On what Hume destroyed

The modern secular approach to miracles is deeply influenced by the writings of David Hume. He hold the opinion that, in order to accept something as true, one has to acquire full confidence of it, and thought about the conditions that need to be in place for that [Hume, David: Über den menschlichen Verstand, Leipzig 1983, p. 140].

The consequences, of course, are awesome: demanding 100% certainty for everything means that most facts of history and natural science would have to be termed “not assured” or “unreliable”. Hume took this “empirism” approch to a point where he even concluded that there is no outer world [“Das Problem der Außenwelt” in German Wikipedia] and no self [“Das Problem der personalen Identität und des freien Willens” in German Wikipedia]. But in fact, he just discovered that logic does not allow to conclude with mathematical 100% certainty that there is an outer world or a self, if given sense data. So Hume should have better termed himself an empirism-based agnostic, or should have  moved on to search for better tools to determine truth in the area of the world’s basic structure.

Hume raised the bar for determining the truth that high because he wanted to do something against those commonplace invented miracle stories, which indeed do collateral  damage, not only to science. In the same way, some Christians (including me, up to now) apply a very high measure before accepting something as an genuine act of God, because of the collateral damage effected by heretics (invented doctrines). Observing lying people makes us distrust other people, too, even including the authors of the biblical books. And the, to re-gain trust, we want to apply more exact measurement tools, like scientific studies and stuff. With the result that we trust nearly nothing any more, as the  effort for scientific studies etc. is simply unpractical to do in any normal man’s life.

So, after Hume and after all the collateral damage done by miracle mongers, in Western cultures we’re consequently anti-supernatural. And that’s a problem because being anti-supernatural it is being prejudiced. What we need to re-gain is the right measure for determining the truth content of proposed miracles: most believers have it too low and most unbelievers too high.

On the best epistemological tools

Regarding the epistemological tools, the error of Hume is this: it is not allowable to use a higher threshold for determining the truth in more important matters. While we, as humans, have a pragmatic way of determining truth and employ it all the way in practical life, some of us get on the idea that other tools have to be utilized to determine truth when it comes to more important matters, such as “is there an outer world”, “is there a self”, “are there miracles”, “is Jesus the Son of God” etc..

One of the proposed other tools is to search for present-day miracles because to integrate the biblical miracles into a “stream of experience” (as Hume would say) and make them
believable that way.

But seeing that these other tools leave us as agnostics means that there are no better tools than those we employ in everyday life: those tools don’t offer 100% certainty, but at least don’t leave us as agnostics. In this world, we simply have no better tools available. If we don’t accept the available tools, we simply cannot arrive at any conclusive statement regarding if some “important” matters are matters of fact (e.g. miracles). And that’s surely not what we want. We need to embrace some degree of uncertainty to master life.

Also note, that “scientific methodology” makes no difference when it comes to practical determinaton of truth: the end user, i.e. nearly all people in nearly all situations, needs to accept scientific truth not on empirical grounds, but on everyday epistemological grounds. We believe these facts not because of we tried them out ourselves (which we could, however) but because we believe their accounts. So the end user accepts accounts of natural science with no better epistemological justification than theological accounts.

So what are our everyday tools to determine truth?

Now if we want to apply our empistemological everyday tools to determine the truth content of miracle data, we first of all need to know what actually are these everyday tools.  How do we, in normal cases, determine historic truth in “normal cases”? After that, theses “everyday measurers” of historicians can be applied to accounts of supernatural  events, like the biblical miracles and today’s miracles. Depending on the outcome, we then have a justification to believe in God that’s on par with the justification to believe in concrete.

The basic thought of the everyday epistemological tool is to accept a story as true if it has a historic proof of good everyday quality. We require no additional empiric verification (“repeating the story”) to see that it is possible etc., we deal with it as an isolated, discrete event only. Therefore, we should believe historical miracles if they have historic proof, even if there are no contemporary miracles. So for everything that happens in mesocosmos (the area accessible to our senses), the everyday approach of witnessing events (and recording them as history) is enough and must be accepted.

We should now move on and see if and how the everyday epistemological tool is capable of recognizing falsehood, e.g. filtering out fake miracles. To recognize falsehood, we normally do the following:

  • Exclude that the author of the account might have an selfish motive to tell the account. For example, this can not be excluded for the global warming hypothesis, the holocaust lie or the evolution hypothesis.
  • Check if there are multiple witnesses for the account, and if these witnesses are independent from each other. Check the witnesses’ personal histories to see whether they seem “trustable” or not.
  • Check if the account deals with very subtle perceptions, which would put the account in danger of being no more than a vague interpretation. For subtle perceptions, our direct sensual perception is indeed not the appropriate tool: try, for example, to compare the quality of two like medicines based on direct sensual perception, regarding the effects on you and some friends. In such cases, we need a scientific approach, as it can handle subtle differences by employing statistics, series of double-blind experiments etc.. Well then, deal miracle stories with events obvious enough to be handled by the everyday epistemological tool? Yes, with regard to all biblical accounts of miracles. So we simply shouldn’t allow stories of “subtle miracles” to be handled by the everyday epistemological tool today … there must be enough obvious miracle stories out there.

Consequences for dealing with miracle accounts

This “lowering the bar” approach says that miracle accounts should be able to enter the “Second Acts” series if they use the “everyday tools to determine truth” in a mature, sober manner. Including use of multiple witnesses etc.. This approach also attributes high value to the Bible, as a document about God’s acts here on earth. Because it argues that the Bible accounts can be accepted, as they employ the everyday epistemological tool in a mature, sober manner.

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