1. Concepts and Definitions
The philosophical discussion of miracles has focused principally on the credibility of certain claims in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. But inquiry into the credibility of specific miracle claims inevitably raises questions regarding the concept of a miracle, and arguments regarding particular claims cannot be evaluated until the nature of that concept has been at least reasonably clarified.
1.1 Miracles as events that exceed the productive power of nature
A common approach is to define a miracle as an interruption of the order or course of nature. (Sherlock 1843: 57) Some stable background is, in fact, presupposed by the use of the term, as William Adams (1767: 15) notes:
An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature, before there can be any thing extraordinary. A river must flow, before its stream can be interrupted.
As it stands, however, this definition leaves us wanting a more precise conception of what is meant by the order or course of nature. We might therefore try to tighten the definition by saying that a miracle is an event that exceeds the productive power of nature (St. Thomas Aquinas, SCG 3.103; ST 1.110, art. 4), where “nature” is construed broadly enough to include ourselves and any other creatures substantially like ourselves. Variations on this include the idea that a miracle is an event that would have happened only given the intervention of an agent not wholly bound by nature (Larmer 1988: 9) and that a miracle is an event that would have happened only if there were a violation of the causal closure of the physical world.
1.2 Miracles as violations of the laws of nature
David Hume (Hume 1748/2000; cf. Voltaire 1764/1901: 272) famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” and this definition has been the focus of lively discussion ever since. Hume evidently means to denote something beyond mere changes in the regular course of nature, raising the bar higher for something to qualify as a miracle but also raising the potential epistemic significance of such an event if it could be authenticated.
Bringing the concept of natural laws into the definition of “miracle” is, however, problematic, and for a variety of reasons many writers have found it untenable. (Brown 1822: 219–33; Beard 1845: 35; Lias 1890: 5–7; Huxley 1894:154–58; Joyce 1914: 17; Hesse 1965; Montgomery 1978; but see Wardlaw 1852: 27–41) First, the concept of a miracle predates any modern concept of a natural law by many centuries. While this does not necessarily preclude Hume's concept, it does raise the question of what concept or concepts earlier thinkers had in mind and of why the Humean concept should be thought preferable. (Tucker 2005) One benefit of defining miracles in terms of violations of natural law is that this definition entails that a miracle is beyond the productive power of nature. But if that is the key idea, then it is hard to see why we should not simply use that as the definition and leave out the problematic talk of laws.
Second, it becomes difficult to say in some cases just which natural laws are being violated by the event in question. (Earman 2000) That dead men stay dead is a widely observed fact, but it is not, in the ordinary scientific use of the term, a law of nature that dead men stay dead. The laws involved in the decomposition of a dead body are all at a much more fundamental level, at least at the level of biochemical and thermodynamic processes and perhaps at the level of interactions of fundamental particles.
Third, there are deep philosophical disagreements regarding the nature and even the existence of natural laws. On Hume's own “regularity” view of natural laws, it is difficult to see what it would mean for a natural law to be violated. If the natural laws are simply compendious statements of natural regularities, an apparent “violation” would most naturally be an indication, not that a supernatural intervention in the course of nature had occurred, but rather that what we had thought was a natural law was, in fact, not one. On metaphysically rich conceptions of natural laws, violations are problematic since the laws involve relations of necessity among universals. And on the view that there are no natural laws whatsoever, the set of events satisfying the Humean definition of a miracle is, trivially, empty.
Speaking of miracles as violations of the laws of nature also raises questions about the nature of violation. Richard Swinburne (1970) has suggested that a miracle might be defined as a non-repeatable counter-instance to a law of nature. If a putative law has broad scope, great explanatory power, and appealing simplicity, it may be more reasonable, Swinburne argues, to retain the law (defined as a regularity that virtually invariably holds) and to accept that the event in question is a non-repeatable counter-instance of that law than to throw out the law and create a vastly more complex law that accommodates the event.
One way to get around all of these problems and still retain the Humean formulation is simply to redefine the laws of nature. J. L. Mackie sums up this perspective neatly:
The laws of nature … describe the ways in which the world—including, of course, human beings—works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it. (Mackie 1982: 19–20)
With the notion of “natural law” thus redefined, the “violation” definition becomes virtually equivalent to the earlier definition of a miracle as an event that exceeds the productive power of nature. And in Mackie's formulation it has the desirable feature that it makes evident the connection between a miracle and supernatural agency.
1.3 The relevance of religious context
Beyond all of these considerations, one can make a case for the restriction of the term “miracle” to events that are supernaturally caused and have some palpable religious significance. An insignificant shift in a few grains of sand in the lonesome desert might, if it exceeded the productive powers of nature, qualify as a miracle in some thin sense, but it would manifestly lack religious significance and could not be used as the fulcrum for any interesting argument. Considerations such as this have led many authors to build both the type of agency and some intimation of the purpose into the definition of a miracle. Thus, Samuel Clarke (1719: 311–12) writes that
the true Definition of a Miracle, in the Theological Sense of the Word, is this; that it is a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superiour to Man, for the Proof or Evidence of some particular Doctrine, or in attestation to the Authority of some particular Person.
Hume also, in one of his definitions of “miracle,” speaks of an event brought about “by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” (Hume 1748/2000: 87) Since the paradigmatic cases under discussion are for the most part claims that, if true, would answer to the theological dimension of Clarke's description, we may take a supernatural cause to be a necessary condition for an event's being a religiously significant miracle and use the word “miracle” in this sense where there is no danger of confusion.
On the whole, then, the project of giving a definition for the term “miracle” appears to have reached a point where further refinements offer only diminshing returns. A miracle is an event that exceeds the productive power of nature, and a religiously significant miracle is a detectable miracle that has a supernatural cause. For practical purposes, we need nothing further. The paradigmatic claims under discussion—that a man who has died was raised to life again several days after his death, for example, or that water was changed instantaneously into wine—satisfy not only this definition but also most of the alternative proposals that have been seriously advanced.
2. Arguments for Miracle Claims
“Miracles, indeed, would prove something,” admits the eponymous skeptic in Berkeley's Alciphron. “But what proof have we of these miracles?” (Berkeley 1732/1898: 364) There is no lack of answers in the literature. But the variety of premises, the multiplicity of argumentative structures, and the diversity of aims employed to this end can be bewildering.
Many arguments for miracles adduce the testimony of sincere and able eyewitnesses as the key piece of evidence on which the force of the argument depends. But other factors are also cited in favor of miracle claims: the existence of commemorative ceremonies from earliest times, for example, or the transformation of the eyewitnesses from fearful cowards into defiant proclaimers of the resurrection, or the conversion of St. Paul, or the growth of the early church under extremely adverse conditions and without any of the normal conditions of success such as wealth, patronage, or the use of force. These considerations are often used jointly in a cumulative argument. It is therefore difficult to isolate a single canonical argument for most miracle claims. The various arguments must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
2.1 Categorical and confirmatory arguments
Two dimensions of classification help to bring into focus the nature of the various arguments that have been advanced on behalf of miracle claims, one having to do with the aims of the arguments and the other having to do with their structure.
We may first distinguish between arguments designed to show that their conclusions are true, reasonable, or justified, on the one hand, and arguments designed to show that their conclusions are more reasonable or more justified than they were apart from the considerations adduced. The former we may stipulatively call categorical arguments; the latter, confirmatory arguments. When the arguments are probabilistic in nature, this reduces to Richard Swinburne's terminology of P-inductive and C-inductive arguments, the former intending to show that the conclusion (in this case that the miracle in question has actually occurred) is probable to some specific degree, or at least more probable than not, and the latter intending to show that the conclusion is more probable given the evidence presented than it is considered independently of that evidence. (Swinburne, 2004) But the broader distinction between arguments that purport to command our rational assent and arguments that have the more modest goal of showing their conclusions to be to some (perhaps specified) extent confirmed is one that can be employed independently of the use of the language of probability.
2.2 Four types of arguments
In addition to this classification of the aims of an argument, there is a more common distinction among arguments in terms of their structure. Broadly speaking, most arguments for miracle claims fall into one of four structural categories: deductive, criteriological, explanatory, or probabilistic. A valid deductive argument is one in which, given the truth of the premises, the conclusion must also be true. A criteriological argument sets forth some criteria ostensibly met by the claim in question and concludes that the satisfaction of those criteria reflects well on the claim—that it is certain, or true, or likely to be true, or plausible, or more plausible than it would have been had it not met the criteria. An explanatory argument is typically contrastive: it aims to show, for example, that one hypothesis is a better explanation of a certain body of facts than any rival hypothesis or than the disjunction of all rival hypotheses. A probabilistic argument aims to show that the conclusion is more probable than not, or that it is more probable than some fixed standard (say, 0.99), or that it is far more probable given the evidence adduced than it is considered independent of that evidence.
The latter three categories are not mutually exclusive. An argument may be put forward as criteriological but be best analyzed, on reflection, as explanatory; an explanatory argument may be best analyzed in probabilistic terms. But the fourfold classification will do for a first rough sorting.
2.2.1 Deductive arguments
Deductive arguments for miracle claims are relatively rare in serious modern discussions, since they are subject to peculiar liabilities. Here, for example, is a deductive reconstruction of an argument given by William Paley (1859), broadly modeled on the version given by Richard Whately (1870: 254–258) and other Victorian logicians:
- All miracles attested by persons, claiming to have witnessed them, who pass their lives in labors, dangers, and sufferings in support of their statements, and who, in consequence of their belief, submit to new rules of conduct, are worthy of credit.
- The central Christian miracles are attested by such evidence.
- The central Christian miracles are worthy of credit.
There are several strategies available for pressing a critique of this argument. In ancient times, premise 2 was generally conceded, while premise 1 was contested; since the Enlightenment, it has become somewhat more common for critics to contest premise 2 as well. There are also indirect approaches that exploit the deductive structure of the argument to argue that something must be wrong with the argument without getting bogged down in the details of a specific critique. Adding further true premises does not reduce the support that a deductive argument gives to its conclusion; but the addition of such premises may bring to light some awkward consequences. One interpretation of one part of Hume's strategy in “Of Miracles,” part 2 is that he has in mind the addition of a further premise:
2*. Various non-Christian miracles are attested by such (or better) evidence,
the conclusion envisaged being, of course, that
3*. Various non-Christian miracles are worthy of credit.
The strategy is intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the first premise, since prima facie it is not the case that both the Christian miracles and the non-Christian miracles are worthy of credit. Paley does not cast his own argument into a deductive form, but he does attempt to forestall this sort of criticism by adding, in rounding out Part 1, an additional claim for which he offers several lines of argument:
[T]here is not satisfactory evidence, that persons professing to be original witnesses of other miracles, in their nature as certain as these are, have ever acted in the same manner, in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and properly in consequence of their belief of those accounts. (Paley 1859: 181)
2.2.2 Criteriological arguments
A classic formulation of a criteriological argument for miracles is employed by Charles Leslie (1697/1815: 13), who argues that we may safely believe an historical claim that meets four criteria:
- That the matters of fact be such, as that men's outward senses, their eyes and ears, may be judges of it.
- That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
- That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions to be performed.
- That such monuments, and such actions or observances, be instituted, and do commence from the time that the matter of fact was done.
The first two criteria, Leslie explains, “make it impossible for any such matter of fact to be imposed upon men, at the time when such fact was said to be done, because every man's eyes and senses would contradict it.” The latter two criteria assure those who come afterwards that the account of the event was not invented subsequent to the time of the purported event. Leslie points out that these criteria are not necessary conditions of factual truth, but he insists that they are—taken jointly—sufficient. Hence we may speak of Leslie's principle: If any reported event meets all four of these criteria, then its historicity is certain.
In assessing a criteriological argument, we need to ask not only whether the event in question meets the criteria but also whether the criteria themselves are good indicators of truth. An argument for the criteria that Leslie gives cannot proceed wholly a priori, since there is not a necessary connection between an event's satisfying the criteria and its being true. In this case, perhaps the most promising approach would be to argue that the criteria effectively rule out explanations other than the truth of the claim. Leslie's remarks suggest that this is the direction he would go if challenged, but he does not offer a fully developed defense of his criteria.
Leslie's argument is, in the sense outlined above, categorical—he holds that, as the claim of the resurrection meets all four criteria (the memorials being supplied by the Christian commemoration of the last supper and the transfer of the day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday)), the certainty of the matter of fact in question is “demonstrated.” This rather bold claim opens the possibility of refutation of Leslie's principle by counterexample, though reportedly Conyers Middleton, a contemporary of Hume whose critique of the ecclesiastical miracles was notable for its thoroughness, searched vainly for years for a counterexample to Leslie's principle. Be that as it may, a criteriological argument may also be constructed on the basis of a more modest principle, such as that if any reported event meets all four of these criteria, then it is reasonable to accept its historicity.
The chief difficulty with criteriological arguments, whether bold or modest, is that they provide no means for taking into account any other considerations that might weigh against the historical claim in question. Intuitively, extreme antecedent improbability ought to carry some weight in our evaluation of the credibility of a factual claim. A defender of a criteriological argument might respond that so long as the bar is set high enough, antecedent improbability will be overwhelmed by the fact that the event does indeed meet the stipulated criteria. But this is a claim that requires argument; and the bolder the conclusion, the more argument it requires.
2.2.3 Explanatory arguments
A third approach to arguing for a miracle claim is to argue that it is the best explanation for a small set of widely conceded facts. A typical “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection of Jesus starts with a list of facts such as these (Habermas 1996: 162):
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- His disciples subsequently had experiences which they believed were literal physical appearances of the risen Jesus.
- The disciples were transformed from fearful cowards into bold proclaimers who were willing to face persecution and death for their message.
