THE BRITISH EMPIRICISTS AND THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES:
THE RISE OF SKEPTICISM

Dan BÃRBULESCU

RESUME

Dans cet article, j’essaie de passer en revue les idées des empiristes anglais des XVIIe-XVIIIe siecles concernant la nature, la signification et la plausibilité des miracles. Quels sont les problemes philosophiques et théologiques reliés a cette notion? Quelles solutions ont-ils proposé pour ces problemes? Y a-t-il des traits communs dans le traitement de cette question? Je prends en compte trois figures majeures de cette tradition: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke et David Hume, qui ont écrit chacun quelques brefs textes cosacrés a cette question. Le plus connu en est l’essai Des miracles, l’un des textes les plus lus jamais écrits a ce sujet; en outre, il montre un rejet beaucoup plus radical des miracles. L’un des buts de mon enquete sera d’examiner les éléments de continuité/discontinuité dans le traitement par Hume du sujet par rapport a ces prédécesseurs. Mon point de vue, c’est que ces trois auteurs partagent quelques idées sur ce sujet: en général, ils évitent ce que j’appelle le probleme „théologicométaphysique” et ils sont plus ou moins sceptiques concernant la possibilité des miracles, du moins des miracles récents. Ce scepticisme a l’égard des miracles n’est pas sans liaison avec leurs vues politiques, i.e. avec leur tentative de construire un état situé au-dela et au-dessus des querelles religieuses.

THE TOPIC OF MIRACLES: THE ISSUES INVOLVED

The first characteristic of a miracle is to appear to us as an extraordinary event, capable, in Hobbes’ terms, to produce “Wonder and Admiration” (miracle and to admire have the same etymological root: the Latin verb miror, -ari = to look at something with wonder).1 “Extraordinary” means here not only rare, but also unable of a “normal” explanation by means of natural laws (at least by means of those known by us). The miracle appears to us, first of all, as a supernatural event.

How to explain then such a phenomenon? – this is the first question everyone would ask. Let’s begin by noticing some explanations that do not necessarily involve, or do even exclude, the intervention of God (or some other intelligent and self-conscious supernatural agent or deity). The most radical one is the following: there wasn’t really any supernatural event, but only an illusion, a selfdeceit, of the spectator(s). Our senses aren’t infallible, and an unusual observation is dubious precisely because of its extraordinary character. Such a coherentist rejection of alleged “miracles” plays an important role in Hume’s essay and we shall return to it. It is usually accompanied by a “theory of error,” i.e. an explanation of why the spectators of that particular “miracle” were deceiving themselves.

On the other hand, if we accept that the unusual event really took place, several explanations are open to us. In some cases, the pretended miracle may be nothing else but the trick of a skillful magician or sorcerer. Or it may instantiate some “higher” natural laws, still unknown to its witnesses (or to anybody else, at least for the time being). Hobbes gives here the following example:

Furthermore, seeing Admiration and Wonder, is consequent to the knowledge and experience, wherewith men are endued, some more, some lesse; it followeth, that the same thing, may be a Miracle to one, and not to another. And thence it is, that ignorant, and superstitious men make great Wonders of those works, which other men, knowing to proceed from Nature … admire not at all: As when Ecclipses of the Sun and Moon have been taken for supernaturall works, by the common people; when neverthelesse, there were others, could from their naturall causes, have foretold the very hour they should arrive.2

In all these cases, there was no actual violation of a natural law, and, therefore, no miracle in a stricter sense. A probabilistic explanation can be also given in some other cases, e.g. we describe some unusually gifted child, the little Mozart for instance, as being a “child prodigy,” or speak about the “miraculous” victory of a dice-player who accomplished ten, let’s say, consecutive throws of 6 + 6 points, etc. A law is followed also in these cases, but it is this time a probabilistic law.

A miracle in a stricter sense is an extraordinary event produced by an actual violation of a natural law, and cannot therefore be explained in any of the ways above. The immediate and extraordinary intervention of a supernatural power (God or some other deity) presents itself then as an alternative explanation. Seen in this light, the very existence of miracles may constitute a proof of God’s existence. We may notice though that this connection is often realized the other way round: people who already believe in God’s existence (based perhaps on some other a priori or a posteriori arguments in this sense) are ready to accept the existence of miracles (in this stricter sense), while the non-believers will be very reluctant to admit such a divine cause of a unusual event, sticking to one of the previous explanations.

The explanation of miracles as results of an extraordinary intervention of God raises however a problem of another kind: God is supposed also to have created the whole universe and the “natural” laws that govern it. How is it possible then that he would want to break them? Is he a rational or an arbitrary being? On the other hand, saying that God himself cannot break the laws of Nature wouldn’t imply a limitation of his power? Can we deny his almightiness and his (absolutely) free will? The answer to such questions will shape not only our notion of God, but also our view of the Universe and his laws, implicitly also our view of the kind of knowledge we could acquire concerning those laws. Therefore, I think we can name this the theologico-metaphysical issue raised by the possible occurrence of miracles.

This issue became important at the end of the XVIIth century, especially after the publication of Spinoza’s works. In his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1677), Spinoza simply denied the existence of miracles (in the stricter sense):

Further, as nothing happens in nature which does not follow from her laws, and as her laws embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect, and lastly, as nature preserves a fixed and immutable order; it most clearly follows that miracles are only intelligible as in relation to human opinions, and merely mean events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence, either by us, or at any rate, by the writer and narrator of the miracle.3

To further prove his point, Spinoza offered many examples of a possible naturalistic explanation to some pretended miracles narrated in the Bible. The great danger of this view, from the perspective of the religious orthodoxy, was that God could be dispensed with in such an explanation. Identified with Nature, he risked to become soon an “unnecessary hypothesis.” Therefore, partly in order to answer this “Spinozistic challenge,” partly in order to explain the intricate relation between God’s rationality and his absolute free will, many other Continental philosophers (chiefly Malebranche and Leibniz) tried to elaborate a metaphysical doctrine about God, his qualities, and the way he created and runs the world, doctrine that should make clear to us how it is possible that God sometimes violates his own laws.4 Such attempts have led sometimes the debate about miracles on very different paths than those followed by the British empiricists. For instance, Leibniz reached the conclusion that the gravitational attraction, although not unusual, is actually a miracle, because it cannot be explained in terms of natural laws (laws related to the very nature of material bodies).5

The British empiricists seemed altogether uninterested in this theologico-metaphysical debate around miracles. The main cause of this lack of interest was perhaps their general distaste for unverifiable speculations on such abstruse matters. See, for instance, Hobbes’ view on theological disputes about the nature of God:

…disputing of Gods nature is contrary to his Honour: For it is supposed, that in this naturall Kingdome of God, there is no other way to know any thing, but by naturall Reason; that is, from the Principles of naturall Science; which are so farre from teaching us any thing of Gods nature, as they cannot teach us our own nature, nor the nature of the smallest creature living. And therefore, when men out of the Principles of naturall Reason, dispute of the Attributes of God, they but dishonour him: For in the Attributes which we give to God, we are not to consider the signification of Philosophicall Truth; but the signification of Pious Intention, to do him the greatest Honour we are able. From the want of which consideration, have proceeded the volumes of disputation about the Nature of God, that tend not to his Honour, but to the honour of our own wits, and learning; and are nothing else but inconsiderate, and vain abuses of his Sacred Name.6

But another reason of their avoiding this metaphysical issue was, I believe, the following: they were much more interested in the purpose of God’s miracles than in the ways he did them. “Why does God miracles?” seemed to Hobbes and Locke a more important question than “How he does them?” As we shall see, the main purpose of a miracle was, for them, to give the needed authority and legitimacy to the God’s messenger (or “prophet”) who performed it, and who was entrusted with a divine message to his mortal fellow-men. Which raised an important practical issue, with many moral and political implications: how to distinguish a real miracle from a faked one? And therefore a true prophet, with an authentic message from God, from a false one?

Their desire to follow closely the Bible, desire common to all Protestant thinkers, may have contributed to this pragmatic choice of issues. Because the biblical authors themselves seem to have little or no concern for the theologico-metaphysical issue, paying instead much more attention to the problem of distinguishing the true prophets from the false ones. Miracles are seen in the Scriptures mainly in this light and most of the words used there to designate them have an appropriate meaning: ‘sign’, ‘display of power’, or ‘portent.’7

Considering this issue, we’ll have to turn back to the first problem stated at the beginning of this section: confronted with an observation or a report of an extraordinary event that has the appearance of a miracle, how can we be sure that it was not an illusion, due either to the weakness of human senses, or caused by a trick of a very skillful deceiver? In good Protestant spirit, all the British empiricists, starting from Francis Bacon, were very sensible to the problems raised by “superstition” and (religious) “enthusiasm.” Hobbes, for instance, writes the following:

For such is the ignorance, and aptitude to error generally of all men, but especially of them that have not much knowledge of naturall causes, and of the nature, and interests of men; as by innumerable and easie tricks to be abused. […] But if we looke upon the Impostures wrought by Confederacy, there is nothing how impossible soever to be done, that is impossible to bee beleeved. For two men conspiring, one to seem lame, the other to cure him with a charme, will deceive many: but many conspiring, one to seem lame, another so to cure him, and all the rest to bear witnesse; will deceive many more.8

This only makes even more necessary a good practical criterion “against the Imposture of Miracles,” as he says. The search for such a criterion was, as we shall see in the next sections, the main concern both for Hobbes and for Locke.

A last remark here: if the most important thing about a miracle is his value as a credential for a God’s prophet, then there is no absolute need that such an event be an actual violation of the laws of nature. Men’s attention can be caught and their admiration stirred also by extraordinary events that go merely beyond their power of understanding and their knowledge of the Universe at that particular time. As we shall see, Locke will speculate this possibility in his late Discourse of Miracles (1702). This may be another reason for his avoiding the theologico-metaphysical problem.

THOMAS HOBBES: THE MIRACLES AS SIGNS FROM GOD

Hobbes tackles the problem of miracles in the 37th chapter (“Of miracles, and their use”) of his Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasisticall and Civill (1651). This chapter is included in the third part of the book (“Of a Christian Common-wealth”), along with other chapters meant to explain the meaning of different important theological concepts, like spirit, angel, sacrament, prophet, eternal life, salvation, church, etc.

The definition of a miracle given here by Hobbes focuses on the purpose of a miracle; it is perhaps no accident that he mentions the supernatural character of a miracle only in parentheses:

A MIRACLE, is a work of God, (besides his operation by the way of Nature, ordained in the Creation,) done for the making manifest to his elect, the mission of an extraordinary Minister for their salvation.9

In good Protestant spirit, Hobbes follows here closely the description of most Biblical miracles, especially those of Moses in the Old Testament, and of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. A miracle is essentially a sign from God, a sign intended not for everybody, it is true, but only for God’s elect – Hobbes, again in good Protestant tradition, insists on this point:

Wee may further observe in Scripture, that the end of Miracles, was to beget beleef, not universally in all men, elect, and reprobate; but in the elect only; that is to say, in such as God had determined should become his Subjects.10

Seen in this light, miracles may become utterly important for our moral and political life. They are the means of legitimizing a true prophet, of discerning him from the many false ones, and of verifying his message. (“For as in naturall things, men of judgement require naturall signes, and arguments; so in supernaturall things, they require signes supernaturall, (which are Miracles,) before they consent inwardly, and from their hearts.”11) The man who makes miracles, or, more precisely, through whom God makes miracles, is entitled to authority among his fellow men. The road to (earthly) power may have to pass through miracles from heaven.

Hobbes was fully aware of the importance of finding a good practical criterion for discerning the true miracles. Unfortunately, this is not an easy question. He begins by stating two necessary conditions for an event to be a miracle:

To understand therefore what is a Miracle, we must first understand what works they are, which men wonder at, and call Admirable. And there be but two things which make men wonder at any event: The one is, if it be strange, that is to say, such, as the like of it hath never, or very rarely been produced: The other is, if when it is produced, we cannot imagine it to have been done by naturall means, but onely by the immediate hand of God. But when wee see some possible, naturall cause of it, how rarely soever the like has been done; or if the like have been often done, how impossible soever it be to imagine a naturall means thereof, we no more wonder, nor esteem it for a Miracle.12

…to which he adds a third and essential one, stating the end of a miracle:

that it be wrought for the procuring of credit to Gods Messengers, Ministers, and Prophets, that thereby men may know, they are called, sent, and employed by God, and thereby be the better inclined to obey them.13

The problem is that the second condition (the miracle should violate the laws of nature) cannot be practically verified. Of course, when confronted with somebody’s claim to have performed a miracle, we should do our best to detect any possible fraud:

And when that is done, the thing they [the alleged new prophets] pretend to be a Miracle, we must both see it done, and use all means possible to consider, whether it be really done; and not onely so, but whether it be such, as no man can do the like by his naturall power, but that it requires the immediate hand of God.14

However, this first criterion, directly inspired by the definition of a miracle, can work only as a negative criterion: we can thus eliminate certain false miracles, but, due to our imperfect knowledge of natural laws, we can never be sure that what does seem to us a miracle is really so.

