According to David Hume, “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature,” meaning something that has never happened before “in the common course of nature.” His theory says that the testimony that one hears or reads should be regarded with great caution and skepticism, more so if it presents a phenomenon that is highly unlikely to occur. My thesis is that not only Hume was wrong to think that one should never believe that a miracle has taken place on the basis of testimony, but sometimes it is even necessary for one to choose to believe it.
Consider the following problem: A man has terminal cancer. The man is well educated, an atheist, and has no family. No one depends on him, and he depends on no one. He does not believe in supernatural powers. He is not rich, but he can afford cancer treatment. He read everything that was to read about his condition, and he has tried every possible treatment. A doctor tells him of a new, untested drug. There are no articles published yet about his drug. The only information is given by the doctor. The man knows that the drug has never had any kind of results, so far, being barely in the first stages of human testing. But he also knows that he is going to die in a few months. He is left now with two choices. Should he reject the testimony of the doctor who recommended the drug, based on Hume’s theory that people often assert falsehoods, and that you should only trust a testimony when you have evidence that the testifier is right (therefore you should never believe that a miracle has occurred, on the basis of testimony), or should he choose to believe that a “miracle” is possible? I will defend the second option.
The man faces the impossibility of predicting his future with certainty. If he chooses the new drug, he might be cured, or he might not. But, if he refuses the new drug, he has to deal with the certainty of death. Between a certain death and an uncertain future, his choice must be, logically, the latter. The choice, and this is very important, is informed, and made rationally, there is no faith of any kind involved here.
One objection that can be made is that one cannot put one’s own life in the hands of uncertainty. One cannot choose to believe a testimony that could prove to be false. And this is true, for the majority of cases. However, in this case, if the man rejects the testimony, he will definitely die. It is preferable to choose uncertainty, than certain death.
Another possible objection could be in regards to the necessity of this choice. Is it really necessary to choose rationally to believe a potentially false testimony? This objection, like the previous one, also highlights the exceptionality of this case. The dying man hears a testimony. He knows that it could be false. He is aware of the fact that the drug was not tested thoroughly before. He realizes that it might not have any effect on him, and he may not get cured. What makes his choice necessary is the fact that he is dying.
A third objection could ask whether the case of an untested drug can be considered a miracle, as Hume defined it. At the moment when the man and the doctor are discussing this treatment, the drug would be considered a miracle, because it was barely tested, and its effects are not completely known. Therefore, considering that up to this point, cancer has no cure, a medicine that could cure it can be considered “a violation of the laws of nature”.
In conclusion, it follows that the necessity of choosing (rationally) to believe a testimony regarding a miracle (as defined by Hume) arises when one is confronted with a life-threatening situation.
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Hume, David – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92e/