If nobody believed in superstition it would be unable to hurt anyone

 

Miracles intrinsically improbable?

David Hume did not argue that miracles never happen. He only said that the evidence for them is always overridden by the stronger evidence that nature tends to be very regular. Thus a report that a dead man rose from the dead is to be assumed to be false for we see that the majority of dead men stay dead. Even if you did admit the man rose you still have no reason to think that he really rose. Maybe the miracle was in how people including him thought he was dead.  He said we should believe in a miracle if the evidence is watertight and sufficient.

Miracles are inherently unlikely. But it is also the case that circumstances make them unlikely too. For example, if a major liar gets cured of cancer suddenly it will be hard to believe that anybody would help such a knave and his background is not inspiring either. And what about the baby he has left that has an incurable agonising illness that keeps getting worse and worse and the baby dies?

If religious or supernatural beliefs are not verified by science it is assumed that they are just happening outside the scope of what scientific instruments can test.  And they are not repeatable or so we are told.  Science looks for things to re-occur.  Oddly enough, there are some miracles that claim to be repeatable - see how Matthew's gospel had a number of resurrections from the dead happen at the time of the resurrection of Jesus.  Notice how religion says miracles are not testable by science as if it knows one won't happen tomorrow that in fact will be!  And it accuses sceptics and unbelievers of making assumptions in favour of scepticism when it is biased itself!  Maybe many miracles can be tested but simply are not - scientists are rarely brought in to miracle sites. Suppose God puts things beyond the reach of science.  Why would he?  Many believers claim they do not say science can verify any religious claim. If they CANNOT be verified by science they are really just shadows and the believers have something to hide. They don't want any verification or scientific inspection.  The problem of checking is an additional reason why miracles are inherently improbable.  The tooth fairy is inherently improbable because she cannot be checked.

If a miracle happens probable rather than possible is the way to think of it.  But do we assume the minimum that it barely makes it to probable?  Yes - it is more fitting for something that means to be exceptional and unusual evidence that happens rarely. This fits the view that a miracle needs to be supported by a high standard of evidence.

It is obvious we cannot and should not believe every miracle report even when there is no reason mentioned why it may not be true.  There are things that are possible but intrinsically improbable. Fairies and unicorns and incubi and succubi for example.

Therefore there is nothing wrong with the notion that a miracle by definition is improbable or very improbable.  We are entitled to assume things like that.  It is within the range of acceptability. 

We can assume it but we can also hold that we can believe that the evidence shows miracles are improbable for the evidence is too easily manipulated or there are too many fakes reported.

Calling a miracle improbable is not a sign that you don't want to know it if the miracle is true.  It is a sign of respect for the miracle.

David Hume was right that a miracle is such a strange event that it needs better evidence than anything else would need for the stranger and more unlikely the event looks from our perspective (after all only a handful see miracles) the more evidence we justly require for it. For example, suppose a bizarre natural event like a volcano starting up in X's garden was reported. You would need to see it with your own two eyes rather than believe even reliable people when they tell you about it. You can’t risk making a fool of yourself and reason and truth by believing them. This is far truer of a miracle which is a crazier event. Nobody has the right then to ask you to believe in their testimony that a miracle happened for when nature works according to fixed laws nearly all of the time and a miracle changes that law then the miracle is a very unlikely event.

Hume says we must prefer, if possible, the natural explanation to a supernatural one

Hume said we must favour natural and prosaic explanations of the supernatural. Christians have to agree - they will not believe that a ghost robbed grandma's handbag even if there is evidence that one did especially when little Johnnie had the opportunity to pilfer from it.

Religion itself agrees with Hume that the evidence may indicate a miracle but it cannot prove a miracle 100%. Surely as long as it cannot be proven we have the right to think it might be down to a lie or a mistake? Even if we believe, part of us holds it might be a lie or mistake.

