Argument from miracle testimony

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The argument from miracle testimony is based on eye-witness accounts of miracles. Miracles are usually regarded as highly unusual events that have no explanation but divine intervention. David Hume was highly critical of miracles in his essay Of Miracles and argues that while miracles may occur, no testimony is sufficient to establish the occurrence of a miracle. His argument is influential but arguably the only valid result was to popularise evidentialism when considering miracle testimony.

Miracles have been recorded in many different religions and throughout history.


The argument

  1. Testimony exists miracles occur
  2. Not all of the testimony is unreconcilable or based on hoaxes.
  3. Miracles occur
  4. There can be no naturalistic explanation for a miracle
  5. God exists

The Bible as a source of miracle testimony is discussed in the argument from biblical miracles.

Arguments use various definitions of miracles. In this article, two will be addressed:

  • Indicative: A miracle is an event whose only adequate explanation is the extraordinary and direct intervention of God. [1]
  • Rare event: Rare beneficial events that defy explanation by known physical processes.

Counter arguments

Human testimony is unreliable

Because of the many biases that human experience, human testimony is often unreliable. Regarding miracle testimony, the most relevant ones are:

Observer are often mistaken about what they witnessed or self-deceive themselves into belief. Testimony should be evaluated based on the state of mind and motives of the witness.


Strange and miraculous occurrences have often been recorded that have been later uncovered as hoaxes. [2] It is difficult to say how many miracles were not debunked, due to lack of scrutiny, but were also hoaxes.

It is often easier to fake historical records rather than fake an apparently miracle in front of witnesses.

There is a reporting bias of miracle evidence due to peoples fascination with unusual and bizarre events. For this reason stories of miracles are propagated, but counter evidence is not. For this reason, miracle stories may have been refuted at the time but that refutation has been since lost.

Standard of evidence

How are we to judge claims of miracles? John Locke and David Hume argued that we should examine the evidence and base our belief depending on evidential weight (i.e. evidentialism). Repeatable personal experience has generally high quality evidence, although it is not infallible.

"There are a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgements of this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. [3]"

Based on our experiences, testimony has a lesser evidential weight than direct personal experience.

"Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

— Chico Marx in Duck Soup

If a person were to tell you they could fly without mechanical assistance or walk through walls, you would probably think their claim is highly unlikely. The reason for this is our somewhat limited experience tells us that these things typically do not occur. The possibly of incomplete or mistaken experience must be considered as well as the reliability of the claimant on this topic. After considering the evidence, the conclusion is never absolute rejection or absolute acceptance but at least the possibility of error is allowed (this principle is called fallibilism). Given that unusual events are rare, in that they cannot be directly verified and human testimony is often unreliable, it is difficult to establish a miracle has occurred with much certainty. Typically, all that can be established is the possibility that a miracle has occurred.

If the standard of evidence were lowered, we would also accept many other paranormal claims, which is absurd.

The standard of evidence proposed that is similar to that used by modern historians: Ernst Troeltsch argued that there must be some analogy between historical events and current events. [4]

Some philosophers have attempted to ground these concepts on more rigorous Bayesian (probability) mathematics but it is difficult to account for all the factors that change the weight of a piece of evidence.

Outsider test

Main Article: Outsider test

If we examine miracle claims of a single religion from the point of view of an outsider, we would reject the claims. This is a criterion for rational belief.

Miracles are less often reported in modern times

Miracle claims are less often reported than in ancient times. David Hume argued that we have better communication of information and education in modern times. This makes hoax miracles more difficult because witnesses are less credulous and rebuttal evidence is more available.

"It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. [...] in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature. [3]"

We also have a higher standard of evidence with the availability of photographic or video recording, as well as forensic and medical records. Although the high standard of physical evidence is expected in modern times, we also are more sceptical of evidence because of the emergence of advanced hoax methods such as computer generated visual effects.

Since 1964, the James Randi foundation offers a cash prize for any demonstration of paranormal phenomena under controlled conditions. Approximately 1000 applicants have attempted to claim the prize [5] but no claim has been successful so far. The prize money has grown from US$1,000 to $1,000,000 from donations.

Occurrence of miracles supports many conclusions

Main Article: Which God?

Many religions are supported by miracle testimony of comparable credibility. If we accept one religion's claims, we must accept them all. This leads to an absurd conclusion of multiple exclusively existing monotheistic Gods and incompatible theology.

Natural causes of miracles or unexplained phenomena have also not been ruled out by the argument. To claim "God did it" is an argument from ignorance.

Problem with definition of indicative miracles

This definition is problematic because there are many unexplained phenomena which might one day be explained (e.g. dark matter). How are we to distinguish between unknown natural phenomena and acts of God? This is walking into the arms of God of the gaps and the argument from ignorance. Using this definition, no event cannot be called a "miracle" with any confidence.


  1. [1]
  2. Museum of Hoaxes
  3. 3.0 3.1 David Hume, Of Miracles
  4. Michael R. Licona, Jan G. Van der Watt, Historians and miracles: The principle of analogy and antecedent probability reconsidered, HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies; Vol 65, No 1 (2009), 6 pages. doi: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.129 [2]
  5. [3]

See also

External links

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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