Thursday, November 17, 2005

Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking

Phil Dowe

Miracles, if they occur, challenge the naturalistic idea that the scientific domain of explanation is all-embracing. But even if we think of science and religion as separate domains, each legitimate, miracles seem to force a point of contact between the two. For this reason, the topic of miracle has always been one of the focal points in discussion of the relation between science and religion. The most penetrating analysis of miracles and their significance for religion [is] that of Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776)

In Chapter 10 of his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, Hume sets out the empiricist challenge to the idea that miracles provide a rational underpinning of religion or some rational basis for belief in God. In particular, Hume has in mind events such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a basis or rational underpinning for Christian faith.

Hume’s discussion comes in two steps. The first step involves the probability of the occurrence of a miracle. Hume’s ‘first argument’ leads to the conclusion that it is never rational to believe, on the strength of the testimony of others, that a miracle has occurred. The second step of Hume’s argument addresses whether the occurrence of a miracle, if it could be established, could be evidence for the existence of God. Hume argues that it would not be, because such ‘miracles’ should rather be taken as as-yet unexplained natural events.
In a typical and delightfully ironic tone Hume ends his chapter with the following comment:

‘Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of [a miracle’s] 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.’

Hume means that given that we cannot ever rationally believe that a miracle has occurred on the basis of testimony, any person who does so actually witnesses a ‘miracle’ within themselves – that of being able to believe against the evidence!

From chapter 4 of Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking – the interplay of science, reason and religion, published by 2005
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