October 31, 2020

Hume's Polemic against Tillotson (and Friends) in "Of Miracles"

Interpreters of Hume's "Of Miracles" (section 10 of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding) have often been puzzled about the purpose of Part 2 of the essay. It appears to many interpreters that Hume's argument in Part 1, if it works at all, must establish that it is impossible in principle for any testimony to yield rational belief in miracles. (For defense of this interpretation of Part 1, see, e.g., Robert Larmer.) The announced purpose of Part 2, however, is to argue that actually existing testimony of miracles is of poor quality. If Part 1 has established that no matter how good the testimony is it would still be irrational to believe in miracles, why should Hume go on to argue that in fact the testimony is bad? Is Part 2 entirely otiose?

It seems to me that this puzzlement is at least partly due to neglect of the religious context of Hume's argument. The literature on "Of Miracles" is vast, and I'm not familiar with enough of it to be able to say how universal such neglect is, but I can confidently say that it's common. I'm also not familiar with enough of the literature to know how much of what follows has already been said by someone else. Be that as it may, here are some contextual observations that can help make sense of the relation between the two parts of "Of Miracles".

Hume opens the essay with a (not very accurate) summary of John Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation. Tillotson was an Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the key figures in Anglican religious rationalism. According to Tillotson and friends, Christianity should be understood as a purely rational religion, with faith fully subordinated to reason. This view came with a particular view of the epistemic structure of rational Christian belief, to which Hume alludes in the opening paragraph of "Of Miracles." As Hume puts it, "the authority, either of scripture or of tradition, is founded merely on the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission." In other words, belief in Christianity, including belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, is justified on the basis of a prior belief in the miracles of Jesus. Our belief in the miracles of Jesus is justified on the basis of the eye-witness testimony of the apostles.

Now, note two things about the structure of justification here. First, our trust in the eye-witness testimony of the apostles is prior to our belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture. So, in our initial investigation, we need to treat the books of the Bible as ordinary historical records and judge them to be adequate evidence that these miracles occurred. Only later can we conclude that the Bible is inspired. Second, this whole picture relies on a prior belief that God exists, that it makes sense that God would make a revelation, and that this revelation would be recognizable through miracles. So there's two parts to the argument here, one part established by philosophical reflection and one part by historical investigation.

Precisely this picture can be found in Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity, but it is also found in a variety of more orthodox (or, at least, less heterodox) writers and is entirely characteristic of the latitudinarian wing of Anglicanism, represented paradigmatically by Tillotson. (On Locke's epistemology of divine revelation, see Shelley Weinberg. On Locke's relation to latitudinarianism, see Patricia Sheridan.)

Now, Hume correctly summarizes Tillotson as saying that this is the only way the authority of Scripture or tradition can be established. This is because Tillotson is arguing against Roman Catholic opponents and needs to avoid begging questions on the relationship between these. The claim is that, whether the revelation is embodied in a text, a tradition, or an institution, its authority must be established by historical evidence of miracles, and such historical evidence is gathered by the senses. Tillotson's actual core argument in his 1685 Discourse against Transubstantiation (which, again, Hume misstates) is that it is self-defeating to believe that the Eucharistic wine is miraculously changed into blood while continuing to look, smell, and taste like wine. Why? Because whatever evidence we have for believing in this miracle must ultimately come from the senses. You see certain words in a printed Bible, or hear certain words spoken by the priest, or whatever. You believe these words communicate a divine revelation because of the historical evidence for miracles, also gathered by the senses. But if the doctrine of transubstantiation is true then the senses are unreliable even under ideal conditions. (No matter how good the lighting is, it still looks like wine—even under a microscope!) Hence, transubstantiation would undercut the reliability of the senses and thereby undercut the only kind of evidence that could possibly exist in favor of transubstantiation.

The broader set of views about religious epistemology here are connected up with another Catholic/Protestant dispute. Catholic apologists argued that the Catholic church could be recognized as the true church because of its ongoing miracles. But for Protestants, the purposes of miracles was not to attest to an institution, but rather to attest to a text, the Bible. Many Protestants therefore argued that such miracles had ceased once the canon of Scripture was complete (a view many Protestants continue to hold about at least some kinds of miracles). Thus—and this seems to me to be key to a proper understanding of Hume's "Of Miracles"—the Anglican rationalists' religious epistemology relies crucially on having a very high degree of confidence in the authenticity of the miracles of Jesus, and it relies especially on the claim that the miracles of Jesus are better attested than recent miracles claimed by Catholics.

Now, the rationalism of Tillotson and friends is indisputably directly contrary to the views of Luther and Calvin. How far Luther and Calvin went in the direction of fideism is disputed, and their later followers held a variety of views. But it is indisputable that Luther and Calvin denied that a person could come to saving faith by the exercise of natural reason without supernatural grace. Here, as elsewhere, the Anglicans are caught between the Catholics and the Calvinists. Many Calvinists would hold that saving faith is created in the human soul by a divine miracle, independent of, and perhaps even contrary to, reason. According to this line of thinking, to try to reason one's way into faith is to fall into Pelagianism, the doctrine that we can save ourselves by our own works, rather than relying on the grace of God.

