About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
New 5-minute Philosopher video: On miracles
Marta: Hello David! How are you today?
David: Hi Marta, I'm fine thanks. I wonder if you have a moment to talk about miracles.
M: As you know, it's one of my favorite topics David, what specifically did you have in mind?
D: I'm trying to understand David Hume's famous argument about miracles, which is still used today by skeptics of religion and of other unusual claims. In the words of astronomer Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
M: Yes, that was Sagan's rendition of Hume's famous conclusion that "a wise man proportions his belief to evidence."
D: Right, but how did Hume arrive at that conclusion, Marta?
M: Well, he started out by acknowledging that human experience is fallible, and that we have all manners of degrees of confidence concerning specific matters of fact.
D: Right, from what I understand, Hume thought that it is reasonable to doubt in particular alleged facts that have rarely or never been reported before.
M: Exactly. So Hume proceeded to define miracles as violations of the laws of nature, and to argue that the validity of the laws of nature is one of the things we can be most sure of, because we observe it every day.
D: Did Hume distinguish between miracles and just very unusual occurrences?
M: Yes, he said: "It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country."
D: Ah, right, that is an important difference. So now I understand why he said 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 endeavors to establish."
M: Precisely, my dear David. Indeed, Hume went on to argue that when someone confronts us with the possibility of a miracle we need to ask ourselves "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."
D: On that basis Hume concluded that there is not a single reliable case of a miracle in all of human history. But how did he explain the fact that people report miracles nonetheless?
M: Here is what he said in response to that question: “The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.”
D: So his opinion was that people are fascinated by strange occurrences, and so readily believe them. And I think he also pointed out that it is easy for some people to take advantage of the credulity of others, or even simply that one feels good about having witnessed such an extraordinary event. All of which explains why people are so easily mistaken or credulous about miracles.
M: Not only that. Hume also pointed out that, strangely enough, one doesn't see many miracles these days, possibly because people have gotten a bit more sophisticated and less credulous.
D: And if I'm not mistaken he went on to make some remarkably daring statements for his time. He said that "it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation.” I guess he meant that it is rather strange for any particular religion to claim that it is the true one, when there are so many others making the same claim, all of them based on precious little evidence.
M: Exactly. Hume also had a viable theory for how some religions manage to establish themselves in the long run. He said: "In the infancy of new religions,the wise and learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat, in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past, and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, have perished beyond recovery.”
D: Do we have any recent examples of this phenomenon that one may study?
M: Oh yes, plenty. Take for instance the establishment of the Mormon religion in the 1820s, or the even more recent rise of Scientology, invented by science fiction writer Ron Hubbard in 1952.
D: Wow, Hume surely had guts to talk about this stuff back in the 18th century. Did he get into trouble for that?
M: Well, nothing serious. He could never get a university post, and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published after his death, originally anonymously. But Hume lived in the age of the Enlightenment, and thankfully by then the time of witch burning was over.
D: Still, modern philosophers and skeptics certainly owe David Hume a major debt for his clear treatment of all sorts of nonsense.
M: Indeed David, Indeed.