- Paul, who had previously been a persecutor of the Christians, had an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
None of these four facts is, in itself, a supernatural claim, and virtually all critical scholars with relevant expertise concur in these facts on ordinary historical grounds. The explanatory argument starts with this scholarly consensus and contends that all alternative explanations for these facts are inferior to the explanation that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. The conclusion is therefore typically categorical.
One advantage of this approach over the criteriological approach is that the inference is explicitly contrastive: the argument engages directly with alternative explanations of the data. Such engagement brings with it the burden of examining a variety of alternative explanations, a burden that is sometimes discharged by reference to established criteria of historical explanation. (Craig 2008: 233)
This sort of explanatory argument may be contested in at least five ways, a number of which have been explored. First, one might try, the scholarly consensus notwithstanding, to dispute the facts asserted. (Crossan, in Copan 1998) If successful, this strategy would undermine the positive argument. Second, one might grant, if only for the sake of the argument, the prima facie force of the positive argument but attempt to neutralize it by widening the factual basis to include a matching set of facts, equally well attested, for which the falsehood of the resurrection account is the best explanation. Third, one might argue that the relative merits of the miraculous and non-miraculous explanations have been improperly assessed and that, rightly considered, one or more of the non-miraculous explanations is actually preferable as an explanation of the facts in question. (Lüdemann, in Copan and Tacelli 2000) Fourth, one might produce a non-miraculous explanation not addressed in the explanatory argument and argue that it is superior to the miraculous explanation. (Venturini 1800; cf. O'Collins and Kendall 1996) Fifth, one might contest the implication that an explanation that is superior to its rivals in pairwise comparisons is actually more reasonable to believe than not. It is not difficult to imagine (or even to find) cases where one explanation is marginally better than any given rival but where the disjunction of the rival explanations is more believable. This final criticism applies only when the explanatory argument is categorical; but in that case, a further argument would be necessary to close off this line of criticism.
2.2.4 Probabilistic arguments
A fourth method of arguing for a miracle claim is to employ the machinery of Bayesian probability and argue that some fact or set of facts renders the conclusion probable (for a categorical argument) or significantly more probable than it was taken apart from those facts (for a confirmatory one). The argument could be cast in categorical form using the odds form of Bayes's Theorem. It is a simple consequence of Bayes's Theorem that, where ‘M’ is the claim that a miracle has taken place and ‘E’ is some evidence bearing on that claim, and where all of the relevant terms are defined,
P(M|E)/P(~M|E) = P(M)/P(~M) × P(E|M)/P(E|~M)
Verbally, this says that the posterior odds on M (that is, the ratio of the posterior probability of M to the posterior probability of its negation) equal the product of the prior odds and the Bayes factor. More colloquially, M becomes more plausible when we take into account evidence E that is more to be expected if M is true than if M is false. A categorical argument of this sort would involve plugging in values (either point-valued or interval-valued) for each term in this equation and concluding that P(M|E) > k, where k is some constant with a value greater than or equal to 0.5. The evaluation of such an argument is likely to turn principally on the relative magnitudes of P(M) and P(E|~M), since in many contexts the disputants will grant that the other two probabilities that appear on the right side of the equation—P(~M) and P(E|M)—are very close to 1. A confirmatory probabilistic argument might proceed from the same premises but dispense with the ratio of the priors, focusing on the fact that the ratio P(E|M)/P(E|~M) is top heavy.
The equation may give the impression that what is going on is rather arcane. In fact, the mathematics is simply a means of making explicit a common process of reasoning described well by Joseph Butler (1736/1819: 194):
[T]he truth of our religion, like the truth of common matters, is to be judged of by all the evidence taken together. And unless the whole series of things which may be alleged in this argument, and every particular thing in it, can reasonably be supposed to have been by accident (for here the stress of the argument for Christianity lies); then is the truth of it proved: in like manner, as if in any common case, numerous events acknowledged, were to be alleged in proof of any other event disputed; the truth of the disputed event would be proved, not only if any one of the acknowledged ones did of itself clearly imply it but, though no one of them singly did so, if the whole of the acknowledged events taken together could not in reason be supposed to have happened, unless the disputed one were true.
Allowing for the change in terminology over the centuries, Butler's description can be read as a verbal explication of the categorical form of the Bayesian argument. If the facts can be accounted for without difficulty on the supposition of M but not, without great implausibility, on the assumption of ~M, then they provide significant evidence in favor of M. On this reading, Butler is tacitly assuming that the prior probability of M is not so low as to overcome the cumulative force of the evidence in its favor.
Historically, probabilistic arguments for miracles have centered on the credibility of eyewitness testimony to the miraculous. Where Ti(M) stands for “Witness i testifies that M,” we may write the relevant form of Bayes's Theorem as
P(M|T1(M) & … & Tn(M)) / P(~M|T1(M) & … & Tn(M)) =
P(T1(M) & … & Tn(M)|M) / P(T1(M) & … & Tn(M)|~M)
If we assume that these testimonies are independent of each other relative both to M and to ~M—an assumption that should not be made casually (Kruskal 1988)—we can replace the final term on the right with the product
P(T1(M)|M)/P(T1(M)|~M) × … × P(Tn(M)|M)/P(Tn(M)|~M)
On the further simplifying assumption that all of the testimonies are of equal weight, this product reduces to
If P(T1(M)|M)/P(T1(M)|~M) > 1, it follows at once that the claim, arguably attributable to Hume, that the evidence of testimony can never overcome the antecedent presumption against a miracle, is false. As Charles Babbage puts it:
[I]f independent witnesses can be found, who speak truth more frequently than falsehood, it is ALWAYS possible to assign a number of independent witnesses, the improbability of the falsehood of whose concurring testimony shall be greater than the improbability of the alleged miracle. (Babbage 1837: 202, emphasis original; cf. Holder 1998 and Earman 2000)
The evaluation of such an argument requires the consideration of historical details that go beyond the bounds of philosophy as a discipline. (McGrew and McGrew 2009) But some general points regarding its structure are of philosophical interest. If the argument is categorical, then its conclusion is (at least) that, where “E” stands for the sum of the relevant evidence, P(M|E) > 0.5. But where “G” stands for “God exists” (where “God” is conceived classically, as an eternal, personal being of maximal power, knowledge, and goodness who created the universe), it is generally acknowledged that P(M|G) >> P(M|~G) and that either P(M|~G) = 0 (if miracles are strictly the prerogative of God) or at least P(M|~G) ≈ 0. The evaluation of the claim that a miracle has occurred will therefore be sensitive to the probability of the claim that God exists, and the evaluation of the categorical form of the argument will therefore depend on the overall evaluation of the evidence of natural theology and of atheological arguments such as the problem of evil. By far the most sophisticated and elaborate development of such an argument is to be found in the work of Richard Swinburne (1970, 1977, 1979, 1992, 2003), who has pioneered the application of Bayesian probability to questions in the philosophy of religion and whose work spans the full range of natural theology.
The confirmatory form of the probabilistic argument is more modest; it aims to show that there is a considerable contribution to the argument for M arising from the facts indicated. (McGrew and McGrew 2009) It has been objected (Oppy 2006: 5–6) that probabilistic arguments of this sort are of no interest unless they are founded on all of the relevant available evidence. But this objection would, if legitimate, count equally against the use of arguments from comparison of likelihoods in scientific reasoning, where they are ubiquitous. More cautiously, one might ask why an argument that places no definite restrictions on the probability of M should be of any interest. One answer would be that a successful confirmatory argument may shift the burden of proof. If there is a substantial body of evidence in favor of M, it is incumbent on those who deny M to explain in some detail either (1) why the antecedent presumption against M should override this evidence or (2) what the other evidential considerations are that mitigate against M.
3. Arguments against Miracle Claims
Arguments against miracle claims, like arguments in their favor, come in a variety of forms, invoke diverse premises, and have distinct aims. We may distinguish general arguments, designed to show that all miracle claims are subject in principle to certain failings, from particular arguments, designed to show that, whatever may be the case in principle, such miracle claims as have historically been offered are inadequately supported.
3.1 General arguments
General arguments against miracle claims fall into two broad classes: those designed to show that miracles are impossible, and those designed to show that miracle claims could never be believable.
3.1.1 Arguments that miracles are impossible
The boldest claim that could be made against reported miracles is that such events are impossible. Insofar as the definition of “miracle” in question is one that involves divine agency, any argument that demonstrated the non-existence of God would be eo ipso a demonstration that miracles do not take place; and an argument that demonstrated that the existence of God is impossible would demonstrate that miracles are likewise impossible. But the more common arguments for this conclusion are more modest; rather than setting out to show the existence of God to be impossible, they typically invoke theological premises to show that if there were a God, then miracles would not occur.
In chapter 6 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza sets out to argue for the claim that nature cannot be contravened, but that she “preserves a fixed and immutable course,” in consequence of which a miracle is “a sheer absurdity.” (Spinoza 1670/1862: 123, 128) His argument for this claim is somewhat difficult to follow, but it appears to run approximately like this:
- The will of God is identical with the laws of nature.
- A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
- Necessarily, God's will is inviolable.
- Miracles cannot happen.
Spinoza's argument is unlikely to persuade anyone who does not start out with his identification of the laws of nature with the will of God. From a more traditional theistic standpoint, the argument is simply an elaborate exercise in begging the question.
A non-theological version of this argument, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Hume, is actually due to Voltaire (1764/1901: 272):
A miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws. By the very exposition itself, a miracle is a contradiction in terms: a law cannot at the same time be immutable and violated.
The trouble with this crude argument is once again in the definition of “miracle,” which here goes beyond a mere violation concept in adding immutability, which generates the contradiction. One retort that historically proved attractive is to accept the violation concept but deny that the laws of nature are immutable; instead the truly immutable laws are higher laws—laws that govern not only the behavior of physical entities but the interactions of physical and non-physical entities—and what appear to us to be violations of the laws of nature are really nothing less than instances of a higher law. (Trench 1847:14–17; cf. Venn 1888: 433 ff)
A more subtle version of a theological objection can also be found in the entry “Miracles” in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764/1901: 273):
[I]t is impossible a being infinitely wise can have made laws to violate them. He could not … derange the machine but with a view of making it work better; but it is evident that God, all-wise and omnipotent, originally made this immense machine, the universe, as good and perfect as He was able; if He saw that some imperfections would arise from the nature of matter, He provided for that in the beginning; and, accordingly, He will never change anything in it.
It is therefore impious to ascribe miracles to God; they would indicate a lack of forethought, or of power, or both.
This argument was popular during the deist controversy of the early and mid 18th century, and the orthodox response is summed up well by Paley (1859: 12): “[I]n what way can a revelation be made but by miracles? In none which we are able to conceive.” Paley's point is not merely negative; rather, it is that only by setting up a universe with regularities that no mere human can abrogate and then suspending them could God, if there were a God, authenticate a revelation, stamping it with divine approval by an act of sovereignty. If there is a God who wishes to authenticate a communication to man in an unmistakable fashion, then, in Paley's view, an authenticating miracle is inevitable. It is therefore not at all impious to ascribe miracles to God, and they imply no limit either on His knowledge or on His power; they are both a sign of His approval and evidence of His benevolent foresight.
3.1.2 Arguments that miracle claims could never be rationally believed
The principal argument against the rational credibility of miracle claims derives from Hume. “A miracle,” he writes,
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. (Hume 1748/2000: 86–87)
He ends the first Part of his essay “Of Miracles” with a general maxim:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That 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 endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
The maxim itself is open to interpretive disputes. George Campbell (1762/1839) considers it to be trivial, a judgment with which Earman (2000) concurs. One simple way to arrive at it from a Bayesian point of view is to take the initial equation
P(M|E)/P(~M|E) = P(M)/P(~M) × P(E|M)/P(E|~M),
where E is the proposed evidence for a miracle, and make the simplifying approximation that P(E|M) ≈ P(~M), since both terms are close to 1. Then the right side reduces to the ratio of the two remaining “small” terms, P(M)/P(E|~M), which will be a fair approximation of the posterior odds. Then the posterior probability of M will exceed 0.5 just in case P(M) > P(E|~M). This interpretation is endorsed by Holder (1998) but challenged by Millican (2002), who also surveys various other probabilistic interpretations of Hume's maxim.
Hume immediately illustrates this maxim by applying it to the case of testimony to a resurrection:
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. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. 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. (Hume 1748/2000: 87–88)
Is this an argument, or even an elliptical statement of one premise in an argument? And if so, what is its structure? The traditional interpretation has been that it is an argument from the nature of the case, the conclusion being that a miracle story could not be believed on testimony even under the most favorable circumstances. As far as we can tell, all of Hume's contemporaries, including John Leland (1755), William Adams (1767), Richard Price (1777), and George Campbell (1762/1839), read him this way. There is, however, considerable recent disagreement as to whether Hume intended Part 1 of his essay as an argument, disagreement that arises in part from the apprehension on the part of some of Hume's defenders that if it is an argument, it is not very good. The interpretive issues are too extensive to summarize; see Flew (1961), Levine (1989: 152), Johnson (1999), Earman (2000), Fogelin (2003), McGrew (2005), and Hájek (2008). But it is beyond contesting that some such argument, widely attributed to Hume, has been tremendously influential.
A very simple version of the argument, leaving out the comparison to the laws of nature and focusing on the alleged infirmities of testimony, can be laid out deductively (following Whately, in Paley 1859: 33):
- Testimony is a kind of evidence very likely to be false.
- The evidence for the Christian miracles is testimony.
- The evidence for the Christian miracles is likely to be false.
This is, however, much too crude an argument to carry any weight, since it turns on a simple ambiguity between all testimony and some testimony. Whately offers an amusing parody that makes the fallacy obvious: Some books are mere trash; Hume's Works are [some] books; therefore, etc.
Another crude argument that focuses solely on the improbability of miracle claims (Ehrman 2003: 228–229) may be laid out thus:
- A miracle is by definition the most improbable of events; the probability of a miracle is infinitesimally remote.
