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Hume & the American Deists on Miracles

In the second paragraph of his essay “Of Miracles” (Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, §10, hereafter E), Hume flatters himself with having “discovered an argument . . . which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures . . . .” Many scholars concur in his assessment of his own achievement, while others find the claim overly ambitious, believing, for one reason or another, his argument to be defective. However, practically all the “wise and learned” now regard Hume’s argument as the work to be taken account of in any discussion of the reasonableness of belief in miracles. If they find his argument flawed, they most likely find belief in miracles to be reasonable, given certain conditions. In eighteenth-century America the situation was quite different; Hume’s essay was not made the object of careful scholarly assessment, nor had it become a litmus test for the veracity of testimony to preternatural happenings. In fact, it was seldom referred to at all. Given lax eighteenth-century conventions regarding scholarly attribution, this is not a reliable indication that it was not read. Certainly Hume was ranked along with Rousseau and Voltaire as one of the century’s great writers. Although much of his renown was produced by his History of England, his reputation as a notorious infidel clearly stemmed from the Natural History of Religion and the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Consequently, I shall assume that we may initially suppose that American thinkers who took an interest in alleged miraculous occurrences were probably aware of Hume’s argument even if they were not careful students of it.

Nevertheless, a number of them produce their own critiques of the miraculous. Are they neglecting Hume’s accomplishment because they wish to make theirs seem more original, or do they have goals for whose achievement Hume’s essay really does not suffice? Should we think of them as ignorant, disingenuous, or as responding to questions Hume has not adequately addressed? To make some progress toward resolving such questions I shall first summarize Hume’s argument, then examine arguments by Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Elihu Palmer (who are generally acknowledged to be the three most influential American deists), and finally say something about how we may appraise their work in comparison to Hume’s.

Part I

That Hume’s “Of Miracles” has become the principal text for any discussion of that topic is due, in large measure, to its structure. Previous arguments against belief in miracles, even when specific criteria for rational belief were clearly implied, generally followed an ad hoc, case-by-case route to their goal. Further, the cases considered were normally those which were most at issue, namely those pertaining to the foundations of Christianity.1 Hume’s argument departs from this pattern. Although it contains copious references to specific miracles, these are predominately such as would not matter much to Hume’s Protestant audience, whose sympathy Hume doubtless intends to solicit with patently caustic citations of striking instances of Catholic credulity.2 More importantly, these are only examples, not the actual targets of the critique. His argument comprises two parts. The first is an epistemological analysis of the criteria for rational assent to any miracle report, given a certain understanding of what one means by ‘miracle.’ The result of this analysis is the elucidation of criteria which would have to be met for a miracle report to be reasonably regarded as even possibly true. The second part is a more or less empirical survey of the historical conditions which prevent actual miracle reports from satisfying the criteria established in the first part.

The understanding of ‘miracle’ which Hume proposes is that a miracle is “a violation of the laws of nature” (E, §10, 114). This is not supposed to be an innovative classification, since his argument can have the utility he envisages for it only if it treats of the ordinary idea of what a miracle is.3 Woolston had enunciated a similar view of the common notion of the miraculous: “A Miracle, if I mistake not the Notion of our Divines about it, is a supernatural Event, or a Work out of the Power of Nature or Art to effect.”4 Woolston seizes upon this characterization to argue that the healings and resurrections attributed to Jesus, if they occurred at all, need not have been miracles, as they could have been accomplished by completely natural means, although they would have seemed miraculous to observers ignorant of the actual aetiology. If the event as reported seems irreducibly beyond the “Power of Nature or Art to effect,” then Woolston challenges the veracity of the report, or the morality or theological soundness of the alleged action. Can our Saviour really have produced more wine for those who were already drunk? Where was Lazarus’s soul while he was dead and why would it be worthwhile to return to life from a better state, if there be such? His is a quest for the most reasonable understanding of supposedly miraculous events by analyzing the objective content reported on a case by case basis, looking willy-nilly for a likely natural explanation, for features which would make the action unworthy of a divine being, or for inconsistencies or absurdities in the stories. However, Hume sees that the characterization of ‘miracle’ as “a violation of the laws of nature" obviates this sort of inquiry into the specific character of the alleged event. One need only attend to the evidence which establishes the reliability of the report in contraposition to the evidence which supports whatever laws of nature it claims to have been violated. A reasonable believer must justify, not the occurrence of the miraculous event, but the veracity of the account of that event. The multiple criteria used by Woolston–rationality, indeed, but also theological soundness, moral acceptability, etc.–are reduced to the single criterion of reasonableness. Is it more reasonable to believe a report that a law of nature has been violated or to believe that the law of nature is really a law, i.e. that it holds in all cases, including this one?

Now, Hume is more than a little vague about what he understands by “laws of nature.” Mostly he uses this expression in reference to moral law; and almost all instances of his using the term to refer to physical law are in “Of Miracles.” On two of those other occasions, in Sections 6 and 8 of the Enquiry, he uses it to designate instances of the sort we typically intend nowadays when we refer to ‘laws of nature,’ namely the Newtonian laws of motion, which are said to be “universally allowed.”5 Unfortunately, reference to scientifically established laws of this sort is not used to frame the discussion in §10. He instead proposes paradigmatic generalizations which resonate with traditional miracle stories, such as “it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or country” (E, §10, 114). The criterion of miraculousness, as this citation suggests, is not violation of a scientifically-established rule, but departure from what has otherwise been uniform human experience. I say ‘otherwise’ on the assumption that Hume is to be read as permitting, in principle, that a miracle may have been observed. What he actually writes is that a miracle “has never been observed” and that “a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws” (ibid.), making no explicit exception for the possible occurrence of the event the testimony to which is being assessed. This has led some interpreters to see Part I of the essay as an argument for the impossibility of miracles.6

Such a reading is improbable, as it would make Part II frivolous and would explicitly contradict Hume’s explication of the relationship between seeming to be miraculous and really being so. Hume claims we can imagine clearly miraculous events, e.g. the “raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle.” On the other hand, an event would be equally miraculous if it undetectably contravened a law of nature, such as would “the raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a force requisite for that purpose” (E, §10, 115, ftn.). Hume writes,

A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent. A miracle may either be discoverable by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence. (ibid.)

That Hume italicizes this definition, and classifies it as accurate, surely indicates that he thought it important; and, on this definition, supernatural agency is essential for miraculousness and observable departure from lawfulness is not. In writing of an “invisible agent” he must mean “imperceptible agent,” since it would be arbitrary to suppose an event to be beyond the pale of scientific explanation because it fails to make an impression on just one of our several senses. However, this explication raises a problem of a different sort; for, if that be the criterion of miraculousness, clearly no miracle could ever be observed. All one sees, even in the case of his so-called “visible miracle” of the levitating house or ship, is just the startling effect, not its cause; and if it be genuinely miraculous, the cause, being supernatural, would be unobservable under any conditions.7 Miracles might, for all we know or could know, be more common than tourists in Williamsburg.