Another possible criterion is the lack of conformity of the false prophet’s message with Reason, i.e. with the natural laws of morality. According to Hobbes, “God declareth his Lawes three wayes; by the Dictates of Naturall Reason, by Revelation, and by the Voyce of some man, to whom by the operation of Miracles, he procures credit with the rest.”15 Revelations (or “inspirations”) that cannot be attested through miracles are to be rejected or, at best, considered as private divine messages destined only to their receiver. The voice of a prophet remains then the only way by which God can give us his Divine Positive Lawes, as Hobbes calls them. And those laws should “be not against the Law of Nature (which is undoubtedly Gods Law).”16 But again we have here only a negative criterion.

Hobbes insists more, throughout the Leviathan, on another but similar criterion, directly inspired from the Deuteronomy – the prophetical message’s conformity or lack of conformity with the previously established religious doctrines:

In this aptitude of mankind, to give too hasty beleefe to pretended Miracles, there can be no better, nor I think any other caution, then that which God hath prescribed, first by Moses, … in the beginning of the 13. and end of the 18. of Deuteronomy; That wee take not any for Prophets, that teach any other Religion, then that which Gods Lieutenant, (which at that time was Moses,) hath established; nor any, (though he teach the same Religion,) whose Praediction we doe not see come to passe.17

Since these biblical passages play an important role in Hobbes’ view, I shall quote them in full:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (…) That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. [Deuteronomy 13: 1-3, 5];

[The LORD said:] “ … But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.”

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. [Deuteronomy 18: 20-22]18

Undoubtedly, the interesting case is the one when the “sign or wonder,” i.e. the miracle or the prophecy (which, in this context, is but another kind of miracle), does “take place or come true.” Then, its authenticity is to be judged by its concordance to the doctrines previously accepted. But what justified those doctrines, if not some miracles made by (or, better, through the intermediary of) their proponents? Do the miracles justify the doctrines, or the other way round?

Hobbes did not discuss this difficulty in the Leviathan, but approached it more openly in his previous work, Human Nature.19 There the criterion of conformity with the doctrine is set for the first time, backed by some other biblical warnings against false miracles and false prophets, taken from the New Testament:

…of inspiration also, which is the operation of spirits in us, the knowledge we have must all proceed from Scripture. The signs there set down of inspiration, are miracles, when they be great, and manifestly above the power of men to do by imposture. (…) And we are commanded in Scripture, to judge of the spirits by their doctrine, and not of the doctrine by the spirits. For miracles, our Saviour hath forbidden us to rule our faith by them, Matt. 24, 24. And Saint Paul saith, Gal. 1,8 …20

In the following paragraph, however, Hobbes notices the danger of a vicious circle: we ought to judge the new prophets (and their miracles) by the conformity of their messages to the biblical doctrines; but “how we know the Scriptures to be the word of God?”, he asks himself. It cannot be a “natural” knowledge, because this “procedeeth from the conceptions engendered by sense.” We may remark here how, by eliminating the possibility of obtaining knowledge about the external world by reason alone, the empiricism paved the way to skepticism in many metaphysical and theological issues, the issue of miracles included. As for “supernatural” knowledge, “we cannot know it but by inspiration; and of that inspiration we cannot judge, but by the doctrine.” Therefore, Hobbes concluded:

…we have not any way, natural or supernatural, that knowledge thereof which can properly be called infallible science and evidence. It remaineth, that the knowledge we have that the Scriptures are the word of God, is only faith.21

If even the criterion indicated by the Deuteronomy is not satisfying, what should we do? Hobbes’ final solution (coming back to the Leviathan) will be the appeal to the authority of the “Soveraign Governour of Gods people,” i.e. the King, chief both of the State and of the Church:

And in this also we must have recourse to Gods Lieutenant; to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments. (…) So also if wee see not, but onely hear tell of a Miracle, we are to consult the Lawful Church; that is to say, the lawful Head thereof, how far we are to give credit to the relators of it. And this is chiefly the case of men, that in these days live under Christian Soveraigns.22

Surely, this ultimate appeal to the authority of “Gods Viceregent on Earth” may seem odd to us, and undoubtedly surprised also many of Hobbes’ contemporaries. What wisdom or qualification can a political sovereign have to decide in these matters? And how can such a solution avoid intolerance and abuses against the freedom of conscience? For Hobbes, however, preserving the civil peace within the “commonwealth” was by far the most important consideration.

Generally speaking, one of the inalienable rights of the Soveraign is “to be Judge, or constitute all Judges of Opinions and Doctrines, as a thing necessary to Peace, thereby to prevent Discord and Civill Warre.”23 “For the Actions of men proceed from their Opinions; and in the wel governing of Opinions, consisteth the well governing of mens Actions, in order to their Peace, and Concord.” (ibid.) And alleged prophetical messages, with or without the support of miracles, play an important role in moulding these opinions. Therefore:

… men had need to be very circumspect, and wary, in obeying the voice of man, that pretending himself to be a Prophet, requires us to obey God in that way, which he in Gods name telleth us to be the way to happinesse. For he that pretends to teach men the way of so great felicity, pretends to govern them; that is to say, to rule, and reign over them; which is a thing, that all men naturally desire, and is therefore worthy to be suspected of Ambition and Imposture; and consequently, ought to be examined, and tryed by every man, before hee yeeld them obedience …24

Trying, perhaps with the aid of some “unauthorized” miracles, to spread a new religious doctrine, not conformable to the one agreed by the Soveraign, amounts for Hobbes to an open rebellion against the latter, and can have dreadful consequences:

For when Christian men, take not their Christian Soveraign, for Gods Prophet; they must either take their owne Dreams, for the Prophecy they mean to bee governed by, and the tumour of their own hearts for the Spirit of God; or they must suffer themselves to bee lead by some strange Prince; or by some of their fellow subjects, that can bewitch them, by slander of the government, into rebellion, without other miracle to confirm their calling, than sometimes an extraordinary successe, and Impunity; and by this means destroying all laws, both divine, and humane, reduce all Order, Government, and Society, to the first Chaos of Violence, and Civill warre.25

Hobbes was so distrustful of new miracles and new prophecies that in one place he advises his readers to rely upon the Bible only, renouncing, it seems, even to the prophetical “services” of the political sovereign:

Seeing therefore Miracles now cease, we have no sign left, whereby to acknowledge the pretended Revelations, or Inspirations of any private man; nor obligation to give ear to any Doctrine, farther than it is conformable to the Holy Scriptures, which since the time of our Saviour, supply the place, and sufficiently recompense the want of all other Prophecy; and from which, by wise and learned interpretation, and carefull ratiocination, all rules and precepts necessary to the knowledge of our duty both to God and man, without Enthusiasme, or supernaturall Inspiration, may easily be deduced.26