- An historian can establish only what probably happened in the past.
- An historian can never establish that a miracle happened.
Waiving the tendentious definition in premise 1, the supposed contradiction involved in denying the conclusion—“that the most improbable event is the most probable” (Ehrman 2003: 229)—is merely verbal, arising from a failure to distinguish between the probability of a miracle claim considered apart from the evidence and the probability of the claim given that evidence.
Flew (1966: 146; cf. Bradley 1874/1935) offers a more sophisticated criticism, arguing from the nature of historical inquiry that rational belief in miracles is precluded:
The basic propositions are: first, that the present relics of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same fundamental regularities obtained then as still obtain today; second, that in trying as best he may to determine what actually happened the historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible; and, third, that, since miracle has to be defined in terms of practical impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably precludes proof of a miracle.
The most obvious rejoinder here is that the believer in miracles does not generally believe that there are no dependable regularities in the physical world; it is in the nature of a miracle to be an exception to the ordinary course of nature. The feared undermining of the principles of historical inquiry is therefore an illusion generated by exaggerating the scale on which the order of nature would be disrupted were a miracle actually to occur.
An alternative reading of Hume, proposed by Dorothy Coleman (1988: 338–339), is that
an event that has no ready natural explanation is not necessarily an event that has no natural cause. To be a miracle, an event must be inexplicable not in terms of what appears to us to be the laws of nature but in terms of what laws of nature actually are…. [O]ne must ask if it is always more likely, i.e., conformable to experience, that those claiming the event to be a miracle are mistaken rather than that the event is a genuine violation of a law of nature. Counterinstances of what are taken to be natural laws are not by themselves evidence establishing that no natural law could possibly explain them: at most they provide grounds for revising our formulations of natural laws or seeking an improved understanding of the nature of the phenomena in question. At the very least they provide grounds for suspending judgments about the nature of their cause until more evidence is available. On the other hand, past experience shows that what are at one time considered violations of natural laws are frequently found at some later time not to be so. Proportioning belief to evidence, therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that the claim that an event is a miracle is mistaken than it is that the event is a violation of natural law.
There is not much to commend this line of argument as a reading of Hume; both the casual attitude toward our identification of the laws of nature and the willingness to grant the occurrence of the event jar with Hume's own presentation of his view. As Hajek (2008: 86–87) stresses, Hume is unambiguously arguing that we should disbelieve testimony to an event's occurrence, when that event really would be miraculous.
As an independent objection to belief in reported miracles, Coleman's argument has limited force. On a ceteris paribus conception of natural laws, apparent counterevidence to a putative law may, depending on circumstances, reduce the probability of the law only slightly, the majority of the impact of the evidence going to raise the probability that all else is not, in the present case, equal. There is no general principle that would license the conclusion that it is more reasonable to accept the falsehood of the putative law than to suppose the causal closure of nature to be violated. Everything depends on the details of specific cases.
A more faithful representation of Hume's reasoning brings back in the comparison between “two opposite experiences,” reconstructing his argument along these lines:
- The argument against a miracle, from the nature of the case, is as strong as any argument from experience could possibly be.
- The argument for a miracle, from testimony, is at best a strong but somewhat weaker argument from experience.
- In any case where two arguments from experience point to contradictory conclusions, the stronger argument must prevail.
- A conclusion is credible only if the argument supporting it is not overcome by a stronger argument for a contradictory conclusion.
- The argument for a miracle, from testimony, cannot even under the most favorable circumstances render belief in a miracle credible.
Hume's early critics objected vigorously to the claims embodied in the first two premises. Price (1777: 402; cf. Adams 1767: 10–11 and Paley 1859: 13–14) retorts against the claim in premise 1 that “a miracle is more properly an event different from experience than contrary to it.” The presumptive case against the resurrection from universal testimony would be as strong as Hume supposes only if, per impossible, all mankind throughout all ages had been watching the tomb of Jesus on the morning of the third day and testified that nothing occurred. Even aside from the problems of time travel, there is not a single piece of direct testimonial evidence to Jesus' non-resurrection. Premise 1 is therefore a wild overstatement.
Adams (1767: 37) mounts an attack on premise 2 by drawing attention to the manner in which the lives of the apostles corroborate their testimony:
That men should love falshood rather than truth—that they should chuse labour and travail, shame and misery, before pleasure, ease, and esteem—is as much a violation of the laws of nature, as it is for lead or iron to hang unsupported in the air, or for the voice of a man to raise the dead to life: but this, I have granted to the author, is, not miraculous, but impossible, and shall therefore have his leave, I hope, to assert, that falshood, thus attested, is impossible—in other words, that testimony, thus tried and proved, is infallible and certain.
And he drives home the point by a quotation from Hume himself:
We cannot make use of a more convincing argument, than to prove that the actions ascribed to any person are directly contrary to the course of nature, and that no human motives, in such circumstances, could ever induce him to such a conduct. (Adams 1767: 48, quoting Hume 1748/2000: 65)
This argument, of course, proves at best only the sincerity of the witnesses. But in the present case, he goes on to argue, the nature of the facts attested precludes the possibility that the witnesses are themselves deceived (Adams 1767:37–38; cf. Jenkin 1708: 488–93).
Alan Hájek (2008: 88) offers a more detailed reconstruction of this argument. The first stage corresponds to the argument in “Of Miracles,” Part I:
- A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
- A law of nature is, inter alia, a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced.
- There is as compelling a ‘proof’ from experience as can possibly be imagined against a miracle.
- In particular, the proof from experience in favour of testimony of any kind cannot be more compelling.
- There is no other form of proof in favour of testimony.
- The falsehood of the testimony to a miraculous event is always at least as probable as the event attested to (however good the testimony seems to be).
- Hume's balancing principle. The testimony should be believed if, and only if, the falsehood of the testimony is less probable than the event attested to.
Therefore, (by 7 and 8):
- Conclusion 1. Testimony to a miraculous event should never be believed—belief in a miracle report could never be justified.
Hájek makes a strong case that this is a faithful reconstruction of Hume's reasoning. But as he goes on to point out, this argument is problematic at multiple points. The definition in 1 is at the least not forced upon us; and the inference from 1 and 2 to 3 overlooks the possibility that a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced is also a regularity of which no instance has previously been experienced—a possibility that is countenanced on some major conceptions of laws—or that the law in question has not been instanced very often. (Hájek 2008: 91) Hume might reply that, while this is theoretically possible, it does not hold in the cases of interest. But even granting that reply, Hájek points out that 5 may be questioned; and 6 is deeply problematic, since lack of analogy is at best an obscure reason for concluding that an event is maximally improbable. For if strength of analogy is a critical determinant in a rational agent's probability function, then he should be comparably skeptical regarding all spectacular scientific discoveries—“And that is absurd.” (Hájek 2008: 103)
3.2 Particular arguments
Because the field of arguments for miracles is so wide, a consideration of all of the criticisms that have been leveled against particular arguments for miracles would fill many volumes. But four particular arguments raised by Hume are sufficiently well known to be of interest to philosophers.
In Part 2 of his essay “Of Miracles,” Hume argues that there never was a miraculous event established on evidence so full as to amount to an “entire proof.” The considerations Hume marshals in this section had, for the most part, been canvassed thoroughly during the deist controversy in the preceeding half century; Hume's credit in this Part is not that of originating the arguments but rather that of stating them clearly and forcefully.
3.2.1 The argument from inauspicious conditions
First, Hume lists a set of conditions that would, in his view, be necessary in order for an argument from testimony to have its full force, and he argues that no miracle report has ever met these conditions:
[T]here is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts, performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men. (Hume 1748/2000: 88)
Hume does not elaborate on these conditions, and it is difficult to say how he might have responded to Leland's charge that they are not necessary and would in some cases cut the other direction. For example, Leland argues that meeting the condition of “credit and reputation” would actually have weakened the evidence for the Christian miracles:
It might have been said with some shew of plausibility, that such persons by their knowledge and abilities, their reputation and interest, might have it in their power to countenance and propagate an imposture among the people, and give it some credit in the world. (Leland 1755: 90–91; cf. Beckett 1883: 29–37)
3.2.2 The argument from the passions of surprise and wonder
Thomas Morgan (1739: 31) raises a second charge in these words:
Men are the more easily imposed on in such Matters, as they love to gratify the Passion of Admiration, and take a great deal of Pleasure in hearing or telling of Wonders.
The implication is twofold: miracle stories are more likely than other falsehoods to be told, since they cater to a natural human desire to be amazed; and they are more likely than other falsehoods to be believed, since the same passions conduce to their uncritical reception. Hume, perhaps following Morgan, makes much the same point in nearly the same words. But he goes beyond Morgan in specifying a further exacerbating factor: the religious context of a miracle claim, he urges, makes the telling of a miracle story even more likely.
[I]f 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. (Hume 1748/2000: 89)
But as George Campbell points out (1762/1839: 48–49), this consideration cuts both ways; the religious nature of the claim may also operate to make it less readily received:
[T]he prejudice resulting from the religious affection, may just as readily obstruct as promote our faith in a religious miracle. What things in nature are more contrary, than one religion is to another religion? They are just as contrary as light and darkness, truth and error. The affections with which they are contemplated by the same person, are just as opposite as desire and aversion, love and hatred. The same religious zeal which gives the mind of a Christian a propensity to the belief of a miracle in support of Christianity, will inspire him with an aversion from the belief of a miracle in support of Mahometanism. The same principle which will make him acquiesce in evidence less than sufficient in one case, will make him require evidence more than sufficient in the other….
… [T]hat the evidence arising from miracles performed in proof of a doctrine disbelieved, and consequently hated before, did in fact surmount that obstacle, and conquer all the opposition arising thence, is a very strong presumption in favour of that evidence; just as strong a presumption in its favour, as it would have been against it, had all their former zeal, and principles, and prejudices, co-operated with the evidence, whatever it was, in gaining an entire assent.
Moreover, as Campbell (1762/1839: 49) immediately points out,
there is the greatest disparity in this respect, a disparity which deserves to be particularly attended to, betwixt the evidence of miracles performed in proof of a religion to be established, and in contradiction to opinions generally received; and the evidence of miracles performed in support of a religion already established, and in confirmation of opinions generally received.
It is, therefore, a debatable question whether the consideration of the passions evoked by tales of the miraculous works for or against the miracle claim in any given instance. This is not an issue that can be settled in advance of a detailed consideration of the facts.
3.2.3 The argument from ignorance and barbarism
A third general argument is that miracle stories are most popular in backward cultures. As John Toland (1702: 148) puts it,
it is very observable, that the more ignorant and barbarous any People remain, you shall find 'em most abound with Tales of this nature …
The unstated moral to be drawn is that both the production and the reception of miracle stories are due to a failure to understand the secondary causes lying behind phenomena, while increasing knowledge and culture leaves no room for such stories. Hume (2000: 90–91) also borrowed this line of reasoning.
But the supposed trajectory of societies from ignorant superstition to enlightened rationalism owes a good deal more to selective illustration than one would suspect from reading Toland and Hume. Campbell (1762/1839: 70) points out that in the Qur'an Mohammed made no claim to work public miracles, though by Toland's (and Hume's) reasoning the circumstances would have been most propitious for such tales. Coming forward in time, miracle stories abounded in the 18th century, as Hume well knew. And renowned scientists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were well known defenders of the Christian miracle claims. Other forces are at work in the creation and acceptance of miracle stories besides the relative level of civilization and education.
3.2.4 The argument from parity
As a fourth and final argument, Hume sketches some accounts of purported miracles outside of the canonical Christian scriptures—two cures ascribed to Vespasian, one Catholic miracle reported to have been worked at Saragossa, and some cures ascribed to the influence of the tomb of the Jansenist Abbe Paris in the early 1700s—and suggests that their affidavits are in various respects as good as one could wish for. Hume clearly expects his Protestant readers to reject these stories with disdain. He leaves unstated the obvious conclusion: by parity, his readers should also reject the miracles of the New Testament.
Setting Protestants and Catholics by the ears over the miracles of later ecclesiastical history was an old game by Hume's time, and a small industry had grown up on the Protestant side providing criteria for sifting the genuine apostolic miracles from their Catholic counterfeits (Leslie 1697/1815, Douglas 1757, Warfield 1918). Hume's contemporary critics rose to the challenge and argued vigorously that his descriptions of the alleged “miracles,” Pagan, Catholic, and Jansenist, distorted the historical sources and were hopelessly one sided (Leland 1755: 102 ff, Adams 1767: 74 ff, Campbell 1762/1839: 96 ff, Douglas 1757: 96 ff).
Aside from these specific criticisms, one important general line of argument emerges in the criticisms, articulated well by Adams (1767: 73):
There is a wide difference betwixt establishing false miracles, by the help of a false religion, and establishing a false religion by the help of false miracles. Nothing is more easy than the former of these, or more difficult than the latter.
All attempts to draw an evidential parallel between the miracles of the New Testament and the miracle stories of later ecclesiastical history are therefore dubious. There are simply more resources for explaining how the ecclesiastical stories, which were promoted to an established and favorably disposed audience, could have arisen and been believed without there being any truth to the reports.
3.3 The impact of Hume's “Of Miracles”
Hume's critique of the credibility of reported miracles provoked a tidal wave of responses, of which the most important are Adams (1767), Leland (1755), Douglas (1757), Price (1777), and Campbell (1762/1839). There is not yet anything approaching a comprehensive survey of these responses. For limited but still useful historical discussions of Hume and his influence, see Leland (1755: 47–135), Lechler (1841: 425 ff), Farrar (1862: 148 ff), Stephen (1876: 309 ff), Burns (1981: 131 ff), Craig (1985), Houston (1994: 49–82), Tweyman (1996), Earman (2000), and Beauchamp's introduction to the critical edition of Hume's Enquiry (Hume 1748/2000).