This explication makes it all the more obvious that, on Hume’s principles, if not for Hume personally, arguments about miracles can only be about our beliefs, not about the facts or true causes, for we stand in a paradoxical epistemic relationship to miraculous facts, if there really be such. I must emphasize that this reasoning is not presented by Hume, and his reference to “visible miracles” suggests that it is a commitment he did not see. An event is a miracle just in case its causes are supernatural and imperceptible; but, since its causes are supernatural and imperceptible, the event cannot be known to be a miracle rather than a natural event. However, we could have testimony to an occurrence contrary to all our personal experience and to the experience of mankind so far as we are informed of it, and incapable of being explained, as described, by established physical science. That is, we could have testimony to an occurrence which we should have to regard as physically impossible. Testimony that the event was a miracle could be dismissed outright since, as we have seen, no one could possibly observe that. Testimony that an event of an inexplicable sort had occurred would have to be considered, however; and one who believed the testimony would have to believe that a miracle had occurred.8 Hume says we must weigh the evidence which would rule out the occurrence of such an event against the evidence that supports the veracity of the testimony, and that a “wise man, therefore proportions his belief to the evidence” (E, §10, 110). He concedes that there could be a miracle story whose credentials were such that “the testimony, considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof” (E, §10, 114).9 This supposedly infallible testimony is counterbalanced by a uniform experience which also counts as “a direct and full proof” against the occurrence of such events, since the alleged event simply does not occur “in the common course of nature.” Hume’s unforgettable conclusion is that one would be entitled to believe that the miracle occurred as reported only if it would be more miraculous to believe the testimony false than to accept the miracle as fact. Although he does not proclaim it, that is precisely what one who held Scripture to be infallibly inspired would maintain. Supposing that no testimony could be better authenticated than a “law of nature,” he claims that even the strongest conceivable case for the occurrence of a miracle results merely in “a mutual destruction of arguments,” (E, §10, 115). 10

Part II

Although theoretically testimony to a miracle might then exactly balance the evidence for an invariant natural relation, Hume cites four circumstances which necessitate that any historical record of a miracle fall far short of that. (1) The witnesses never possess all the traits which authenticate testimony–“good sense, education, and learning,” “undoubted integrity,” and “such credit and reputation” that they would not risk exposure and ridicule. (2) Since “surprise and wonder” are agreeable emotions, people tend to believe amazing stories just for the thrill. Those who browse the literature at the supermarket checkout lane might dub this “propensity of mankind toward the marvelous” the ‘tabloid news effect.’ (3) Present-day miracles seem to occur primarily “among ignorant and barbarous nations” and stories of ancient ones have been preserved by authority from the ignorant and barbarous times in which they originated. (4) Since miracle stories are presented as evidence for some religious persuasion, each is countered by all the miracle stories of all of the competing religions, which are evidence for other, incompatible, religious systems. Once we factor in these considerations, we can conclude that “no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability,” and that “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system or religion” (E, §10 116―7).

Hume provides two illustrations, which, unfortunately, illustrate his rather fuzzy concept of natural law. The first is that all historians and traditions of all nations should “agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days . . .” In this case Hume recommends accepting the testimony as certain and getting on with investigating the causes of this remarkable event, because the “decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies . . .” The hypothesized event is indeed marvelous but is not miraculous. The second is that all historians should report that Queen Elizabeth died on that same day and that, after being interred for a month, she returned and reigned for three more years. He says that he would have no inclination to believe “so signal a violation of the laws of nature” (E, §10, 127―8). I think I know how he reaches these conclusions. None of the four conditions which prevent testimony from amounting to an “entire proof” apply to the first example. The testimony is uniform among people of diverse character, including those who are most intelligent and informed and those whose judgment is least affected by the excitement of the marvelous; he thinks it would have less tabloid news effect than a resurrection story; it is uniform among diverse cultures, including the most enlightened ones; and, perhaps most crucially, it is uniform among diverse religious persuasions, so that none has a unique claim to use the “miracle” as sectarian evidence. Nevertheless, his reasoning is appalling. People have revived from cataleptic states in which they seemed dead. The revivification of a woman after 30 days would doubtless be unprecedented; but since life is not all that well understood, it is difficult to say just what laws of nature, if any, would be violated. On the other hand, the extinction and subsequent rekindling of countless stars, the temporary total opacity of the atmosphere, or a week-long strike by the universe’s photons would vitiate practically the whole of physical science. Had radiant warming and photosynthesis been shutdown for an entire week in 1600, having philosophers around in 1748 to investigate that curious occurrence would have required yet another miracle. Given Hume’s criterion, he and anyone else willing to believe the testimony to such an event should believe it to be a miracle, pending a revolution in physical theory.

Only in his last two paragraphs does Hume explicitly confront the Bible and Christian faith, and even there in a manner which has permitted some otherwise astute historians to believe he has opened the door to fideism.11 He finds some of the fantastic events recorded in Genesis and Exodus to be unbelievable if we approach those books, “not as the word or testimony of God himself, but as the production of a mere human writer and historian” (E, §10, 129). Although we may reasonably suppose that he envisages a wider application for his argument, it is expressly limited to that small number of “pretended Christians,” who believe the Pentateuch can be defended as sound secular history.

Ethan Allen

Prior to the publication of Ethan Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man in 1784 (hereafter, ROOM), American deism was a cautious affair, confined to intellectuals even more chary than Hume of overtly criticizing the doctrines of revealed religion. Jefferson’s view that Jesus was the first and best deistic moral teacher is representative.12 Allen, however, openly attacks Christian doctrines and their supporting grounds as part of his contribution to “reforming mankind from superstition and error” (ROOM 23). Rarely has a good word has been spoken for this work, which is neither scholarly nor carefully argued, and is indeed “ponderous and repetitious.”13 In his Preface, Allen acknowledges working from his youthful notebooks, assisted only by “Bible and a Dictionary,” and denies ever having read the works of deists.14 Although crudely crafted, the book has some merits, even occasional moments of originality, such as the idea that the fundamental form of religious awareness is humankind’s sense of “absolute dependence on something out of and manifestly beyond themselves” (ROOM 25 ff.). This seems to anticipate Schleiermacher, although Allen does not develop the idea, his interest being to determine the divine attributes rather than to explore the nature of religious experience.

