Contra Hume – “Of Miracles”
by Bill Honsburger “Empiricism”
Inigo Montoya – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”
Hume’s chapter ‘Of Miracles’ in “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” has been debated for centuries now. Most well known is his famous argument that one should always take the “greater miracle” over the lesser one. That is, one should weigh out the arguments or evidences for a miraculous event against the evidence that it did not happen, subtract the lesser from the greater, and go with the greater. Hume also spends a lot of time in that chapter discussing the value of human testimony, which is given fairly short shrift in general and none at all when it comes to religious claims about miraculous events.
In this paper I will grant Hume his greater miracle argument (though I don’t really buy it) in favor of critiquing his argument from an alleged empiricist base. I will do this from the standpoint of human testimony, challenging Hume on the points he makes in this “greater miracle” argument. I will prove it to be the case that Hume has slipped an a-priori commitment to naturalism into his alleged a-posteriori basis – thus contradicting his own epistemological view. Additionally, I will show that his logical fallacies include the contradiction, but also that numerous snob ad populums, ad homonyms and genetic fallacies mar his argument as well. One of the most famous of the British empiricists was the Scottish historian David Hume, who, along with Berkeley, Locke, and Bacon, helped set the discussion in philosophical and scientific circles for centuries to come. There were some good initial critiques of Hume’s argument, but his position was still not well known until Immanuel Kant was rudely awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers.” Nevertheless, Hume’s influence in philosophy inspired Logical Positivism, scientific naturalists of all stripes, the search for the “Historical Jesus,” and even Einstein’s theory of special relativity. But is this reputation earned? Much of Hume’s fans share his disdain of religion, particularly Christianity, so it makes sense that the naturalists who accept Hume’s argument still presume, as he did, that the argument is between those who are “ignorant” (as in “religious” in any way) and those who are all about facts, reason and evidence. Much like today’s scientific naturalists (of scientism) – who protest any claims to be driven by underlying philosophical presuppositions (it’s just called “science”) – Hume has gotten by with an undisclosed a-priori claim which comes up several times in the chapter under review.
As an empiricist, Hume held the epistemological claim that all knowledge comes through sense data or experience. This assertion comes up many times in the chapter. It arises for example in E10.2, where Hume briefly compares the testimony of the apostles as something one cannot trust, because the stronger claim belongs to “the immediate object of his senses.” (1) An even stronger version of this is found in E10.3: “Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact” (2) It is interesting to note here that this quote actually implies that experience can sometimes mislead us! He also claims that it is our experience which teaches us that “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.” (3) Strong words – we shall see whether they help or hurt him.
In some of his other writings also, Hume notes that knowledge ends at our sense experience. We receive impressions, which include sensations and passions. We have ideas, yet these are but a “faint” image of some sensual experience. A modern definition shows that nothing has changed. Empiricism is defined commonly as “a system of acquiring knowledge that rejects all a-priori knowledge and relies solely upon observation, experimentation, and induction.” (4 – The Free Dictionary.com) So the claim is that only that which can be proven by the senses can be considered factual. Hume claims that a “wise” man will judge a case along these lines. He later declares that no one at any time in any place has seen a resurrection. Besides the classic fallacy of begging the question – since this is in fact the exact claim that over 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus – there is a more foundational problem.