JOHN LOCKE AND THE APPEAL TO REASON

In a sense, John Locke can be seen as a follower of Hobbes in the quest for a reliable criterion for discerning between true and false miracles. True empiricists, both avoided the “theologicometaphysical” issue; true Protestant believers, both were skeptical towards recent miracles, while never doubting the miracles attributed to Jesus Christ or to the biblical prophets. However, Locke, who had embraced the cause of religious tolerance, completely rejected the Hobbesian political project of an absolutist theocracy, and, by way of consequence, also Hobbes’ appeal to the Soveraign in the problem of miracles. For Locke, the political and the religious realm ought to be separated by their purposes: the former promotes the “civil interests” of the members of the commonwealth, i.e. their interests in this world; the latter should take care of the salvation of their souls and of their otherworldly felicity.27

Apart from his late Discourse of Miracles (1702), Locke’s views on this subject were scattered in various works (some unpublished). We may also say that these views slightly changed in time. An unpublished manuscript (dated April 1681)28 represents the earliest treatment by Locke of the problem of false or true miracles. The emphasis throughout it is on reason, which replaces Hobbes’ Soveraign as a ultimate court of appeal in this matter. Inspiration “barely in itself cannot be a ground to receive any [religious] doctrine not conformable to reason.” This should remain true even when the inspiration is “accompanied with a power to do a miracle.” Locke offers the following arguments for this claim:

(1) Because reason must be the judge what is a miracle and what not, which not knowing how far the power of natural causes do extend themselves and what strange effects they may produce is very hard to determine.

(2) ‘Twill always be as great a miracle that God should alter the course of natural things to overturn the principles of knowledge and understanding in a man, by setting up anything to be received by him as a truth which his reason cannot assent to, as the miracle itself, and so at best it will be but one miracle against another, and the greater still on reason’s side, it being harder to believe that God should alter and put out of its ordinary course some phenomenon of the great world for once, and make things out contrary to their ordinary rule, purposely that the mind of man might do so always afterwards, than that this is some fallacy or natural effect of which he knows not the cause let it look never so strange.

(3) Because man does not know whether there be not several sorts of creatures above him and between him and the supreme, amongst which there may be some that have the power to produce in nature such extraordinary effects as we call miracles and may have the will to do it for other reasons than the confirmation of truth. For ‘tis certain the magicians of Egypt turned their rods into serpents as well as Moses [Exod. 7:11-12] and since so great a miracle as that was done in opposition to the true God and the revelation sent by him, what miracle can have certainty and assurance greater than that of man’s reason?

These three different arguments are in fact but branches of a single, more involved argument. The principle of Gods veracity (borrowed perhaps from Descartes) assures us that God will not only always tell us the truth, but that he will never do something that may impair or confuse our natural faculties of attaining it, i.e. our natural reason. Now, in all cases of doubt, our reason uses a coherentist test of truth, preferring that judgment which seems more probably true in light of all our previous knowledge.

On the other hand, our belief in the truth of a miracle could never be so strong as our belief in the judgments of our reason. For a miracle, however convincing at first sight, may still be false: it may be a “natural effect” with an yet unknown cause, or the product of some evil spirits, etc. Therefore, in case of conflict, reason should always prevail over a judgment supported by an alleged miracle. So God will never use a miracle opposed to our reason, in order not to undermine our confidence in the coherentist test of truth. If such a miracle seems to take place, we may be sure it is a false one.

But, unlike Hobbes, Locke was willing to extend the role of reason beyond that of a mere negative criterion. In his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke assigns to human reason a double role: not only to reject all false revelations (and the false miracles that may accompany them), but also to offer positive proofs for the true divine revelations, like those of the Holy Scripture. Can we prove that at least some miracles were “well attested”? Although his argument is general, Locke had in mind the biblical miracles and seemed confident that we may find reasonable grounds to admit them. The justificatory role of miracles is thus rehabilitated, and we can escape the vicious circle: the “fair testimony” of at least some miracles (the biblical ones) can be asserted by reason; these miracles justify the “doctrine” of the Scripture, which can then be used, together with other rational considerations, to check the truthfulness of other alleged miracles (especially of the recent ones). In his criticism of religious “enthusiasm,” Locke notes:

Thus we see the holy men of old, who had revelations from God, had something else besides that internal light of assurance in their own minds, to testify to them that it was from God. They were not left to their own persuasions alone, that those persuasions were from God, but had outward signs to convince them of the Author of those revelations. And when they were to convince others, they had a power given them to justify the truth of their commission from heaven, and by visible signs to assert the divine authority of a message they were sent with.29

Locke’s epistemological argument from the Essay is based on the same idea of a coherentist test of truth. I shall present it in some detail, because it is, basically, the same argument that Hume will develop and use … against miracles! Propositions “concerning some particular existence, or, as it is usually termed, matter of fact, which, falling under observation, is capable of human testimony” cannot represent certain knowledge, and belong to the sphere of probability.30 And the “grounds of probability” are:

First, The conformity of anything with our own knowledge, observation, and experience. Secondly, The testimony of others, vouching their observation and experience. […] the mind, if it will proceed rationally, ought to examine all the grounds of probability, and see how they make more or less for or against any proposition, before it assents to or dissents from it; and upon a due balancing the whole, reject or receive it, with a more or less firm assent, proportionably to the preponderancy of the greater grounds of probability on one side or the other.31

Testimonies concerning miracles are then, by definition, a difficult case:

The difficulty is, when testimonies contradict common experience, and the reports of history and witnesses clash with the ordinary course of nature, or with one another; there it is, where diligence, attention, and exactness are required, to form a right judgment, and to proportion the assent to the different evidence and probability of the thing: which rises and falls, according as those two foundations of credibility, viz. common observation in like cases, and particular testimonies in that particular instance, favour or contradict it.32

However, Locke was not willing to put in doubt the very idea of a miracle. Therefore, he added a few pages later:

… yet there is one case, wherein the strangeness of the fact lessens not the assent to a fair testimony given of it. For where such supernatural events are suitable to ends aimed at by Him who has the power to change the course of nature, there, under such circumstances, that may be the fitter to procure belief, by how much the more they are beyond or contrary to ordinary observation. This is the proper case of miracles, which well attested, do not only find credit themselves, but give it also to other truths, which need such confirmation.33

But how plausible is a “fair testimony” of miracles? Were they ever “well attested”? Locke does not pursue this reasoning in the Essay, being content, it seems, with a list of criteria that, properly used, should permit our reason to assess any report concerning miracles:

In the testimony of others, is to be considered: 1. The number. 2. The integrity. 3. The skill of the witnesses. 4. The design of the author, where it is a testimony out of a book cited. 5. The consistency of the parts, and circumstances of the relation. 6. Contrary testimonies.34

Obviously, Locke believed that at least the biblical miracles satisfied those criteria. But are the integrity, skill, or design of any witnesses beyond suspicion, especially in such a sensitive and controversial issue? This will be Hume’s second and main argument, which we shall discuss in the next section.