Chapter VII of ROOM is devoted to miracles; and there Allen, like Hume, accepts the common conception of miracles as events which are “opposed to, and counteract the laws of nature” (ROOM 233). Among the arguments he presents against such events, one is especially noteworthy. Although neglected by his successors, it is more powerful and far more concise than Hume’s.15 Like Hume’s, it has the merit of being epistemological, i.e. it does not depend on disputable metaphysical or theological assumptions. Herewith the entire argument:

Those things in nature which we do understand, are not miraculous to us, and those things which we do not understand, we cannot with any propriety adjudge to be miraculous.16 (ROOM 254)

Allen’s argument targets first-hand experience of “miraculous” phenomena rather than the testimony critiqued by Hume. But it surely applies to testimony, since any claim that a miracle had been experienced could be translated into a claim that something not understood had been witnessed. In effect, the distinction Hume makes between ‘marvelous’ and ‘miraculous’ events would have no practical application. Hume’s belief that there could be ‘visible miracles’ (which we have seen to be inconsistent with application of his exact definition of miracle as supernaturally caused) would, from Allen’s perspective, be undermined by the very awesomeness and inexplicability which make a ‘ visible miracle’ appear miraculous. For Allen, ‘miracle’ is a paradoxical classification; if x seems miraculous to me, then I cannot possibly know that x is miraculous. I find it hard to object to this reasoning.17

Allen continues by explaining that there could not possibly be any “evidence of a miracle” unless (1) we fully understood the relevant natural laws governing the particular phenomena at issue and (2) we had “certain knowledge” that those laws had been “suspended . . . [and] superceeded by new ones” (ROOM 255). This idea of replacing laws, to which Allen recurs repeatedly, may seem puzzling. Why should the occasional suspension of a law entail its supercession by another law? To cure the puzzlement, we must remind ourselves that Allen is a deist. He conceives the laws of nature to be divinely instituted; and, conversely, those laws just are the causal order God wills. (If a creator God actually exists, must not this be right?) If, then, the laws connecting any cause to its normal effect are overridden by God, God has willed a different arrangement of the relevant causes and effects. Since that new pattern is the way those events must be connected, even if only for a short time, that order is the then operative natural law. Thus, his reasoning is that to identify an event as miraculous one must be “perfectly acquainted” with what would be natural under both the original and the successor laws–a rather tall order even for “the greatest philosophers of the age” (ibid.).

At this juncture this epistemological objection, whose force is independent of the addition, can be buttressed by a metaphysical reductio.18 If natural laws are legislated by God, only God can repeal them. (Consequently, Allen would reject what Hume, for whom laws may be only regularities, allows–that a miracle could be due to “the interposition of some invisible agent” other than God.19) However, to think that he should do so leads to unacceptable consequences. We should have to replace the syllogism


The LAWS of NATURE were established by GOD;


with either

The LAWS of NATURE were in their eternal establishment PERFECT;

The LAWS of NATURE have been altered;

Therefore, The alteration of the LAWS OF NATURE is IMPERFECT.

Or thus; The LAWS of NATURE have been altered;

The alteration has been for the BETTER;

Therefore, The ETERNAL ESTABLISHMENT thereof was IMPERFECT. (ROOM 235―6)

As a reductio, clearly Allen’s conclusion that this “preponderates against miracles” holds only for persons who affirm that God exists, is perfect, and is the author of natural law.20

Allen does not let the fact that he has offered apparently conclusive arguments interfere with his tendering others. One of these is essentially identical to, and is expressed in the same terms as, the third circumstance Hume cites as reducing the credibility of miracle testimony: “where learning and science has prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in such parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue” (ROOM 265). Since this is the sole occurrence of the phrase ‘barbarous and ignorant’ in ROOM, it may testify to Allen’s having read Hume, although it is certainly not conclusive.21 There are three other objections, whose predominately theological nature is perhaps sufficient reason why their like is not found in Hume. The first of these is that even if miracles were worked by the founders of Christianity, that does not authenticate the claims of their successors, since they may have “corrupted [the original revelation] . . . or altered it to answer their own sinister designs, and thereby provoked God to withdraw from them the power of working miracles” (ROOM 263―4). Present-day clergymen propounding revealed truths need present-day miracles, performed publicly and open to scientific investigation. The second objection turns Holy Writ against its defenders, noting that Christ warns us to beware of false teachers and provides criteria for identifying the true ones, namely that they will, in his name, cast out devils, speak in new tongues, heal the sick, and be utterly unharmed by venomous snakes or poisonous drinks.22 Allen proposes a simple test–he will accept the divine authority of anyone who can survive a dose of deadly poison he has prepared; and if they refuse, their faith must not be as firm as they profess. Thirdly, just because miracles are “mysterious, and altogether unintelligible,” they cannot be the vehicles of any meaningful communication. If miracles might authenticate the messenger’s mission, they could not aid us at all in correctly understanding his message. They “might astonish us” but they cannot inform us about “truth and falsehood, right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, or moral good and evil,” all of which we should still have to investigate by “reason and argument, the old and only way of exploring truth and distinguishing it from falsehood” (ROOM 268―9). In other words, if they occur, they can only obfuscate rather than enlighten.

An intriguing feature of Allen’s discussion of miracles is that he devotes the final, and longest, section of Chapter VII to (petitionary) prayer.23 If God be omniscient, prayer is, to be sure, “no part of a rational religion”; but that is only his first objection. Either prayer can initiate some change in the natural order or it can not. If it can, then its actually being heeded by God is miraculous; effective prayer is subject to all the objections pertaining to miracles. If it can not, it is “not only useless, but impertinent . . . laziness . . . murmuring against God” (ROOM 275―6). In lieu of Franklin’s cautious and ambiguous “God helps those who help themselves,” Allen argues that the only way God helps us is through the natural means we find at our disposal and that to suppose otherwise is bad science, bad theology, and a sure indication of impiety.

Only in the concluding chapter of the work (Ch. XIV) does Allen explicitly deal with “historical testimony” to miracles, as opposed to treating the possibility of miracles directly. Hume’s tactic is to impeach testimony to miracles by showing that it lacks those traits which normally lead us to believe what we are told. So, when he explicitly attacks the Bible in the penultimate paragraph of §10, he eschews evaluating its status as revelation, only observing that, as history, it is far more likely that the stories it contains are false than that the events related should actually have occurred. Allen takes a more forthright and deductive tack. He observes that, for the most part, the “antiquated history of miracles” is designed to authenticate the alleged revelation contained in the scriptures. One of the reasons this project fails is that those same scriptures are, circularly, the principal testimonies to miraculous events. Another, more interesting, reason is that rather than the miracles substantiating scripture, scripture discredits the miracle stories. We would instantly dismiss testimony that two plus three was four or that virtue was red, since what is asserted is absurd. In previous chapters24 Allen believes he has demonstrated the contradictoriness and absurdity of crucial pieces of biblical revelation, such as the doctrines of original sin, imputation of righteousness, salvation by faith, the trinity, the story of Adam and Eve.25 He then reasons thus: If the miracle stories are true, then the scriptures are true; but the scriptures are manifestly contradictory, therefore the miracle stories are false.