Is knowledge solely and completely based on experience? If so, whose experience? Is someone else’s experience sufficient for knowledge? What if someone else’s experience contradicts my own? What indeed can I know of history, or aesthetics, or ethics, or any metaphysical claims (e.g. that justice exists)? Of course Hume does not give an affirmative answer to these questions but instead gives the definitional and the greater miracle arguments – in other words, he just presupposes his epistemic claim and “runs with it.” Fine, so do we all at times, but in this case it is critical to what he is critiquing. Hume’s epistemic position is that we can only have knowledge through our experience, but it only takes a few seconds of pondering to realize that the great majority of what each of us “knows,” or at least thinks we know, does not qualify then as knowledge. I have no actual sense data to think that I can know that Buzz Aldridge walked on the moon, China exists, atoms can be split, or that Barack Obama is the President of the United States. I have been closely acquainted with many Vietnam War era veterans over the years, yet I have no sense experience that even the country of Vietnam exists. I worked with Vietnamese refugees at a factory in San Antonio in 1975, yet still again I have no sense experience of Vietnam. I had a crush on Farah Fawcett when I was a young man (don’t laugh – everyone else did too!) yet I have no sense experience of her. All these things happened within my own lifetime. To make this worse by bringing in the past, I have no sense experience that the War Between the States occurred in the early 1860s. I have no Hume-style empirical experience of the murder of Abraham Lincoln nor the brilliance of Robert E Lee. Similarly, I have absolutely no sense experience of Christopher Columbus, Luther, Aquinas, Maimonides, Justinian, Augustine, the Apostle Peter, or Jesus himself. I have no sense experience of Julius Caesar, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates or Homer – let alone Moses, Abraham or Adam! Yet in all this I am convinced that I possess a certain degree of objectively valid “knowledge” about all the events and persons just named. If I were to be even more pedantic I could go on for hours and kill several more electronic trees with all the things I claim to know – none of which do I have a sensual experience of. And yet out of any such grocery list, it is only a few individuals or events that would cause Hume to suspect I am one who has bought into “barbarian superstitions.” My point is this, I have far more of an education and knowledge available to me that the good Scotsman had, and yet by his limited definition of what counts for knowledge, I barely know what I had for breakfast! It strikes me that he knows considerable less than he claims to know. He “knows” that no one in any country at any time has seen the resurrection of a dead human being. Just exactly how does he, or anyone else for that matter, know that? On empiricist grounds a more modest claim might be something like “My entire sense experience is that dead people stay dead.” This of course was entirely true for Hume I am sure. But one might point out the obvious “small sampling” fallacy at this point. If I say I have seen a goose that was black, would I be justified in saying that all geese are black? What if I had seen a thousand geese? A million? At what point would I ever be justified in saying that all geese are black? The only possible empirical answer would be when I could say that I had seen all geese. In the same sense, the only way Hume could claim that no one had ever resurrected, was if he had personal sense experience of all countries at all time! So might it not be the case that Hume was just scoring rhetorical points when he made that claim? I could be generous and accept that possibility, except for the fact this this is so critical to his definition of a miracle. Hume argues that it is an “unalterable experience” that the laws of nature are never contradicted. Never is such an interesting word. I looked up the definition, and it clearly meant “at no time, ever.”
Let us suppose that we widen the net and add all 18th century Scotsmen to Hume’s defense. Let it be granted here that no Scotsman of the 18th century had ever seen a resurrection. But this doesn’t really help, as no collective group of “18th century Scotsman” has access to the kind of “overview” necessary to claim an unalterable experience. Let us broaden the net again to include all those fashionably enlightened Europeans, the kind that Hume was at least somewhat inclined toward. Does the set of all 18th century enlightened Europeans give Hume what he needs? No, sadly it does not, and this sample is compounded by the thought that most 18th century Europeans probably still believed that someone had resurrected from the dead. Let us expand the net once more to include all those “barbarian” nations that Hume so disdains. So now the set includes all the millions of people all over the world which surely gives Hume the grounds by which he can claim that a resurrection never occurred. But alas, it fails here as well. Hume claimed that it never has happened at any time as well as in any country. So we would have to then start the survey over again ad nauseum. In other words, there is no possible way for Hume’s empiricism to make this claim – yet it has been repeated over and over for two centuries now. There are only two real possibilities that could explain this – perhaps Hume had access to Calvin’s Transmorgifier and could go anywhere at any time – and thus could complete the scientific analysis needed. Or one could just admit the obvious, that Hume set aside his own epistemological position to strike at that most hated thing.
Another flaw along the same line is that Hume repeatedly uses language that indicates this very objective. For example in E10.4 Hume states: “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event.” Then he goes on to discuss those kinds of experiences which might be seen with some evidence on one side and some on the other. However, the resurrection is clearly not like that to Hume. There are no two sides to that issue. So we are to understand that we have an “infallible” experience. This is even more clear when one looks at the “money line” for the whole chapter – his definition of a miracle itself. Hume put it this way: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” (E10.12) We will look at this passage a bit more later on, but notice that here experience has provided us with a “firm and unalterable” standing. Just exactly what experience does David have in mind? If we apply this passage to the issue of the resurrection – which it seems quite clear that is the direction Hume wants to go – then there again seems to be a problem.
