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Hume's Theory of Miracles

Did Hume show that belief in miracles is unreasonable?


Hume defined miracle as a “transgression of law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (Hume, 2012). Because Hume defined miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, miracles were events that could not be explained by appeal to the regular and usual course of nature. Moreover, Hume considered reports of miracles to be testimonies by people which had to be tested before believing in those testimonies. Hume also chose to use the term ‘laws of nature’, thereby bringing into the definition a normative element of the law. It raised the standard for miraculous events to be higher and also allowed Hume to admit that miracles are possible, because if certain events were to happen, which would go against the law of nature, they could be correctly determined to be miracles (Larmer, 1996).


The difficulty with Hume’s arguments is not that he argues that miracles cannot happen, because his definition of miracles clarifies a belief that miracles can happen as a transgression of laws of nature. The difficulty is that Hume argues that there is no testimonial evidence that can justify a belief in the happening of the miracle (Larmer, 1996, p. 28). Due to this argument, Hume started a very intense debate on the issue of miracles when he first wrote about his conceptualisation of miracles. Before Hume, others like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have also written about miracles.

St. Augustine said that for a discerning individual anything can be used to relate to God’s presence or power in the world of time and space. Augustine distinguished between proper and usual events, which could be considered natural and those events that were not normal or usual and could therefore be called as miracles (Houston, 1994, p. 8). For those who are wise and discerning, even the normal and usual events are enough to tell of God. Augustine believed that miracles were performed by the God for the benefit of those people who were not wise enough to perceive his divinity in the discernment of the normal and usual events (Houston, 1994, p. 8). Augustine’s definition of a miracle was “whatever appears that is difficult or unusual, that I call a miracle” (Houston, 1994, p. 9).

St. Thomas Aquinas shifted in the conceptualisation of miracles from Augustine. For Augustine the concept of miraculous was related to the wondrous. However, Aquinas felt that wonder can even be caused due to the lack of knowledge of the natural phenomena. True miracle was really related to that which is done by some divine power. Miraculous events are not caused by the nature because nature does not have the power to bring about such events (Houston, 1994, pp. 21-23).

Both Augustine and Aquinas contended that miracles contribute to the reasonableness of Christianity because these miracles can give believers the justification for believing in Christ being the son of God and the messiah (Houston, 1994). In this even John Locke was in agreement with Augustine and Aquinas. He said:

“The evidence of our Saviour’s mission from heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles that he did, before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God and unquestionable verity” (Locke, 1823).

“The evidence of our Saviour’s mission from heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles that he did, before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God and unquestionable verity” (Locke, 1823). Hume supposed that miracles can be performed either by angels or by devil (Ahluwalia, 2008, p. 97). Hume believed that the miracles as reported by one to the other cannot be simply believed to have happened by the recipient of the information, unless he has experience of the same. Hume was against the Lockean argument that miracles should be believed in even without any evidence being given of the miracle (Houston, 1994, p. 50). Hume on the other hand, as distinguished from Locke, was in favour of weighing of the evidence that may lead to the belief in the reported miracle.

For Hume, miracles are testimonial by nature because he only considered the historical claims of miracles to support a historically based religion (Levine, 2012). Hume argued that there was always a greater possibility that the testimony of miracle is false than that it should be true. He said that testimony should provide evidence that is less reliable than direct experience (Levine, 2012, p. 104). This is seen in the following words of Hume:

“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, 2012).

As Hume’s words make clear, the basic question that Hume put before himself and us is what should be the extent of our belief in the happening of a miracle when we are told about it by another person. Here, he argued that reason should be used for weighing the verity of the testimony as against the verity of the supposed miracle. Hume believed that the greater miracle should not be believable by him, unless the fact of the person relating the miracle should itself be even more miraculous. In other words, it can be seen to be almost impossible that Hume would consider the verity of any miracle because reason would always inform him that the testimony is not believable.

The same argument is applied to the theory of transubstantiation, as per which wine and bread tested during sacrament of Holy Communion undergo a substantiation and become the blood and body of Jesus, Hume believes that the doctrine of transubstantiation repudiates our sense and because the doctrine is testimonial in nature, therefore, it cannot be believed (Levine, 2012, p. 104).


  • Ahluwalia, L., 2008. Understanding Philosophy of Religion: Understanding Philosophy. s.l.:Folens Ltd..
  • Hume, D., 2012. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Dover Philosophical Classics.
  • Houston, J., 1994. Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Larmer, R., 1996. David Hume and the Miraculous. In: R. Larmer, ed. Questions of Miracles. London: McGill's Queen Press, pp. 26-39.
  • Levine, M., 2012. Hume and the Problem of Miracles: A Solution. London: Springer.
  • Locke, J., 1823. Reasonableness of Christianity . In: The Works of John Locke in Ten Volumes. London: s.n.

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