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ABSTRACT

The topic and methods of David Hume's “Of Miracles” resemble his historiographical more than his philosophical works. Unfortunately, Hume and his critics and apologists have shared the pre-scientific, indeed a historical, limitations of Hume's original historical investigations. I demonstrate the advantages of the critical methodological approach to testimonies, developed initially by German biblical critics in the late eighteenth century, to a priori discussions of miracles. Any future discussion of miracles and Hume must use the critical method to improve the quality and relevance of the debate.

Hume's definition of miracles as breaking the laws of nature is anachronistic. The concept of immutable laws of nature was introduced only in the seventeenth century, thousands of years after the Hebrews had introduced the concept of miracles. Holder and Earman distinguish the posterior probability of the occurrence of a particular miracle from that of the occurrence of some miracle. I argue that though this distinction is significant, their formulae for evaluating the respective probabilities are not useful. Even if miracle hypotheses have low probabilities, it may still be rational to accept and use them if there is no better explanation for the evidence of miracles. Biblical critics and historians do not examine the probabilities of miracle hypotheses, or any other hypotheses about the past, in isolation, but in comparison with competing hypotheses that attempt to better explain, increase the likelihood of a broader scope of evidence, as well as be more fruitful. The fruitful and simple theories of Hume's later and better contemporaries, the founders of biblical criticism, offer the best explanation of the broadest scope of evidence of miracles. Moreover, they do so by being linguistically sensitive to the ways “miracle” was actually used by those who claimed to have observed them.

The lessons of this analysis for historians and philosophers of history—that the acceptance of historical hypotheses is a comparative endeavor, and that the claims of those in the past must be assessed in their own terms—ought to be clear.