentalist, or yours. Our views and perceptions change over time, and I am quite alarmed by the trend reject Enlightenment values. This strikes me as full of sinister potential for the future, and to my mind puts Boyd and Al Qaeda on the same spectrum of a common dangerous trend, though at opposing ends of that spectrum of course.

        Thanks for your blog link. I’ll add it to my blogroll.

  5. Hi,

    Maybe a bit late in the day to comment on this, but I’m having difficulty trying to reconstruct Eddy and Boyd’s original reasoning from the first two quotes given (Hume’s definition of a miracle and a discussion about a perfect bridge hand). Does their book really have the second one following on directly from the first, as “they continue” would appear to suggest?

    If this is the case, then they have done more more than just the “subtle twisting of Hume” that you accuse them of: they have completely misunderstood him.

    Being dealt a perfect bridge hand does not involve “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agents.” Hume would have regarded it as a highly improbable event that was perfectly consistent with the laws of nature as he understood them.

    Assuming again that their argument has been accurately represented, I can only think of two explanations why E & B would claim that it is a miracle. One is that they have silently replaced Hume’s definition of a miracle by the everyday one of something that is very impressive and completely unexpected. This can only be the result of either carelessness or lack of intellectual honesty. The other is that they are making an unspoken assumption that all events in this world involve some element of heavenly intervention and are therefore miraculous to some extent. This is no way to win an argument with an Enlightment philosopher!

    1. Actually, I’ve just thought of another possible explanation for Eddy & Boyd getting this wrong. Maybe they believe that modern physics (in particular quantum mechanics) is based on the assumption that anything is possible. In other words, there are no events which are contrary to nature, only ones which are very improbable.

      Of course, quantum mechanics doesn’t actually say that “anything is possible”, just as Einsteinian relativity doesn’t say that “everything is relative”.

      In any case, quantum mechanics only applies to quantum objects, which normally means subatomic particles. In the everyday world, we only encounter objects which contain mind-bogglingly large numbers of subatomic particles; all the quantum effects are averaged out, and the objects behave exactly as described by the classical physics of Hume’s day.

      Even if everyday objects did behave like quantum objects, the probabilities of “unnatural” events would be incredibly low; for example, it would be possible to hit a tennis ball at a wall and see it “tunnel” through to the other side of the wall. However, you would have to do it a billiion times a second and wait a billion times the age of the universe to have any confidence you would actually see it happen. For all practical purposes, it is impossible.

      So, even if Eddy and Boyd are correct to argue that there are no unnatural events, only extremely unlikely ones, it amounts to no more than semantic quibbling.

      Again, it’s hard to imagine Hume being impressed by this argument.

        1. Never ind. I’ve read some of your later posts on Eddy and Boyd and it’s clearly not worth spending any more time on them.

          In the unlikely event that anyone wants to know, it seems they regard a miracle as a possible but improbable event for which science has no plausible explanation. (Then assume that a perfect bridge hand is an example of such an event, then commit the logical error mentioned in your post). Hume’s definition of a miracle is only quoted so they can claim they’ve refuted him, after completely ignoring his arguments!

          Their case seemed so weak I was forced to wonder whether it had been accurately portrayed, but apparently their standards really are that low. Apologies for any implied slur.

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