Thomas Paine

Early on in The Age of Reason Paine distinguishes two kinds of purported miracles. Some, such as the miraculous conception of Jesus, are “not one of those things that admitted of proof,” because no experience could either confirm or discredit the story. Of course, a good many facts count against the tale’s veracity, notably that supernatural conceptions were commonly assigned to “extraordinary men” in the “heathen mythology.” Others, such as Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, “admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon . . .” That an event which could have been publicly observed is reported as witnessed only by a few, violates the principle that whatever “everybody is required to believe requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal.” This is similar to the point Hume makes through his comparison of the hypothetical resurrection of Elizabeth with the hypothetical eight days of darkness. But Paine continues by observing that the resurrection and ascension have special importance in the miracle-ridden accounts of the life of Jesus, because “the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction” to the rest of the gospel story. He could have written more explicitly, but the implication seems clear. His point is twofold: (1) Miracle testimony occurs in the context of stories. Only some miracles, those experienced by disinterested observers as well as to partisans, provide evidence for the truth of the story. Some of these are crucial for authenticating the story. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension belong to this class; as Paul observed, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith also vain” (I Cor. 13:14). (2) If a crucially important miracle was of the public sort and yet was not publicly performed, it strongly suggests that the entire “story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.”26 Paine is most interested in arguing that there is no revelation, except in nature, that “THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD” and that “it is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God” (AR 482, 484).

Every science rests on “fixed and unalterable” principles which we do not make, but rather discover. He has in mind Newton’s mathematical principles, such as those whereby eclipses can be predicted, which must be “as eternal and immutable as the laws by which the heavenly bodies move . . . ” The discovery of such principles is “the true theology” (AR 487―8).27 He seems almost to echo Hume when, in defense of these principles, he rhetorically asks, “is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie” (AR 509).28 There is, however, a difference. Whereas Hume is willing to countenance “the decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature,” Paine is not. He believes science to be a body of eternal principles that we have discovered in nature, not just a collection of generalizations we have made. Here his sentiments are closer to Kant than to Hume.

The techniques for imposing a religion on mankind, according to Paine, are “mystery, miracle and prophecy. The two first are incompatible with true religion, and the third ought always to be suspected” (AR 505). Miracle is characterized, as in Hume’s essay, as “something contrary to the operation and effect of” the supposed laws of nature. But Paine emphasizes, as does Allen but not Hume, that, since we do not have a perfect knowledge of those laws and the various powers of nature, it is very difficult to ascertain whether “anything that may appear to us wonderful or miraculous” truly contravenes natural law. Although the major thrust of Hume’s critique is confined to assessing miracles second-hand, as presented in testimony, we saw that his discussion in the footnote in which ‘miracle’ is “accurately defined” both commits him to denying direct perception of a miracle because miracles have imperceptible causes as well as (possibly) to the incompatible claim that some miracles can be directly apprehended. Paine argues rather that a first-hand witness can never be sure that what was observed was authentically miraculous because no such judgment could be confidently made unless one had a perfect understanding of the relevant natural laws. He illustrates his point with events which would have seemed miraculous prior to recent scientific or technological developments: a balloon assent, sparks leaping from a person charged with static electricity, resuscitation of someone apparently drowned, and various “mechanical and optical deceptions” (AR 507―8).

Paine’s ultimate conclusion in this passage is not just that no miracle could be directly perceived to be a miracle, but that, given that misinterpretation and deception cannot be ruled out, it would be inconsistent to suppose that an omnipotent being “would make use of means such as are called miracles, that would subject the person who performed them to the suspicion of being an impostor, and the person who related them to be suspected of lying, and the doctrine intended to be supported thereby to be suspected as a fabulous invention” (AR 508). Whereas Allen had argued that miracles would be useless because they could not edify, Paine sees their inability to signify unambiguously as a contradiction in their very essence. He presupposes what Hobbes, Toland, and Berkeley had claimed explicitly, that a miracle is not just a supernaturally caused event, but is necessarily a communication.29 The issue then becomes whether a being worthy of worship could use “means that would not answer the purpose for which they were intended, even if they were real” (AR 509). Clearly not. Paine supports this answer with telling illustrations. No one would believe him if he reported that The Age of Reason was the product of a mysterious hand which suddenly appeared and proceeded to write the entire book, even if it were true. Suppose that Jonah had swallowed a whale, rather than the reverse, and had vomited up a full-size whale before the citizens of Nineveh? Would they not have more likely believed him to be the devil than a prophet of God? If miracles do occur, they would have to be the acts of “a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder” (AR 508). Further, even if, as Allen argues, only God can change natural law, that proposition is established independently, not by miracles themselves. Miracles are not autographed. Therefore, whereas Allen allows that a miracle, if it could be identified as such, would establish that the messenger was from God, although it would not help us understand the message, Paine denies that it could do even that.

Unlike Hume, Paine believes God does communicate with us in the standard deistic manner–through the “Bible of the Creation,” whose proper interpretation is the work of science and technology, not theology, which “is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion” (AR 601). He shows no sign of familiarity with considerations, like those in Hume’s Dialogues, which would weigh against his conviction that complete scientific understanding would include a knowledge of the derivation of nature from God.

Elihu Palmer

Elihu Palmer was the great evangelist of deism in America; and indeed that became his full-time occupation when, in 1793, a bout of yellow fever left him blind and unable to continue his law practice. He lectured, organized deistic societies, founded the journals The Temple of Reason and Prospect, and published numerous articles and several books, of which the most philosophical was his Principles of Nature, which first appeared in 1800.30 Although Palmer had been so unpopular among the good believers of Philadelphia that he relocated to New York, his book was very successful and subsequent editions appeared in 1802 and 1806. In a letter dated “Paris, February 21, 1802, since the Fable of Christ,” Paine congratulates Palmer on the publication of Principles of Nature, remarking that its boldness was just what was required because “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it.” This work, he says, departs from the “the hinting and intimating manner” formerly used, which “produced skepticism, but not conviction.”31 We can only conjecture how much this letter was motivated by Palmer’s description of Paine as “one of the first and best of writers, and probably the most useful man that ever existed upon the face of the earth” (PN 179).

