Late last night, while changing channels on our TV, I happened across a midnight mass that was being broadcast on ABC. After watching for a few minutes my wife and I were struck by how really weird the church service was.
Understand: it wasn't any weirder than any other religious form of worship. I'll give the Catholic priest credit for talking calmly and quietly, unlike more fervent evangelical preachers.
But what he was talking about seemed exceedingly strange to our rational, reasonable, evidence-loving psyches. Which was recognized by the priest (bishop, actually, if I recall correctly), because he spoke about how Jesus' birth and all that followed had to be accepted on faith.
He said that God communicated with humanity through a virgin birth. Later, that messenger from God, Jesus, died and came back to life. These miracles were violations of the laws of nature, the definition of a miracle.
Why people believe in such ridiculous notions would be a complete mystery to me if I hadn't once believed in other miraculously ridiculous religious notions myself. We humans love a good story, especially if the ending is a happy one where we're given eternal life, salvation, enlightenment, or some other spiritual goodie.
I'm glad that I've grown out of such fairy tales. After turning off the midnight mass, I decided to celebrate Christmas Eve by reading some of David Hume's "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding."
So I picked up volume 35 of the Great Books of the Western World, a set that I grew up with and inherited when my mother died (the bookcase in her living room was built to match the width of the Great Books).
I'd never read Hume before, though I've heard much praise of him from the guys and gals who frequent Philosophy Talk, a radio program that I listen to regularly. Often someone will say, "Hume is my favorite philosopher."
His section on miracles is terrific, a lot more pleasing than Christmas music to my skeptical ears. David Hume is fearless when it comes to challenging a belief in miracles. That's particularly impressive considering he wrote in the 1700's, when denying God was a pretty damn serious matter.
A few years ago I asked, "Where have all the miracles gone?" I observed that with the advent of modern science, recording devices, and such, suddenly miracles like walking on water, manifesting loaves of bread out of nothing, virgin births, and coming back to life are nowhere to be seen.
Convenient. Hume asked the same question.
It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present.
...It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enow of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.
Blunt talk. Truthful talk. Miracles are lies. Repeat, lies. People lie. We observe this all the time.
It's a frequent occurrence. Some lies are willful. Others, outside the bounds of conscious awareness. Meaning, we feel like we're telling the truth, but we've been deceived. Perhaps by other people. Perhaps by our own brains, which are prone to making many errors.
So Hume asks whether it makes more sense to believe (1) that a genuine miracle has occurred, something which transcends the laws of nature that are observed to operate with marvelous regularity, or (2) that those testifying about the veracity of the miracle are lying.
Here's Hume's central miracle-demolishing argument. It makes a lot of sense.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
...The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
When any one 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 starts off by saying that human experience argues against the existence of miracles, because we don't observe them. After all, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and we live in a world governed by those laws. So by definition, a miracle is extremely unlikely, improbable, miraculous.
In the second paragraph above, Hume shows his understanding of both the scientific method and how people get along in everyday life. Rarely are we absolutely certain that something will happen. Even the sun rising is indeterminate to an infinitesmial degree. Maybe scientists have miscalculated the physics of solar goings-on, and the sun will flash out of existence suddenly. Extremely unlikely, but possible.
So almost always we weigh the evidence for one proposition against contrary evidence. This is what Hume means by a "mutual destruction of arguments." It's kind of like matter interacting with anti-matter: each annihilates the other, until what remains is the more massive, the largest quantity, the most substantial.
How much force remains behind an argument that a miracle is real after opposing arguments are arrayed against it? None at all, says Hume. The only way a miracle could be accepted is if its falsehood would be more miraculous. Again, brilliant.
Which brings us to the third paragraph in the quotations above.
To accept a miracle, like the story of Jesus being resurrected, we'd have to accept that it would be even more improbable, even more unlikely, even more miraculous for early Christian true believers in Jesus' divinity to not stretch the truth, to not lie, to not choose to pass on certain stories of Jesus' life and death rather than stories which would counter the prevailing Godly narrative.
In short, we'd have to accept that it'd be a miracle if humans acted like human beings: deceitful, biased, untrustworthy, mistake-prone. And that, Hume says, would be absurd, because we observe people acting that way all the time.
So when the evidence for and against a miracle is assessed, the balance always weighs heavily against the miracle. Always. After describing some hypothetical miracles supported by considerable seeming evidence, Hume still says:
All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.
In short, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Such has never happened with a miracle. Thus, there is no reason to believe in them. Have faith in miracles, if you like. Just recognize what you're doing: denying reality.
If "God" (however we define that word) is the most real entity in existence, and the creator of this universe, I suspect She isn't happy when people deny reality. This is like supposed lovers of an artist ignoring her works of art.
The genuine lovers of God, if God exists, are those who, like Hume, seek to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of something, choosing to accept as real only that which really exists.
Stevie Wonder once musically mused that "believers keep on believing". How could they not? Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I was a casual drug user with a pretty substantial amount of experience with psychedelics, and I had pretty much convinced myself that if there was a separate and completely autonomous "God" that could declare existence to be null and void on a whim, then such a "God" would definitely not be worth trying to know.
Way back then, in the early 70's, a younger brother of mine told me that he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. I responded with polite rhetoric akin to "yeah, whatever, good luck with that" and pretty much left it at that.
Fast forward to the late 1990's - the last time I had any contact with this particular brother. I told him that my viewpoint had not changed one single iota since his joyful announcement to me that he was saved. His immediate retort was that he could not be swayed in his viewpoint, and that further discourse in regard to such matters would serve no purpose. I agreed.
Here are some measurable facts about the two of us.
My brother married, and he and his wife raised two well-behaved and successful children. He is a vice-president of one of the larger US brokerage firms, and needless to say his earnings eclipsed mine decades ago.
I am divorced. My ex-wife and I parted company long ago, and our three children were pretty much left to raise themselves. They each have more than their share of difficulties. I am retired due to medical reasons and subsist on Long Term Disability and Social Security Disability.
It sure looks like I got the shitty end of the stick, doesn't it? Still - I would not trade my life for his, even if I could.
Does my brother's relative good fortune have to do with his willingness to believe in miracles? It is alleged that Jesus Christ admonished his followers to "murmur not amongst yourselves, for no man cometh unto me except it were given to him by my Father". Sounds vaguely fatalistic to me!
Posted by: Willie R | December 26, 2011 at 02:45 PM