Design and the Humean Touchstone


Peter S. Williams

The shadow of David Hume (1711 – 1776), Scotland’s most famous philosopher, is often cast over questions of epistemology, evidence, design and God by skeptics today. However, I think that the ‘Humean touchstone’ is overplayed. On the one hand, as many contemporary philosophers have pointed out, some of Hume’s famous beliefs and arguments are deeply flawed. On the other hand, there are some things Hume argued that, while they seem to be correct, actually cast a positive light upon intelligent design theory and upon its relation to belief in God.

Skeptical About Metaphysics – There is no Fork

‘Hume. . . developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent made it incredible.’ – Bertrand Russell[1]

Hume considered a career in law, but had: ‘an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning.’[2] A letter from 1727 reveals Hume was already engaged in study leading to the publication of his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). Many scholars consider the Treatise to be Hume’s most important work, and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy. At the time, Hume lamented that the volume: ‘fell dead-born from the press’, and he reworked some of the Treatise into the more popular An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In the conclusion of his Enquiry, Hume summarized the basis of his skepticism:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or existence? No. Commit it to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[3]

This forerunner of the notorious (and discredited) verification principle of the logical positivists[4] (known as ‘Hume’s Fork’) is a grand example of the pot calling the kettle black, as becomes obvious if we ask whether Hume’s Fork contains any abstract reasoning concerning number or any experimental reasoning concerning existence? The answer, in both cases, is ‘No’. To be consistent, Hume would have to commit his own conclusion to the flames! This is a self-destructive philosophy: ‘Hume’s contention that all meaningful statements are either a relation of ideas or else about matters of fact is itself neither of these. Hence, on its own grounds it would be meaningless.’[5]

Hume’s empiricism led him to be skeptical about metaphysics, which we may define as: ‘philosophical inquiry that does not confine itself to abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number and experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or existence’. Metaphysics includes the fields of ethics (the study of moral value) and aesthetics (the study of beauty), among others. Hume thought it impossible to find objectively true answers to metaphysical questions. Hence he thought it impossible to find objectively true answers to questions about what is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. According to Hume’s Fork, any attempt to give an objective answer to metaphysical questions, including questions about value, must: ‘contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’ It follows that metaphysical questions can only have answers that are subjective or relative in nature, the kind of answer where ‘what’s true for you may not be true for me’.

Skeptical About Beauty

For example, Hume advocated a subjective view of beauty, writing that:

All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always right, whenever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, a real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard. . . Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.[6]

Hume subjectively defined beauty as: ‘nothing but a form which produces pleasure.’[7] Hence, if masochistic acts produce in me a feeling of pleasure, then masochism is ‘beautiful’, for me. Beauty depends upon personal pleasure, and is therefore relative to the subject. No aesthetic judgements can be false, because no one can be mistaken about their own subjective reactions: ‘Sublimity [i.e. beauty] does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind.’[8] As C.S. Lewis explained, on such a scheme: ‘the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront each other, and no rapprochement is possible.’[9]

However, Hume’s view puts the cart before the horse. Aesthetic value, like moral value, is experienced as a reality beyond ourselves: ‘Beauty belongs, prima facie, to things. It is not emotions which are beautiful but that which arouses them.’[10] This objective view of beauty represents the common sense presumption of human tradition: ‘in pre-modern aesthetics. . . aesthetic objects and values are generally taken to be prior, with aesthetic responses and attitudes being held to be posterior to and explicable in terms of these. . .’[11] As Anthony O’Hear writes, ‘When we call a sunset beautiful, we unreflectively take ourselves to be speaking of the sunset and its properties. We do not, as Hume [and his followers] maintain, take ourselves to be speaking about nothing in the object, or to be merely gilding and staining it with projected sentiment. . .’[12] If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then it is very odd that an appreciation for beauty has featured so prominently as a reliable guide in the process of scientific theory choosing (particularly in the fields of physics and cosmology). In sum, I think we should agree with Alvin Plantinga when he says that: ‘To grasp the beauty of a Mozart D Minor piano concerto is to grasp something that is objectively there; it is to appreciate what is objectively worthy of appreciation.’[13]

Skeptical About Causality

As an empiricist, Hume believed that all knowledge of matters of fact comes via the five senses. Hume said the world makes ‘impressions’ upon us through our senses that form the basis of ‘ideas’ (faint copies of impressions) in our minds. Hume thought that these ideas could only be related to each other by mental custom or habit, and that such relationships of ideas do not necessarily represent the way things are in the real world ‘out there’. Indeed, Hume argued that causation (e.g. one billiard ball’s causing another to move by hitting it) is nothing but ‘a determination of the mind’.