Hume states that experience, “a firm and unalterable” one at that, should be considered a “proof.” One cannot have any stronger argument than that. He goes on in SNB 115 to say that there is a “uniform experience” which again amounts to a “proof,” which ultimately in his mind necessitates that no miracle is possible. Let’s try an epistemological experiment. I am thinking “treeley.” (When Robert Audi said this in my class I knew I had wondered into a strange and alien land.) But what Robert was saying is that my senses, memory, and consciousness were experiencing a collection of phenomena that were coalescing in my mind when I looked at a tree. In the mind one could smell the pine, or see the needles, or even feel the bark. A virtual sensual blowout – and just from looking at a tree. My senses tell me there is a tree in front of me. My memory reminds me that this same tree was present in this same spot yesterday, and last week and so on. Given that I am not on drugs, nor is my memory failing significantly, nor are my senses off kilter in any way – it seems that on foundationalist grounds I have the justified true belief that a tree exists and is in front of me. None of this is terribly controversial in the analytic world. But now let’s substitute a different sort of scenario. The Apostle Peter is thinking “resurrectionly.” He sees Jesus in front of him. He remembers Jesus dying on the cross. He can see the scars on his hands. He has a memory of seeing nails pounded into those same hands. He can hear the screams of Jesus and the two others as they are nailed to trees. He remembers his own grief at his betrayal and how his own arrogant heart was smashed by the reality of his cowardice. Yet there before him is Jesus. He touches him, he smells him, he hears him. He has a virtual feast of sense data experience mixed with bittersweet sense data memories. According to Hume the first scenario is fine as it happens routinely, but the second is not because it violates “the routine.” Yet let us only suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the way I know a tree is actually there is on the exact same basis that Peter knew the resurrected Jesus was factually there. Indeed, as we think about what it is that constitutes a “firm and unalterable” experience, it is this exact same type of experience played out over and over again. The exact same analysis of the knowing process gives us the experience Hume says that we have. But in the one case it is affirmed yet in the other denied. Were the witnesses of the resurrection physically impaired in some significant way? Hume doesn’t go there – he sees no need. He has in his hand a trump card – the “very nature of the fact.” (More on that later.) Hume does claim that this firm experience is agreeable to the laws of nature. So yes he is right that the routine experience of nature is that dead men don’t rise. And from his experience and also from my own experience, he would be right – but again we are hardly in a position to then declare that the event is impossible, are we? At best we can only say that we have never seen such a thing.
Hume says that no one has seen such things. A wise man, therefore, proportions his betting to the evidence of the cards that are hidden, not the ones that are on the table. If he had been a bit more careful, he would not have overplayed his hand. But then we wouldn’t remember him, as Kant would have seen no reason to lose sleep over him.
What exactly is the “nature of the fact”? One could say that it is obvious – the very definition or essence of something. Perhaps Hume has that in mind. If so, then he still has a problem. After spending a lot of ink eviscerating the claims of human testimonies – liars and perjurers all, we know – he then states that we have a firm and unalterable experience. What could this mean? Who exactly is recording that firm and unalterable experience? Could it be that the firm and unalterable experience is also put forth through the means of human testimony? Why it seems it does. In reference to the resurrection Hume states clearly that no one has ever “observed” one. Well who exactly has not observed one? I think we can safely presume that he does not have in mind gibbons or ocelots – for everyone knows their testimony is sure. So perhaps he means angelic beings – no that won’t work either – if one has no room for God in the universe it is most likely one doesn’t have the little spirits running around either, at least not in Western religious thinking. Having run out of options, I am forced into the corner and must confess that Hume must have human testimony in mind in describing the observers of that particular observation no one has ever had. But how can this be? – Hume knows that:
“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” (SBN 112)
“by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery of a great part of mankind.” SBN 124 He adds to this later: “With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But what if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality. He may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: Or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force”… E10.17
That is just about his neighbors I suppose. He reserves an even greater level of contempt for others. In E10.20 he rants:
“Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors”
“The most ignorant and barbarous of these barbarians carry the report abroad”
Maybe the Apostle Paul should have stayed in Jerusalem. But now we get to the true bottom of the affair. In zeroing in on the Christian faith, Hume decides to address the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. He proceeds to take the gloves off and tells us who the real barbarians truly are:
“Here then we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origins.”