Locke took again the problem of miracles in his Third Letter Concerning Toleration (1692), but this time in a different context. His opponent, the English theologian Jonas Proast, argued that the use of force in order to assure the spreading of Christianity has become necessary since the ceasing of miracles. Since Constantine the great, the sanctions of the political authority have replaced miracles as a needed support of the “true religion.” Locke counters in different ways this objection to his doctrine of religious toleration, but all this discussion is not relevant for our topic. We may remark, however, that Locke reasserts here his conviction that “the gospel is … still accompanied with an undoubted testimony, that miracles were done, by the first publishers of it,” that the miracles “done by Christ and his apostles” are attested “by undeniable history.”35 Locke agreed with his objector that miracles ceased long ago (although not immediately after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire), but maintained that these “miracles as we still have, miracles at a distance, related miracles,”36 which are “well attested,” are both necessary and sufficient to nourish our faith.

Locke’s most important theological work was The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695). However, the main aim of the book was not related to the topic of miracles. Animated by his long-life ideal of putting an end to the strifes between different Christian factions, Locke tries to prove, with copious quotations from the Bible, that, to be saved, every Christian needs to believe (and, of course, to act accordingly) only a simple creed: that Jesus from Nazareth is the Son of God and the Messiah, the providential king and Lord sent to men by God. Throughout the book, the justificatory role of miracles is strongly emphasized: they were a necessary means to show Jesus’ Messiahship to his contemporaries. Great is also Locke’s confidence in the reliability of the biblical miracles (cf. Hume!):

The evidence of Our Saviour’s mission from heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles he did, before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God, and unquestionable verity. […]

And after his resurrection, [Jesus] sent his apostles amongst the nations, accompanied with miracles, which were done in all parts so frequently, and before so many witnesses of all sorts, in broad day-light, that … the enemies of Christianity have never dared to deny them.37

Locke makes no attempt to pursue here the epistemological discussion from the Essay. Instead, we are offered in these paragraphs the first version of the “multitude of miracles” criterion (which will be presented in detail in the future Discourse of Miracles – see below).

Interesting for our topic is also § 143, where Locke says:

For though it be as easy to omnipotent power to do all things by an immediate over-ruling will, and so to make any instruments work, even contrary to their natures, in subserviency to his ends; yet his wisdom is not usually at the expense of miracles, (if I may so say) but only in cases that require them, for the evidencing of some revelation or mission to be from him. He does constantly (unless where the confirmation of some truth requires it otherwise) bring about his purposes by means operating according to their natures. If it were not so, the course and evidence of things would be confounded, miracles would lose their name and force; and there could be no distinction between natural and supernatural.38

This could be considered a good abridgment of the view of the British empiricists (before Hume) concerning miracles: the accent on the purpose (neglecting the “theologico-metaphysical” subtleties), combined with a relative skepticism towards miracles, especially towards recent ones. You may compare this passage with the following one, taken from George Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge (1710):

It may indeed on some occasions be necessary that the Author of nature display His overruling power in producing some appearance out of the ordinary series of things. Such exceptions from the general rules of nature are proper to surprise and awe men into an acknowledgment of the Divine Being; but then they are to be used but seldom, otherwise there is a plain reason why they should fail of that effect. Besides, God seems to choose the convincing our reason of His attributes by the works of nature, which discover so much harmony and contrivance in their make, and are such plain indications of wisdom and beneficence in their Author, rather than to astonish us into a belief of His Being by anomalous and surprising events.39

Locke’s last effort concerning the problem of miracles is the posthumously published Discourse of Miracles (written in 1702, two years before his death).40 Here, Locke proposes two novelties, which should not be interpreted, however, as a completely new approach – Locke continues to operate in the same rational framework. (For instance, the use of reason as a negative criterion is restated:

…God having discovered to men the unity and majesty of his eternal Godhead, and the truths of natural religion and morality by the light of reason, he cannot be supposed to back the contrary by revelation; for that would be to destroy the evidence and the use of reason, without which men cannot be able to distinguish divine revelation from diabolical imposture.41)

Firstly, he proposes a new definition of miracles, where the natural law transgression condition is, for the first time, explicitly abandoned:

A miracle I take to be a sensible operation, which being above the comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine.42

This definition, given by Locke from the very beginning of his Discourse, is not complete as such. Later on, Locke repeatedly indicates the meaning of this “sensible operation”. Miracles are “the credentials of a messenger delivering a divine religion”; or “miracles being the basis on which divine mission is always established, and consequently that foundation on which the believers of any divine revelation must ultimately bottom their faith,”43 etc.

The reason for this change is already known to us: the impossibility to establish with certitude when a law of nature has been broken or not. And this new definition is related to Locke’s second amendment – a new criterion for distinguishing the true miracles, inspired almost literally from Moses’ “duel” with Pharaoh’s sorcerers (Exodus 7-8 and sq.): when two alleged prophets propound different doctrines, each one searching to legitimize himself by miracles, then the one able to do a greater number of miracles (or more “powerful” ones) should be believed; because God would not let us be deceived by the use of His miraculous powers. Locke uses again the same principle of divine veracity, and tries this time to imagine an empirical test of it. A test that, according to him, everyone could simply apply. Locke seems to have had the following intention: if, on the basis of an alleged new miracle, some new “prophet” would challenge the Christian doctrine, then his alleged “miracle(s)” should be compared with the miracles done, as related in the Gospels, by Jesus Christ. The new “prophet” should then be believed if (and only if!) he would be able to outdo Jesus in this respect, which Locke undoubtedly thought as impossible. In practical, quasiexperimental terms, once confronted with such a new prophetic claim, we should politely ask the “challenger” to repeat his miraculous feats again and again (as Jesus was reported to have done). Any falsehood, Locke seemed to believe, will be easily exposed in this way.

Before any criticism, let us remark the skeptical turn of this criterion, which seems specially designed to discourage any modern claim at some new miracles. As for its validity, it relies entirely upon us accepting as true the miracles told by the Scriptures (especially those reported by the Gospels). Locke displays in this later work the same confidence in those miracles as in his previous writings:

So likewise the number, variety and greatness of the miracles, wrought for the confirmation of the doctrine delivered by Jesus Christ, carry with them such strong marks of an extraordinary divine power, that the truth of his mission will stand firm and unquestionable, till any one rising up in opposition to him shall do greater miracles than he and his apostles did.44

Unfortunately, he does nothing more to strengthen his epistemological argument from the Essay. How reliable are the testimonies for the “standard” miracles of the Gospels themselves? Hume will speculate on this weakness, and we should now move forward to him.