Hume did not deny the principle of causality that ‘from nothing, nothing comes’. He admitted it would be absurd to say that things (like forks) pop into existence without a cause; but he denied that there is any way to establish this principle of causality. If the principle is not an analytic relation of ideas (and therefore uninformative about reality), but ‘a determination of the mind’ based on custom (the only other option in Hume’s philosophy), then the principle does not necessarily hold in the real world. However:

dividing all contentful statements into these two classes is self-defeating. Hence it is possible that the causal principle is both contentful and necessary. In point of fact, the very denial of causal necessity implies some kind of causal necessity in the denial. For unless there is a necessary ground (or cause) for the denial, then the denial does not necessarily stand. And if there is a necessary ground or cause for the denial, then the denial is self-defeating. . .[14]

As C.S. Lewis observed, naturalism gives us no reason to think of our belief in the uniformity of causation as anything but ‘a fact about us’, because this belief ‘can be trusted only if quite a different Metaphysic is true.’[15] That is: ‘If the deepest thing in reality. . . is a thing in some degree like ourselves. . . then indeed our conviction can be trusted.’[16] If a necessary and reliable personal being created the universe, then it is rational to expect the universe to be orderly. Indeed, science was born out of belief in a rational God who had made a rational cosmos and humans with rational minds fitted to understanding their environment.[17] However, Hume was skeptical about this common sense account of the human mind and its freedom to investigate and understand its environment (something that should give devotees of Hume and science pause for thought).

Skeptical About The Self

Hume denied the common sense distinction between the various features of a person’s mental life and the person whose mental life those features form. He argued that when you introspect you notice a thoughts, feeling and perceptions one after another, but you don’t perceive anything you could call ‘the self’. So far as we can tell, said Hume, there is nothing to ‘the self’ over and above a ‘bundle’ of successive mental states. For Hume, perceptions exist, but they do not belong to anyone. This makes the question of personal identity over time problematical. How do we distinguish between your thoughts and my thoughts? (From Hume’s point of view we can’t say that my thoughts are the ones that I can perceive and your thoughts the ones you can perceive without begging the question of the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ that do the perceiving. One might argue that such assumptions are inescapable and are therefore grounds for questioning Hume’s ‘Bundle’ theory.) Can I be one and the same person as woke up this morning if the thoughts and feelings that existed then don’t exist now? How can anyone scientifically investigate the world if one and the same person is not now writing up the results that they gathered last week? J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig object to Hume’s denial of the self: ‘if we were not already aware of ourselves, how would we know which stream of consciousness or which body to investigate in order to confirm or rule out an awareness of my “I”? Introspection and knowledge of one’s body and mental life presupposes awareness of the “I”.’[18] (The reason that it is hard to perceive the self is that it is the self that engages in perceiving this and that.) Hume admitted that he was dissatisfied with his account of the self, but never returned to the issue.

Skeptical About Freedom

Hume distinguished between two meanings of ‘free will’. The first, which he called ‘liberty of difference’, is the common meaning of free will: the ability to make choices that are not the necessary effect of prior causes. The second, which he called ‘liberty of spontaneity’, means only that someone’s actions are not forcibly constrained or hindered. On the assumption that we observe in human affairs ‘the same uniformity and regular operation of natural principles’[19] found in the physical world, Hume argued that there is no liberty of difference. Our actions are the necessary effects of prior causes (and those causes the effects of further prior causes, etc.). However, we can still be described as ‘free’, in the sense of having liberty of spontaneity, if our actions are not the effect of outside causes forcing or preventing us doing what the series of causes that ended up inside us caused us to attempt to do. If that happens - for example, if I try to go for a walk (as a result of an internal series of cause and effect) but am prevented from doing so by being in prison - then I lack liberty of spontaneity.

Does liberty of spontaneity has any significance without liberty of difference? What does it matter that my ‘decision’ to go for a walk is frustrated if my ‘decision’ is the necessary effect of a chain of causes over which I have no control, no liberty of difference? Hume reduces all talk of ‘I have decided to X’ to talk of ‘I have been caused to X’. Many philosophers would argue that such a reduction is contradicted by the reality of moral accountability (if I was caused to steal, can I be morally responsible for stealing?) and rationality (if I am caused to arrive a conclusion because of the way the natural world works, can I have arrived at that conclusion because there was good reason to do so?).[20]

Skeptical About God?

