Healthy Limits of Skepticism

I go with Hume a good ways.

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

Of Miracles, pp.115-116, David Hume

This is the stumbling block for all miraculous claims. When a reported phenomenon cannot be reproduced, when the evidence cannot be captured, all that we have to go on is the testimony of the one(s) who claim to have witnessed it. If what is reported in the testimony contradicts known laws of nature, we must choose between them. Hume concludes that it would be a greater miracle for the testimony of a man to be infallible, and therefore the rational mind must reject the testimony.

The approach serves as the basis upon which I consider all miraculous claims, from the mythical tales written of in the Bible to modern-day reports of the paranormal. But as others have argued, the so-called “Hume’s Razor” is not insurmountable.

Parapsychological evidence challenges firmly entrenched assumptions. Those who doubt these assumptions may welcome this evidence, and choose to ignore the power of Hume’s argument that all the experience that has caused us to make them weighs against the testimony on which the evidence rests. I think this is an irresponsible attitude. But those on the other side who are unwilling to entertain the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than our assumptions permit us to believe in, have to stare down the high quality of some of the testimony, and insist it must always be due to error or fraud. I think this looks like foolishness also.

In essence, what Terence Penelhum asserts is that the quality of the testimony, and I would add the quantity, can accumulate to the point where it would be the greater miracle for we fallible men to have gotten the laws of nature 100% right.

I would have to agree. But where does that point lie? Hard to say. I think application of Hume’s Razor can be used to eliminate the bulk of miraculous stories one might hear, while the better established claims deserve attention to the extent that the quality and quantity of accounts given are high. Even so, I would expect the true nature of a phenomenon which may in the future cause us to “rewrite” the laws of nature to seldom be exactly what its observer(s) thought it was.

That’s the approach in theory. Later, perhaps, when I write about ghosts and psychic phenomena I’ll explain the approach I favor in practice. (no, it isn’t the picture below)



3 responses to “Healthy Limits of Skepticism

  1. I don’t agree with Hume’s theorem. It smacks of humanist ego-centrism. Can there not be things greater than us that are only revealed in glimpses?

    Also, Hume probably drove himself crazy with his own philosophy. There is a good book by TZ Lavine called “Socrates to Sartre” that explores different philosophers, including Hume.

  2. “Can there not be things greater than us that are only revealed in glimpses?”

    I suppose there can be, but being mere glimpses it’s hard for us to get any kind of handle on them.

    “There is a good book by TZ Lavine called “Socrates to Sartre” that explores different philosophers, including Hume.”

    Heh, it’s probably not very flattering towards them, huh? My opinion of Socrates is lukewarm. My opinion of Sartre is actually low. I’d hate for Sartre to become the last word on philosophy.

    But the Enlightenment guys I respect a fair deal, which includes Hume. His contribution to philosophy, in a nutshell, is the call for high standards of proof and examination, which I think was a good thing.

  3. Lavine is pretty balanced in his approach.
    He actually proceeds to phenomenology, which it close to what you are describing.

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