Evidence needs to show that its unlikely that a hoax or mistake took place in relating to the claimed miracle. It cannot conclusively eliminate the hoax or mistake. What you would need is to be able to show that the hoax or mistake theory is improbable.

Hume was right to say a miracle is not believable as its more likely a lie is being told or a mistake made than that a miracle really happened. He is not saying a miracle cannot happen but is only talking about believability.

Religion lies that it does not agree with Hume. It does when it wants to but then it chooses to ignore him when its agenda is at stake. Religion often rejects miracle claims because the evidence is unexceptional just like we sceptics do. It and us assume that there may be hanky panky at work or foolishness or just plain mistakes. Catholicism does not investigate miracle claims unless they are the focus of popular devotion and serve the Church in some way. For example, a Protestant healer who reports remarkable miracles will be ignored because his faith is not Catholic. He cannot be used as evidence for the Catholic faith being true. The Church accuses Hume of bias and unfairness when it needs a good look in the mirror.

We repeat: Roman Catholics believe in the miracles of their own religion but not in those of other faiths. They agree with Hume but not when it comes to their own reported miracles. Islam would agree with Hume but not when it comes to its own miracles. All Hume has done is extend the principle to cover all religions.

Hume says "Assume the lesser miracle in preference to a bigger one".  If a miracle is improbable then you have to decide if miracle is what it seems to be or something else.  For example, people may report angels at a tomb.  But is that the miracle?  Is the miracle not rather whatever happened to their brains to make them think there was angels there?  A mental miracle is explanation enough!

David Hume said we could believe in a miracle only if the people lying or being wrong would presuppose a bigger miracle than the one they say happened.

He is saying the smaller and the less miracles you need to account for a miracle occurrence the better.

People who don’t believe in miracles say that it has never been known for it to be more miraculous for people to be lying or mistaken than for them to have experienced what they said they experienced. That is undeniably true. Religion when it is told about a miracle say of healing, never asks, "Was the person really miraculously cured? Perhaps it was not the cure that was miraculous but the illness? Perhaps a miracle fooled the doctor that the person was ill?" Those who accuse Hume of bias are guilty of worse bias then he is - and he is not really biased at all.

Evidence and probability

Norman Geisler states that Hume makes the error of equating evidence and probability. Hume supposedly thinks that if something is very unlikely that evidence for it can be dismissed. In fact you can have solid evidence to justify believing in what is very unlikely or improbable.  That is true but it means you have to have very convincing evidence for a miracle.  No religion has that.  You would need more than the writings of dead men to show Jesus rose from the dead.  We don't even have a monument from his time.

The believers in religion say that sensible people do not base all their beliefs on odds but on facts. They point out that a very unlikely event can still happen and that we believe in many such events. The odds against the event can be high but we can still know or believe the event happened. They state that Hume's argument confuses quantity of evidence with quality of evidence. Evidence should be weighed, not added.   Hume is not confusing quantity with quality.  In some cases, a quantity of reasonable evidence can be enough to show that a weird seemingly impossible event happened.  In other cases, one or two excellent quality pieces of evidence can be enough.  Hume is confusing nothing but saying you must only accept a miracle as true as a last resort when the evidence says so.

The believers claim that Hume says: "We should only and always believe what is the most probable. So the less common an instance, the less rational it is to believe".  They are taking a pure straw man approach. The reality is that it depends.  And Hume did say it can be rational to believe in a miracle - the problem is that no miracle has made the standard.   In some cases good evidence is no good for it points to nonsense. And if miracles are not in that category nothing is.

What if somebody said, "Nature has changed temporarily because X is a reliable witness and has said it. The tree talked to him." That is not a logical statement. We can even feel it. Also, there are times when testimony no matter how honest and good and sincere the witness to a miracle or anything can still be dismissed as unconvincing.

A miracle should only be accepted as true as a last resort.  Even then strong belief in it would be a problem.  Why believe intensely when just light belief is enough?  Belief is about what is likely to be true.  The danger with belief is that it can blind if it gets too strong.