According to Isaiah Berlin: ‘In 1776 [Hume] died, as he had lived, an atheist. . .’[21] However, Hume expert (and founder of the Hume Society) Nicholas Capaldi states that: ‘In none of his writings does Hume say or imply that he does not accept the existence of God. On the contrary, Hume says in several places that he accepts the existence of God.’[22] What Hume did reject was the traditional formulations of a number of arguments for God. This is hardly surprising given his skepticism about metaphysics.

Hume’s objections to the analogical design argument (the universe is analogous to a manufactured object and so probably has an analogous, intelligent cause) are well known, but had the effect of limiting rather than eliminating the conclusion of the argument: On the one hand, inferences to design are examples of experimental reasoning, often involving consideration of probabilities. On the other hand, arguments about the specific nature of a designer, or the number of designers, are metaphysical. Like good Humeans, ID theorists insist upon distinguishing between arguing for intelligent design and arguing for divine design (a fact that critics of ID often obfuscate). For example, Michael J. Behe writes:

my argument is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. . .  as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase, hypothesis non fingo.

As Francis J. Beckwith writes: ‘ID is a research program whose inferences support, and are consistent with, some belief in a higher intelligence or deity; it is not a creed that contains belief in a specific deity as one of its tenets.’[23]

While a design paradigm has historically dominated cosmology and biology (from Anaxagorus, through Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Newton and Paley), design arguments have also been a part of natural theology, the philosophical project of providing evidence for God’s existence. However, design arguments can only provide part of the evidence for God.[24] As William A. Dembski notes: ‘detecting design. . . does not implicate any particular intelligence.’[25] Failure to appreciate the distinction between intelligent design and divine design has contributed to the scientific establishment throwing out the design paradigm as essentially tied to belief in God when it is not. After all, one could accept intelligent design and attribute it to the activity of angels, demons, Plato’s finite god (the Demiurge), the gods of Egyptian, Greek or Norse polytheism, or to aliens (whether from this universe or a parallel universe), rather than to God (hence it is logically possible for an atheist to support ID[26]).

The truth is that ‘Intelligent design is not a form of natural theology’[27]; and while every design argument for God is an argument for intelligent design, not every argument for intelligent design need be viewed as an argument for God - at least, not without considerations from outside ID as a scientific theory being brought to bear: ‘intelligent design theory by itself makes no claims about the nature of the designer, and scientists currently working within an intelligent design framework include Protestants, Catholics, Jews, agnostics, and others.’[28]

Hume’s objections to the design argument are slimming but not starving, and the conclusion they leave can be extended philosophically. For example, Hume objected that: ‘A great number of men join in building a house or a ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth, why may not several deities combine in framing a world?’[29] Belief in the bare notion of ‘intelligent design’ is certainly compatible with belief in more than one designer (divine or otherwise). However, as Stephen T. Davis asks: ‘If there is more than one designer, exactly how many are there? And why do they cooperate? Those questions do not need to be asked if there is but one designer.’[30] Moreover, this is a universe of ‘diversity in unity’. Richard Swinburne notes: ‘If there were more than one deity responsible for the order of the universe, we should expect to see characteristic marks of the handiwork of different deities in different parts of the universe, just as we see different workmanship in the different houses of a city.’[31] But as Hume wrote in his Natural History of Religion (1757):

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism. . . All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author.[32]

Like Hume, intelligent design theorists draw a distinction between scientific inferences from nature to intelligent design, and metaphysical discussions aimed at giving further specificity to the designing intelligence in question (or to questions about how and why the design in question was implemented). As John G. West argues:

Intelligent design theory may hold implications for fields outside of science such as theology, ethics, and philosophy. But such implications are distinct from intelligent design as a scientific research program. In this matter intelligent design theory is no different than the theory of evolution. Leading Darwinists routinely try to draw out theological and cultural implications from the theory of evolution. Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, for example, claims that Darwin ‘made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.’ Harvard’s E.O. Wilson employs Darwinian biology to deconstruct religion and the arts. Other Darwinists try to elicit positive implications for religion from Darwin’s theory. The pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has organized a ‘Faith Network’ to promote the study of evolution in churches. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the NCSE, acknowledges that the purpose of the group’s ‘clergy outreach program’ is ‘to try to encourage members of the practicing clergy to address the issue of Evolution in Sunday schools and adult Bible classes’ and to get church members to talk about ‘the theological implications of evolution.’ The NCSE’s ‘Faith Network Director’ even claims that ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution…has, for those open to the possibilities, expanded our notions of God.’ If Darwinists have the right to explore the cultural and theological implications of Darwin’s theory without disqualifying Darwinism as science, then ID-inspired discussions in the social sciences and the humanities clearly do not disqualify design as a scientific theory.[33]

Philosophers John Perry and Michael Bratman conclude:

the mature Hume was a theist, albeit of a vague and weak-kneed sort. He seems to have been convinced by the argument from design of the proposition ‘That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.’ But he was also convinced that the argument does not permit this undefined intelligence to be given further shape or specificity. . .[34]

Hume’s critique of the design argument (although many scholars think it over-rated[35]) is a helpful corrective to any natural theology that seeks to rest the case for God on any one argument, such as the design argument, rather than upon an accumulation of arguments (cosmological, moral, etc.). As Hume warned:

When we infer any particular cause for an effect we must proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to any cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect.[36]

Skeptical About Miracles

Hume defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ (a definition that does not mention the divine.) Now, if we accept Hume’s definition of a ‘miracle’, and if inferring that this paper is the product of intelligent design (because it exhibits specified complexity[37]) commits us to saying that natural laws must have been ‘violated’ in its production, then we would have to say that ID is committed to a belief in miracles. However, we would also have to say that admitting that this paper is the product of intelligent design, rather than an accident at a scrabble convention, commits us to a belief in miracles! On the other hand, if inferring design from this paper does not require belief in the violation of natural law, then neither does that belief that, for example, the bacterial flagellum is exhibits specified complexity by way of being irreducibly complex and thereby grounds a design inference.[38] As philosophers love to say, ‘it depends what you mean by. . .’; but either way, ID appears to stand or fall with uncontroversial bedfellows.

It should be noted that many philosophers have taken issue with Hume’s definition of a miracle as a ‘violation’ of natural law, preferring to talk in terms of ‘extraordinary acts’, or ‘temporary suspensions’ of and ‘additions’ to divinely instigated and sustained natural laws. As Charles Taliaferro and Anders Hendrickson note: ‘historically theists see miracles more like presidential pardons than violations of the law.’[39]

If a ‘miracle’ is defined more like a presidential pardon, as an extraordinary act of a divine agent, then ID certainly is not committed to belief in miracles, because ID is not committed to a belief in any divine agent/s. It is true to say that many ID theorists are philosophically and theologically committed to the idea that the intelligence in question is both singular and divine. For such people, belief in specific examples of intelligent design may equate to belief in one or more specific ‘miracles’ in the above ‘presidential’ sense. Whether or not one decides to utilize the language of ‘miracle’ in relation to design otherwise will depend in part upon whether or not one would broaden the definition of ‘miracle’ to classify the actions of more mundane agents (e.g. humans) as in some sense ‘miraculous’ or ‘supernatural’ (one might well prefer to reserve talk of the miraculous for the divine whilst acknowledging that intelligent agents cannot be explained in reductive, metaphysically naturalistic terms).

In his Enquiry Hume introduced an influential argument against the credibility of belief in miracles: ‘I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument. . . which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.’[40] In Hume’s own words:

  1. ‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature’

  2. ‘Firm and unalterable experience has established these laws’

  3. ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’

  4. Therefore: ‘the proof against miracles. . . is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.’[41]

The ‘Hard’ Interpretation

According to the ‘hard’ interpretation of this argument (adopted by nineteenth century liberal theologian David Strauss), Hume is arguing:

  1. Miracles, by definition, are a violation of natural law

  2. Natural laws are unalterably uniform

  3. Therefore, miracles cannot occur

Hume does appear to be using this ‘hard’ argument when he says: ‘it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or century.’[42] However, in this argument: ‘Hume’s definition of a miracle and his understanding of the laws of nature simply beg the question.’[43] Hume simply defines miracles as unobserved and impossible events. As CS. Lewis commented:

we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.[44]

Lewis pointed out that belief in God, which renders belief in the uniformity of nature more than a mere ‘determination of the mind’, also renders miracles possible:

Theology says to you in effect, ‘Admit God and with Him the risk of a few miracles, and I in return will ratify your faith in uniformity as regards the overwhelming majority of events’ The philosophy which forbids you to make uniformity absolute is also the philosophy which offers you solid grounds for believing it to be general. . . The alternative is really much worse. Try to make Nature absolute and you find that her uniformity is not even probable. You get the deadlock, as in Hume.[45]

Charles Taliaferro and Anders Hendrickson highlight: ‘a significant parallel between Hume’s stand on white supremacy and on miracles.’[46] On miracles: ‘Hume’s concepts of miracle, laws of nature, and violations of such laws, make naturalism a foregone conclusion.’[47] Whereas, ‘if one has reason either to be neutral in background assumptions or, if one has some reason for thinking theism is true. . . circumstances change.’[48] That is, they change such that one is open to following the evidence wherever it leads. On white supremacy, Hume asserted that there has been

a uniform and constant association of whites and superior intelligence, nonwhites and inferior intelligence. He acknowledges reports of exceptions. . . but dismisses this talk in light of his view of the regular, uniform, exception less character of nature. . . Hume ends up assuming that to expect black intelligence is as unreasonable as to expect a miracle.[49]

Hume was of course well aware of widespread reports of intelligence among non-whites (such as Francis Williams from Jamaica, who held a degree from Cambridge University, headed a school, and was know for his Latin poetry), just as he was well aware of widespread reports of miracles throughout history. However, in both cases: ‘What Hume’s racism and anti-supernaturalism bring to light is that if one is already entrenched in one’s (negative) convictions about supposed intelligent nonwhites and a divine intelligence, then one will systematically take a highly skeptical stand on reports to the contrary.’[50] In both cases, Hume’s skepticism is question begging: ‘The fact that racism is morally outrageous certainly secures the serious consequences of Hume’s line of reasoning. . .’[51] Indeed, Hume’s racist assumptions appear to play a role in his argument against miracles: ‘It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations [i.e. amongst non-white nations]. . .’[52]

One may draw an analogy between Hume’s question begging dismissals of non-white intelligence and of miracles on the one hand, and the dismissal on methodological grounds of ‘intelligent design’ as unreasonable and/or unscientific by some of its opponents on the other. Certain critics attempt to simply define ID away via a commitment to ‘methodological naturalism’, just as Hume attempted to define away miracles as unobserved and impossible events. Against this dismissal by definition, design theorists argue that a philosophy of science that embraces a hard-line ‘methodological naturalism’ (which excludes the possibility that evidence can establish design in nature) is inadequate because it de-rails science as a search for truth, shunting it into a branch-line of applied naturalism that seeks merely ‘the best theory compatible with metaphysical naturalism’. Richard Lewontin openly admits:

It is not that the methods. . . of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the. . . world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our. . . adherence to material causes to create. . . a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying. . .[53]

How does Lewontin’s a priori endorsement of counterintuitive and mystifying material explanations (if they are the only way to avoid un-naturalistic explanations) differ epistemologically from Hume’s a priori endorsement of racist explanations? ‘In Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning’ wrote Hume of Francis Williams; ‘but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.’[54] Both cases consist in the attitude: ‘I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.’ As Dembski notes in the case of Darwinism: ‘we are dealing with a naturalistic metaphysic that shapes and controls what theories of biological origins are permitted on the playing field in advance of any discussion or weighing of evidence.’[55] And as philosopher of science Del Ratzsch observes:

The scientific attitude has usually been characterized as a commitment to following the evidence wherever it leads. That does not look like promising ammunition for someone pushing an official policy of refusing to allow science to follow evidence to. . . design no matter what the evidence turns out to be. . . it commits science to either having to deliberately ignore major (possibly even observable) features of the material realm or having to refrain from even considering the obvious and only workable explanation, should it turn out that those features clearly resulted from [intelligent] activity. . . any imposed policy of naturalism in science has the potential not only of eroding any self-correcting capability of science but of preventing science from reaching certain truths. Any imposed policy of methodological naturalism will have precisely the same potential consequences.[56]

Of course, if philosophical naturalism is true, then a policy of methodological naturalism cannot possibly subvert the truth seeking intent of science (likewise, if white supremacy were true, Hume’s racism would not have run the risk of blinding him to the achievements of non-whites); but perhaps philosophical naturalism is not true, and perhaps science should operate without making any assumptions that run any risk of forcing it to ignore reality.

