Dinesh D’Souza: Butchering Hume’s “Of Miracles”

Dinish

Before I begin, let me say that I’m no philosopher. I don’t really write posts on philosophy and I barely qualify as an amateur or  student of philosophy. So those who are more literate in philosophical debate and the history of philosophy may take this post with a grain of salt. But when I see Dinesh D’Souza misrepresent the work of arguably the greatest english philosophy who has ever lived, I just have to respond. For those that don’t know, Dinesh D’Souza is a fairly popular conservative political commentator and a Christian apologetic who has written several popular books (and even has made a movie). He is notorious for his outright dishonesty and ignorance in political and philosophical debates, so I shouldn’t be too surprised about this. Regardless, I have yet to see a takedown of this particular argument of his, so if anything I’m writing this post for the public so they can see his ignorance first hand.

In his book, What’s so Great About Christianity, D’Souza claims that the distinction between religion and science isn’t always clear. Contrary to the thoughts of other scientists and theologians, science and religion don’t always operate in “separate realms”. For example, religions make claims about nature just like science:

The Old Testament reports that Moses parted the Red Sea, and that Jonah lived in the belly of the whale. The New Testament tells of a virgin named Mary who conceived a child, and of a fellow names Jesus who performed innumerable acts that defy human explanation. (D’Souza 2007: 114)

Right off the bat we have problems. Why is D’Souza asserting that the bible “makes claims about nature” as if that position is self evident? Wasn’t it Saint Augustine that warned of the dangers of biblical literalism? Wasn’t it Thomas Aquinas that claimed whenever there was a contradiction between scripture or science, then we are mistaken in our interpretation of scripture or science? Even if the Bible was completely inconsistent and erroneous, that doesn’t invalidate Christianity. All it would show is that the Bible is a flawed attempt to understand God.

Anyway, D’Souza gets to his argument against Hume, claiming that Hume’s argument against miracles is the “strongest argument against them” (without referencing any of the other possible arguments) and he state’s Hume’s argument as follows:

1. A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature.

2. We know these laws through repeated and constant experience.

3. The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws.

4. Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.  (D’Souza 2007: 114)

Anyone whose has read this section of Hume’s book, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, might notice that D’Souza leaves out important chunks of Hume’s argument. So right away, we are dealing with a straw-man of sorts. And instead of dealing with these difficulties, D’Souza immediately responds with his own counter-argument for miracles:

1. A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature.

2. Scientific laws are on Hume’s own account empirically unverifiable.

3. Thus, violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible.

4. Therefore, miracles are possible.(D’Souza 2007: 115)

At this point it’s clear that D’Souza doesn’t understand Hume at all. If he did, he would understand that even if we grant him all of his premises, he still fails to counter Hume.

The problem is that D’Souza acts as if Hume is making a metaphysical claim about the “laws of nature”. But he isn’t doing that, and anyone whose has read Hume would understand this. Here is what Hume actually says:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘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 endeavors 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.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

He isn’t trying to prove the impossibility of miracles or that the “laws of nature” can never be violated. In fact, he allows the metaphysical possibility of an intervening deity. There very well could be a deity who might break the laws of nature and allow miracles to happen. But experience is our only guide as to whether such miracles have occurred. So if we are to believe personal testimony about miracles, it must good testimony; very, very good testimony. If anything, Hume is making a very ingenious economical argument.

Consider these two different cases:

1. Person says that x happened. But did not happen. 

2. Person b says that x happened. But did happen.

Each of these statements has a certain probability attached to it. I have to decide which scenario is more improbable and based on that I reject “the greater miracle”. But, as Hume points out, virtually all stories about miracles are completely false:

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind

And Hume gives a lot of reasons why people make such ridiculous stories. A few people lie. Others are delusional. Some want to sell a story for personal gain. Many reports of miracles come from barbarous times and places. I could go on and on. Now the hurdle that “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 endeavors to establish” is looking pretty hard to climb.

So, does D’Souza give us any evidence that any sort of miracles has happened? No, no he doesn’t. He retreats to “I am merely saying that if it might happen one day, then it could have happened before” (D’Souza 2007: 119). This doesn’t even come close to meeting Hume’s objections.

The rest of the section I will not cover. I don’t feel like going through D’Souza’s twisted explanations and misrepresentations of Hume, Kant, and Popper. It’s not worth the time or effort. As Hume says, “Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding.” While I wouldn’t exactly call D’Souza eloquent, I will admit that he’s a decent writer. But his “eloquence” comes at the expense of truth. Unfortunately, I disagree with Hume that “this pitch it seldom attains” and it worries me that a political figure like D’Souza has a such a large platform to spread his ignorance (or lies).

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dinesh D’Souza: Butchering Hume’s “Of Miracles”

  1. Pablo

    How do you read Hume? Is Hume saying,

    1. “Events which defy scientific law can possibly take place, but never has there been sufficient evidence to believe that such an event has taken place?” To this I reply, “Does not the Big Bang defy all current (and perhaps all potential) scientific explanation?” The Big Bang creates the laws of physics, as well as time, space, matter, and energy. The cause of the Big Bang must lie outside all of these, and hence outside of science.

    or does Hume mean to say…

    2. “Miraculous events are possible, but it is categorically impossible for a miraculous event to be proven to have taken place even if it actually has taken place?” This would mean that certain kinds of truth should always be ignored and are unobtainable to humans.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Neither really capture the full extent of Hume’s argument (for more on that, see this excellent essay), but your former paragraph would be more accurate. However, your assertion that “the Big Bang creates the laws of physics” is a pretty contentious claim. Firstly, most scientific laws are useful approximations and do no always hold true. Many of the laws of physics break down at the quantum level and the concept of a “scientific law” is wildly debated in the philosophy of science. Secondly, the causes of the Big Bang and the things that followed it can be explained by physics. Now these explanation could be (and are most likely) completely wrong, but science is capable of making an explanation without invoking a God. Thirdly, you’re starting to delve into metaphysical claims (origins of the universe and what not), which isn’t what Hume was going for. He was making an economical argument. He was talking in terms of probability and you can’t really do that when it come to claims about the universe. There are certainly problems with Hume’s argument, but it’s a very useful starting point. Finally, I wasn’t defending Hume per se, but rather critiquing D’Souza’s awful interpretation of Hume.

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