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How an Elephant Walks on Water

Skeptics ask how miracles like the Resurrection can exist when there is so much evidence against them. But that's the wrong approach to the question.

Trent Horn

According to the eighteenth-century century skeptical philosopher David Hume, “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” For Hume, this meant rejecting belief in miracles, as it seemed there was not enough evidence ever to justify believing the most common miracle claims that are presented. Indeed, Hume’s argument against miracles has been one of the most enduring among critics of the Christian faith.

Hume’s case against miracles could be likened to someone weighing evidence on a scale. On one side, the investigator places the evidence for the miracle, like ancient writings that record witnesses who claim to have seen the miracle, as well as the trustworthiness of these witnesses. On the other side would be the evidence against the miracle, such as faults in the witnesses as well as the uniformity of nature the miracle violates.

For Hume, belief in miracles is justified only when one end of the scale massively outweighs the other. For example, Hume warns against belief in a scientific hypothesis whose ratio of experiments in its favor is only 2:1 (or 100:50, as Hume puts it) and prefers a ratio closer to 100:1. He would like the evidence for a hypothesis to be one hundred times stronger than the evidence against it.

So how does Hume weigh the evidence when it comes to miracles?

Hume is skeptical of the evidence for genuine eyewitness testimony to miracles, but even if eyewitness testimony were credible, the evidence against miracles still would outweigh the testimonial evidence for them. In other words, we know from overwhelming experience that miracles don’t happen. Instead of seeing men walk on water and rise from the dead, we see men only float in water, and dead men stay dead. These are facts humans have always and uniformly observed everywhere. Therefore, Hume says,

As a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

Hume goes on to say, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” It follows, then, that, at least with ancient miracles, it is more likely that the testimony is faulty than that the miracle happened. As Hume says, “it is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.”

However, there are several problems with Hume’s argument.

First, it appears to beg the question, or assume what it is trying to prove. This is evident in Hume’s charge that when it comes to resurrections from the dead, “that has never been observed in any age or country.” But this argument is akin to saying the Big Bang never happened because “this event has never been observed in any age or country.” The claim that nature is uniform and resurrections never happen succeeds only if you already reject any claims that they do happen, such as the gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection. Like the Big Bang, this evidence can show that just because certain events do not happen now, it does not follow that they never happened in the past.

One could try to rescue Hume’s argument by saying he does not assume that resurrections never happen. Instead, Hume merely claims that in the history of the world, it is almost universally certain that dead men stay dead. This is so certain that there are no uncontroversial cases of someone rising from the dead. Even Christians would agree that billions upon billions of people have not risen from the dead, whereas only Christ has risen from the dead by his own power to glorious immortal life. Therefore, the billions of cases where people don’t rise from the dead outweighs the evidence for the one particular case of a man rising from the dead that is disputed.

But the problem with this reformulation is that the scales of evidence should not place the evidence for the resurrection on one hand and the evidence for billions of non-resurrections on the other. Instead, the scales should weigh the evidence for Christ rising against the evidence that Christ did not rise from the dead—not the evidence for other people not rising from the dead.

This would be analogous to comparing the evidence for the Big Bang to the evidence against that Big Bang, and not just the evidence for all the Big Bangs that never happened in the history of the universe.

In fact, in the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke had previously exposed the error of using limited experience in order to justify general negations of supernatural truths. One example he gave involved the king of Siam, who refused to believe that an elephant could walk across a frozen river since no one had ever observed such a phenomenon in his tropical kingdom (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 15).

This example was not addressed in the first edition of Hume’s work on miracles, but it did appear in the second edition under the guise of an Indian prince who doubts testimony about frost or ice. According to Hume’s logic, the prince would be justified in not believing someone who describes “walking on water” with “ice skates,” since, in perpetually warm climates like his, it is impossible to walk on the surface of water.

Against the objection that Hume’s methodology leads to the prince believing a falsehood (and thus making his methodology unreliable and his subsequent argument against miracles a failure), Hume says the prince is unaware that different temperatures can affect water, and so, upon being made aware of this fact, he can be justified in believing in the existence of frozen water he cannot currently see. But this is an ad hoc response, since the prince is no more justified in believing that “temperature can solidify water” than he is justified in believing that “water can be solidified.” After all, both facts contradict his experience.

When it comes to resurrections, Hume ignores the similar relevant fact that God can raise people from the dead, so if God exists, then miracles are not impossible quirks of nature.

Hume also says that the prince can reason analogously from other physical changes in materials to the possibility of the existence of frozen water, but the same can’t be done for resurrections from the dead, which are so out of the ordinary that no testimony could ever support their veracity. But as John Earman writes in his book Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles,

I am dubious that [this reasoning] can lead to the kind of “proof” against religious miracles that Hume wanted. The notion of analogy is so elastic that in any moderately complex situation one can always find positive and negative analogies. If one sees a positive analogy for a solid form of water in other phase changes, why not see a positive analogy for resurrection in near death experiences, catatonic states, and the like? (37).

So Hume’s argument against miracles fails, because it assumes that the lack of miracles observed in the present proves the existence of a similar lack of miracles in the past. But miracles are unique, anomalous events, so we should not expect their existence in the present any more than we would expect modern-day Big Bang singularities. Hume’s argument also leads to an untenable skepticism that would cause untold amounts of error by denying the epistemic right to believe in things that contradict our own experience or even humanity’s collective experience. Contra skeptics like Hume, it can be just as detrimental to a man’s well-being to fail to believe the truth as it can be detrimental to successfully believe a falsehood.

Therefore, any miracle claim should be assessed with an open mind and evaluated on its own terms, with the evidence both for and against that particular miracle.

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