DAVID HUME AND THE RADICALIZATION OF SKEPTICISM

Hobbes’ and Locke’s skepticism concerning miracles was only a “moderate” one, concerning especially the possibility of new authentic miracles. Being both true believers, they didn’t thought to deny altogether the idea of a miracle, putting thus to doubt the Scriptures themselves. This was in that time, by the way, a common Protestant attitude towards alleged new miracles, and we may find it also in other authors.

Writing later, in a time when general “enlightened” attacks against the Christian religion as a whole became more usual, Hume felt free to use and to elaborate the skeptical arguments of his predecessors in a radical way. His essay Of miracles has become, because of this radicalism and, of course, of the stringency of its arguments, one of the most famous papers ever written on this subject, being still today a subject of hot controversies.

From a purely historical point of view, it is interesting to note that Hume got the idea of such a general argument against miracles rather early, during his stay to the La Flèche convent in France (1735-37). In a letter from 1762, to a certain Dr. Campbell, Hume wrote:

It may perhaps amuse you to learn that first hint which suggested to me that argument which you have so strenuously attacked. I was walking in the cloysters of the Jesuits College of La Flèche, a town in which I passed two years of my youth, and was engaged in a conversation with a Jesuit of some parts and learning, who was relating to me, and urging some nonsensical miracle performed lately in their Convent, when I was tempted to dispute against him; and, as my head was full of the topics of my Treatise of human Nature, which I was at the time composing, this argument immediately occurred to me, and I thought it very much gravelled my companion; but at last he observed to me, that it was impossible for that argument to have any solidity, because it operated equally against the Gospel as the Catholic miracles; which observation I thought proper to admit as a sufficient answer. I believe you will allow that the freedom at least of this reasoning makes it somewhat extraordinary to have been the produce of a Convent of Jesuits, though perhaps you may think that the sophistry of it favours plainly of the place of its birth.45

Why then did the argument not appear already in the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)? We may presume that the cautious and still completely unknown David Hume didn’t want to upset too much his potential readers (many of them devout Christians). However, there are some hints of it in this first major Humean work (which, despite all the precautions of its young author, “fell deadborn from the press”)46, for instance:

No weakness of human nature is more universal and conspicuous than what we commonly call credulity, or a too easy faith in the testimony of others; and this weakness is also very naturally accounted for from the influence of resemblance. When we receive any matter of fact upon human testimony, our faith arises from the very same origin as our inferences from causes to effects, and from effects to causes; nor is there anything but our experience of the governing principles of human nature, which can give us any assurance of the veracity of men. But though experience be the true standard of this, as well as of all other judgments, we seldom regulate ourselves entirely by it, but have a remarkable propensity to believe whatever is reported, even concerning apparitions, enchantments, and prodigies, however contrary to daily experience and observation. 47

As we know, Hume later recasted the substance of his Treatise in his two Inquiries …The essay “Of miracles” was published in 1748, as the Xth section of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (initially entitled: Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding; the book received its present title starting with the 1768 edition).

The essay has two parts, corresponding to the two main arguments against miracles. The first argument is based on Hume’s rigorous empiricism. An empiricist epistemology can be only a fallibilist one:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact, it must be acknowledged that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to led us into errors. 48

Which means that the only criterion of truth in matters of fact remains a coherentist one: the more consistent the proposition in question is with the rest of our accepted beliefs, based also on experience, the more likely it is for it to be true.

Now, if we consider the definition of a miracle, we will see that, by its very definition, a miracle seems very improbable. Hume gave to miracles the following definition: “a violation of the laws of nature”; “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”49 The laws of nature being established on the basis of previous human experience, the alleged “miracle” goes directly against all that experience and defies, therefore, the requirements of the coherentist test mentioned above. Hume’s reasoning here is essentially the same as Locke’s (from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding – see the previous section), only with a more radical intent.

We may note also that Hume’s definition drops altogether all reference to the purpose of legitimizing a true prophet (a central characteristic of a miracle, according to both Hobbes and Locke). In fact, Hume even adds:

A miracle may either be discovered by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence. The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle. The raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a force requisite for that purpose, is as real a miracle, though not so sensible with regard to us.50

This emphasis on the “objective” character of a miracle should not be interpreted as a reconsideration, by Hume, of the Leibnizian theory of miracles. Hume is even more hostile than the other British empiricists to any “theologico-metaphysical” approach. He stresses the violation-of-the-law aspect because this feature of a miracle offers the key starting point for his own argument. As for the “problem of the false prophet,” it disappears by mere generalization: for Hume, all pretensions of grounding a religious belief on alleged “miracles” are vain, and therefore all prophets are false in this respect.

However, Hume’s first argument, taken by itself, is not decisive and not a sufficient basis for rejecting the religious miracles. The coherentist evaluation of a belief supposes not only its confrontation with the other empirically known facts, but also the assessment of the reliability of the sources of that belief, which, in the case of miracles, are usually the reports of the alleged witnesses. However opposed to all previous experience, a fact may thus be believed if the veracity of the sources (of its witnesses) is beyond any reasonable doubt. Hume proposes the following “general maxim worthy of our attention”:

…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 endeavours to establish.51

The first argument thus introduces the second, concerning not the nature of the universe but of ourselves, and which should be decisive: the reliability of the sources is very doubtful in the case of alleged “miracles,” and even more doubtful if the “miracle” in question has a religious significance.

Why is it so? Hume considers that, in the whole history of mankind, not even a single instance of such an impeccable testimony in favour of a miracle has ever been recorded. The circumstances “requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men” seem indeed hard to be met. The alleged miracle should be:

…attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood, and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world as to render the detection unavoidable …52

Not only such a perfect testimony did never occur. If we take into account some of the “principles of human nature,” as delivered to us by the same induction from experience, we’ll see that it is very improbable that it will ever occur. The “passion of surprise and wonder” makes men extremely prone to accept all kinds of miraculous stories. On the other hand, the “spirit of religion,” if present, makes our minds even less apt to take an objective attitude towards miracles. Hume vividly depicts both the potential miracle-deceiver and his naïve audience :

A religionist may be an enthusiast and imagine he sees what has no reality; he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause. Or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgment to canvass his evidence; what judgment they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects. Or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence, and his impudence overpowers their credulity.53

This natural “propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and marvelous” is well attested, according to Hume, by “the many instances of forged miracles and prophecies and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence or which detect themselves by their absurdity.”54 Hume gives several examples, taken either from the rich repository of the pagan Antiquity (the story of one Alexander of Paphlagonia, a false prophet from the 2nd century A.D.; an alleged miracle of the Roman emperor Vespasian, as reported by Tacitus, etc.), or from his own age (would-be new Christian miracles, as those “lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abbé Paris,” or the famous miracle of Port-Royal).55