The ‘Soft’ Interpretation

Hume’s argument can also be interpreted as arguing: ‘not for the impossibility of miracles but for the incredibility of accepting miracles.’[57] This ‘soft’ version of Hume’s argument runs as follows:

  1. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence

  2. A natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence

  3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than the evidence for the rare

  4. A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence

  5. Therefore, a wise man should never believe a miracle has happened

Norman L. Geisler comments that on this ‘soft’ interpretation of the argument: ‘the rationality of belief in miracles is eliminated, since by the very nature of the case no thoughtful person should ever hold that a miracle has indeed occurred.’[58] However, as John Earman argues: ‘An epistemology [theory of knowledge] that does not allow for the possibility that evidence, whether from eyewitness testimony or from other source, can establish the credibility of a UFO landing, a walking on water, or a resurrection is inadequate.’[59]

Hume’s argument against miracles proves too much. One might expect an empiricist to argue that it is irrational to believe in a miracle without sufficient evidence (a position that leaves open the possibility of being rationally convinced that a miracle has happened); but Hume argues that the evidence for a miracle can never be sufficient for rational belief even if a miracle has happened. Even if Jesus did rise from the dead (for example), and you were one of the people who actually met and talked with him afterwards, Hume says that you ought not to believe it! Likewise, the assumption of naturalism, methodological or otherwise, dictates that the evidence can never be sufficient for rational belief in design even if design has happened.

Hume says we should always believe what is most probable. Geisler observes that: ‘On these grounds. . . we should never believe we have been dealt a perfect bridge hand (though this has happened) since the odds against it are 1,635,013,559,600 to 1!’[60] As Hendrik Van Der Breggen notes: ‘Much critical examination of Hume’s argument by philosophers has made it abundantly clear that Hume seriously overestimates the negative evidential weight of the law-of-nature side of the scale bears on the credibility of miracle testimony.’[61] Sometimes the probability of an event based on past observation is low, but the evidence for the event is very good based on current observation and/or reliable testimony: ‘if a number of independent probabilities converge upon an alleged miraculous event, and alternative naturalistic explanations are inadequate to explain the data. . . it becomes entirely reasonable to believe that this miraculous event has occurred.’[62] Geisler concludes: ‘Hume’s argument confuses quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence. . . The wise do not legislate in advance that miracles cannot be believed to have happened; rather, they look at the evidence to see if God has indeed acted in history.’[63] A similar remark could be made about looking for evidence of design rather than legislating in advance that design cannot possibly exist, or that evidence of design cannot possibly exist, or that evidence of design cannot possibly be sufficient to justify a design inference.

By freeing science to follow the evidence wherever it leads one might discover that the universe does in fact exhibit ‘signs of intelligence’; and by freeing historical inquiry to do the same, one may hope to move beyond the bare conclusion of ‘intelligent design’, bringing specificity to Hume’s ‘weak-kneed’ acknowledgement of a designing intelligence.

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R. Douglas Geivett & Gary R. Habermas (ed.’s), In Defence of Miracles, (Apollos, 1997)

C.S. Lewis, Miracles, second edition, (Fount, 1998)

Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000)

Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea, (IVP, 2004)

Richard Swinburne, ‘The Argument from Design’, R. Douglas Geivett & Brendan Sweetman (ed.’s), Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Charles Taliaferro & Anders Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against the Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002

Peter S. Williams, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response To Nihilism, (Damaris, 2004)


[1] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (Allen and Unwin, 1946), p. 658.

[2] David Hume, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 12.3.

[4] cf. William P. Alston, ‘Religious Language and Verificationism’, Paul Copan & Paul K. Moser (ed.’s), The Rationality of Theism, (London: Routledge, 2003)

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1996), p. 22.

[6] David Hume, On the Standard of Taste.

[7] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.

[8] ibid.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (Fount), p. 16.

[10] C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief, p. 145.

[11] John Haldane, ‘Admiring the High Mountains’, T.D.J. Chappell (ed.), The Philosophy of the Environment, (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 81.

[12] Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 187.

[13] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments’ @ www.homestead.com/philofreligion/files/Theisticarguments.html

[14] Geisler, Christian Apologetics, op cit, p. 25.

[15] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, second edition, (Fount, 1996), p. 110.