Those darn Jews! Hume argues from there the details of his problems with Genesis in particular, how different the experiences cited there are from his experience, and thus reasons that it takes a miracle of faith to believe any of it, because the reasoning Christian knows it all to be nonsense, yet believes it anyway. How frustrating it must have been for Hume to read John Locke and know that such a brilliant and fellow empiricist had fallen into the hands of the barbarians!
Well it is not like anti-Semitism was a new thing in Hume’s time. The antipathy that many Europeans had for the Jews is well documented, and the prevailing anti-Semitism that modern British people have for the Jews is staggering. The obvious fallacies abound within these statements. The fact that the Jewish people historically have been one of the most literate people in history is of course prima facie evidence of their ignorance. The fact that per capita Jewish people have won more awards in science and medicine than any other, merely amplifies their barbarity! I married a Scottish woman so I want to be careful here, but other than golf and the Westminster Confession, what is the great legacy of civilization that Hume must have been self-referencing? No need for an answer here, but as well as the abundant uses of ad homonyms’, Hume has also given a fine and classic example of the genetic fallacy. Even if his insults were all completely true, one cannot dismiss a claim as false merely because of its source. The fact that Bill Clinton is a liar is well established. That he lied about his lying is also well established. (He virtually serves as a living example of the liars paradox!) But this does not mean necessarily that the next thing he says is a lie – that has to be determined by means of reason and fact, and cannot be adjudicated based upon his past character or lack thereof.
The critical part of the argument we are tracing is that Hume doesn’t trust human testimony when it is referencing something that he does not believe. But he apparently must accept human testimony to grant him what he does believe. When he accepts their testimony, they are civilized and knowledgeable, not given to spurious accounts of sea monsters and apparently flying spaghetti monsters. When he does not accept their testimony, they are barbarous and ignorant, given to lying, delusions, perjury, and self-interest. But Hume makes another critical mistake. He cites an example of some people who are not given to lying, are upstanding in their character and so on. In E10.27 he gives this account:
“There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person, than those, which were lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abbe Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were every where talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulcher. But what is more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all: A relation of them was published and dispersed every where; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them.”
Here Hume lays out a test case where every one of his possible defeaters has been in fact defeated. They were done in the modern world, they did not resemble any prior activity, they were asserted by intelligent and modern people, and they were done in this age. All of these things were asserted in the chapter as good reasons not to believe in miraculous stories. He goes on to add;
“Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.” SBN 125
Well I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure want to be one of the “reasonable” people! A more outstanding example of snob ad populum could never be displayed. To be “wise” and “reasonable” and “civilized” is certainly to be desired more than to be “ignorant”, “barbarous” and so on. Why all the right people will surely agree with this argument! Unfortunately for David as well as the snob appeal, his incredulities cannot be substituted for an argument as well. So he then is left with one argument and one alone – the “absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events which they relate”. Now we have come to the crux of my argument in this paper. How on empiricist grounds can Hume say what he says? Lets try and see how this can work.
One could object and say that a miracle infers a logical contradiction. In other words does the account of someone getting healed (or raised from the dead) imply something along the lines of a square circle? No it doesn’t seem to infer that something is both A and –A. The person was sick and then was healed. They were by accounts not both sick and healed at the same time, and at the same place, and with the same respect. Is it possible that what is meant here is a contradiction of science? Well then what science? What school is Hume referring to? What methodology has he in mind? Many of the scientists of his day, in fact one could assert the majority of scientists prior to his time and contemporaneous with Hume had no problem with believing in miraculous healings and people being raised from the dead. A short read from Newton, to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Boyle, Descartes, the Bacons and others will show this immediately. Since Hume was a student and a historian, I am fairly confident that he knew that as well, much to his frustration – imagine all those other smart people under the hypnotic grip of the barbarian hordes! It was the post Kantian turn to materialism as seen in Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Spencer and so on when scientists acquired their taste for denying the supernatural world view and the desire to have a methodology which assumes naturalist presuppositions for any actual approach of the facts under question. So this really does not seem to help either.