Cautious as always, Hume never disparages directly the biblical miracles, which were acknowledged as such by all Christians (including, as we have seen, by Hobbes and Locke), and never put to doubt. But his argument is general, and the reader is invited to judge for himself if there is any difference between these “sacred” miracles of the Christian tradition and all the others. Were the biblical authors, our sole evidence for these miracles, distinguished in any way from the pagan authors or witnesses of alleged pagan miracles? Does their testimony meet all the necessary requirements (see above) of impeccability? By subtle ironical allusions, Hume suggests a negative answer. See, for instance, how artfully he draws a parallel between that pagan false prophet, Alexander, and St. Paul (or perhaps even Jesus?) in the following footnote:

It may perhaps be objected that I proceed rashly and form my notion of Alexander merely from the account given of him by Lucian, a professed enemy. It were indeed to be wished that some of the accounts published by his followers and accomplices had remained. The opposition and contrast betwixt the character and conduct of the same man as drawn by a friend or an enemy is as strong, even in common life, much more in these religious matters, as that betwixt any two men in the world; betwixt Alexander and St. Paul, for instance.56

Treating the Christian miracles on the same foot as the miracles of other religions is the key feature of Hume’s argument. Hume reinforces it by the following reasoning:

Every miracle … pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed, so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles on which that system was established, so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.57

Another argument to the same conclusion is that “supernatural and miraculous relations … are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations,” while practically disappearing “in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages.”58 Hume’s skepticism towards miracles could be traced, in the last resort, to these two considerations: we witness no credible miracle in the present (when we would be able to assess them more rationally), which leaves us only with the reports of miracles in the past, most often in a distant and uncontrollable past, reports that are indeed numerous but doubtful and (because coming from opposite religious circles) self-contradictory. In particular, there is no reason to give to Christian miracles a privileged position in comparison to the miracles of other religions (the latter being denied, by the way, by Christians themselves). Hume’s whole purpose was to take the religious debates outside the realm of reason. In the end of his essay, he writes:

I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian religion who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is by no means fitted to endure.59

Expressions like “our most holy religion” should not mislead us here. Hume himself was one of the “disguised enemies” of the Christian religion, and his argument against miracles can be better understood in relation with all his others anti-religious writings, as the Natural History of Religion (1757), or the posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). As for other thinkers of the XVIIIth century Enlightenment, for Hume religion, and especially its mixing up with the public affairs, was a source of intolerance, fanaticism and persecution, an obstacle more than a source of social improvement. Denying its rationality, Hume wanted to eliminate all its claims of interference with the public life of the community. If a question of faith only, the Christian religion (or any other religion, for that matter) could be the object only of a private choice and of an inner worship for each individual. Hume’s essay Of miracles provoked a huge reaction, both among his contemporaries and in more recent times. It is perhaps the most debated short piece in all British philosophy. Most of these answers were negative, showing that the Christian “zealots,” as Hume liked to call them, understood very well the devastating intent of the essay (despite Hume’s rhetorical “camouflage”). It is not the business of this paper to try to assess all the attempts to refute Hume’s arguments (or the fewer those that tried to strengthen it even more). Anyhow, it would be perhaps an impossible task. But I should like to remind the reader, before passing to the final and concluding section, that the strength of Hume’s argument relies mainly in its being directed against a specific human weakness: our partiality in religious matters.

CONCLUSION
Looking back at this whole historical sequence from a comprehensive perspective, it is easy to notice both the similarities and the differences between our three authors. As for the similarities, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to better specify their causes. Was there any direct influence of one philosopher upon another? Or merely their belonging to the same cultural and religious environment, and to the same philosophical tradition, was a sufficient cause in this respect?

Like Hobbes, Locke ignores the “theologico-metaphysical” problem and pursues the search of a criterion for distinguishing true miracles from false ones. It was the reading of Hobbes’ Leviathan (together with the desire to avoid his predecessor’s authoritarian solution) that prompted Locke’s inquiry? Or both confronted themselves independently (but fortified with some commonly shared religious and philosophical presuppositions) with a general issue from the philosophical and theological agenda of their time? Only a much more detailed historical study could hope to answer those questions. It is easier, perhaps, to ascertain Locke’s direct influence on Hume. Surely, the young Hume had read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and kept in mind Locke’s coherentist treatment of probable knowledge. But again we could invoke the common background also. At the beginning of his essay Of miracles, Hume quotes the influential Presbyterian theologian John Tillotson with an argument “against the real presence” (of Jesus’ flesh and blood in the alleged Catholic miracle of transubstantiation); and, at the end of his essay, he quotes Lord Bacon, the “founding father” of British empiricism, who “seems to have embraced the same principles of reasoning.”60 In that passage from Bacon quoted in support, we shall not find exactly “the same principles of reasoning,” but surely the same distrust of religious enthusiasm and imposture:

We ought [says he] to make a collection or particular history of all monsters and prodigious births or productions: and, in a word, of everything new, rare, and extraordinary in nature. But this must be done with the most severe scrutiny, lest we depart from truth. Above all, every relation must be considered as suspicious which depends in any degree upon religion, as the prodigies of Livy: And no less so everything that is to be found in the writers on natural magic or alchemy, or such authors who seem all of them to have an unconquerable appetite for falsehood and fable.61

As for the differences, they show, I believe, how much the discussion of miracles (and, probably, of other similar topics) is influenced by the general attitude towards religion in the first place, but also towards politics or morality. Hume shared with his predecessors the suspicion towards religious enthusiasm, but none of those predecessors would have thought and dared to extend the scope of all these skeptical arguments to miracles in general, biblical and evangelical miracles included. In this respect, Hume is a true son of the Enlightenment, closer to his contemporary French “freethinkers,” like Voltaire, Diderot, D’Holbach et alii, than to his British predecessors.

More generally, we could see this episode from the history of Western thought as another instance of the long and well known conflict between “faith” and “reason.” More exactly, as another instance of the following trilemma:

(I) Can our religious beliefs be put in harmony with our reason (and all our rational knowledge)? Our first impulse is to strive towards such an accord, because man, by his nature, is a “coherentist” being (if we may say so), who aims at order and intellectual harmony. In our story, the best representative of this tendency is, of course, John Locke (see also Th. Hobbes), a true believer both in Christianity and in the following maxim: “Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything.”62 But what if all our attempts to rationally justify our religious beliefs fail? And not only do they fail, but they threaten instead to undermine the credibility of those very beliefs? (Remember, in our story, how Hume turned against miracles Locke’s epistemological argument.) Then, we have two alternatives:

either (II) we keep our religious beliefs, but we drop every attempt to justify them – the mystical solution (Credo, quia absurdum, or Credo, quia impossibile est), which, however, would leave us with a painful gap, an everlasting wound in our mind;

or (III) we abandon our religious beliefs, saving the coherence of our mind, but resigning ourselves then to an impoverished view of our lives and of our world. Hume seems to have adopted this last solution, and lived and died happily with it.63 But has anyone Hume’s “philosophical” temperament?

