Miracles as a matter of fact

We live these days in a scientific age which rejects miracles and deprives history of a metaphysical dimension. This view can be traced back in part to the writings of David Hume (pictured) the Scottish philosopher of the 18th Century, an age when Edinburgh regarded itself as "the Athens of the North"; it was the city too of Adam Smith, atheism and modern economics having the same roots.

The key text here is Hume's celebrated discussion of miracles in his Essay on Human Understanding (1748). The contentions of this essay are widely accepted in the scientific community, certainly by such critics as Richard Dawkins, who have never read Hume at all.

James Boswell, the inventor of modern biography, was also product of the Scottish enlightenment. In his justly celebrated biography he records a discussion of Hume with Dr Johnston, a convinced Christian and Jacobite. Boswell records: "I mentioned Hume's argument against the belief of miracles, that it is more probable that the witnesses to the truth of them are mistaken, or speak falsely, than that the miracles should be true.

"Johnson: 'Why, sir, the great difficulty of proving miracles should make us very cautious in believing them. But let us consider; although God has made nature to operate by certain fixed laws, yet it is not unreasonable to think that he may suspend those laws, in order to establish a system highly advantageous to mankind. Now the Christian religion is a most beneficial system, as it gives us light and certainty where we were before in darkness and doubt. The miracles which prove it are attested by men who had no interest in deceiving us; but who, on the contrary, were told that they should suffer persecution, and did actually lay down their lives in confirmation of the truth of the facts which they asserted. Indeed, for some centuries the heathens did not pretend to deny the miracles; but said they were performed by the aid of evil spirits. This is a circumstance of great weight. Then, sir, when we take the proofs derived from prophecies which have been so exactly fulfilled, we have most satisfactory evidence. Supposing a miracle possible, as to which, in my opinion, there can be no doubt, we have as strong evidence for the miracles in support of Christianity, as the nature of the thing admits'."

That is very much to the point from a Christian point of view. Dr Johnson also told Boswell that Hume had admitted to "a clergyman in the bishoprick of Durham, that he had never read the New Testament with attention". One suspects this is true also of Richard Dawkins.

However, Hume's views on miracles is the subject of an interesting critique from a purely philosophical perspective by David Johnson in his book Hume, Holism, and Miracles (Cornell University Press, (32.00 / £25.20), a reading of  which would prove enlightening for many readers, even though it was published as long ago as 1999. Its impact is undeniable, for it has already drawn forth two serious rebuttals, which have not, I think, refuted David Johnson's main contention.

According to David Johnson, the Humean argument in "On Miracles" is entirely without merit, its purported cogency being simply "a philosophical myth".

Johnson observes that Hume in fact begs the question (to be understood in its proper philosophical meaning of taking an assumption for granted rather than as a synonym for a proposition as it is so often used these days by careless writers).  This had been stated by many Christian writers, notably Newman and C. S Lewis. But David Johnson goes further and extends his discussion of the theme against those who have attempted to reargue Hume's position, notably J. L. Mackie, John Stuart Mill, Antony Flew and Jordan Howard Sobel. (Flew has since come to accept the idea of a god, but not the miraculous.)

I found David Johnson's book of immense interest, but not being a philosopher, perhaps it impressed me for all the wrong reasons; one can never be certain, I feel, with modern philosophers that one actually understands them. But for those who would welcome an intellectual defence of the miraculous David Johnson's Hume, Holism, and Miracles can be commended.