The Humean system seems to leave both psychological and physical openings through which miracles might enter. Whether sincerely or ironically, Hume leaves room for faith at the conclusion of “Of Miracles.” As Paine says, Palmer is not so coy; faith as a commitment contrary to reason he simply defines away–“Faith is an assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition supported by evidence” (PN, p.109). All belief results from being convinced by evidence, so faith cannot be commanded nor can it be meritorious; the Christian claim to the contrary is psychologically false (ibid., 110). Whether or not to believe in a miracle is therefore, as it was for Hume, a matter of weighing of the evidence for and against the event. For Hume, the only rational course is to believe in accordance with the evidence, but for Palmer, the nature of the mind is such that it must accept the alternative which it deems to have the weightier support. Assent to the Christian stories was only possible because “the whole science of physics was denied the privilege of liberal inquiry and discussion” (PN 117), so that scientific evidence was not adequately considered. So much for the psychological side. On the physical side, the Parmenidean principle that ‘out of nothing nothing comes’ is for Hume an “impious maxim of the ancient philosophy.”32 For Palmer, however, it is “among the philosophical truths which cannot be controverted,” the persistence of matter being one of its “essential properties” (PN 122―3). He also believes that the universe is a “subjected to the operation of immutable laws” which have been rendered indubitable by “mathematical science,” by which I suppose him to mean Newtonian physics (PN 133).33 Given these presuppositions, he cannot accord putative miracles even that bare possibility of equality with laws of nature which Hume allows. Since laws are inviolable and no fact can just pop into existence ex nihilo, miracles are simply impossible.

Strangely, on the page following this forceful characterization of the material world as a “theatre of certitude,” Palmer allows that the miracles alleged by Christianity “may be true” and that judging their truth requires further investigation. Although this seems contradictory, it might just be that his thought has taken a subtle turn, albeit one not clearly articulated and possibly most likely not clearly conceived. He summarizes the Christian view as claiming that God “has arrested in turn all the powerful laws of nature” (PN 134), language reminiscent of some 20th-century apologists’ attempts to bypass the conception of miracles as contrary to nature. For example, C. S. Lewis denies that miracles are violations of the laws of nature; rather, they are instances of “interference with Nature by supernatural power.”34 However, then Palmer reverts to ‘violation’ language, giving a definition of ‘miracle’ essentially identical to Hume’s stricter definition: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, by supernatural power” (PN 135). His subsequent discussion argues against the occurrence of such departures from lawfulness but does not rule out their possibility. It is, in fact, such as would be an appropriate response to the suggestion that the author of nature inserts occasional footnotes or revisions into his great book. Palmer argues, as did Paine, more on theological than epistemological grounds, but emphasizing difficulties with the idea of a revising God rather than deficiencies of miracles as communications.

His major argument resembles one that Plato’s Socrates gives against any change in God (Rep. 2.381B―D). God, being “infinite in all his perfections,” must be supposed to have made natural laws “in the best possible manner.” To alter this order “would be to make it worse.” Granted, human mechanics modify their designs in the course of realization; but that is because they are initially ignorant of the precise consequences of each feature in that design. Since “such imperfection and want of discernment cannot be the property of a perfect being,” God could, and must, have made a universe completely accordant with his wisdom, power, and goodness. Therefore any miracle would be evidence for a contradiction in the divine attributes. Any religion which authenticates itself by appealing to the evidence of miracles simultaneously destroys “the consistent character of the author of such religion”; and consequently, “the religion itself is not worth much.” “A wonder working god, who violates his own laws, and acts inconsistently with the principles which he himself has established, is no God at all” (PN 135―6). Palmer reverts to this reasoning some six pages later, at the end of his discussion, quoting approvingly an unidentified “powerful reasoner”35 who explicitly connects the immutability of natural law with that of God. The gist of the citation is that God cannot interfere with natural law without himself being “in some degree changeable”; but since God must be eternal, he necessarily exists,36 and “is necessarily whatever he is; therefore, it is not in his own power to change himself; it is his perfection to be immutable . . .” (PN 142).

Sandwiched between the earlier and final portions of this argument, which has no parallel in Hume, is an argument very like Hume’s Part II, comparing the “credit and veracity” of alleged witnesses to the biblical miracles with the “weight of evidence drawn from the almost universal experience of the human race” in favor of invariant natural laws. It is a merit of Palmer’s version that he writes “almost universal experience” in lieu of Hume’s misleading “unalterable experience,” explicitly allowing for the possibility of the alleged exception under examination.37 He does not mention Hume, but he hauls into the witness box against miracles three of Hume’s four considerations. (1) The testimony of “those few men who relate prodigies and miracles” is undermined by the likelihood that they “were either deceived themselves, or . . . they had a design to deceive others” (PN 139). (2) “In proportion as man makes progress in physical knowledge,” miracles have given way to “plain and intelligible” events. In keeping with the more theological tenor of his critique, Palmer–perhaps influenced by Allen–adds that Christianity is, if anything, more in need of miracles now than ever. If they were needed to establish the religion, they are needed to preserve it; and “there should be a constant string of miracles in every age and in all countries . . .” (PN 140). (3) The Christian miracles are refuted by the miracles of competing religions–“There is as much reason to believe Mahomet as to believe Moses and Jesus, and their apostles and followers” (PN 141). Here again he adds a special argument against Jesus’ miracles–“If the Jews demanded the death of Jesus, his miracles are at once annihilated in the mind of every rational man” (PN 141).38 His point is that whatever wonders Jesus performed were not such as to convince even his contemporaries, else they would have been in awe of him. If Palmer is following Hume’s text, the missing consideration–the effects of a innate human appetite for “the extraordinary and marvelous”–is probably omitted deliberately.39 Palmer is, after all, an evangelist for reason; he thinks that the “charms and deceptions of legerdemain tricks” have already lost much of their influence and that the cultivation and dissemination of scientific knowledge will progressively enlarge the influence of rationality even among the vulgar, for whom Hume held little hope. I think he would suppose that the tabloid news effect could eventually be replaced by the delights of scientific discovery.


Although there are a number of passages, such as this last one, which may have been inspired by Hume, the evidence is hardly conclusive. The British deists were almost certainly more significant influences on these Americans. Voltaire probably had a significant effect,40 and Palmer was certainly inspired by Volney’s much-admired Ruins (1791). Nor should one underestimate their ability to draw conclusions from the much-read works of Newton and Locke which had eluded those authors themselves.41 What emerges from the comparison is less evidence of indebtedness than support for the judgment that their largely neglected critique comes off rather well when compared with Hume’s. Certainly none of them produce any reasoning nearly as well-structured and systematically developed as Hume’s. Nor do any of their productions approach Hume’s in eloquence or literary merit. However, they arguably have a better understanding of the concept of natural law in the new physics than does Hume; certainly they would never tolerate analogical arguments for the decay or corruption of the natural order. They have a firm grasp on the idea that if miracles are fundamentally evidence for religion, then their adequacy “to the purpose for which they were intended,” as Allen puts it, is of prime importance. Therefore, they do not neglect the untoward religious implications of belief in miracles.

