Tag Archives: David Hume

Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view

Revised some hours after initial posting.

This post introduces the general idea of the fundamental principles of morality being universal and innate in human beings, yet being tweaked and expressed in different ways according to culture, much the same way different languages derive from the same basic principles of grammar that are part of our unconscious makeup.

According to this theory, we rationalise moral judgments and respond emotionally to them. That is, the moral judgments to acts that we witness come first (intuitively, unconsciously) and we react emotionally to these and may attempt to explain our judgments rationally. But reason and emotion are not the origins of our moral judgments, as Kant and Hume thought respectively.

Kant
Kant

Immanuel Kant: It is through our reason and rationality that we determine what is right and wrong. Emotions incite us to acting selfishly and foolishly so true morality ought to be guided by reason alone. We should use our reasoning faculties to determine general moral obligations that would apply universally. Hence his “categorical imperative:

I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law.

This principle meant that we should never treat people merely as a means to an end, be we should respect others as having their own desires and goals.

hume
Hume

David Hume: Our moral judgements come to us through our emotions. Just as we recognise immediately a beautiful painting or an ugly one, so our emotions tell us immediately when an act we witness is virtuous or immoral. Some personality traits, Hume said, are innate, while others are acquired through our culture. An innately generous person who gives to charity is recognised as doing a morally good thing. One who has learned from society the importance of acting fairly and who resolves to act fairly even against self-interest, is also recognised as a morally good person.

It is our emotional response to some action that is the basis of our judgment on whether or not the act is moral.

rawls
Rawls

John Rawls: Not emotions, nor reason, but unconscious principles drive our moral judgements. We accordingly cannot always explain why a certain action is right or wrong — it just “is”.

We possess an innate moral grammar akin to the Chomskyan notion of an innate and universal linguistic grammar.* Just as we have a faculty for language, one that is hidden beneath our conscious awareness, so we also have a faculty for moral judgments. read more »

Eddy and Boyd – miracles and global human experience

Continuing from previous post’s notes on Eddy’s and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . . . .

Comparing the world views of ancients and moderns

It is difficult to get a clear handle on exactly what Eddy and Boyd are arguing against when they complain that “modern Western academics” are misguided over the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and beliefs in miracles.

They charge “modern Western academics” with falsely believing that there is a huge divide between ancient and modern worldviews.

A False Dichotomy

. . . We are told that the reason people in the past could believe in and claim to experience miracles, while modern Western people supposedly cannot, is because, unlike us, ancient people were “naive and mythologically minded.” Ancient people supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . . (p.64)

Ancient people “supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . .”? I would have been interested in reading how E and B might have explained exactly what they meant here.

It is through generalized statements like this that E and B are actually the ones who are constructing “a false dichotomy”. Many major academic studies have been dedicated to understanding the minds and worldviews of both ancient and present day peoples. It is simply nonsense to suggest that when someone speaks generally of a modern worldview based on a scientific paradigm contrasting with worldviews from a pre-scientific era, they are to be somehow blamed for failing to understand the extents and nuances of human experiences. The former claim is a generic claim about social norms in a modern western culture, while the latter is a statement about actual behaviours and beliefs at an experiential level. The fact that social institutions (not just a narrow slice of academia) legitimize the scientific world view for social educational purposes is a separate issue from the personal beliefs of many individuals and sub-groups of society.

From the same “modern Western academics” about whom Eddy and Boyd complain are out of touch with “global human experience” come sociological and anthropological studies demonstrating the universality of beliefs in the supernatural. (See Human Universals compiled by Donald E Brown.)

So the studies of “modern Western academics” belie E and B’s sweeping generalization about “modern Western academics”.

Is present human experience on a global scale saturated with experiences of the supernatural?

Of course not. Unless one defines an experience of the supernatural to be whatever one believes to be a supernatural experience.

I can say that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with untimely tragic deaths, with weddings, with buying and selling, with home-building. Such experiences are open for all to see and witness. And we can all read and hear of people reporting supernatural experiences and fulfillments of astrological or other occult predictions. But of course the latter category merely represents beliefs about experiences.

Eddy and Boyd obviously know this, and concede that most such reports can be explained naturally.

Thus, a recovery from an illness or a pay-rise can be both be “experiences of the supernatural” to one who believes they are answers to prayer. The same people often, I think, also consider failure to recover from an illness as a negative answer to prayer, so even that may be defined as a supernatural experience, too. Or even a calamity, like a car crash, as a message or punishment from the supernatural.

And in Asia countless people offer prayers before Buddhist and other shrines, presumably very often in thanksgiving for “supernatural” favours.

And many people believe that their gambling wins and losses are the results of omens, charms or little rituals. I suppose they could also be defined as “supernatural experiences”.

