Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Jurisprudential Critique of Hume on Miracles


Mark said...

Very strange article. The author probably should've explained why the norms governing the American legal system ought to correspond to our epistemic norms. If he doesn't think they do, I'm not sure what the point of this was.

I think the author misunderstands Hume's argument. Hume isn't simply "counting" regularity vs. miracle testimonies and declaring the majority camp the winner. The question is rather the quality of testimony. On the one hand, we have detailed, systematic and internally unproblematic testimony that a certain regularity R exists: what Hume calls a "proof." On the other hand, we have incredibly sketchy, poorly attested and often wildly inconsistent testimonies against R: what Hume says establishes mere "probability." When we compare proof to probability, the proof wins.

Finally, part of his argument is confusing. He grants that probabilistic evidence is admissible when we're trying to determine the cause of some event, such as the cause of someone's cancer. When it comes to determining the cause of Jesus' tomb being empty, then, why isn't the statistical unlikelihood of resurrection admissible?

Mark said...

Also, some of the things he says are clearly wrong. For instance, he argues that a handful of witnesses of a sports "miracle" (such as breaking a long jump record by an unusually large percentage) suffice to overrule all the naysayers who insist such feats are impossible. "One million track coaches who swear that it was impossible mean nothing compared to one honest judge with a measuring tape who says 'I saw him do it'." But this is plainly not always true. For instance, suppose a referee claims to have watched an athlete jump across the Atlantic ocean. Now imagine there are, say, five more refs willing to corroborate the event. Would we believe the refs? Probably not, even if we might believe six Nobel laureates claiming to have witnessed the same. (Though probably even that wouldn't satisfy us fully. We'd want multiple major news agencies to report it as fact.)

We regularly discriminate between sources based on a number of salient characteristics such as social status, intellect, journalistic integrity, reputation-staking, etc. And for sources who score low on these traits, we regularly reject sufficiently incredible testimony on the basis of prior probability. Maybe the courts work differently, but I think Mr. Hoffman has drastically overstated his case.

Blaise Pascal said...

The best critique of Humes argument i have read so far is by Paley. His argument is propabilistic and very much disproves Hume (he attacks point D). You can download his Evidences of Christianity at The argument is there in the first chapter.

It goes somewhat like this: If "there is a God, who is loving, and who has a plan for our future life, and who is willing to tell us about this plan, because it is necessary for our happiness" (=A), then "there will be a revelation" (=B).

A revelation is an extra-ordinary event that is outside ordinary course of nature, that is: revelation can only happen by a miracle.

Now, the propability of B has at least the propability of A. Since A is not completly improbable, the propability of the proposition that B is not the case, cannot be so high that it cannot be surmounted by human testemony.

A great part of the rest of his book is dedicated to showing (successfully i might say) that we have very good human testemony on this case.