The same trilemma is still with us today, and recent debates on miracles or on other religious issues show it plainly. Perhaps, there is no satisfying solution to it. Man is both a “coherentist” and rational being, and a religious being.


1 For a phenomenological analysis of miracles, see the regretted Father Scrima’s paper in this volume.
2 Th. Hobbes, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, III. 37 (p. 471 in the C. B. Macpherson edition, Penguin Classics, 1986).
3 B. Spinoza, Theologico-political Treatise, chap. VI “Of Miracles” (see The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, transl. by R. H. M. Elwes, New York: Dover Publications, 1951, vol. I, p. 84).
4 See Nicholas Jolley, “The relation between theology and philosophy” (the paragraph on “Miracles”), in Daniel Garber, Michael Ayers (eds), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, 2 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), vol. I, chap. 13, pp. 385-88.
5 See his letters to Clarke, especially § 17 in the third, §§ 42-46 in the fourth, and §§ 107-123 in the fifth letter. See also I. Muntean’s and S. Costreie’s papers on Leibniz in this volume.
6 Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, II. 31 (p. 404).
7 J. D. D. Douglas, Merril C. Tenney (eds.), The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids (MI): Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), article “Miracles”, p. 660.
8 Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, III. 37 (p. 476).
9 Ibidem (p. 473).
10 Ibidem (p. 472).
11 Ibidem, I. 12 (pp. 180-1).
12 Ibidem, III. 37 (p. 470).
13 Ibidem (p. 471).
14 Ibidem (pp. 476-77).
15 Ibidem, II. 31 (p. 396).
16 Ibidem, II. 26 (p. 332).
17 Ibidem, III. 37 (p. 476).
18 The Holy Bible, New International Version, Carmel, New York: Guideposts (Zondervan Bible Publishers), 1987, p.
243 and 249.
19 The first part of The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, a manuscript of Hobbes already in circulation in 1640, and published, without his approval, in 1650. I shall quote the J. C. A. Gaskin edition (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
20 Th. Hobbes, Human Nature, ch. xi, § 7 (p. 67). In Matthew 24:24, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible.” In Galatians 1:8, St. Paul says: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” [I used the NIV translation, pp. 1374 and 1604, respectively. Hobbes uses throughout, of course, the King James’ version of the Bible. Both verses are quoted also in the Leviathan, III. 32]
21 Ibidem, § 8 (p. 68).
22 Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, III. 37 (p. 477).
23 Ibidem, II. 18 (p. 233).
24 Ibidem, III. 36 (p. 466).
25 Ibidem (p. 469).
26 Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, III. 32 (p. 414).
27 For more details concerning Locke’s view in this respect, see his famous first Epistola de tolerantia (Latin 1685; English translation 1689).
28 See Mark Goldie (ed), Locke. Political Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 278-280. Although originally untitled, this manuscript has received in Goldie’s anthology the title Religion, which I’ll use also in the following.
29 J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. iv, ch. xix, § 15 (vol. II, p. 439, in Alexander C. Fraser’s edition, New York: Dover, 1959).
30 Ibidem, ch. xvi, § 5 (vol. II, p. 374).
31 Ibidem, ch. xv, §§ 4-5 (vol. II, pp. 365-6).
32 Ibidem, ch. xvi, § 9 (vol. II, p. 377).
33 Ibidem, § 13 (vol. II, p. 382).
34 Ibidem, ch. xv, § 5 (vol. II, p. 366).
35 J. Locke, A Third Letter Concerning Toleration, ch. X (“Of the necessity of force in matters of religion”). The quotations are from I.T.Ramsey (ed.) : J. Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity with A Discourse of Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration [Stanford (CAL): Stanford University Press, 1958], pp. 91 and 94.
36 Ibidem, p. 91.
37 The Reasonableness of Christianity, §§ 237 and 240 (pp. 57 and 59 in the Ramsey edition quoted above).
38 Ibidem, pp. 40-1.
39 G. Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge, § 63, in David M. Armstrong (ed), Berkeley’s Philosophical Writings, New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 87. This is, by the way, the only paragraph in Berkeley’s book devoted to the topic of miracles.
40 The Discourse of Miracles can be found in Locke’s Collected Works, vol. IX, pp. 256-65. It was rarely reprinted afterwards. I’ll use the I.T.Ramsey edition quoted above, pp. 79-88.
41 J. Locke, A Discourse of Miracles, p. 84.
42 Ibidem, p. 79.
43 Ibidem, pp. 81, 86.
44 Ibidem, p. 83.
45 D. Hume’s letter to Dr. Campbell from Jan. 7, 1762, as quoted by the Scotch printer and biographer William Smellie in his “Life of David Hume, Esq,” part of his Literary and characteristical lives of John Gregory, M.D., Henry Home, lord Kames, David Hume, esq. and Adam Smith, L.L.D. To which are added A dissertation on public spirit; and three essays (Edinburgh, 1800), apud Early Biographies of David Hume, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995). Dr. Campbell was one of the many contemporary “zealots” who tried to refute Hume’s argument. Although not shaken in his convictions, Hume was agreeably impressed by the style of this opponent, and answered him in a very obliging manner.
46 “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell deadborn from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” – this was Hume’s own conclusion in his short autobiography, My Own Life (1776).
47 D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I.iii. 9 (vol. I, p. 114 in the Everyman’s Library edition – London: Dent,
1974).
48 D. Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ch. 10, “Of Miracles”. I shall use Charles W. Hendel’s edition (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, (1955) 1957), p. 118.
49 Ibidem, p. 122, and 123 (note 7).
50 Ibidem, p. 123 (note 7).
51 Ibidem.
52 Ibidem, p. 124.
53 Ibidem, p.125.
54 Ibidem, p. 126.
55 See ibidem, pp. 127-135.
56 Ibidem, p. 129 (note 5). It is interesting to remark that Hume dropped this “innocent” footnote in the last edition prepared during his life (and published in 1777).
57 Ibidem, pp. 129-30.
58 Ibidem, pp. 126-7.
59 Ibidem, pp. 139-40.
60 Ibidem.
61 F. Bacon, Novum Organum, lib. ii, aph. 29, apud D. Hume, Of Miracles, p. 139. The short addition in brackets is Hume’s.
62 J. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. iv, ch. xix, § 14 (vol. II, p. 438 in A. C. Fraser’s edition).
63 For Hume’s attitude when facing death, see the famous letter written, shortly after his death, by his friend, the great economist Adam Smith, to a certain William Strahan, Esq.