So Eddy and Boyd don’t put the proposition quite like that, but rather as:

. . . present human experience on a global scale is saturated with reported experiences of the supernatural.

Well, of course. And they cite no “modern Western academic” who disagrees with THAT claim, despite their laboured efforts to give  just that impression.

And of course the difference between reported experiences of the supernatural and actual experiences of the supernatural is the same as difference between those believing a cure from an illness was an answer to prayer and those believing it was a natural or medically assisted process. In other words, the issue at stake is not the experience itself, but the belief about the experience.

Eddy and Boyd are in fact asserting nothing more than that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with supernatural interpretations of experiences.

Are academics really out of touch when they assign different interpretations to such experiences? One presumes that levels of education would correspond with levels of understanding about how the world works.

Eddy and Boyd are not really arguing about experiences, but interpretations of experiences. Their choice of words is misleading or confusing, however. Consider their complaints against “secular academics”. E and B charge them with defining “‘present human experience’ too narrowly” (p.67). But instead of pointing to the vast areas of human experience that their “narrow definitions” exclude, they can only bring themselves to point to what is “commonly reported” across cultures. So it seems the bottom line of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint is that “modern secular academics” do not include “common reports” or interpretations of experiences on the same level as common experiences themselves. It was once commonly reported that left handed people and eccentric women were in league with evil powers. It was once commonly reported that the earth was flat.

A demon haunted world

Eddy and Boyd don’t cite cross cultural experiences with good angelic beings, nor even cross cultural experiences of a single deity. I would have found such a discussion more interesting than the one they do cite. They cite instead the “cross-cultural” report of “demonization” as evidence that the vast bulk of humanity experience the supernatural. (I thought demonization means to actually turn something or someone into a demon, literally or figuratively, and that the more appropriate term for what E&B are describing is “demon possession”. But I’ll use E and B’s term, assuming they know the literature on this topic better than I do.)

E and B list some of the “cross-cultural characteristics” of this “demonization” (p.68):

  • being seized by a demon so that they fall into a trance or seizure
  • frequent outbursts of violent behaviour, sometimes exhibiting strength beyond the normal
  • the ability to recite information that the one demonized is not expected to know
  • the ability to speak some words of a language they did not learn
  • the ability to contort ones muscles and limbs in an unnatural way
  • objects move and fly near the demonized person

There is nothing new here, and these characteristics might have been more persuasive if E&B had taken the trouble to actually cite the details of just one report of the several they footnote that actually defy possible natural explanation. Disappointingly, on page 70 they write:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.

They continue:

But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms?

Firstly, there are no “reports of the supernatural” in any of this. There are only reports of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable human experiences that are interpreted by some observers as being caused by demons. In a pre-scientific age lightning and earthquakes and illness and even accidents were interpreted in many quarters as being caused by supernatural forces. Many people even today still interpret them the same way.

In our scientific age we still have much to learn. We don’t look at each remaining unsolved question and assume it is unsolved because it is forever beyond the possibility of a natural explanation. Maybe we will even find more evidence in time that not all problem events were fully (or fully honestly) reported. Reporting shortcomings, or even fraud, are not entirely unknown.

But back to the point. If most can be explained naturalistically, then why not single out just one that must surely prove not to be the case for us all to see and consider? Why resort to an argument from credulity? If I keep hearing of alien abductions so often, do I really suddenly encounter one that is so totally different from the rest that it is in a class of its own? If so, then let’s cut to the chase and identify and discuss those singular cases only!

Secondly, if most of the cases of the above behaviours can be explained in naturalistic terms, what is left of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint that “modern scholars” define “present human experience too narrowly”? If most cases can be naturalistically explained, then E&B’s complaint surely falls flat.

The fact that some academics themselves believe in the supernatural is neither here nor there, notwithstanding E&B’s efforts to see this as significant. Time and peer-review assessments and investigations will test their claims.

Epistemological humility?

After having shown the poverty of postmodernism for establishing “truth and fact” in historiography, E&B turn to postmodernism to argue that non-secular beliefs should be treated on an equal footing with religious ones. They are of the view that to do otherwise is a kind of “cultural imperialism” and smacks of intellectual arrogance.

I suggest that the secular worldview is really the spin-off from it being thoroughly and repeatedly tested and proven in the field of the natural sciences. This success rate gives a priori validity to approaching the rest of human experience through the same mindset.

A supernatural worldview has no comparable a priori validity to appeal to.

“The world view” and an American view?