As Charles Sanders Peirce notes (Peirce 1958: 293), the Humean in-principle argument has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship. Humean considerations are expressly invoked in the work of the great German critic David Friedrich Strauss (1879: 199–200), transformed into one of the “presuppositions of critical history” in the work of the philosopher F. H. Bradley (1874/1935), rechristened as the “principle of analogy” in the writings of the theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1913), and endorsed, explicitly or implicitly, in many contemporary studies of the historical Jesus (Dawes 2001: 97–106) and the New Testament (Ehrman 2003: 228–30). Commitment to something like Hume's position lies on one side of a deep conceptual fault line that runs through the discipline of biblical studies.
The Humean objection has also been vigorously contested as destructive not only of miracle stories but of common sense as well. The 19th century saw a proliferation of satires in which Humean scruples about accepting testimony for extraordinary tales were applied to the events of secular history, with consequences that are equally disastrous and humorous. (Whately 1819/1874, Hudson 1857, Buel 1894) Whately's satire, which is the most famous, “establishes” on the basis of many historical improbabilities that Napoleon never existed but was a mythic figure invented by the British government to enhance national unity. Each of these satires makes the same point. One may legitimately require more evidence for a miracle story than for a mundane story (Sherlock 1729/1843: 55); but in exaggerating this sensible requirement into an insuperable epistemic barrier, Hume and his followers are applying a standard that cannot be applied without absurdity in any other field of historical investigation.
A curious feature of recent discussions is that Hume's critique has itself come under heavy fire and is now viewed in some quarters as requiring defense. For a range of views on the matter, see Levine (1989: 152 ff), who maintains that Part 1 contains an argument but that the argument is a failure, Johnson (1999), who argues that Part 1 is confused and unclear and that various attempts to clarify it have failed to elicit a compelling line of argument, Earman (2000), who argues that Part 1 is an “abject failure,” and Fogelin (2003), who aims to rehabilitate Hume against the critiques of Johnson and Earman in particular.
4. Arguments from Miracles
Granting for the sake of argument that a reported miracle, in the sense of an event beyond the productive capacity of nature, has been established, what follows? Historically, many participants in the discussion have been ready to grant that, at least when the religious significance of the event is obvious and the doctrine or claim it ostensibly attests is not otherwise objectionable, the miracle must have been worked by God and that it provides significant confirmation for the doctrine or claim. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the argument from miracles underscores the truth of Butler's observation that miracles are one of the “direct and fundamental proofs” of Christianity. (Butler 1736/1819: 173)
4.1 Would miracles be evidence for the existence of God?
There are two exceptions to this general acquiescence in the evidential value of miracles. First, there is a question regarding the identity of the cause. If God alone can work miracles, this is easily settled; but this claim has been a point of contention in the theological literature, with some writers (Clarke 1719: 305 ff; Trench 1847) maintaining that lesser, created spirits may work miracles, while others (e.g. Farmer 1771, Wardlaw 1852, Cooper 1876) vigorously deny this. The point is of some interest to the evaluation of arguments for miracles, since as Baden Powell points out, there is a distinction
between an extraordinary fact,—which is a proper matter for human testimony—and the belief in its being caused by Divine interposition, which is a matter of opinion, and consequently not susceptible of support by testimony, but dependent on quite other considerations. (Powell 1859: 287–88, following up on a distinction made in Less 1773: 260–62)
Powell is quite right to say that testimony is not the proper source for evidence of the supernatural nature of the event. But it does not follow that all opinions on the point are equally reasonable. The very description of the event—and even more, of the context in which it occurs—might render any naturalistic alternatives non-starters. Whether this is the case will depend, not on general considerations, but on the details of the case in question.
Second, it is occasionally argued that, contrary to what most philosophers and theologians have assumed, actual confirmed cases of miracles could not count in favor of the existence of God. George Chryssides (1975) argues that a miracle, conceived as a violation of a scientific law, could never be attributed to any agent, divine or otherwise, since the assignment of agency implies predictability. This bold contention has not attracted many defenders. Gregory Dawes (2009) pursues a related but more moderate line of argument, urging that it is difficult to meet the standard necessary to attribute particular events to the personal agency of God. But Dawes does not present this as an absolute barrier to theistic explanations.
Overall (1985) argues for the more radical contention that a miracle would count as evidence against the existence of God, on three grounds: (1) if order and harmony are evidence for the existence of God, then a miracle, which entails a breach in the order and harmony of the universe, must count against the existence of God; (2) the inevitable controversies over the identification and authentication of a miracle are an impediment to the growth of scientific knowledge and philosophical comprehension; and (3) an omnipotent God who does intervene in His creation would be obliged, on pain of moral defect, to intervene more often and more evenhandedly than He is supposed to have done in the Christian tradition.
These considerations have not, however, moved many philosophers to endorse Overall's position. Argument (1), besides giving a tendentious characterization of a miracle, exemplifies a fallacy in probabilistic reasoning, assuming that if F entails ~E and E is evidence for H, then F is evidence against H, which is not in general true. Claim (2) is arguably simply false, as such controversies do not appear noticeably to have impeded the progress of science or philosophy. Argument (3) will be effective against a certain sort of theological position, but it is not one that many believers in miracles actually hold. For further discussion of this issue, see the exchanges between Larmer and Overall. (Larmer 1988: 75–82, Overall 1997, Overall 2003, and Larmer 2004)
4.2 How much would credible miracle reports establish?
In the final analysis, the relevance of background beliefs looms large. To say this is not to endorse a lazy and unprincipled relativism; rather, the point is that one's considered rational judgment regarding the existence and nature of God must take into account far more than the evidence for miracle claims. That is not to say that they could not be an important or even, under certain circumstances, a decisive piece of evidence; it is simply that neither a positive nor a negative claim regarding the existence of God can be established on the basis of evidence for a miracle claim alone, without any consideration of other aspects of the question.
For the evidence for a miracle claim, being public and empirical, is never strictly demonstrative, either as to the fact of the event or as to the supernatural cause of the event. It remains possible, though the facts in the case may in principle render it wildly improbable, that the testifier is either a deceiver or himself deceived; and so long as those possibilities exist, there will be logical space for other forms of evidence to bear on the conclusion. Arguments about miracles therefore take their place as one piece—a fascinating piece—in a larger and more important puzzle.
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Other Internet Resources
- Levine, Michael, “Miracles,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/miracles/>. [This was the previous entry on miracles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — see the version history.]
- Millican, Peter, 2003, “Hume, Miracles, and Probabilities: Meeting Earman's Challenge,” manuscript available online
- Miracles, by David Corner, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Bibliography on Miracles (in PDF), by James Arlandson.
David Hume (1711—1776)
“Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion.” This statement by nineteenth century philosopher James Hutchison Stirling reflects the unique position in intellectual thought held by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Part of Hume’s fame and importance owes to his boldly skeptical approach to a range of philosophical subjects. In epistemology, he questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent “self” that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He defended the skeptical position that human reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate our way through common life. In the philosophy of religion, he argued that it is unreasonable to believe testimonies of alleged miraculous events, and he hints, accordingly, that we should reject religions that are founded on miracle testimonies. Against the common belief of the time that God’s existence could be proven through a design or causal argument, Hume offered compelling criticisms of standard theistic proofs. He also advanced theories on the origin of popular religious beliefs, grounding such notions in human psychology rather than in rational argument or divine revelation. The larger aim of his critique was to disentangle philosophy from religion and thus allow philosophy to pursue its own ends without rational over-extension or psychological corruption. In moral theory, against the common view that God plays an important role in the creation and reinforcement of moral values, he offered one of the first purely secular moral theories, which grounded morality in the pleasing and useful consequences that result from our actions. He introduced the term “utility” into our moral vocabulary, and his theory is the immediate forerunner to the classic utilitarian views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. He is famous for the position that we cannot derive ought from is, the view that statements of moral obligation cannot simply be deduced from statements of fact. Some see Hume as an early proponent of the emotivist metaethical view that moral judgments principally express our feelings. He also made important contributions to aesthetic theory with his view that there is a uniform standard of taste within human nature, in political theory with his critique of social contractarianism, and economic theory with his anti-mercantilist views. As a philosophical historian, he defended the conservative view that British governments are best run through a strong monarchy.
Table of Contents
- Origin and Association of Ideas
- Epistemological Issues
- Necessary Connection between Causes and Effects
- External Objects
- Personal Identity
- Free Will
- Theory of the Passions
- Religious Belief
- Psychology of Religious Belief
- Arguments for God’s Existence
- Moral Theory
- Aesthetic, Political, and Economic Theory
- History and Philosophy
- References and Further Reading
- Recent Editions of Hume’s Writings
- Chronological List of Hume’s Publications
- Biographies, Letters, Manuscripts
- Works on Hume
David Hume was born in 1711 to a moderately wealthy family from Berwickshire Scotland, near Edinburgh. His background was politically Whiggish and religiously Calvinistic. As a child he faithfully attended the local Church of Scotland, pastored by his uncle. Hume was educated by his widowed mother until he left for the University of Edinburgh at the age of eleven. His letters describe how as a young student he took religion seriously and obediently followed a list of moral guidelines taken from The Whole Duty of Man, a popular Calvinistic devotional.
Leaving the University of Edinburgh around the age of fifteen to pursue his education privately, he was encouraged to consider a career in law, but his interests soon turned to philosophy. During these years of private study he began raising serious questions about religion, as he recounts in the following letter:
Tis not long ago that I burn’d an old Manuscript Book, wrote before I was twenty; which contain’d, Page after Page, the gradual Progress of my Thoughts on that head [i.e. religious belief]. It begun with an anxious Search after Arguments, to confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return’d, were again dissipated, return’d again [To Gilbert Elliot of Minto, March 10, 1751].
Although his manuscript book was destroyed, several pages of his study notes survive from his early twenties. These show a preoccupation with proofs for God’s existence as well as atheism, particularly as he read on these topics in classical Greek and Latin texts and in Pierre Bayle’s skeptical Historical and Critical Dictionary. During these years of private study, some of which were in France, he composed his three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, which was published anonymously in two installments before he was thirty (1739, 1740). The Treatise explores several philosophical topics such as space, time, causality, external objects, the passions, free will, and morality, offering original and often skeptical appraisals of these notions. Book I of the Treatise was unfavorably reviewed in the History of the Works of the Learned with a succession of sarcastic comments. Although scholars today recognized it as a philosophical masterpiece, Hume was disappointed with the minimal interest his book spawned and said that “It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinctions even to excite a murmur among the zealots” (My Own Life).
In 1741 and 1742 Hume published his two-volume Essays, Moral and Political, which were written in a popular style and were more successful than the Treatise. In 1744-1745 he was a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Town Council was responsible for electing a replacement, and critics opposed Hume by condemning his anti-religious writings. Chief among the critics was clergyman William Wishart (d. 1752), the Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Lists of allegedly dangerous propositions from Hume’s Treatise circulated, presumably penned by Wishart himself. In the face of such strong opposition, the Edinburgh Town Council consulted the Edinburgh ministers. Hoping to win over the clergy, Hume composed a point by point reply to the circulating lists of dangerous propositions, which was published as A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh. The clergy were not swayed, 12 of the 15 ministers voted against Hume, and he quickly withdrew his candidacy. In 1745 Hume accepted an invitation from General St Clair to attend him as secretary. He wore the uniform of an officer, and accompanied the general on an expedition against Canada (which ended in an incursion on the coast of France) and to an embassy post in the courts of Vienna and Turin.
Because of the success of his Essays, Hume was convinced that the poor reception of his Treatise was caused by its style rather than by its content. In 1748 he published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, a more popular rendition of portions of Book I of the Treatise. The Enquiry also includes two sections not found in the Treatise: “Of Miracles” and a dialogue titled “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State.” Each section contains direct attacks on religious belief. In 1751 he published his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which recasts parts of Book III of the Treatise in a very different form. The work establishes a system of morality upon utility and human sentiments alone, and without appeal to divine moral commands. By the end of the century Hume was recognized as the founder of the moral theory of utility, and utilitarian political theorist Jeremy Bentham acknowledged Hume’s direct influence upon him. The same year Hume also published his Political Discourses, which drew immediate praise and influenced economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, William Godwin, and Thomas Malthus.
In 1751-1752 Hume sought a philosophy chair at the University of Glasgow, and was again unsuccessful. In 1752 his new employment as librarian of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh provided him with the resources to pursue his interest in history. There, he wrote much of his highly successful six-volume History of England (published from 1754 to 1762). The first volume was unfavorably received, partially for its defense of Charles I, and partially for two sections which attack Christianity. In one passage Hume notes that the first Protestant reformers were fanatical or “inflamed with the highest enthusiasm” in their opposition to Roman Catholic domination. In the second passage he labels Roman Catholicism a superstition which “like all other species of superstition. . . rouses the vain fears of unhappy mortals.” The most vocal attack against Hume’s History came from Daniel MacQueen in his 300 page Letters on Mr. Hume’s History. MacQueen scrutinizes the first volume of Hume’s work, exposing all the allegedly “loose and irreligious sneers” Hume makes against Christianity. Ultimately, this negative response led Hume to delete the two controversial passages from succeeding editions of the History.
