Hume, Miracles and Lotteries

Hume Studies 14 (2):328-346 (1988)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:328 HUME, MIRACLES AND LOTTERIES This paper addresses recent criticisms of Hume's skepticism with regard to miracles, by 1 2 Sorensen and Hambourger who argue that there are counterexamples, illustrated by lotteries, to Hume's account of how the truth of reports of improbable events (either first or second hand) must be evaluated. They believe these counterexamples are sufficient to prove that Hume's argument against the believability of miracles, defined as violations of laws of nature caused by God, is unsound. Their arguments merit consideration not only in their own right but also on the basis of historical precedent, since they have in common an assumption that is found in Butler's criticism of Hume's predecessors in this debate. The bulk of my paper deals with Hambourger, who presents the most detailed version of the 'Butler' criticism. Sorensen's version can be answered in light of the evaluation of Hambourger 's argument. Hume's Argument Hume's argument is not against the possibility of miracles but against the possibility that it could ever be reasonable to believe a miracle 4 had occurred. His argument can be summed up as follows: in judging the credibility of a report of an improbable event, the probability of the event must be weighed against the probability that the report could be mistaken. The probability of an event is determined by the degree to which it conforms to known laws of nature. Laws of nature are formulated on the basis of uniform experience. Assuming that a miracle is a violation of laws of nature, any judgment that an event is miraculous presupposes a 329 judgment that there exists a uniform pattern of causation to which it is opposed, which pattern would constitute empirical proof against the miracle's occurrence. Testimony, on the other hand, is shown by experience not to be uniformly reliable. Consequently, no report of a miracle will have credibility since there will always be a uniform experience that is full proof against it, which therefore outweighs whatever merits testimony may have. In Hume's words, [N]o 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.... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.... If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till- then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion (E 115-116). Hambourger 's Criticism Hambourger maintains that Hume's argument depends on a principle which he calls the "principle of relative likelihood." He restates this principle as follows: Suppose that someone or, perhaps, a group of people testify to the truth of a proposition P that, considered by itself, is improbable. Then to evaluate the testimony, one must weight (sic) the probability that P is true against the probability that the informants are lying or mistaken. If it is more likely that P is true than that the informants are lying or mistaken, then, on balance, the 330 testimony renders P more likely than not, and it may be reasonable for one to believe that P. However, if it is as likely, or even more likely, that the informants are lying or mistaken than it is that P is true, then, on balance, the testimony does not render P more likely true than false, and it would not be,reasonable for one to believe that P. As a counterexample to this principle, Hambourger asks us to suppose that a lottery is held in which there are one million entrants, each of whom has a one in a million chance of winning, and that a reliable newspaper, the New York Times, reports that the winner of the lottery is Smith. He further asks us to suppose that the Times errs only once out of every 10,000 times. Thus, the probability that the Times ' report is wrong is...

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Citations of this work

Miracles.Timothy McGrew - 2011 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Twenty Questions about Hume's “Of Miracles”.Peter Millican - 2011 - Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 68:151-192.
Miracles.Michael Levine - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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