I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.
What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.
I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.
There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.
Not too long ago my wife and I finished reading through Matthew's gospel, and my own reading of the gospel strikes me as so far removed from the direction of a lot of scholarship. There seems to be a sense among some scholars that Matthew had a loose view of history and just sort of made things up about Jesus, not caring if many of it really happened. There's also this contrary sense from the same people that Matthew looked long and hard to find passages in the Hebrew scriptures that were vaguely similar to events in Jesus' life, usually resulting in huge stretches of the imagination to try to connect the two as if the first had been a prophecy of the second.
This combination creates a strong tension. How can it be both that Matthew twists OT passages way out of context and that he invents stories that never happened to fulfill those same OT passages? If he was in the business of inventing stories that never happened, he could have made it so that they were closer to the events as described in the OT passages he's referencing. That suggests that he's not simply inventing stories and finding OT passages to fit them. I think it's absolutely obvious and not even an open question that there are many levels of what it might mean to fulfill something, and Matthew is well aware of that.
The view I'm questioning assumes only the kind of fulfillment that simplistic apologists assume when they say that a reference to an OT passage is about Jesus simply because the NT references it, then listing countless passages and giving the sum of all this as an argument that Jesus must have been who he said he was because he fulfilled so many prophecies. Not all the fulfillment in the NT is that kind of fulfillment, as if some prophet said something and it was about Jesus and not about anything else.
Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.