Argument Against Miracles

Introduction

Note: Although the points below relate to the resurrection of Jesus, they are equally applicable to all miracles.

David Hume defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, or ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity’ and that a miracle is by definition improbable. He concluded that on the basis of experience the probability that a miracle has occurred must always be less than the probability that it hasn’t. In other words we can never conclude that a miracle probably occurred. This reasoning has been defended by Bart Ehrman such as the following:

Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred.1

Since historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, they cannot show that miracles happened, since this would involve a contradiction—that the most improbable event is the most probable. 2

Hume’s position however has been attacked by contemporary philosophers such as agnostic John Earman in 2000:

Hume’s argument is largely derivative, almost wholly without merit where it is original, and worst of all, reveals the impoverishment of his treatment of inductive reasoning. 3

…In “Of Miracles,” Hume pretends to stand on philosophical high ground, hurling down thunderbolts against miracle stories. The thunderbolts are supposed to issue from general principles about inductive inference and the credibility of eyewitness testimony. But when these principles are made explicit and examined under the lens of Bayesianism, they are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice. 4

In a 2006 debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, Craig describes Hume’s position as an abject failure and demonstrably fallacious. The probability that a miracle occurred may be low when relative to our previous experience of the world, but it can be high relative to our previous experience of the world and the specific evidence. Craig explains using Bayesian inference: 

When we talk about the probability of some event or hypothesis A, that probability is always relative to a body of background information B. So we speak of the probability of A on B, or of A with respect to B.

So in order to figure out the probability of the resurrection, let B stand for our background knowledge of the world apart from any evidence for the resurrection. Let E stand for the specific evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and so on. Finally, let R stand for Jesus’ resurrection. Now what we want to figure out is the probability of Jesus’ resurrection given our background knowledge of the world and the specific evidence in this case.

(Calculating the Probability of the Resurrection)

B = Background knowledge

E = Specific evidence (empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, etc.)

R = Resurrection of Jesus

Pr (R/B & E) 5

William Craig went on to say during the debate:

In other words, in calculating the probability of Jesus’ resurrection, the only factor [Bart Ehrman] considers is the intrinsic probability of the resurrection alone [Pr(R/B)]. He just ignores all of the other factors. And that’s just mathematically fallacious. The probability of the resurrection could still be very high even though the Pr(R/B) alone is terribly low. Specifically, Dr. Ehrman just ignores the crucial factors of the probability of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection [Pr(not- R/B) × Pr(E/B& not-R)]. If these are sufficiently low, they outbalance any intrinsic improbability of the resurrection hypothesis.

…Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low…But here, I think, he’s confused…In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting. 6

David Hume’s views on miracles have come under huge criticism from modern philosophers. Although this does not conclude that the resurrection occurred, or that it was even probable, the argument from miracles fails to show that simply because the resurrection would be classed as a miracle, then it is never reasonable to believe it happened.

William Lane Craig concluded:

Now Hume had an excuse for his abject failure: the probability calculus hadn’t yet been developed in his day. But today New Testament theologians no longer have any excuse for using such demonstrably fallacious reasoning. 7

  1. The Historical Jesus. Part 2, p50[]
  2. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, p. 229[]
  3. John Earman. 2000. Hume’s Abject Failure, The Argument Against Miracles. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.pitt.edu/~jearman/Earman2000HumeAbjectFailure.pdf. [Accessed 19 April 2018].[]
  4. John Earman. 2000. Hume’s Abject Failure, The Argument Against Miracles. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.pitt.edu/~jearman/Earman2000HumeAbjectFailure.pdf. [Accessed 19 April 2018].[]
  5. William Lane Craig. 2006. Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman/. [Accessed 19 April 2018].[]
  6. William Lane Craig. 2006. Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman/. [Accessed 19 April 2018].[]
  7. William Lane Craig. 2006. Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman/. [Accessed 19 April 2018].[]