Around this time Hume also wrote his two most substantial works on religion: The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. The Natural History appeared in 1757, but, on the advice of friends who wished to steer Hume away from religious controversy, the Dialogues remained unpublished until 1779, three years after his death. The Natural History aroused controversy even before it was made public. In 1756 a volume of Hume’s essays titled Five Dissertations was printed and ready for distribution. The essays included (1) “The Natural History of Religion;” (2) “Of the Passions;” (3) “Of Tragedy;” (4) “Of Suicide;” and (5) “Of the Immortality of the Soul.” The latter two essays made direct attacks on common religious doctrines by defending a person’s moral right to commit suicide and by criticizing the idea of life after death. Early copies were passed around, and Hume’s publisher was threatened with prosecution if the book was distributed as it was. The printed copies of Five Dissertations were then physically altered by removing the essays on suicide and immortality, and inserting a new essay “Of the Standard of Taste” in their place. Hume also took this opportunity to alter two particularly offending paragraphs in the Natural History. The essays were then bound with the new title Four Dissertations and distributed in January, 1757.
In the years following Four Dissertations, Hume completed his last major literary work, The History of England, which gave him a reputation as an historian that equaled, if not overshadowed, his reputation as a philosopher. In 1763, at age 50, he was invited to accompany the Earl of Hertford to the embassy in Paris, with a near prospect of being his secretary. He eventually accepted, and remarks at the reception he received in Paris “from men and women of all ranks and stations.” He returned to Edinburgh in 1766, and continued developing relations with the greatest minds of the time. Among these was Jean Jacques Rousseau who in 1766 was ordered out of Switzerland by the government in Berne. Hume offered Rousseau refuge in England and secured him a government pension. In England, Rousseau became suspicious of plots, and publicly charged Hume with conspiring to ruin his character, under the appearance of helping him. Hume published a pamphlet defending his actions and was exonerated. Another secretary appointment took him away from 1767-1768. Returning again to Edinburgh, his remaining years were spent revising and refining his published works, and socializing with friends in Edinburgh’s intellectual circles. In 1770, fellow Scotsman James Beattie published one of the harshest attacks on Hume’s philosophy to ever appear in print, entitled An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism. Hume was upset by Beattie’s relentless verbal attacks against him in the work, but the book made Beattie famous and King George III, who admired it, awarded Beattie a pension of £200 per year.
In 1776, at age sixty-five, Hume died from an internal disorder which had plagued him for many months. After his death, his name took on new significance as several of his previously unpublished works appeared. The first was a brief autobiography, My Own Life, but even this unpretentious work aroused controversy. As his friends, Adam Smith and S.J. Pratt, published affectionate eulogies describing how he died with no concern for an afterlife, religious critics responded by condemning this unjustifiable admiration of Hume’s infidelity. Two years later, in 1779, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion appeared. Again, the response was mixed. Admirers of Hume considered it a masterfully written work, while religious critics branded it as dangerous to religion. Finally, in 1782, Hume’s two suppressed essays on suicide and immortality were published. Their reception was almost unanimously negative.
2. Origin and Association of Ideas
Drawing heavily on John Locke’s empiricism, the opening sections of both the Treatise and Enquiry discuss the origins of mental perceptions as laid out in the following categorical scheme:
1. From memory
2. From imagination
a. From fancy
b. From understanding
(1) Involving relations of ideas
(2) Involving matters of fact
1. Of sensation (external)
2. Of reflection (internal)
Hume begins by dividing all mental perceptions between ideas (thoughts) and impressions (sensations and feelings), and then makes two central claims about the relation between them. First, advancing what is commonly called Hume’s copy thesis, he argues that all ideas are ultimately copied from impressions. That is, for any idea we select, we can trace the component parts of that idea to some external sensation or internal feeling. This claim places Hume squarely in the empiricist tradition, and he regularly uses this principle as a test for determining the content of an idea under consideration. As proof of the copy thesis, Hume challenges anyone who denies it “to shew a simple impression, that has not a correspondent idea, or a simple idea, that has not a correspondent impression” (Treatise, 1.1.1). Second, advancing what we may call Hume’s liveliness thesis, he argues that ideas and impressions differ only in terms of liveliness. For example, my impression of a tree is simply more vivid than my idea of that tree. One of his early critics, Lord Monboddo (1714–1799) pointed out an important implication of the liveliness thesis, which Hume himself presumably hides. Most modern philosophers held that ideas reside in our spiritual minds, whereas impressions originate in our physical bodies. So, when Hume blurs the distinction between ideas and impressions, he is ultimately denying the spiritual nature of ideas and instead grounding them in our physical nature. In short, all of our mental operations—including our most rational ideas—are physical in nature. As Monboddo writes, “One consequence, which Mr Hume has drawn from this doctrine, is, that, as our Mind can only operate by the organs of the Body, it must perish with the Body” (Ancient Metaphysics, 1782, 2.2.2).
Hume goes on to explain that there are several mental faculties that are responsible for producing our various ideas. He initially divides ideas between those produced by the memory, and those produced by the imagination. The memory is a faculty that conjures up ideas based on experiences as they happened. For example, the memory I have of my drive to the store is a comparatively accurate copy of my previous sense impressions of that experience. The imagination, by contrast, is a faculty that breaks apart and combines ideas, thus forming new ones. Hume uses the familiar example of a golden mountain: this idea is a combination of an idea of gold and an idea of a mountain. As our imagination takes our most basic ideas and leads us to form new ones, it is directed by three principles of association, namely, resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect. By virtue of resemblance, an illustration or sketch, of a person leads me to an idea of that actual person. The idea of one apartment in a building leads me to think of the apartment contiguous to—or next to—the first. The thought of a scar on my hand leads me to think of a broken piece of glass that caused the scar.
As indicated in the above chart, our more complex ideas of the imagination are further divided between two categories. Some imaginative ideas represent flights of the fancy, such as the idea of a golden mountain; however, other imaginative ideas represent solid reasoning, such as predicting the trajectory of a thrown ball. The fanciful ideas are derived from the faculty of the fancy, and are the source of fantasies, superstitions, and bad philosophy. By contrast, sound ideas are derived from the faculty of the understanding—or reason—and are of two types: (1) involving relations of ideas; or (2) involving matters of fact. A relation of ideas (or relation between ideas) is a mathematical relation that is “discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe,” such as the mathematical statement “the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides” (Enquiry, 4). By contrast, a matter of fact, for Hume, is any object or circumstance which has physical existence, such as “the sun will rise tomorrow”. This split between relations of ideas and matters of fact is commonly called “Hume’s Fork”, and Hume himself uses it as a radical tool for distinguishing between well-founded ideas of the understanding, and unfounded ideas of the fancy. He dramatically makes this point at the conclusion of his Enquiry:
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion (Enquiry, 12).
For Hume, when we imaginatively exercise our understanding regarding relations of ideas and matters of fact, our minds are guided by seven philosophical or “reasoning” relations, which are as follows:
Principles of reasoning concerning relations of ideas (involving demonstration): (1) resemblance; (2) contrariety; (3) degrees in quality; and (4) proportions in quantity or number
Principles of reasoning concerning matters of fact (involving judgments of probability): (5) identity; (6) relations in time and place; and (7) causation
Human understanding and reasoning at its best, then, involves ideas that are grounded in the above seven principles.
3. Epistemological Issues
Much of Hume’s epistemology is driven by a consideration of philosophically important issues, such as space and time, cause-effect, external objects, personal identity, and free will. In his analysis of these issues in the Treatise, he repeatedly does three things. First, he skeptically argues that we are unable to gain complete knowledge of some important philosophical notion under consideration. Second, he shows how the understanding gives us a very limited idea of that notion. Third, he explains how some erroneous views of that notion are grounded in the fancy, and he accordingly recommends that we reject those erroneous ideas. We will follow this three-part scheme as we consider Hume’s discussions of various topics.
On the topic of space, Hume argues that our proper notions of space are confined to our visual and tactile experiences of the three-dimensional world, and we err if we think of space more abstractly and independently of those visual and tactile experiences. In essence, our proper notion of space is like what Locke calls a “secondary quality” of an object, which is spectator dependent, meaning grounded in the physiology of our perceptual mental processes. Thus, our proper notion of space is not like a “primary quality” that refers to some external state of affairs independent of our perceptual mental process. Following the above three-part scheme, (1) Hume skeptically argues that we have no ideas of infinitely divisible space (Treatise, 220.127.116.11). (2) When accounting for the idea we do have of space, he argues that “the idea of space is convey’d to the mind by two senses, the sight and touch; nor does any thing ever appear extended, that is not either visible or tangible” (Treatise, 18.104.22.168). Further, he argues that these objects—which are either visible or tangible—are composed of finite atoms or corpuscles, which are themselves “endow’d with colour and solidity.” These impressions are then “comprehended” or conceived by the imagination; it is from the structuring of these impressions that we obtain a limited idea of space. (3) In contrast to this idea of space, Hume argues that we frequently presume to have an idea of space that lacks visibility or solidity. He accounts for this erroneous notion in terms of a mistaken association that people naturally make between visual and tactile space (Treatise, 22.214.171.124).
Hume’s treatment of our idea of time is like his treatment of the idea of space, in that our proper idea of time is like a secondary quality, grounded in our mental operations, not a primary quality grounded in some external phenomenon beyond our experience. (1) He first maintains that we have no idea of infinitely divisible time (Treatise, 126.96.36.199). (2) He then notes Locke’s point that our minds operate at a range of speeds that are “fix’d by the original nature and constitution of the mind, and beyond which no influence of external objects on the senses is ever able to hasten or retard our thought” (Treatise, 188.8.131.52). The idea of time, then, is not a simple idea derived from a simple impression; instead, it is a copy of impressions as they are perceived by the mind at its fixed speed (Treatise, 184.108.40.206). (3) In contrast to this limited view of time, he argues that we frequently entertain a faulty notion of time that does not involve change or succession. The psychological account of this erroneous view is that we mistake time for the cause of succession instead of seeing it as the effect (Treatise, 220.127.116.11).
c. Necessary Connection between Causes and Effects
According to Hume, the notion of cause-effect is a complex idea that is made up of three more foundational ideas: priority in time, proximity in space, and necessary connection. Concerning priority in time, if I say that event A causes event B, one thing I mean is that A occurs prior to B. If B were to occur before A, then it would be absurd to say that A was the cause of B. Concerning the idea of proximity, if I say that A causes B, then I mean that B is in proximity to, or close to A. For example, if I throw a rock, and at that moment someone’s window in China breaks, I would not conclude that my rock broke a window on the other side of the world. The broken window and the rock must be in proximity with each other. Priority and proximity alone, however, do not make up our entire notion of causality. For example, if I sneeze and the lights go out, I would not conclude that my sneeze was the cause, even though the conditions of priority and proximity were fulfilled. We also believe that there is a necessary connection between cause A and effect B. During the modern period of philosophy, philosophers thought of necessary connection as a power or force connecting two events. When billiard ball A strikes billiard ball B, there is a power that the one event imparts to the other. In keeping with his empiricist copy thesis, that all ideas are copied from impressions, Hume tries to uncover the experiences which give rise to our notions of priority, proximity, and necessary connection. The first two are easy to explain. Priority traces back to our various experiences of time. Proximity traces back to our various experiences of space. But what is the experience which gives us the idea of necessary connection? This notion of necessary connection is the specific focus of Hume’s analysis of cause-effect.
Hume’s view is that our proper idea of necessary connection is like a secondary quality that is formed by the mind, and not, like a primary quality, a feature of the external world. (1) He skeptically argues that we cannot get an idea of necessary connection by observing it through sensory experiences (Treatise, 18.104.22.168 ff.). We have no external sensory impression of causal power when we observe cause-effect relationships; all that we ever see is cause A constantly conjoined with effect B. Neither does it arise from an internal impression, such as when we introspectively reflect on willed bodily motions or willing the creation of thoughts. These internal experiences are too elusive, and nothing in them can give content to our idea of necessary connection. (2) The idea we have of necessary connection arises as follows: we experience a constant conjunction of events A and B— repeated sense experiences where events resembling A are always followed by events resembling B. This produces a habit such that upon any further appearance of A, we expect B to follow. This, in turn, produces an internal feeling of expectation “to pass from an object to the idea of its usual attendant,” which is the impression from which the idea of necessary connection is copied (Treatise, 22.214.171.124). (3) A common but mistaken notion on this topic is that necessity resides within the objects themselves. He explains this mistaken belief by the natural tendency we have to impute subjectively perceived qualities to external things (Treatise, 126.96.36.199).
d. External Objects
Hume’s view on external objects is that the mind is programmed to form some concept of the external world, although this concept or idea is really just a fabrication. (1) Hume’s skeptical claim here is that we have no valid conception of the existence of external things (Treatise, 188.8.131.52). (2) Nevertheless, he argues that we have an unavoidable “vulgar” or common belief in the continued existence of objects, and this idea he accounts for. His explanation is lengthy, but involves the following features. Perceptions of objects are disjointed and have no unity in and of themselves (Treatise, 184.108.40.206). In an effort to organize our perceptions, we first naturally assume that there is no distinction between our perceptions and the objects that are perceived (this is the so-called “vulgar” view of perception). We then conflate all ideas (of perceptions), which put our minds in similar dispositions (Treatise, 220.127.116.11); that is, we associate resembling ideas and attribute identity to their causes. Consequently, we naturally invent the continued and external existence of the objects (or perceptions) that produced these ideas (Treatise, 18.104.22.168). Lastly, we go on to believe in the existence of these objects because of the force of the resemblance between ideas (Treatise, 22.214.171.124). Although this belief is philosophically unjustified, Hume feels he has given an accurate account of how we inevitably arrive at the idea of external existence. (3) In contrast to the previous explanation of this idea, he recommends that we doubt a more sophisticated but erroneous notion of existence—the so-called philosophical view—which distinguishes between perceptions and the external objects that cause perceptions. The psychological motivation for accepting this view is this: our imagination tells us that resembling perceptions have a continued existence, yet our reflection tells us that they are interrupted. Appealing to both forces, we ascribe interruption to perceptions and continuance to objects (Treatise, 126.96.36.199).