Perhaps I am missing something. It is possible for a human observer to not have all the facts under his/her command. A more modest reading might allow Hume off the hook, but I don’t think that was a possibility for him. His statement must then be allowed to say all that it really does, and in fact he has referred to this at other times in the same chapter, as I have pointed out. The very nature of the fact, the very nature of the thing itself, and the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, are all parallel designations for Hume’s own reading of the facts. An a-priori claim in the history of philosophy is something that someone says they know before or prior to the facts. For example one might say that we understand the laws of logic, not because we have actually experienced them in nature somewhere, but rather because they are built into the mind, as Descartes and Kant thought. This is all fine and dandy for rationalists and Platonists, but it is anathema for empiricists, especially allegedly strict ones like David Hume. This is why I am willing to grant Hume his rather poor argument concerning the so called greater and lesser miracles from human testimony. That is why I am momentarily willing to grant his highly controversial definitional claim – I think that these are both irrelevant to him, although much touted by his admirers. The example from the Jansenists account is quite telling. Again Hume is willing to grant (apparently) the testimony of individuals who say that they have never seen a resurrection or a miracle of some different sort. He is not willing to grant the testimony of those witnesses to the miracles in France, in the same way that he cannot believe the testimony of Jewish barbarians who believed Jesus rose from the dead. Why? Because of something else entitled “the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature” of the thing or fact. We seem to be left with a new greater or lesser miracle dilemma. Should we grant that Hume is not aware of the epistemic hypocrisy he is about to pull off? Or like all human beings, especially as he says ones with “interest” at play here, he is pulling a fast one on the readers? Which would be the most likely and thus invoke the greater/lesser miracle judgment? Let me go on record here I think David Hume was a very smart guy and gave the philosophical world much to think about. Since I think that to be the case – then I probably won’t accept that Hume doesn’t see the large dramatic hypocrisy in his argument. I think when he says that something is an “absolute impossibility” we should take him at his word. Now on what basis can one say that? Certainly not as an empiricist. An true empiricist does not prejudge the possibilities of experience – they merely accept whatever sense data comes their way, at least that is inferred by their self-definition and understanding. On empiricist grounds one needs to be open to alien invasions, the Titans and the Krakken coming back to earth, and the possibility of Lady Gaga learning to sing. Yes I know these all involve extremely improbable events, but on what grounds can any empiricist shut them out? Especially Hume, whose noted skepticism denied cause and effect and that one could know that the sun will come up tomorrow? Doing Bayesian theorems and Hume’s own probability types claims are irrelevant. The issue is not what is most probable; rather the only issue for an empiricist is did the event happen? Are there sensual datum to explore and learn from? Unless Hume has the secret decoder ring which can tell him which sense experiences are valid and which are not – than one needs to accept the sense experiences that he has and then sort out the real from the unreal.
Let us try another Hume based thought experiment here. Hume tells a fictional story about the possibility of the Queen of England being killed and then rising from the dead. Right here in the modern world (for him) and in front of witness both learned and trustworthy. Consistent to his view he retorts that he would not believe those witnesses either. Right before this he talked about the example of natural weather changes that have gone off kilter and Hume grants that sort of thing, because it resembles earlier activity and can be explained by other means than appealing to a deity. What I am wondering now is what if Hume himself were in the court of the Queen when she died and rose from the dead. Does he stumble about like Scrooge, thinking now that his own senses are being fooled? Sadly we have no evidence that this happened, but it is important to think about what validates ones own testimony about a sense experience, but automatically discards others distinct ones? This brings up another problem.