E&B disagree strongly that the “Western worldview” is basically a naturalistic one. They contend that only a narrow clique of secular academic culture has embraced naturalism. “The majority of Western people”, they claim, are as believing and experiencing of the supernatural as the ancients ever were. They cite polls taken within the United States to support this claim (p.74). Over 80% of Americans believe God performs miracles today. This is apparently enough for E&B to believe that  over 80% of humanity experience “miracles”. They do not clarify if they would include a pay-rise as a miracle if that supposedly followed someone’s prayer request. But even if they mean only miracles of the kind where the dead are raised, it is good to keep such statistics in global perspective:

There have, for years, been comparative studies of religious fanaticism and factors that correlate with it. By and large, it tends to decline with increasing industrialization and education. The US, however, is off the chart, ranking near devastated peasant societies. About 1/2 the population believe the world was created a few thousand years ago . . . (Chomsky, 1999)

Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Overview impressions.

Eddy and Boyd’s book, The Jesus Legend, reminds me of Intelligent Design literature. It is an attempt to guise faith in serious sounding academic garb. While ID aspires to be accepted as an equal explanation beside evolutionary theory, The Jesus Legend aspires to be accepted as an alternative scholarly historiographical hypothesis to explain Christian origins. (Indeed, at least one of the authors is associated with a website promoting Intelligent Design.)

It is also a book that could only have been written by religionists from the USA. The authors at times appear to equate surveys of U.S. beliefs regarding miracles and the supernatural with the experience of the vast bulk of all human experience at all times, against which are pitted only a few sheltered Western academics. They seem oblivious to the implications of applying their reasoning to anything other than their religious interests, such as popular beliefs in astrology, common superstitions and folklore, aboriginal dreaming, etc. They also naively (regularly) equate a gospel narrative and reported sayings with direct tangible evidence that such and such was really seen or experienced as historical fact.

In a recent post I showed how Eddy and Boyd misrepresented David Hume’s argument against the rationality of believing in miracles, and only subsequently noticed that E & B hinge the relevance of their entire book on their supposed demonstration of the fallaciousness of Hume’s argument.

Hume’s argument renders all possible historical arguments in favor of Jesus’s rising from the dead virtually irrelevant. For no conceivable historical evidence could possibly overturn such an overwhelmingly improbable claim — if, again, Hume’s argument is valid. (p.42)

So until someone can demonstrate that their argument about David Hume’s sceptical position is indeed valid, I can conclude that it’s entire argument is a waste of time.

Another fatal flaw in Eddy’s and Boyd’s argument is its inflexibility in the range of alternative naturalistic explanations they appear willing to consider. Finding a weakness in one naturalistic explanation for the origins of Christianity would normally prompt historical researchers to refine that explanation or consider alternative (naturalistic) hypotheses. Eddy and Boyd, however, drive home their supernaturalistic hypothesis at each and every sign of a weakness in a single naturalistic hypothesis.

This is a bit like Renaissance astronomer Kepler discovering that the model of circular orbits of planets did not fit the recorded observations, and deciding to opt for angels interfering with planetary orbits from time to time in preference to testing the evidence against a model of eliptical orbits instead. Fortunately for us it was Kepler who was working at giving us the understanding of how planets orbit the sun and not Eddy and Boyd. The latter may well have decided that since God can cause the sun to stand still and a star to stand over a manger that there was no need to attempt any naturalistic explanation of planetary movements — their supernaturalistic hypothesis had the power to explain everything!

Another feature of “interest” is the way Eddy and Boyd massage the naive reader with word-play. They emphasize, with italics, that the assumptions of the naturalistic approach to historical enquiry are not proven.

This assumption . . . does not have to be proven: it is presupposed. (p. 44)

Naturalistic assumptions are a fatal flaw in the whole naturalistic enterprise? Eddy and Boyd complain that by approaching the world through naturalistic assumptions one tends to be able to explain the world naturally. There remains no room for the miraculous, they protest. (Assumptions are generally of the nature of values and perspectives that by nature are not “provable”, but “recognized”, in scholarly discourse.)

Not surprisingly, the results “worked out in the whole field of her activity” serve to demonstrate the validity of the assumption. (p.44)

But the fact is that the naturalistic approach to historiography is not as circular as E&B imply. The assumptions of naturalism rest on the successful testing of the model in the field of the physical sciences. This success gives very strong grounds for viewing the entire world of human experience through the same presumption of naturalism.

Consistently applied, this reasoning of E&B would need to find even stronger grounds for the reality of miracles (that questions of nature are more generally best explained by miracles than by natural law) to justify replacing the naturalistic presumption underlying modern historiography.

As time permits I’ll try to address various other aspects of The Jesus Legend hypothesis in some detail. It does, after all, appear to be something of a ‘standard’ to which many fundamentalists appeal.

Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)

Miracles: fundamentalist misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

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)