This year, one of the most essential holy days in the Christian calendar, Easter, coincides with perhaps the silliest of annual secular celebrations, April Fools’ Day. Easter commemorates a miraculous event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. April Fools’ Day is marked by practical jokes and hoaxes.
The conjunction of these two days raises a question: Is the belief in miracles the mark of a fool? One major thinker, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, said yes.
Hume published perhaps his most widely read work 270 years ago, the “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” A milestone in philosophy, its 10th section, which he entitled “Of Miracles,” was intentionally omitted.
Hume later explained that he excised the section to avoid offending his readers’ religious sensibilities – and perhaps also to spare himself the censure to which doing so would give rise. Yet the 10th section is included in all modern editions.
In “Of Miracles,” Hume claims to have discovered an argument that will check what he calls “all superstitious delusion.” It is based on this definition of a miracle: “A transgression of a law of nature by a deity or invisible agent.”
Though not original to Hume, this definition quickly gained wide assent. Just 60 years later, Thomas Jefferson had produced his own version of the Bible, “The Life and Morals of Jesus,” from which all of the miracles had been expunged as offenses against reason.
A bit about Hume
Born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Hume entered university there at the remarkably young age of 12, but he never graduated. He read voraciously. As a young man, he suffered something close to a mental breakdown. His initial attempts to write philosophy fell “dead-born from the press,” but he landed a post as a librarian at the university. He subsequently wrote a best-selling history of England. In a number of important philosophical works, he exemplified skepticism, the view that certain kinds of knowledge are impossible, and naturalism, the belief that only natural forces can be evoked as explanations.
Hume’s skepticism led him to reject many speculations about the nature of reality, such as belief in the existence of God. Though he produced a number of important philosophical works, his views on religion encumbered his career. He died, likely from some form of abdominal cancer, in 1776.
Concerning the role of miracles in Christianity, Hume wrote in “Of Miracles”:
“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.”
By defining miracles as either highly improbable or perhaps even impossible events, Hume essentially guarantees that reason will always weigh strongly against them. He points out that different religions have their own tales about miracles, but because they contradict one another on multiple points, all of them cannot be true. He also argues that those who claim to have witnessed miracles are gullible and hopelessly biased by their own religious beliefs.
Hume’s enduring influence
Hume’s views on miracles have many defenders in the present day. For example, the biologist Richard Dawkins defines miracles as “coincidences which have a very low probability, but which are, nonetheless, in the realm of probability,” implying that they can be accounted for by science. The late polemicist Christopher Hitchens rejected claims of miracles by saying, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
So pervasive is Hume’s account of miracles that it can even be found in the dictionary. Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.” If miracles do not contradict science outright, the definition suggests, they at least resist explanation by scientific principles, and thus stand out as supernatural, a category of events that many people reject out of hand.
Augustine’s alternative view of miracles
Of course, other accounts of miracles are possible. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fifth century, explicitly rejected the idea that miracles are contrary to nature, holding instead that they are contrary only to our knowledge of nature. He went on to argue that miracles are made possible by hidden capacities in nature placed there by God. In other words, our knowledge of what is naturally possible is limited, and new potentialities may over time reveal themselves.
At prior points in history, many capabilities we take for granted today would have seemed miraculous. Human flight, the wireless transmission of the human voice, and the transplantation of human organs would have struck men like Hume and Jefferson as impossibilities. It is likely that as history continues to unfold, new capacities in nature will be identified, and human beings will command new powers that we cannot imagine today.
Miracles versus science
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the course of history inexorably moves unusual events from the domain of the miraculous to the scientific. Augustine also famously wrote:
“Is not the universe itself a miracle, yet visible and of God’s making? Nay, all the miracles done in this world are less than the world itself, the heaven and earth and all therein; yet God made them all, and after a manner that man cannot conceive or comprehend.”
Augustine does not argue that human understanding cannot advance, or that science is impossible. Nor does he regard science and miracles as opposed to one another. To the contrary, Augustine is highlighting an account of science and the human desire to know that treats the world as we experience it every day as no less miraculous than any event that science cannot explain. From this point of view, daily life is full of wonder, if only we see it rightly.
As a physician, I regularly experience this sense of wonder in the practice of medicine. We know a lot about how babies are made, how human beings grow and develop, how infections and cancer arise, and what happens when we die. Yet there is also a great deal we don’t understand. In my experience, deepening our scientific understanding of such events and processes does not diminish our sense of wonder at their beauty. To the contrary, it deepens and enriches it.
Inspecting cells through a microscope, using CT and MRI to peer into the inner recesses of the human body, or simply listening carefully as patients offer up insights on their lives – these experiences open up the realm of wonder to which Augustine is pointing. Of course, many people outside of medicine enjoy similar experiences, as when sunlight filters down through the leaves or forms a rainbow as it passes through drops of rain.
Some, Hume among them, might say that it would be a blessing to drive out all trace of the miraculous from our view of the world, perhaps even dismissing the possibility of miracles outright. Others – myself included – think otherwise. Far from seeking to expunge the miraculous from life, we strive instead to reawaken our awareness of its presence. To those who see the world in such terms, April 1 this year is less about hoaxes than the blossoming of a renewed sense of wonder at the fullness and beauty of life.
About The Author
Richard Gunderman, Chancellor's Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University