The Everlasting Check

Hume on Miracles

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Alexander George
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , January
     2016.
     112 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780674289246.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This slim volume collates three lectures Professor George delivered in 2012. George progresses in two stages: (1) positing his own re-interpretation of Hume’s stance on miracles, as he deems earlier ones miss the mark, and then (2) criticizing Hume’s standpoint, drawing assistance notably from Wittgenstein.

George establishes that while Hume denotes a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” he does not deploy the definition. Rather, he operates not at the level of events but at that of testimony. Consequently, he weighs testimony about a singular, allegedly miraculous event against the well-supported testimony of the community about external regularities collectively observed over time. Hume reasons that this renders these two varying testimonies “commensurable”: fit to be compared. This places Hume, and subsequent interpretations of him, at some remove from actual events themselves. Therefore, the nominalist mantle of Humean philosophy cloaks his discussion of miracles and often the ensuing commentaries on his perspective.

Testimony rests on experiential evidence, and Hume holds that “the evidential strength of testimony ultimately depends on common observation” (16). Thus, the testimony of the believer regarding miracles is deficient on at least two counts. First, psychologically humans suffer a “propensity to the marvelous,” i.e., a delight “in the sensation of wonder that a belief in marvelous events induces” (21). Second, the testimony of a believer occurs within a context of faith springing from divine revelation, and Hume holds, along with Locke, that we have no “clear and distinct” evidence that this originates from God.

Thus, on the scale of credibility, the well-supported propositions the community has generated from empirical observation weigh much more heavily than does the testimony, often relying on the witness of others, coming from the miracle-believer. Consequently, miracle testimony cannot measure up to standards required by the system of reasoning embraced by the community for those matters openly available for its observation and experimentation. In passing, however, George endorses the consensus that Hume does not rule out miracles a priori.

Throughout this first stage of the book (five of the six chapters) George incisively deploys his grasp of formal logic to evince the cogency of his interpretation. Simultaneously, in extended footnotes, he judiciously deals with the divergent views of other commentators.

Despite George’s brilliantly convincing interpretation of Hume’s argument, the final nineteen pages of this book are provoking. George describes his posture on the subjects addressed here as “skating on thin ice” (in his 2012 lecture).

He assaults Hume on two fronts, discharging weapons from the arsenals of Samuel Johnson and Ludwig Wittgenstein. First, George accuses Hume of reading the testimony of religious believers too “simply,” which I gloss to mean literally, outside the context of divine revelation that the believers have embraced, and which undergirds their existential perspective and informs their style of rationality. Along the way George attacks Hume’s wrongheaded—because proto-scientific—analysis of the historical genesis of religion, especially since Hume expressly acknowledges that humans possess a “universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power” (86). An entity wielding such dominion needs to be propitiated and this becomes a non-scientific assumption from which humans’ practical reasoning issues.

Notwithstanding this, the second and major onslaught against Hume advances with the linguistic analysis of Wittgenstein, who proposes that more empirical data is required in order to deal with our bewilderment with the unfamiliar and mysterious. Although tempted to ponder philosophically upon religion, we soon discover such investigation to be ineffectual. The puzzling associations we detect in religious practices, nevertheless, prompt resonances in our own feelings and thought. However, we cannot unravel these linkages in order to analyze them via philosophical reflection because: (1) religious beliefs are not amenable to the system of rationality we use for scientific pursuits, and (2) our language fails us in attempting to describe religious practices and symbology. So, we must re-arrange our words in order to cure their polysemic maladies, e.g., ‘belief’ when enlisted by both science and religion, despite their varying subject matter.

Thus, George leaves us in a muddled state where philosophical reflection avails nothing and becomes mere make-work for its practitioners. We are marooned in a dark wood with no discernible path.

Nonetheless, I suggest, we cannot continue in such aporetic circumstance if we are to remain true to the Anselmian dictum that faith must seek understanding. When faced with a complex of contradictions, a road to some sort of cognition can only begin with the art of poetry, which can hold contradictions in suspension. Further, since we perceive associations among things, this indicates a continuity that allows the postulating of similarities and the birth of metaphors and their concatenations into the symbolic poetry of myth. Thus, we bring poetry to bear on religion with which it is not incompatible, inasmuch as Santayana portrays religion as “the highest poetry.”

Beyond this there may be an overgrown path that needs reconditioning and leads in the following direction. If the essence of a religious symbol is metaphorical and incorporates a tacit proposition, as some philosophical theologians insist, then such metaphors can be extracted and developed into conceptualizations that can be arranged in orderly patterns with apt linguistic labels. Thereafter, they may be handled logically as a theological system evolves.

If all of this pertains, then we are not “lost in the woods,” where George abandons us without maps or compass, bereft of all but fideism. Philosophers may not be destined for lassitude and unemployment when it comes to probing religion.

George’s re-interpretation of Hume is novel, astute, and relentlessly logical. As a result, the initial stage of this book constitutes a valuable resource for students of the history of the philosophy of religion, as well as enlightening reading for those curious about the credibility of miracles. His pessimism regarding the deployment of philosophy to investigate the multitudinous aspects of religion deserves further intensive study by those philosophers willing to skate on thicker metaphysical ice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles Conway is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander George is Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy at Amherst College.

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