David Hume devotes a chapter of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding to miracles. It is hardly surprising that he is sceptical; he doesn’t believe a miracle has ever occurred. He lays out an argument in support of this.
His argument is very modern. It rests on the idea of probability. If somebody informs you that he has witnessed a miracle, say the resurrection of a dead person, is it more likely that such a miracle has occurred, or that the narrator has either been deceived, or is trying to deceive you? You might say that Hume is a Doubting Thomas. Thomas needed to see the thing for himself. He could have been a role model for enlightened man, in his championship of Doubt as a mainstay of scientific enquiry.
Hume defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”, and further, as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. These are all-encompassing definitions which no doubt suit Hume’s purpose, although it seems to me that the definition of a miracle should be narrower. A miracle has to be an intervention that is benign, at least to somebody. When Uri Geller exerts some mysterious force to bend spoons, we may say he performs magic, but even supposing we thought the magic was in some sense “real”, we would stop short of calling it a miracle. When the Deity elects to submerge the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, this is an act of providence for the Israelites. If nobody benefited, we would hesitate to call such an act a miracle, but rather an outburst of bad temper.
Miracles, such as they are recorded, appear to be rare events. Of course, Hume would say vanishingly rare. Hume draws attention to the fact that they seem to belong to history, and do not occur in the present day. They also seem to occur in remote locations. Right enough, occasionally one hears reports of teenage girls performing prodigious feats in some remote village in the Andes. The Roman Catholic Church despatches a team of cardinals to investigate. Most of us put this sort of thing down to some kind of collective hysteria, no doubt because we have all read our Hume and are therefore enlightened.
But here is a thought experiment. Imagine you inhabit a tiny and obscure corner of the universe in which miracles are, in fact, quite commonplace. They happen all the time. Would you recognise them as miracles? Say that you incur an injury; several injuries if you like. A mechanical breakdown. We will exemplify this by analogy. As you park your car on the street outside your house one evening, you note you are running on empty, and a dashboard hazard light warns you the car is low on oil. On leaving the car you note the front nearside bumper has been stoved in, there’s a gash in the paint work, and you have two flat tyres. Drat! Yet sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. You will phone the garage in the morning.
Next day, you go out to find a panel beater must have been at work in the night for the bumper is whole, paintwork restored, tyres inflated. The fuel tank is replenished and the dipstick shows a superabundance of oil. The windscreen has been washed for good measure. So what do you do? You just shrug, get into the car, and drive off. You don’t think twice about it because it happens all the time.
Mind you, sooner or later there will be a terminal event. Even a Volvo doesn’t last for ever. But look what happens. You get up one morning to find the old decrepit jalopy has gone and has been replaced by a spanking gorgeous brand new model.
But this is all perfectly commonplace. The laws of physics are the same everywhere, and we are made of stardust, and the universe is so unimaginably vast that something like this must be going on elsewhere. So we train our telescopes on deep space in the search for self-repairing and self-generating Volvos, but we can’t seem to find any. The universe is certainly a fascinating and indeed a very frightening place, but it has to be said nothing out there is remotely as interesting as that which takes place in our own obscure corner. If there is love or laughter or sympathy or poignancy out there, such instances of these remain remarkably coy.
Hume has another name for a miracle: a “prodigy”. We tend to use the word for a particular sort of miracle – a person whose gift is so spectacular that it seems to us to be God-given. It is beyond comprehension, miraculous. Mozart was a prodigy. I wonder if Hume got the chance to hear some of his music. Maybe Hume was just looking for miracles in the wrong place. The Jupiter Symphony makes any stunt like turning water into wine rather tawdry.
When I was an emergency physician, I lost count of the number of times the paramedics would bring in a survivor from a road crash. They would be white-faced at what they had witnessed. “You should see the wreckage. Carnage! Honestly doc, it’s a miracle anybody got out of there alive!”
Maybe it was.