Now, turn back to "Of Miracles" with me. We start with this (partly accurate) summary of Tillotson, the key point of which is that "it is agreed on all hands" that the authority of texts or traditions taken to embody divine revelation can only come from historical evidence of miracles. Such evidence depends on the reliability of the senses. Hence, to undermine the reliability of the senses (as Tillotson alleges transubstantiation does) is to undermine all of revealed religion.

But, Hume recognizes, it's not just the senses that are in play here. There's a whole range of epistemic practices around the evaluation of purported eyewitness testimony that go into evaluating these kinds of ancient miracle reports. These practices, according to Hume, are of a piece with our general practices of empirical investigation. They assume that the unobserved resembles the observed. They assume various balancing tests for different empirical 'proofs'. When these epistemic practices are correctly understood, Hume claims, they leave no room for any possible testimony to establish a miracle. Why? Because, the hypothesis that the alleged witness is either lying or mistaking will always, necessarily better conform with previously observed regularities than the hypothesis that a miracle occurred. ("I would not believe such a thing were it told to me by Cato.") This must necessarily be the case because that a miracle is contrary to uniform experience is built into the very concept of a miracle, according to Hume.

That's Part 1. Now Part 2.

It's worth observing that Hume's bigotry is on full display in Part 2. 'Civilized' people inhabit a handful of major cities, all of them in Europe. Everything else is 'ignorance and barbarism'. One could have a field day with testimonial injustice in "Of Miracles," and if this hasn't already happened it should. But that's not what I'm up to right now.

After dismissing a whole bunch of testimony of miracles, Hume gets to the really good ones (according to him) in paragraphs 26 and 27. The reader mustn't miss the fact that these are recent, Catholic miracle reports. Further, in the footnote to paragraph 27, Hume writes,


There runs, however, through the whole of these [books] a ridiculous comparison between the miracles of our Saviour and those of the Abbe [Paris]; wherein it is asserted, that the evidence for the latter is equal to that of the former: As if the testimony of men could ever be put in the balance with that of God himself... If these writers [of Scripture], indeed, were to be considered merely as human testimony, the French author is very moderate in his comparison, since he might, with some appearance of reason, pretend that the Jansenist miracles much surpass the other in evidence and authority.

Here, Hume suggests that, unless one presupposes that Scripture is the word of God, one must conclude that these Jansenist miracles are in fact better attested than the miracles of Jesus. Indeed, the miracles are said to be supported by a "cloud of witnesses," a phrase clearly alluding to Hebrews 12:1. In the main text of paragraph 27, Hume says that "the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the event, which they relate" is the only possible basis for rejecting this testimony. Hence, if one goes in for miracle reports, one winds up in Catholicism. (I do not attach much significance to the fact that the miracles are here associated with Jansenism rather than mainstream Catholicism.) Fortunately, according to Hume, the mere fact that the reported events are miraculous is enough reason to reject them, so we don't all have to convert to Catholicism. Bullet dodged.

But note a second feature of Hume's discussion here. He says that the only way to say the miracles of Jesus are better attested is to already believe that the person reporting those miracles is God. But, according to Tillotson's religious epistemology, described so favorably in the opening paragraph of part 1, we can establish the authority of Scripture only by first showing that the miracles of Jesus occurred. Hume's message is clear enough: we can't establish the authority of the Bible or any other purported revelation.

At the end of Part 2, Hume writes, "I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of Human reason" (paragraph 40). At the beginning of the essay, Hume had presented himself as an Anglican rationalist. In the middle of Part 2, he narrowly avoided becoming a (Jansenist) Roman Catholic. In the final two paragraphs (foreshadowed by the previously quoted footnote to paragraph 27), Hume is suddenly a Calvinist fideist. "Our most holy religion," Hume continues, "is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure." He goes on to say that reason must regard as ridiculous the miracle reports found in the Pentateuch. (The bigotry is on display again: the Pentateuch is described as "a book presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous.") Hume concludes:


the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity. And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

The theology at the surface level of the last two paragraphs is perfectly orthodox in the (Calvinist) Church of Scotland. But in context Hume can hardly be supposed to believe it, especially in light of the way the essay opens with an apparent endorsement of Tillotson's opposing view. The sarcasm of the two final paragraphs is clear, and was not lost on Hume's contemporaries.

In sum, the two parts of "Of Miracles" represent a two-pronged attack on the Anglican rationalism of Tillotson and friends. Part 1 argues that it is not possible to secure adequate testimonial support for the miracles of Jesus because it is in principle impossible to secure adequate testimonial support of any miracles. There is indeed a sense in which this renders Part 2 otiose. But Part 2 nevertheless plays a perfectly intelligible role in Hume's polemic. Protestant polemicists, including Tillotson, were fond of accusing Catholics of 'credulity' for their embrace of 'superstitions' such as miraculous healings at the graves of saints. Part 2 argues that those who, like Tillotson and Locke, believe in the miracles of Jesus on the basis of the testimony of the apostles, or believe in the miracles reported in the Pentateuch, are guilty of even greater credulity and superstition than this. The only recourse for the Protestant, according to Hume, is to retreat into Calvinist fideism. It is in this way that, according to Hume, his argument "must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition" (paragraph 2) for, as Montaigne had observed, to embrace this kind of skeptical fideism is to "surrender your own arms to force your opponent to lose his" (Essays, tr. Screech, 628). Fideism can have nothing to say in its own defense.

Posted by Kenny at October 31, 2020 7:55 PM
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