Why does the argument from resemblance haven any traction in this or any other argument? Does this rule out the reality of innumerable sense experiences that are singular in nature? It seems Hume would want to say no, and yet the strong sense of the resemblance case, in which you can see the distant echo through Feuerbach and Troelstch, and even the Jesus Seminar apostates, seems to rule out any singularities. How many times would Caesar have to cross the Rubicon, before we would grant that the event happened? Surely only one the empiricist would insist. There is nothing earth shaking or involving any bending of the empirical rules by some offhand spirit or god. But suppose we introduce other singularities; the murder of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s theater and the first step on the moon by Buzz Aldridge. Certainly leaders have been assassinated before but no one had ever walked on the moon before. Well perhaps one could then argue that we have analogies to flight before NASA, but is that really the case? Hume argues in a different setting that one problem with the teleological argument is that the analogy from cause and effect which is laid out, is fine inside the known universe, but is not able to prove the connection between spiritual designer and physical effect. Why? Because it is so dissimilar! Well then isn’t the flight to the Moon quite literally beyond all human experience up to that time? One could say there is a resemblance to planes reaching new heights, but to steal from Hume’s own attack – those accounts are all about this world. Outer space is quite literally a different part of the universe. If one is really petty about it, and had been drinking heavily from the Chaos theory fountain, one could argue that every single event in any and all human individual lives are in fact all singularities at that time and place. The fact that the overwhelming majority of them are routine is not the relevant factor for an empirical approach. All events are routine until a new one comes along. When the Mets won the world series it was known as “the Miracle Mets”. Why? Because all those who would presume Hume’s probability factors thought the odds were hopelessly too far in the other direction. Yet they won. Now of course this is potentially possible by resemblance theory, but odds wise the money said otherwise. When the United States won the Battle of Midway against all odds, there again was a great discrepancy between what probability can say and what actually happens. Hume’s entire case for impeaching witnesses seems to be built on a case of probability. But as we have already seen, that is not really the issue. Probability leaves even the slightest room for the underdog to come in, whereas “absolute impossibility” tells me the fight is fixed. And in this scenario one must have prior knowledge to make those kinds of claims and then to make them stick. Any gambler would immediately assume the fix was in and would bet accordingly. Hume is telling us that his fight is rigged, and that he knows the time and round the loser will go down. To quit beating that analogy up, we can see that the parallel with his attitude about miracles is the same. He will not accept even the slimmest possibility of a miracle happening, regardless of testimony of witnesses. So all the probability language is a ruse, and the reality is that Hume has an a-priori commitment to some version of naturalism. Miracles can’t happen because there is no causal agent, i.e. God.
Now I will grant Hume’s earlier complaints about impeachable witnesses. I have been to Benny Hinn meetings and Rodney Howard Brown and cult leaders from every stripe on can imagine, and I have witnessed false miracles and false stories and aggrandizing for personal gain – money, power and sex. In many ways I wear the empiricist designation myself. There are many claims about “secret” or “special” knowledge that I have run into in the New Age world, the Word Faith movement and many secularist situations. (“Hey Rocky watch me pull a transitional form out of my hat!”). And a healthy bit of skepticism is never a bad thing. Especially when one has some prior knowledge of the person making the claims. Are there defeaters or defeasible claims that are being made? What makes this claim spurious and that one holy? These are important issues. This is the proper venue for then examining the witnesses. Hume gives some important words to the subject, and then proceeds to ignore every thing he just said. As Whatley said in one of the reactions to Hume, it is possible then on Humean grounds, to claim that the British government concocted the entire story of Napoleon Bonaparte, in order to get better control over its own subjects! The testimony of the eyewitness is in some degree, the only real issue. Are they credible? Are they working with an agenda? Is money changing hands? These are issues that every detective has to work with. One cannot dismiss possibilities because there is no pattern. Sometimes people do things completely outside of their own pattern and the pattern of others. 9-11 is an example of that. The pattern was ignored and thousands of people died. By the time the fourth plane realized what was happening, that there had been a shift, they had a chance to respond and they did. The new singularity led to a new pattern. And many who had their bets on the old routine were left with egg on their faces because this had never happened before. Hume’s account and critique does not take seriously the nature of human witnesses, which the great majority of his “empirical” knowledge is based on, especially the “unaltered experience”.
As a throwaway line Hume notes the normal sense that there is often an a-priori connection made between testimony and the way things are. He dismisses this out of hand. I think we can see that he makes a different sort of a-priori commitment all the time, as long as it fits his theme. The empiricist position is hardy enough to endure the possibility of supernatural intervention and should be able to encompass all sense data events, regardless of the source. The true empiricist needs to check the story out, and not rule out by mere definition the veracity of the claim nor any possible outcomes. Hume’s empiricism in this chapter is merely an inch deep and as such cannot be a reputable guide for an actual investigation into the miraculous.