e. Personal Identity
Regarding the issue of personal identity, (1) Hume’s skeptical claim is that we have no experience of a simple, individual impression that we can call the self—where the “self” is the totality of a person’s conscious life. He writes, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (Treatise, 188.8.131.52). (2) Even though my perceptions are fleeting and I am a bundle of different perceptions, I nevertheless have some idea of personal identity, and that must be accounted for (Treatise, 184.108.40.206). Because of the associative principles, the resemblance or causal connection within the chain of my perceptions gives rise to an idea of myself, and memory extends this idea past my immediate perceptions (Treatise, 220.127.116.11 ff.). (3) A common abuse of the notion of personal identity occurs when the idea of a soul or unchanging substance is added to give us a stronger or more unified concept of the self (Treatise, 18.104.22.168).
f. Free Will
On the issue of free will and determinism—or “liberty” and “necessity” in Hume’s terminology—Hume defends necessity. (1) He first argues that “all actions of the will have particular causes” (Treatise, 22.214.171.124), and so there is no such thing as an uncaused willful action. (2) He then defends the notion of a will that consistently responds to prior motivational causes: “our actions have a constant union with our motives, tempers, and circumstances” (Treatise, 126.96.36.199). These motives produce actions that have the same causal necessity observed in cause-effect relations that we see in external objects, such as when billiard ball A strikes and moves billiard ball B. In the same way, we regularly observe the rock-solid connection between motive A and action B, and we rely on that predictable connection in our normal lives. Suppose that a traveler, in recounting his observation of the odd behavior of natives in a distant country, told us that identical motives led to entirely different actions among these natives. We would not believe the traveler’s report. In business, politics, and military affairs, our leaders expect predicable behavior from us insofar as the same motives within us will always result in us performing the same action. A prisoner who is soon to be executed will assume that the motivations and actions of the prison guards and the executioner are so rigidly fixed that these people will mechanically carry out their duties and perform the execution, with no chance of a change of heart (Treatise, 188.8.131.52 ff.). (3) Lastly, Hume explains why people commonly believe in an uncaused will (Treatise, 184.108.40.206 ff.). One explanation is that people erroneously believe they have a feeling of liberty when performing actions. The reason is that, when we perform actions, we feel a kind of “looseness or indifference” in how they come about, and some people wrongly see this as “an intuitive proof of human liberty” (Treatise, 220.127.116.11).
In the Treatise Hume rejects the notion of liberty completely. While he gives no definition of “liberty” in that work, he argues that the notion is incompatible with necessity, and, at best, “liberty” simply means chance. In the Enquiry, however, he takes a more compatiblist approach. All human actions are caused by specific prior motives, but liberty and necessity are reconcilable when we define liberty as “a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will” (Enquiry, 8). Nothing in this definition of liberty is in conflict with the notion of necessity.
In all of the above discussions on epistemological topics, Hume performs a balancing act between making skeptical attacks (step 1) and offering positive theories based on natural beliefs (step 2). In the conclusion to Book 1, though, he appears to elevate his skepticism to a higher level and exposes the inherent contradictions in even his best philosophical theories. He notes three such contradictions. One centers on what we call induction. Our judgments based on past experience all contain elements of doubt; we are then impelled to make a judgment about that doubt, and since this judgment is also based on past experience it will in turn produce a new doubt. Once again, though, we are impelled to make a judgment about this second doubt, and the cycle continues. He concludes that “no finite object can subsist under a decrease repeated in infinitum.” A second contradiction involves a conflict between two theories of external perception, each of which our natural reasoning process leads us to. One is our natural inclination to believe that we are directly seeing objects as they really are, and the other is the more philosophical view that we only ever see mental images or copies of external objects. The third contradiction involves a conflict between causal reasoning and belief in the continued existence of matter. After listing these contradictions, Hume despairs over the failure of his metaphysical reasoning:
The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another [Treatise, 18.104.22.168].
He then pacifies his despair by recognizing that nature forces him to set aside his philosophical speculations and return to the normal activities of common life. He sees, though, that in time he will be drawn back into philosophical speculation in order to attack superstition and educate the world.
Hume’s emphasis on these conceptual contradictions is a unique aspect of his skepticism, and if any part of his philosophy can be designated “Humean skepticism” it is this. However, during the course of his writing the Treatise his view of the nature of these contradictions changed. At first he felt that these contradictions were restricted to theories about the external world, but theories about the mind itself would be free from them, as he explains here:
The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us'd all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop'd to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system [Treatise, 22.214.171.124].
When composing the Appendix to the Treatise a year later, he changed his mind and felt that theories about the mind would also have contradictions:
I had entertained some hopes, that however deficient our theory of the intellectual world might be, it wou'd be free from those contradictions, and absurdities, which seem to attend every explication, that human reason can give of the material world. But upon a more strict review of the section concerning I find myself involv'd in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent. If this be not a good general reason for scepticism, 'tis at least a sufficient one (if I were not already abundantly supplied) for me to entertain a diffidence and modesty in all my decisions [Treatise, Appendix].
Thus, in the Treatise, the skeptical bottom line is that even our best theories about both physical and mental phenomena will be plagued with contradictions. In the concluding section of his Enquiry, Hume again addresses the topic of skepticism, but treats the matter somewhat differently: he rejects extreme skepticism but accepts skepticism in a more moderate form. He associates extreme Pyrrhonian skepticism with blanket attacks on all reasoning about the external world, abstract reasoning about space and time, or causal reasoning about matters of fact. He argues, though, that we must reject such skepticism since “no durable good can ever result from it.” Instead, he recommends a more moderate or Academic skepticism that tones down Pyrrhonism by, first, exercising caution and modesty in our judgments, and, second, by restricting our speculations to abstract reasoning and matters of fact.
5. Theory of the Passions
Like many philosophers of his time, Hume developed a theory of the passions—that is, the emotions—categorizing them and explaining the psychological mechanisms by which they arise in the human mind. His most detailed account is in Book Two of the Treatise. Passions, according to Hume, fall under the category of impressions of reflection (as opposed to impressions of sensation). He opens his discussion with a taxonomy of types of passions, which are outlined here:
1. Calm (reflective pleasures and pains)
a. Direct (desire, aversion, joy, grief, hope, fear)
b. Indirect (love, hate, pride, humility)
He initially divides passions between the calm and the violent. He concedes that this distinction is imprecise, but he explains that people commonly distinguish between types of passions in terms of their degrees of forcefulness. Adding more precision to this common distinction, he maintains that calm passions are emotional feelings of pleasure and pain associated with moral and aesthetic judgments. For example, when I see a person commit a horrible deed, I will experience a feeling of pain. When I view a good work of art, I will experience a feeling of pleasure. In contrast to the calm passions, violent ones constitute the bulk of our emotions, and these divide between direct and indirect passions. For Hume, the key direct passions are desire, aversion, joy, grief, hope, and fear. They are called “direct” because they arise immediately—without complex reflection on our part—whenever we see something good or bad. For example, if I consider an unpleasant thing, such as being burglarized, then I will feel the passion of aversion. He suggests that sometimes these passions are sparked instinctively—for example, by my desire for food when I am hungry. Others, though, are not connected with instinct and are more the result of social conditioning. There is an interesting logic to the six direct passions, which Hume borrowed from a tradition that can be traced to ancient Greek Stoicism. We can diagram the relation between the six with this chart:
When good/bad objects are considered abstractly
Desire (towards good objects)
Aversion (towards evil objects)
When good/bad objects are actually present
Joy (towards good objects)
Grief (towards evil objects)
When good/bad objects are only anticipated
Hope (towards good objects)
Fear (towards evil objects)
Compare, for example, the passions that I will experience regarding winning the lottery vs. having my house burglarized. Suppose that I consider them purely in the abstract—or “consider’d simply” as Hume says (Treatise, 126.96.36.199). I will then desire to win the lottery and have an aversion towards being burglarized. Suppose that both situations are actually before me; I will then experience joy over winning the lottery and grief over being burglarized. Suppose, finally, that I know that at some unknown time in the future I will win the lottery and be burglarized. I will then experience hope regarding the lottery and fear of being burglarized.
Hume devotes most of Book 2 to an analysis of the indirect passions, his unique contribution to theories of the passions. The four principal passions are love, hate, pride, and humility. They are called “indirect” since they are the secondary effects of a previous feeling of pleasure and pain. Suppose, for example, that I paint a picture, which gives me a feeling of pleasure. Since I am the artist, I will then experience an additional feeling of pride. He explains in detail the psychological process that triggers indirect passions such as pride. Specifically, he argues that these passions arise from a double relation between ideas and impressions, which we can illustrate here with the passion of pride:
1. I have an initial idea of some possession, or “subject”, such as my painting, and this idea gives me pleasure.
2. Through the associative principle of resemblance, I then immediately associate this feeling of pleasure with a resembling feeling of pride (this association constitutes the first relation in the double relation).
3. This feeling of pride then causes me to have an idea of myself, as the “object” of pride.
4. Through some associative principle such as causality, I then associate the idea of myself with the idea of my painting, which is the “subject” of my pride (this association constitutes the second relation in the double relation).
According to Hume, the three other principal indirect passions arise in parallel ways. For example, if my painting is ugly and causes me pain, then I will experience the secondary passion of humility—perhaps more accurately expressed as “humiliation”. By contrast, if someone else paints a pleasing picture, then this will trigger in me a feeling of love for that artist—perhaps more accurately expressed as “esteem”. If the artist paints a painfully ugly picture, then this will trigger in me a feeling of “hatred” towards the artist—perhaps more accurately expressed as “disesteem”.
One of the most lasting contributions of Hume’s discussion of the passions is his argument that human actions must be prompted by passion, and never can be motivated by reason. Reason, he argues, is completely inert when it comes to motivating conduct, and without some emotion we would not engage in any action. Thus, he writes, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Treatise, 188.8.131.52).
6. Religious Belief
Like many of Hume’s philosophical views, his position on religious belief is also skeptical. Critics of religion during the eighteenth-century needed to express themselves cautiously to avoid being fined, imprisoned, or worse. Sometimes this involved placing controversial views in the mouth of a character in a dialogue. Other times it involved adopting the persona of a deist or fideist as a means of concealing a more extreme religious skepticism. Hume used all of the rhetorical devices at his disposal, and left it to his readers to decode his most controversial conclusions on religious subjects. During the Enlightenment, there were two pillars of traditional Christian belief: natural and revealed religion. Natural religion involves knowledge of God drawn from nature through the use of logic and reason, and typically involves logical proofs regarding the existence and nature of God, such as the causal and design arguments for God’s existence. Revealed religion involves knowledge of God contained in revelation, particularly the Bible, the quintessential examples of which are biblical prophesies and miracles where God intervenes in earthly affairs to confirm the Bible’s message of salvation. Hume attacks both natural and revealed religious beliefs in his various writings.
In a 1737 letter to Henry Home, Hume states that he intended to include a discussion of miracles in his Treatise, but ultimately left it out for fear of offending readers. His analysis of the subject eventually appeared some ten years later in his essay “Of Miracles” from the Enquiry, and is his first sustained attack on revealed religion. It is probably this main argument to which Hume refers. The first of this two-part essay contains the argument for which Hume is most famous: uniform experience of natural law outweighs the testimony of any alleged miracle. Let us imagine a scale with two balancing pans. In the first pan we place the strongest evidence in support of the occurrence of a miracle. In the second we place our life-long experience of consistent laws of nature. According to Hume, the second pan will always outweigh the first. He writes:
It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony [regarding miracles]; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation [Enquiry, 10.1].
Regardless of how strong the testimony is in favor of a given miracle, it can never come close to counterbalancing the overwhelming experience of unvaried laws of nature. Thus, proportioning one’s belief to the evidence, the wise person must reject the weaker evidence concerning the alleged miracle.
In the second part of “Of Miracles”, Hume discusses four factors that count against the credibility of most miracle testimonies: (1) witnesses of miracles typically lack integrity; (2) we are naturally inclined to enjoy sensational stories, and this has us uncritically perpetuate miracle accounts; (3) miracle testimonies occur most often in less civilized countries; and (4) miracles support rival religious systems and thus discredit each other. But even if a miracle testimony is not encumbered by these four factors, we should still not believe it since it would be contrary to our consistent experience of laws of nature. He concludes his essay with the following cryptic comment about Christian belief in biblical miracles:
upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience [Enquiry, 10.2].
At face value, his comment suggests a fideist approach to religious belief such as what Pascal recommends. That is, reason is incapable of establishing religious belief, and God must perform a miracle in our lives to make us open to belief through faith. However, according to the eighteenth-century Hume critic John Briggs, Hume’s real point is that belief in Christianity requires “miraculous stupidity” (The Nature of Religious Zeal, 1775).
b. Psychology of Religious Belief
Another attack on revealed religion appears in Hume’s essay “The Natural History of Religion” (1757). It is one of the first systematic attempts to explain the causes of religious belief solely in terms of psychological and sociological factors. We might see the “Natural History” as an answer to a challenge, such as the sort that William Adams poses here in his attack on Hume’s “Of Miracles”:
Whence could the religion and laws of this people [i.e., the Jews] so far exceed those of the wisest Heathens, and come out at once, in their first infancy, thus perfect and entire; when all human systems are found to grow up by degrees, and to ripen, after many improvements; into perfection [An Essay, Part 2]?
According to Adams, only divine intervention can account for the sophistication of the ancient Jewish religion. In the “Natural History,” though, Hume offers an alternative explanation, and one that is grounded solely in human nature, without God’s direct involvement in human history.
