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What Darwin’s Darlings Need to Know about David Hume

Michael Flannery


There is little question that David Hume (1711-1776), patron saint of nearly every skeptic who came after him, has profoundly influenced Darwin’s most passionate believers. Michael Shermer touts the so-called "Hume Maxim," Daniel Dennett considers him his "favorite" philosopher, and Richard Dawkins’s attack on the rationality of theism is said to have a particularly "Humean aroma." Indeed, as William B. Huntley has explained so well, Darwin himself took his cues from Hume.

But Darwin’s contemporary and natural selection’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, was unimpressed by Hume, and his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism delivered a detailed response to Hume’s many claims and assertions about belief and the miraculous that Darwin’s darlings would do well to heed.

Referring to Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Wallace took careful note of Hume’s definition of a miracle, which was that a miracle "is a violation of the laws of nature" and that it "is a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent." Wallace protested that "both these definitions are bad or imperfect. The first assumes that we know all the laws of nature, that the particular effect could not be produced by some unknown law of nature overcoming a law we do know." Why, he added, must products of intelligence in nature invariably violate natural laws? Wallace suggests that Hume’s assertions about the violation of natural laws are assumed without, in his words, "a shadow of proof."

Wallace burrows further into Hume’s argument. Hume insisted that one test for a miracle should be "uniform experience," which he asserts "amounts to a proof." For example, that a seemingly healthy man should die would not be considered a miracle because it has on occasion occurred, but that a dead man should rise from the grave would clearly be a miracle because, according to Hume, it has never been observed to occur. Upon such reasoning Hume built his case for discounting all miracles simply because of their sheer improbability.

Wallace replied:

This argument is radically fallacious, because if it were sound, no perfectly new fact could ever be proved, since the first and each succeeding witness would be assumed to have universal experience against him. Such a simple fact as the existence of flying fish [i.e. the Exocoetidae family comprising seven to nine genera] could never be proved, if Hume’s argument is a good one; for the first man who saw and described one, would have the universal experience against him that fish do not fly, or make any approach to flying, and his evidence being rejected, the same argument would apply to the second, and to every subsequent witness; and thus no man at the present day who has not seen a flying fish alive, and actually flying, ought to believe that such things exist.

Wallace goes on to demonstrate how Hume contradicts himself. For example, in one passage Hume proclaims that in all of history no miracle has ever been attested to by a sufficient number of men of good sense, education, and learning. In the next passage Hume admits that the miracles of the then-popular Jansenist healings at the Abb� Paris from 1727-1730 were attributed in great number and "proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity." But, for Hume, ”we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such religion.”

But if we may doubt all human testimony — something Wallace emphatically denied — then all our epistemological certainties could be called into doubt, and the courtrooms that rely upon them might as well (by Humean standards) be shut down.

Hume continued to insist that various religions "abound in miracles" and that some are very different, and moreover, that "whatever is different is contrary." So the sheer number of miracles associated with various different, and therefore contrary, faiths undermine or negate the validity of these alleged miracles. Wallace retorts that Hume "confounds the evidence for the fact [of a miracle] with the theories to account for the fact, and most illogically and unphilosophically argues, that if the theories lead to contradictions, the facts themselves do not exist."

In the end, Wallace leveled four charges against Hume:

  1. Hume’s definition of miracles is false and simply begs the question of their possibility;

  2. Hume claims that miracles are isolated facts, a fallacy to which the entire course of human testimony — and human history — is opposed;

  3. Hume deliberately and absolutely contradicted himself as to the amount and quality of the testimony in favor of miracles; and

  4. Hume propounds a fallacy that miracles connected with opposing religions destroy each other or negate each other by contradictory claims. The miracles may stand separate and distinct from whatever religious claims might be made for them.

It should be said that Wallace objected to Hume’s assumption that every miraculous act had to come directly from God in some unmediated sense. Wallace believed that there were an "infinite number of intelligent beings who may exist in the universe between ourselves and the Deity." And before we get too taken aback at this statement as merely exchanging Hume’s blasphemy for Wallace’s heresy, it is worth a reminder that Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica believed that God governs many things through angels that allows for a sharing of the causality inherent in God’s nature — the First Cause. Dominican Aidan Nichols has noted, "the First Cause gives being; secondary causes determine it." But perhaps more importantly the occasion of a miracle and the specific operations behind a miracle are two separate things; uncertainty of operation does not equal negation of the act.

In any case, it is clear that Wallace was unimpressed by Hume’s skepticism. He felt Hume’s arguments failed the test of logic and posed simplistic — even na�ve — formulations about religion and religious claims. Insisting upon the utmost rationalism, Hume’s own argument would stop all rational inquiry in its tracks since no human testimony could ultimately be admitted into court unless it met a test of "uniformity" defined and constructed so as to affirm the very premise in question, namely, that miracles cannot exist.

Wallace’s dissection of Hume anticipated C.S. Lewis’s Miracles some 73 years later. What a shame that such "informed" and "rational" men of "science" as Shermer, Dennett, and Dawkins have been so limited in their reading as to continue to praise ideas long since refuted.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.