Hume on the Best Attested Miracles


The first argument that Hume offers against believing in miracle stories in Part 2 of his essay on miracles relies on social context in a way that makes it difficult to follow. Hume says that there’s never been a miracle story that’s well enough attested with respect to certain criteria of testimonial strength. A little later in the essay, he cites recent miracle stories coming from that Saint Médard cemetery as meeting the criteria to an exceptionally high degree, but even so, he claims that we can dismiss the stories out of hand. The hidden background assumption is that his Protestant readers wouldn’t have been tempted to believe in miracle stories coming from an oppressed Catholic sect. Other examples in Part 2 of the essay work in the same way. Hume praises to the skies the quality of the evidence for an earlier Jansenist miracle, for a miracle involving the restoration of a leg through holy water at a Catholic cathedral, and a miracle at a temple of Serapis knowing that his readers won’t be inclined to believe in any of them. The point is that these miracles are better attested than the miracle stories in the Bible, and if we shouldn’t believe in the better attested stories, then we shouldn’t believe in the worse. This can seem like an appeal to prejudice, but really Hume is doing something subtler. He knows that it’s easier to criticize the irrational beliefs of others, but sees that once we turn the same standards that we use on others on our own beliefs, epistemic progress is possible.

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Michael Jacovides
Purdue University


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