The work may be divided into three parts. In the first (Sections 1 and 4), Hume argues that polytheism, and not monotheism, was the original religion of primitive humans. Monotheism, he believes, was only a later development that emerged with the progress of various societies. The standard theory in Judeo-Christian theology was that early humans first believed in a single God, but as religious corruption crept in, people lapsed into polytheism. Hume was the first writer to systematically defend the position of original polytheism. In the second part (Sections 2-3, 5-8), Hume establishes the psychological principles that give rise to popular religious belief. His thesis is that natural instincts—such as fear and the propensity to adulate—are the true causes of popular religious belief, and not divine intervention or rational argument. The third part of this work (Sections 9-15) compares various aspects of polytheism with monotheism, showing that one is no more superior than the other. Both contain points of absurdity. From this he concludes that we should suspend belief on the entire subject of religious truth.
c. Arguments for God’s Existence
Around the same time that Hume was composing his “Natural History of Religion” he was also working on his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which appeared in print two decades later, after his death. As the title of the work implies, it is a critique of natural religion, in contrast with revealed religion. There are three principal characters in the Dialogues. A character named Cleanthes, who espouses religious empiricism, defends the design argument for God’s existence, but rejects the causal argument. Next, a character named Demea, who is a religious rationalist, defends the causal argument for God’s existence, but rejects the design argument. Finally, a character named Philo, who is a religious skeptic, argues against both the design and causal arguments. The main assaults on theistic proofs are conveyed by both Cleanthes and Philo, and, to that extent, both of their critiques likely represent Hume’s views.
The specific version of the causal argument that Hume examines is one by Samuel Clarke (and Leibniz before him). Simplistic versions of the causal argument maintain that when we trace back the causes of things in the universe, the chain of causes cannot go back in time to infinity past; there must be a first cause to the causal sequence, which is God. Clarke’s version differs in that it is theoretically possible for causal sequences of events to trace back through time to infinity past. Thus, we cannot argue that God’s existence is required to initiate a sequence of temporal causes. Nevertheless, Clarke argued, an important fact still needs to be explained: the fact that this infinite temporal sequence of causal events exists at all. Why does something exist rather than nothing? God, then, is the necessary cause of the whole series. In response, the character Cleanthes argues that the flaw in the cosmological argument consists in assuming that there is some larger fact about the universe that needs explaining beyond the particular items in the series itself. Once we have a sufficient explanation for each particular fact in the infinite sequence of events, it makes no sense to inquire about the origin of the collection of these facts. That is, once we adequately account for each individual fact, this constitutes a sufficient explanation of the whole collection. He writes, “Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty” (Dialogues, 9).
The design argument for God’s existence is that the appearance of design in the natural world is evidence for the existence of a divine designer. The specific version of the argument that Hume examines is one from analogy, as stated here by Cleanthes:
The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man (Dialogues, 2).
Philo presents several criticisms against the design argument, many of which are now standard in discussions of the issue. According to Philo, the design argument is based on a faulty analogy: we do not know whether the order in nature was the result of design, since, unlike our experience with the creation of machines, we did not witness the formation of the world. In Philo’s words, “will any man tell me with a serious countenance, that an orderly universe must arise from some thought and art like the human, because we have experience of it? To ascertain this reasoning, it were requisite that we had experience of the origin of worlds; and it is not sufficient, surely, that we have seen ships and cities arise from human art and contrivance” (ibid). Further, the vastness of the universe also weakens any comparison with human artifacts. Although the universe is orderly here, it may be chaotic elsewhere. Similarly, if intelligent design is exhibited only in a small fraction of the universe, then we cannot say that it is the productive force of the whole universe. Philo states that “A very small part of this great system, during a very short time, is very imperfectly discovered to us; and do we thence pronounce decisively concerning the origin of the whole?” (ibid). Philo also argues that natural design may be accounted for by nature alone, insofar as matter may contain within itself a principle of order, and “This at once solves all difficulties” (Dialogues, 6). And even if the design of the universe is of divine origin, we are not justified in concluding that this divine cause is a single, all powerful, or all good being. According to Philo, “Whether all these attributes are united in one subject, or dispersed among several independent beings, by what phenomena in nature can we pretend to decide the controversy?” (Dialogues 5).
7. Moral Theory
Hume’s moral theory appears in Book 3 of the Treatise and in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). He opens his discussion in the Treatise by telling us what moral approval is not: it is not a rational judgment about either conceptual relations or empirical facts. To make his case he criticizes Samuel Clarke’s rationalistic account of morality, which is that we rationally judge the fitness or unfitness of our actions in reference to eternal laws of righteousness, that are self-evidently known to all humans, just as is our knowledge of mathematical relations. Hume presents several arguments against Clarke’s view, one of which is an analogy from arboreal parricide: a young tree that overgrows and kills its parent exhibits the same alleged relations as a human child killing his parent. “Is not the one tree the cause of the other’s existence; and the latter the cause of the destruction of the former, in the same manner as when a child murders his parent?” (Treatise, 184.108.40.206). If morality is a question of relations, then the young tree is immoral, which is absurd. Hume also argues that moral assessments are not judgments about empirical facts. Take any immoral action, such as willful murder: “examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice” (Treatise, 220.127.116.11). You will not find any such fact, but only your own feelings of disapproval. In this context Hume makes his point that we cannot derive statements of obligation from statements of fact. When surveying various moral theories, Hume writes, “I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not” (Treatise, 18.104.22.168). This move from is to ought is illegitimate, he argues, and is why people erroneously believe that morality is grounded in rational judgments.
Thus far Hume has only told us what moral approval is not, namely a judgment of reason. So what then does moral approval consist of? It is an emotional response, not a rational one. The details of this part of his theory rest on a distinction between three psychologically distinct players: the moral agent, the receiver, and the moral spectator. The moral agent is the person who performs an action, such as stealing a car; the receiver is the person impacted by the conduct, such as the owner of the stolen car; and the moral spectator is the person who observes and, in this case, disapproves of the agent’s action. This agent-receiver-spectator distinction is the product of earlier moral sense theories championed by the Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Joseph Butler (1692-1752), and Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747). Most generally, moral sense theories maintained that humans have a faculty of moral perception, similar to our faculties of sensory perception. Just as our external senses detect qualities in external objects, such as colors and shapes, so too does our moral faculty detect good and bad moral qualities in people and actions.
For Hume, all actions of a moral agent are motivated by character traits, specifically either virtuous or vicious character traits. For example, if you donate money to a charity, then your action is motivated by a virtuous character trait. Hume argues that some virtuous character traits are instinctive or natural, such as benevolence, and others are acquired or artificial, such as justice. As an agent, your action will have an effect on a receiver. For example, if you as the agent give food to a starving person, then the receiver will experience an immediately agreeable feeling from your act. Also, the receiver may see the usefulness of your food donation, insofar as eating food will improve his health. When considering the usefulness of your food donation, then, the receiver will receive another agreeable feeling from your act. Finally, I, as a spectator, observe these agreeable feelings that the receiver experiences. I, then, will sympathetically experience agreeable feelings along with the receiver. These sympathetic feelings of pleasure constitute my moral approval of the original act of charity that you, the agent, perform. By sympathetically experiencing this pleasure, I thereby pronounce your motivating character trait to be a virtue, as opposed to a vice. Suppose, on the other hand, that you as an agent did something to hurt the receiver, such as steal his car. I as the spectator would then sympathetically experience the receiver’s pain and thereby pronounce your motivating character trait to be a vice, as opposed to a virtue.
In short, that is Hume’s overall theory. There are, though, some important details that should also be mentioned. First, it is tricky to determine whether an agent’s motivating character trait is natural or artificial, and Hume decides this one virtue at a time. For Hume, the natural virtues include benevolence, meekness, charity, and generosity. By contrast, the artificial virtues include justice, keeping promises, allegiance and chastity. Contrary to what one might expect, Hume classifies the key virtues that are necessary for a well-ordered state as artificial, and he classifies only the more supererogatory virtues as natural. Hume’s critics were quick to point out this paradox. Second, to spark a feeling of moral approval, the spectator does not have to actually witness the effect of an agent’s action upon a receiver. The spectator might simply hear about it, or the spectator might even simply invent an entire scenario and think about the possible effects of hypothetical actions. This happens when we have moral reactions when reading works of fiction: “a very play or romance may afford us instances of this pleasure, which virtue conveys to us; and pain, which arises from vices” (Treatise, 22.214.171.124).
Third, although the agent, receiver, and spectator have psychologically distinct roles, in some situations a single person may perform more than one of these roles. For example, if I as an agent donate to charity, as a spectator to my own action I can also sympathize with the effect of my donation on the receiver. Finally, given various combinations of spectators and receivers, Hume concludes that there are four irreducible categories of qualities that exhaustively constitute moral virtue: (1) qualities useful to others, which include benevolence, meekness, charity, justice, fidelity and veracity; (2) qualities useful to oneself, which include industry, perseverance, and patience; (3) qualities immediately agreeable to others, which include wit, eloquence and cleanliness; and (4) qualities immediately agreeable to oneself, which include good humor, self-esteem and pride. For Hume, most morally significant qualities and actions seem to fall into more than one of these categories. When Hume spoke about an agent’s “useful” consequences, he often used the word “utility” as a synonym. This is particularly so in the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals where the term “utility” appears over 50 times. Moral theorists after Hume thus depicted his moral theory as the “theory of utility”—namely, that morality involves assessing the pleasing and painful consequences of actions on the receiver. It is this concept and terminology that inspired classic utilitarian philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832).
8. Aesthetic, Political, and Economic Theory
Hume wrote two influential essays on the subject of aesthetic theory. In “Of Tragedy” (1757) he discusses the psychological reasons why we enjoy observing depictions of tragic events in theatrical production. He argues that “the energy of expression, the power of numbers, and the charm of imitation” convey the sense of pleasure. He particularly stresses the technical artistry involved when an artistic work imitates the original. In “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757) he argues that there is a uniform sense of artistic judgment in human nature, similar to our uniform sense of moral judgment. Specific objects consistently trigger feelings of beauty within us, as our human nature dictates. Just as we can refine our external senses such as our palate, we can also refine our sense of artistic beauty and thus cultivate a delicacy of taste. In spite of this uniform standard of taste, two factors create some difference in our judgments: “the one is the different humours of particular men; the other, the particular manners and opinions of our age and country.”
In political theory, Hume has both theoretical discussions on the origins of government and more informal essays on popular political controversies of his day. In his theoretical discussions, he attacks two basic notions in eighteenth-century political philosophy: the social contract and the instinctive nature of justice regarding private property. In his 1748 essay “Of the Original Contract,” he argues that political allegiance is not grounded in any social contract, but instead on our general observation that society cannot be maintained without a governmental system. He concedes that in savage times there may have been an unwritten contract among tribe members for the sake of peace and order. However, he argues, this was no permanent basis of government as social contract theorists pretend. There is nothing to transmit that original contract onwards from generation to generation, and our experience of actual political events shows that governmental authority is founded on conquest, not elections or consent. We do not even tacitly consent to a contract since many of us have no real choice about remaining in our countries: “Can we seriously say that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day by the small wages which he acquires?” Political allegiance, he concludes, is ultimately based on a primary instinct of selfishness, and only through reflection will we see how we benefit from an orderly society.
Concerning private property, in both the Treatise and the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Hume in essence argues against Locke’s notion of the natural right to private property. For Hume, we have no primary instinct to recognize private property, and all conceptions of justice regarding property are founded solely on how useful the convention of property is to us. We can see how property ownership is tied to usefulness when considering scenarios concerning the availability of necessities. When necessities are in overabundance, I can take what I want any time, and there is no usefulness in my claiming any property as my own. When the opposite happens and necessities are scarce, I do not acknowledge anyone’s claim to property and take what I want from others for my own survival. Thus, “the rules of equity or justice [regarding property] depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that utility, which results to the public from their strict and regular observance” (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3). Further, if we closely inspect human nature, we will never find a primary instinct that inclines us to acknowledge private property. It is nothing like the primary instinct of nest building in birds. While the sense of justice regarding private property is a firmly fixed habit, it is nevertheless its usefulness to society that gives it value.
As for Hume’s informal essays on popular political controversies, several of these involve party disputes between the politically conservative Tory party that supported a strong monarchy, and the politically liberal Whig party which supported a constitutional government. Two consistent themes emerge in these essays. First, in securing peace, a monarchy with strong authority is probably better than a pure republic. Hume sides with the Tories because of their traditional support of the monarchy. Except in extreme cases, he opposes the Lockean argument offered by Whigs that justifies overthrowing political authorities when those authorities fail to protect the rights of the people. Hume notes, though, that monarchies and republics each have their strong points. Monarchies encourage the arts, and republics encourage science and trade. Hume also appreciates the mixed form of government within Great Britain, which fosters liberty of the press. The second theme in Hume’s political essays is that revolutions and civil wars principally arise from zealousness within party factions. Political moderation, he argues, is the best antidote to potentially ruinous party conflict.
In economic theory, Hume wrote influential essays on money, interest, trade, credit, and taxes. Many of these target the mercantile system and its view that a country increases its wealth by increasing the quantity of gold and silver in that country. For mercantilists, three means were commonly employed to this end: (1) capture gold, silver and raw material from other countries through colonization; (2) discourage imports through tariffs and monopolies, which keeps acquired gold and silver within one’s country’s borders; and, (3) increase exports, which brings in money from outside countries. In Great Britain, mercantile policies were instituted through the Navigation Acts, which prohibited trade between British colonies and foreign countries. These protectionist laws ultimately led to the American Revolution. The most famous of Hume’s anti-mercantilist arguments is now called Hume’s gold-flow theory, and appears in his essays “Of Money” (1752) and “Of the Balance of Trade” (1752). Contrary to mercantilists who advocated locking up money in one’s home country, Hume argued that increased money in one country automatically disperses to other countries. Suppose, for example, that Great Britain receives an influx of new money. This new money will drive up prices of labor and domestic products in Great Britain. Products in foreign countries, then, will be cheaper than in Great Britain; Britain, then, will import these products, thereby sending new money to foreign countries. Hume compares this reshuffling of wealth to the level of fluids in interconnected chambers: if I add fluid to one chamber, then, under the weight of gravity, this will disperse to the others until the level is the same in all chambers. A similar phenomenon will occur if we lose money in our home country by purchasing imports from foreign countries. As the quantity of money decreases in our home country, this will drive down the prices of labor and domestic products. Our products, then, will be cheaper than foreign products, and we will gain money through exports. On the fluid analogy, by removing fluid from one chamber, more fluid is drawn in from surrounding chambers.
