Miracles in history

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Miracle claims in the distant past, especially the alleged resurrection of Jesus, play a major role in some varieties of Christian apologetics. The reasons to doubt such claims are many.


Common sense objections

Most people would demand a very large amount of evidence to believe, say, that a WWII soldier rose from the dead. The common-sense principle behind such skepticism can be given in a few words: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The appeal of this phrase is hightened by the fact that it was first used by figures such as Marcello Truzzi and Carl Sagan to combat claims of psychic powers and extraterrestrial visitation--things most conventional believers have no trouble being skeptical about. (See also: Outsider test)

Hume's epistemic argument

The slogan "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is in part a condensed form of a principle defended by the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume in the 18th century. Hume put his principle as follows:

That 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; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.
This position was based on Hume's belief that "experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact." For example, we would have no reason to trust historical doccuments in the first if not for the observed correlation between human testimony and reality. This means that we must judge the probability of claims based on our experience, and because miracles fall so far outside out experience, we must judge them to be extraordinarily improbable, requiring an incredible amount of evidence to be believed. As an example of what it would take for a miracle to be believable, Hume gives the example of an inexplicable 8-day darkness attested by every historian in every country, without the least variation.

Empirical arguments

Additionally, many reasons to be skeptical about miracle claims can be found in known facts about the world. Though he was best known for his philosophical argument, Hume also gave many arguments of this kind. Hume's list was as follows:

  • First, there is no miracle report coming from men of sufficient character and in the right circumstances to guard against all possibility of fraud.
  • Second, false miracle reports are common, and people have been observed to have an irrational eagerness to accept them. Hume notes that when such a situation develops with other types of stories--say, local gossip--reasonable people become reluctant to accept any such story without better than normal assurance.
  • Third, miracles tend not to be reported today, but rather are mainly reported in the distant past where education was rare and the people were, in Hume's words, "ignorant and barbarous."
  • Fourth, miracles have been claimed in favor of every religion, but these religions make contradictory claims, so the pieces of evidence for the miracles of different religions destroy eachother.

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