[16] ibid.

[17] cf. Lewis, ibid; Charles Thaxton, ‘Christianity and the Scientific Enterprise’ @ www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth17.html, Alvin Plantinga, ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ @ http://hisdefense.org/audio/ap_audio.html

[18] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview, (IVP, 2003), p. 299.

[19] David Hume, quoted, Robert Audi (ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 401.

[20] cf. Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea, (IVP, 2004).

[21] Isaiah Berlin, The Age of Enlightenment: The 18th Century Philosophers, (Mentor, 1956), p. 163.

[22] Nicholas Capaldi, David Hume, (Hall & Co, 1975), ch. 9., Dave Armstrong, ‘Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?’ @ http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ515.HTM

[23] Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 164.

[24] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘Does the Design Argument show there is a God?’ @ www.designinference.com/documents/2003.08.Apol_Stdy_Bib_Entry.htm

[25] William A. Dembski, ‘Skepticism's Prospects for Unseating Intelligent Design’ @ www.designinference.com/documents/2002.06.Skepticism_CSICOP.htm

[26] Scientists who accept Fred Hoyle’s theory of ‘directed-panspermia’ (illustrated in the film Mission to Mars), the idea that life was engineered and/or brought to earth by extra-terrestrials, might subscribe to ID.  Of course, this interpretation of intelligent design theory faces an awkward explanatory regress in explaining the origin of the aliens.  cf. Lee Elliot Major, ‘Big Enough to Bury Darwin’ @ http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/physicalscience/story/0,9836,541468,00.html; Michael J. Behe, ‘The God of Science’ @ www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_godofscience.htm

[27] Dembski, ‘Is Intelligent Design a Form of Natural Theology?’, op cit.

[28] ARN guide to Evolution.

[29] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, p. 39.

[30] Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs, (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 103.

[31] Richard Swinburne, ‘The Argument for Design’, in Contemporary Perspective on Religious Epistemology, (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 209-210.

[32] David Hume, Natural History of Religion, Dave Armstrong, ‘Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?’ @ http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ515.HTM

[33] John G. West, ‘Intelligent Design and Creationism Just Aren’t the Same’ @ www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&program=CSC&id=1329

[34] John Perry & Michael Bratman, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, (Oxford University Press, 1998).

[35] cf. Richard Swinburne, ‘The Argument from Design’, in R. Douglas Geivett & Brendan Sweetman (ed.’s), Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, (Oxford University Press, 1992); Brain Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, new edition, (Oxford University Press, 1993).

[36] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 136.

[37] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design’ @ www.designinference.com/documents/2002.10.logicalunderpinningsofID.pdf

[38] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘Irreducible Complexity Revisited’ @ www.designinference.com/documents/2004.01.Irred_Compl_Revisited.pdf

[39] Charles Taliaferro & Anders Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against the Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002, p. 437.

[40] Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.1.118

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid.

[43] Taliaferro & Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against the Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002, p. 427.

[44] Lewis, Miracles, op cit, p. 106.

[45] ibid, p. 111.

[46] Taliaferro & Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against the Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002, p. 428.

[47] ibid, p. 427.

[48] ibid.

[49] ibid, p. 429-437.

[50] ibid, p. 435.

[51] ibid, p. 429.

[52] David Hume, Enquiry, 119.

[53] Richard Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons’, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

[54] David Hume, ‘Of National Characters’, quoted by Taliaferro & Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against the Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002, p. 429.

[55] William A. Dembski, ‘What Every Theologian Should Know about Creation, Evolution and Design’ @ www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_theologn.htm, my italics.

[56] Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), p. 123-124.

[57] Norman L. Geisler, ‘Miracles & the Modern Mind’, R. Douglas Geivett & Gary R. Habermas (ed.’s), In Defence of Miracles, (Apollos, 1997), p. 75.

[58] ibid, p. 76.

[59] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure, quoted by James Patrick Holding, ‘Humean Understanding’ @ www.tektonics.org/gk/hume01.html

[60] Geilser, op cit, p. 79.

[61] Hendrik Van Der Breggen, ‘Hume’s Scale: How Hume Counts a Miracle’s Improbability Twice’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002, p. 443.

[62] Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Theism, Miracles, And the Modern Mind’, Paul Copan & Paul K. Moser (ed.’s), The Rationality of Theism, (Routledge, 2003), p. 231.

[63] Geilser, op cit, p. 79 & 85.