9. History and Philosophy
Although Hume is now remembered mainly as a philosopher, in his own day he had at least as much impact as a historian. His History of England appeared in four installments between 1754 and 1762 and covers the periods of British history from most ancient times through the seventeenth-century. To his 18th and 19th century readers, he was not just another historian, but a uniquely philosophical historian who had an ability to look into the minds of historical figures and uncover the motives behind their conduct. A political theme underlying the whole History is, once again, a conflict between Tory and Whig ideology. In the Britain of Hume’s day, a major point of contention between the two parties was whether the English government was historically an absolute or limited monarchy. Tories believed that it was traditionally absolute, with governmental authority being grounded in royal prerogative. Whigs, on the other hand, believed that it was traditionally limited, with the foundation of government resting in the individual liberty of the people, as expressed in the parliamentary voice of the commons. As a historian, Hume felt that he was politically moderate, tending to see both the strengths and weaknesses in opposing viewpoints:
With regard to politics and the character of princes and great men, I think I am very moderate. My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations of persons to Tory prejudices. Nothing can so much prove that men commonly regard more persons than things, as to find that I am commonly numbered among the Tories [Hume to John Clephane, 1756].
However, to radical Whig British readers, Hume was a conservative Tory who defended royal prerogative.
Hume takes two distinct positions on the prerogative issue. From a theoretical and idealistic perspective, he favored a mixed constitution, mediating between the authority of the monarch and that of the Parliament. Discussing this issue in his 1741 Essays, he holds that we should learn “the lesson of moderation in all our political controversies.” However, from the perspective of how British history actually unfolded, he emphasized royal prerogative. And, as a “philosophical historian,” he tried to show how human nature gave rise to the tendency towards royal prerogative. In his brief autobiography, “My Own Life,” he says that he rejected the “senseless clamour” of Whig ideology, and believed “It is ridiculous to consider the English constitution before that period [of the Stuart Monarchs] as a regular plan of liberty.” Gilbert Stuart best encapsulated Hume’s historical stance on the prerogative issue: “his history, from its beginning to its conclusion, is chiefly to be regarded as a plausible defence of prerogative” (A View of Society in Europe, 1778, 2.1.1). In short, Hume’s Tory narrative is this. As early as the Anglo Saxon period, the commons did not participate in the king’s advisory council. The Witenagemot, for example, was only a council of nobles and bishops, which the king could listen to or ignore as he saw fit. Throughout the succeeding centuries, England’s great kings were those who exercised absolute rule, and took advantage of prerogative courts such as the Star Chamber. Elizabeth—England’s most beloved monarch—was in fact a tyrant, and her reign was much like that of a Turkish sultan. Charles I—a largely virtuous man—tried to follow in her footsteps as a strong monarch. After a few minor lapses in judgment, and a few too many concessions to Catholics, Protestant zealots rose up against him, and he was ultimately executed. To avoid over-characterizing royal prerogative, Hume occasionally condemns arbitrary actions of monarchs and praises efforts for preserving liberty. Nevertheless, Whig critics like Gilbert Stuart argued that Hume’s emphasis was decisively in favor of prerogative.
There is an irony to Hume’s preference for prerogative over civil liberty. His philosophical writings were among the most controversial pieces of literature of the time, and would have been impossible to publish if Britain was not a friend to liberty. Although Hume was certainly no enemy to liberty, he believed that it was best achieved through moderation rather than Whig radicalism. He writes, “If any other rule than established practice be followed, factions and dissentions must multiply without end” (History, Appendix 3). To Hume’s way of thinking, the loudest voices favoring liberty were Calvinistic religious fanatics who accomplished little more than dissention. A strong, centralized and moderating force was the best way to avoid factious disruption from the start.
10. References and Further Reading
a. Recent Editions of Hume’s Writings
There are many published editions of Hume’s writings, the best of which are as follows (listed chronologically).
- The Philosophical Works of David Hume (1874-1875), ed. T.H. Green and T.H. Grose.
- This four-volume set was the definitive edition of the late nineteenth century, and is the text source of many individually published books on Hume. It does not include the History. Electronic versions of this edition are freely available on the internet.
- Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1935), ed., Norman Kemp Smith.
- This is the definitive edition of this work, and contains a ground-breaking introductory essay.
- Enquiries (Oxford, 1975) ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch.
- This contains Hume’s two Enquiries, and was the definitive edition of these works in the late twentieth-century.
- Treatiseof Human Nature (Oxford, 1978), ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch.
- This was the definitive edition of this work in the late twentieth-century.
- History of England (Liberty Classics, 1983).
- This is the definitive edition of this work.
- Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Liberty Classics, 1987), ed. E.F. Miller.
- This is the definitive edition of this work.
- The Clarendon Edition of the Works of David Hume (1998-ongoing), ed. Tom L. Beauchamp, Mark Box, David Fate Norton, Mary Norton, M.A. Stewart.
- This is a carefully-researched critical edition of Hume’s philosophical works, and supersedes all previous editions. Volumes on Hume’s Essays and the Dialogues are forthcoming; it does not include Hume’s History.
b. Chronological List of Hume’s Publications
- A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1739-40).
- This was published anonymously in three volumes: Vol. I. Of the Understanding; Vol. II. Of the Passions. Vol. III. Of Morals. This is Hume’s principle philosophical work, the central notions of which were rewritten more popularly in Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).
- An Abstract of a Book lately Published; entituled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c. Wherein the chief Argument of that Book is farther Illustrated and Explained (1740).
- This is a sixteen page pamphlet, published anonymously as an effort to bring attention to the Treatise.
- Essays, Moral and Political (1741-1742).
- This was published anonymously in two volumes in 1741 and 1742 respectively. In subsequent editions some essays were dropped and others added; the collection was eventually combined with his Political Discourses (1752) and retitled Essays, Moral, Political and Literary in Hume’s collection of philosophical works, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753).
- A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh: Containing Some Observations on a Specimen of the Principles concerning Religion and Morality, said to be maintain’d in a Book lately publish’d, intituled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c (1745).
- This thirty-four page pamphlet was published anonymously and was prompted by Hume’s candidacy for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The pamphlet responds to criticisms regarding the Treatise.
- Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. By the Author of the Essays Moral and Political (1748).
- This was published anonymously and later retitled Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is a popularized version of key themes that appear mainly in the Treatise, Book 1.
- A True Account of the Behaviour and conduct of Archibald Stewart, Esq; late Lord Provost of Edinburgh. In a letter to a Friend (1748).
- This fifty-one page pamphlet was published anonymously as a defense of Archibald Stewart, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, surrounding a political controversy.
- An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. By David Hume, Esq. (1751).
- This is a popularized version of key themes that appear mainly in the Treatise, Book 3.
- The Petition of the Grave and Venerable Bellmen (or Sextons) of the Church of Scotland (1751).
- This was published anonymously and involved the Church of Scotland’s efforts to increase their stipends.
- Political discourses. By David Hume Esq. (1752).
- This is a collection of essays on economic and political subjects, which was eventually combined with his Essays Moral and Political (1741-1742) and retitled Essays, Moral, Political and Literary in Hume’s collection of philosophical works, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753).
- Scotticisms (1752).
- This six page pamphlet was published anonymously, and lists Scottish idioms.
- The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Revolution in 1688 (1754-1762).
- This was published in four installments: (a) The history of Great Britain. Vol. I. Containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I. By David Hume, Esq. (1754); (b) The history of Great Britain. Vol. II. Containing the Commonwealth, and the reigns of Charles II. and James II. By David Hume, Esq. (1757); (c) The history of England, under the House of Tudor Comprehending the reigns of K. Henry VII. K. Henry VIII. K. Edward VI. Q. Mary, and Q. Elizabeth. . . . By David Hume, Esq (1759); (d) The history of England, from the invasion of Julius Cæsar to the accession of Henry VII. . . . By David Hume, Esq. (1762).
- Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. By David Hume, Esq; In four volumes (1753).
- This is Hume’s handpicked collection of philosophical works, which includes (a) Essays, Moral and Political, (b) Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding, (c) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and (d) Political Discourses. Essays from Four Dissertations (1757) were added to later editions. The collection does not include the Treatise.
- Four Dissertations. I. The Natural History of Religion. II. Of the Passions. III. Of Tragedy. IV. Of the Standard of Taste. By David Hume, esq. (1757).
- This volume was originally to include “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” which were removed at the last minute and appeared separately in 1783 in an unauthorized posthumous edition. The four essays in Four Dissertations were later added to various sections of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects.
- Letter to Critical Review, April 1759, Vol. 7. pp. 323-334.
- This is a defense of William Wilkie’s epic poem Epigoniad.
- Exposé succinct de la contestation qui s’est élevée entre M. Hume et M. Rousseau, avec les pieces justificatives (1766).
- This is a pamphlet containing letters between Hume and Rousseau, published anonymously, translated from English by J.B.A. Suard. The pamphlet was translated back to English in A Concise and Genuine account of the Dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau: with the Letters that Passed Between them during their Controversy (1766).
- Advertisement to Baron Manstein’s Memoirs of Russia, Historical, Political and Military, from MDCXXVII, to MDCXLIV (1770).
- This is an opening advertisement by Hume to Manstein’s work.
- The Life of David Hume, Esq. Written by Himself (1777). This contains “My Own Life” and “Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, Esq.”
- Dialogues Concerning Natural religion. By David Hume, Esq. (1779).
- This is a posthumous edition from Hume’s unpublished manuscript, and contains his most detailed attack on natural religion.
- Essays on Suicide, and the Immortality of the Soul, ascribed to the late David Hume, Esq. Never before Published. With Remarks, intended as an Antidote to the Poison contained in these Performances, by the Editor. To which is added, Two Letters on Suicide, from Rosseau’s [sic] Eloisa (1783).
- This is an unauthorized publication of the two essays that were originally associated with Four Dissertations.
c. Biographies, Letters, Manuscripts
- Greig, J.Y.T. Letters of David Hume (1932), two volumes.
- This is the best collection of Hume’s letters (along with the supplementary volume by Klibansky below).
- Greig, J.Y.T.; Beynon, Harold, eds. “Calendar of Hume MSS. in the possession of the Royal Society,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1931–1932, Vol. 52, pp. 1–138.
- This is a detailed list of the Hume manuscripts with a contents summary of each item, and has been published separately in book.
- Klibansky, Raymond; Mossner, Ernest. New Letters of David Hume (1954).
- This volume of letters is a supplement to Greig’s two volume collection above.
- Mossner, E.C. The Life of David Hume (Oxford, 1980).
- This is the best biography of Hume.
- National Library of Scotland (MS no. 23151–23163).
- This manuscript deposit contains thirteen large volumes assembled from papers collected by Hume’s family after his death. It includes around 150 letters by Hume, 525 letters to him, and several manuscripts of published and unpublished works, most importantly the manuscript of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
- “The Hume Literature,” Hume Studies, 1977-present.
- Each year Hume Studies publishes an annual bibliographical update; these bibliographies exclude articles that appear in Hume Studies itself.
- “An Index of Hume Studies: 1975-1993.” Hume Studies 19.2 (1993).
- This is a bibliographical index of articles that have appeared in Hume Studies since the journal’s inception until 1993.
- Fieser, James. A Bibliography of Hume’s Writings and Early Responses (2005).
- This is a bibliography of Hume’s writings and eighteenth and nineteenth-century responses. It is freely available on the internet.
- Hall, Rolland. Fifty Years of Hume Scholarship: A Bibliographic Guide (1978).
- This bibliography covers from 1925 through 1976, and is continued by the annual Hume bibliographies in Hume Studies.
- Jessop, Thomas Edmund. A bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish philosophy from Francis Hutcheson to Lord Balfour (1938).
- This is the first published scholarly bibliographical work on Hume, early responses to Hume, and other Scottish philosophers.
- Tweyman, Stanley. Secondary Sources on the Philosophy of David Hume: A David Hume Bibliography in Two Volumes, 1741-2005 (2006).
e. Works on Hume
The secondary literature on Hume is voluminous. Below are a few works that cover all aspects of Hume’s philosophy. For works on specific aspects of Hume, such as his epistemology, see other IEP articles on Hume.
- Ayer, A.J. Hume (1980).
- This is a short but informative introduction by a great twentieth-century philosopher who sees himself as following in the Humean tradition.
- Blackburn, Simon. How to Read Hume (2008).
- This is a concise work on various aspects of Hume’s philosophy.
- Fieser, James. Early Responses to Hume’s Writings (London: Continuum, 2005), 10 volumes.
- This contains the principal eighteenth and nineteenth-century criticisms of Hume.
- Kemp Smith, Norman. ThePhilosophyofDavidHume (1941).
- This groundbreaking book set a new direction for Hume scholarship.
- Hume Studies, 1977-present.
- This journal is devoted to Hume scholarship, and most of the volumes are freely accessible on the Hume Studies web site.
- Jones, Peter, ed. The Reception of David Hume in Europe. London, New York: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005.
- This work contains chapters by different writers on Hume’s impact in different European countries.
- Norton, David Fate; Taylor, Jacqueline. The Cambridge Companion to Hume (2008).
- This contains essays by different writers on various aspects of Hume’s philosophy.
- Stroud, Barry. Hume (1981).
- This is an influential analytic discussion of various problems that arise within Hume’s philosophy.
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