This fits well with their having a goal that Hume did not, manifest in the fact that they direct their arguments to the general public and not just to the republic of letters. They are trying to use reason to destroy the clergy’s power to propagate superstition. Koch (p. 75) quotes from a contemporary sermon by Robert Hall which congratulates Hume, Bolingbroke, and Gibbon for having enough sense to direct their doubts only to “the more polished classes.” Hume indeed seems to subscribe to the common upper-class belief that freethinking was only for the gentry1. Perhaps divesting the masses of their superstitions is not desirable. Hume probably sees the elimination of superstition as leading to atheism rather than deism; and, despite Bayle’s defense of the morality of atheists and his own view that morality does not require theological justification, he may view atheism among the vulgar as leading to lawlessness.42 In contrast, the Americans are so confident that deism will triumph that they seem oblivious to its weaknesses, despite the prominence of the likes of Hume, d’Holbach, and Diderot.43 They do think there are sound arguments for the existence of God (principally variants of the design argument). That Paine and Palmer do not respond to objections to these arguments may be due more to strategy than to unfamiliarity. There were not legions of atheists available for conversion to deism; and superstition, which suppresses scientific inquiry and free expression, has more ruinous social consequences.44

Hume may believe that a general loss of religious belief would have deleterious social consequences, but he certainly believes in that innate propensity for the marvelous which only the philosophical few can control.45 Whether it be desirable or not, the masses cannot be cured of superstition. Numerous passages show him to be as pessimistic as Plato about the intellectual abilities of the vulgar, in sharp contrast to Tindal’s contention that “The Bulk of Mankind, by their Reason, must be able to distinguish between Religion and superstition . . .”46 Allen, Paine, and Palmer, like Tindal and their compatriot and fellow deist Jefferson, have more respect for the reasonableness of ordinary citizens. Allen writes to “reclaim mankind from their ignorance and delusion,” and to help them “rid themselves of their blindness and superstition” (ROOM 24―5). Paine is confident that “when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail” (Paine, 604). Palmer believes that “reason, which is the glory of our nature, is destined eventually, in the progress of future ages, to overturn the empire of superstition . . . then the empire of reason, of science, and of virtue, will extend over the whole earth . . .” (PN 262―3). Counterpoised to Hume’s darker vision, these men share an optimism about human rationality and see its eventual triumph in the dawning age of reason as entirely beneficial. We have yet to ascertain whose discernment was more accurate.

This emphasis on the social utility of enlightenment is added to, not substituted for, the epistemological concerns they share with Hume. In fact, looking back over all these arguments, I cannot but think that the most elegant, and most convincing, of the lot was penned by that “great clodhopping oracle of man,”47 Ethan Allen: if we understand it, it’s no miracle; and if we don’t, we can’t reasonably claim that it is.


1. In his six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour (London, 1728―29), Thomas Woolston vigorously assails the credibility of the gospel accounts of miracles attributed to Jesus. For this he was fined and imprisoned. In Free Enquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church (London, 1749), Conyers Middleton avoids explicit criticism of the gospels but attacks the attributions of miracles to early Christian saints. Hume blamed the celebrity of this latter work for denying the first edition of the Enquiry the attention it deserved. Return

2. This is no innovation on Hume’s part; English critics of religion found it safer to criticize Catholic practices even if their real targets were Anglicans and Puritans. Tindal, after quoting Tillotson to the effect that alleged divine revelations must always be held up to rational scrutiny, whether they be accompanied by miracles or not, remarks that “all Protestants will allow [that Tillotson reasons justly], at least, when they write against the Enthusiasm of the Church of Rome” (Matthew Tindal, Christianity as old as the Creation [London, 1730], p. 219). Hume is bold enough to attack the Pentateuch in his penultimate paragraph, but carefully avoids criticizing the gospels, perhaps with Woolston’s fate in mind. Return

3. Or, at least an ordinary idea of what a miracle is. As Hume’s conclusion is “that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion” (E, §10, p.187), he only needs to deal with miracles as evidence for religious revelation or doctrine. For example, Locke thought that claims to revealed truth could best win assent if they were supported by sensible evidence of their divine source, i.e. by miraculous phenomena (Essay, Bk. 4, Chaps. 18―19). On the other hand, Augustine thought that, since God was the author of all things, the distinction between natural and miraculous was rather fuzzy (see J. Houston, Reported Miracles [London, 1994], chap. 1). The common medieval ideas of miracles as wondrous events produced for the edification of those who already believe, as proofs of the superior efficacy of this or that shrine or saintly relic, or as allegorical representations of spiritual truths, would not be relevant to his project. See Benedicta Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind (Philadelphia, 1982). Return

4. A Third Discourse on the Miracles of our Saviour (London, 1728), p. 7. Also cf. ibid., p. 53, “Miracles . . . are Works done out of the Course of Nature, and beyond the Imitation of human Art or Power.” John Toland had argued that miracles could not be logically impossible; I know of no one who disagreed with that. He also argued that they could not be physically impossible. For example a severed head whose tongue had been cut out could not speak, even miraculously. (Cleanthes’ “voice in the clouds” example in DNR Part III would break this restriction, as I showed in “Superhuman Voices and Biological Books,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 5.3 (1988), pp. 257―272.) Toland defines ‘miracle’ as “some Action exceeding all humane Power, and which the Laws of Nature cannot perform by their ordinary Operations” (Christianity not Mysterious [London, 1696], §3.69, p. 150). Miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but they do require that those laws be supernaturally assisted. Berkeley held that God could perform physically impossible miracles, e.g. that a watch with no works inside would tell time, but that he prefers to “act agreeably to the rules of mechanism, by Him for wise ends established and maintained in the creation” (Principles of Human Knowledge, §62). R. M. Burns provides a survey of English views on miracles prior to Hume in The Great Debate on Miracles (London & Toronto, 1981), pp. 9―130. Return

5. In the first passage, Hume distinguishes cases in which experience has always supported a certain causal connection from those where the experience has not been so regular. “Fire has always burned, and water suffocated every human creature: The production of motion by impulse and gravity is an universal law, which has hitherto admitted of no exception” (E, §6, p. 57). In the second passage Hume commences his explanation of the origin of the concept of ‘necessity’ thus:

It is universally allowed that matter, in all its operations, is actuated by a necessary force, and that every natural effect is so precisely determined by the energy of its cause, that no other effect, in such particular circumstances, could possibly have resulted from it. The degree and direction of every motion is, by the laws of nature, prescribed with such exactness, that a living creature may as soon arise from the shock of two bodies, as motion, in any other degree or direction than what is actually produced by it. Would we, therefore, form a just and precise idea of necessity, we must consider whence that idea arises, when we apply it to the operation of bodies. (E §8, p. 87)
It is noticeable, in the first of passage, how easily he moves from the sort of generalizations favored in “Of Miracles” (“fire has always burned . . . , etc.”) to the Newtonian laws. Apparently he just does not have a clear concept of ‘natural law.’ The only other references to proper natural law I have found outside “Of Miracles” are at Essays, Pt. 2, p. 469, where he writes that the unquestioning acceptance of political authority resembles our acceptance of “the principle of gravity, resistance, or the most universal laws of nature” and at DNR, Pt. 8, p. 186, where Philo says that “the equality of action and reaction seems to be an universal law of nature.” Return

6. See Robert Fogelin, “What Hume Actually Said About Miracles,” Hume Studies 16 (1990), 81―6. Benjamin Armstrong also reached that conclusion in “Hume’s Real ‘Miracle Argument,’” presented at the Central Division APA meeting in Louisville, 24 April 1992 (on which I commented). Hume’s choice of words also affords an easy, even amusing, opportunity for his critics; e.g. C. S. Lewis observes,

Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle. (Miracles: A Preliminary Study [New York, 1948], p. 123)

7. In his most sceptical mode Hume would say that no cause can be observed, that causation is nothing objective but just a correlation and expectation in us. Here he writes as if those perceptual objects identified as causes by commonsense or scientific observation were, in fact, causes. A “perceived miracle” is, at least, an event in which the customary correlation of perceived cause to perceived effect fails to hold and observers are unable to find some alternative correlation which would be equally satisfactory in obviating an appeal to some “invisible agent.” Does he intend more than that? The most natural interpretation of the passage is that such levitations are manifestly miraculous; but unfortunately, that is clearly false, as is shown below in my discussion of Paine’s views. Return

8. It would have to seem inexplicable to those weighing the testimony, since that an event was incomprehensible to its witnesses does not entail that it would be so to better informed observers, such as those of more scientifically advanced era. Then, for them, it would be no miracle. Return

9. In the light of the contemporary debate, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Hume is here granting, temporarily and for the sake of the argument, the infallibility of the Bible, whose miracle stories are clearly the ones that really matter. Return

10. Hume employs a version of diafwna, ‘disagreement,’ the first of the five sceptical tr&OGRAVE;poi, according to which one should suspend judgment whenever an issue is undecided. See Sextus Empiricus, PH, 1.15.165, 170. Whereas the Sceptic, seeking for certainty, withholds assent in the case of disagreement, Hume wishes to weigh the opposing arguments and to accept the more probable. Return

11. E.g., Popkin, “Hume and Kierkegaard,” Journal of Religion, v. 31 (1951), pp. 274―281. Return

12. In England Matthew Tindal (ibid.) and Thomas Chubb (True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted [London, 1738]) maintained similar views. There must have been some knowledge of Allen’s more radical stance even before ROOM appeared; the Rev. Jonathan Todd wrote Ezra Stiles, the orthodox president of Yale, in February 1783 that he wished that General Allen would “not trouble the world with what he calls his philosophical writings . . .” (Letters & Papers of Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College, 1778―1795, [New Haven, 1933], p. 56). Return

13. Adjectives borrowed from Herbert M. Morais, Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York: Russell & Russell, 1960), p.17, hereafter Morais. Return

14. Kerry Walters, The American Deists (Lawrence: Kansas, 1992), p. 140, questions the truth of this denial, but the only explanation he gives is that Allen’s arguments are “reminiscent of those employed by such British deists as Toland and Charles Blount.” Morais, p. 101, speculates that his youthful English physician friend, Thomas Young, “probably acquainted him with Blount and other deistic writers” and that he may have used Young’s notes as well as his own. Morais refers to G. A. Koch, Republican Religion (New York, 1933), pp. 31―2, and to the biographies by J. Pell, Ethan Allen (Boston, 1929), pp. 16, 226, and by H. Hall, Ethan Allen, the Robin Hood of Vermont (New York, 1892), p. 21. Return

15. The neglect was so thorough that the section in which this argument appears was omitted from the version printed in Boston in 1852. Most of the original printing of ROOM was lost in a fire at the printers. Return

16. The suppressed premise, “To understand something in nature is, at least, to subsume it under the laws of nature” is probably the most controversial part of the argument. Return

17. On Hume’s or Allen’s understanding of ‘miracle.’ On Locke’s more subjective understanding of miracles in A Discourse of Miracles (see n. 29 below), seeming miraculous, if the ‘seeming’ encompasses all reasonable efforts to understand the phenomenon, guarantees that it is indeed a miracle. Return

18. In the text, the following argument occurs in §1 of Ch. VII and the preceding one in §3. Allen argues that there are metaphysical problems with miracles before he argues that they could not be known to occur; my presentation reverses that order. Return

19. This is a traditional view. Perhaps the clearest justification of it is given by Aquinas: since God is the sole creator of nature, whatever any creature does must use, and cannot be contrary to, “the order of created nature” (Summa Theologica, Q. 110, art. 4). Return

20. And even then the soundness of the argument depends on exactly what ‘perfect’ entails, since one might maintain that a creation inevitably falls short of perfection, however excellent the creator. Return

21. Although not uncommon in other writers of the period, ‘barbarous’ is one of Hume’s favorite epithets; it occurs 78 times in the works included in the Intelex edition; and among these 78 occurrences, ‘Barbarous and ignorant’ is found 3 times, ‘ignorant and barbarous’ 7 times. Including the present passage, ‘barbarous’ occurs 4 times in ROOM. Return

22. Mark 16:17―18; Allen, typically, does not give the reference. Return

23. Contemplating our dependence on God or feeling gratitude for the natural order of things he does not recognize as a species of ‘prayer’ (ROOM 271―2). Return

24. Not summarized here. Return

25. These arguments are not related due to the constraints of time and topic; my silence should not be construed as an endorsement. They are of uneven merit; for instance, the doctrine of the trinity is not even in the Bible and Allen’s argument against the Garden of Eden myth (Ch. 11) is that blacks and whites have so many different physical characteristics that they could not possibly have descended from a common ancestor. It seems likely that the attacks on scripture were the parts of the book most offensive to the orthodox. Ezra Stiles, on receiving the news of Allen’s death two weeks previously, characterized him in his diary entry1 for 27 February 1789, as “Author of the Oracles of Reason, a Book replete with scurrilous Reflexions on Revelation.–‘And in Hell he lift up his Eyes being in Torments’” (The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., v. 3 [New York, 1901], p. 345). Return

26. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, in The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. by Philip S. Foner (New York, 1945), v. 1, p. 468, hereafter AR. Return

27. This is in the first part of AR; the second part, written 14 years later (1795), adds another reason for belief in God, with some similarity to Kant’s, namely “that repugnance we feel in ourselves to bad actions, and disposition to do good ones” (AR 596). Unfortunately, Paine does not elaborate. Return

28. There is a similar echo in Jefferson’s 10 August 1787 letter to Peter Carr, in which he offers the following advice (my italics):

Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates.

29. Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 37, says “a miracle is a work of God (besides His operation by the way of nature, ordained in the Creation) done for the making manifest to His elect the mission of an extraordinary minister for their salvation.” If it is not perceived, and perceived as wondrous, it is no miracle. Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, §3.72-74, pp. 152-155 argues that miracles must have “some special and important End” or “wise and reasonable Purposes” and must not be “secretly perform’d” but “wrought in favour of the Unbelieving.” Berkeley held that should God produced “some appearance out of the ordinary” it would be to convince people of his existence (so the miracle communicates a proposition) but that this would seldom happen, as “God seems to choose the convincing our reason of His attributes by the works of nature” (Principles, §63). Locke explicitly makes ‘being a miracle’ depend on ‘being taken to be a miracle,’ defining ‘miracle’ as “a sensible operation, which, being above the comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine” (A Discourse of Miracles, in The Reasonableness of Christianity with a Discourse of Miracles, etc., ed. I. T. Ramsey [London, 1958], p. 79). These views conflict with Hume’s notion of imperceptible miracles. Paine says nothing about undetectable miracles; but if I am right about his assumption, such events would have to be conceived as God mumbling aimlessly to himself. They wouldn’t be ‘miracles’ for him, since they are couldn’t be for us. Return

30. Principles of Nature; or A Developement of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery Among the Human Species (New York, 1801). My citations are to the edition edited by Kerry S. Walters, Elihu Palmer’s ‘Principles of Nature’ (Wolfeboro, NH, 1990), hereafter PN. Return

31. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. by Philip S. Foner (New York, 1945), v. 2, p. 1426. Among the orthodox, ‘infidelity,’ which typically meant deism, seems to have been worse than ‘skepticism’; but, as Paine’s comment shows, skepticism was unsatisfactory to infidels as well as Christians. Return

32. E, §12, p. 164, ftn. “That impious maxim of the ancient philosophy, Ex nihilo, nihil fit, by which the creation of matter was excluded, ceases to be a maxim, according to this philosophy. Not only the will of the supreme Being may create matter; but, for aught we know a priori, the will of any other being might create it, or any other cause, that the most whimsical imagination can assign.” Return

33. He does not give any reason for this conviction; but then, neither does Kant, for whom the existence of a pure science of nature is an established fact for philosophers to explain, not a hypothesis for them to refute or confirm. Return

34. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 15. There are others. Benjamin Warfield denies that miracles are “contranatural”; rather they are “extra-natural” or “super-natural” (“The Question of Miracle,” The Bible Student [1903], quoted in Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind [Grand Rapids, 1984], p. 199, in which Ch. 8, “The Answers of the Apologists” is devoted to such responses to the philosophical arguments against miracles. This book is generally a good historical survey, but it confines its treatment of the Enlightenment critique to European thinkers, ignoring the Americans.) In Water into Wine? (Kingston & Montreal, 1988) Robert Larmer suggests that miracles could occur without conflicting with laws of nature if they consisted of “acts of creation or annihilation of that to which the laws apply . . . units of mass/energy . . .” (p. 30). J. Houston surveys a variety of alternative understandings of miracle which do not involve violating natural law in chaps. 6―7 of Reported Miracles (Cambridge, 1994). Even prior to Hume, Toland proposed a conception resembling that of Lewis, see n. 4 above. Return

35. Kerry Walters believes the quotation “smacks of the scholastic style favored by . . . Dennis Driscol” (PN 277, n. 15). Return

36. The argument assumes, as did Aristotle, that whatever always is, necessarily is. Most contemporary philosophers dispute that equation and argue that ‘eternal but contingent’ is not a contradictory predication. Hume most likely would not have countenanced the idea of ‘necessary existence’ in any case, although there is some equivocation about that notion as it is treated in Part IX of the Dialogues. See my “A Word On Behalf of Demea,” Hume Studies, XV, 1 (April, 1989), pp. 120―140. Return

37. This defuses the easy objection made by Lewis and quoted in n. 6 above. Return

38. The origin of this italicized quotation is unknown. Walters alleges that there are “parallels to it” in Tindal and Paine; but the passages he cites argue only that dying is incompatible with being a god, not that Jesus would not have been executed had his miracles been convincing. Return

39. He does list Hume among the philosophers who have contributed much to “human improvement” (PN 179), but without mentioning specific works. Return

40. See, especially, the articles “Athée, Athéisme,” “Christianisme,” “Fraude,” and “Miracles” in the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). Return

41. See PN 177-8. The works of Newton and Locke were universally available and read; how much Hume was actually read is uncertain. Jefferson, in correspondence to Robert Skip from Monticello on 3 August 1771 (the “Gentleman’s Library” letter), recommends Hume’s Essays and works by Xenophon, Epictetus, Bolingbroke, Ld. Kaim’s [sic], and Sherlock. He also advocates reading the Essays in a letter to Peter Carr from Paris dated 10 August 1787 (the same letter referred to in n. 28 as possibly alluding to “Of Miracles”), along with works by Locke, Middleton, Bolingbroke, Voltaire, and Beattie. Hume and Bolingbroke are the only two authors on both lists, sixteen years apart. Return

42. Consider the speech he puts into the mouth of the ‘I’ character in §11 of the Enquiry: You conclude, that religious doctrines and reasonings can have no influence on life because they ought to have no influence; never considering, that men reason not in the same manner you do, but draw many consequences from the belief of a divine Existence, and suppose that the Deity will inflict punishments on vice, and bestow rewards on virtue beyond what appear in the ordinary course of nature. Whether this reasoning of theirs be just or not, is no matter. Its influence on their life and conduct must still be the same. And those, who attempt to disabuse them of such prejudices, may, for aught I know, be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians; since they free men from one restraint upon their passions, and make the infringement of the laws of society in one respect, more easy and secure. (E, 147) Return

43. The only species of atheism Paine mentions in AR is Christianity; see pp. 486―7; so for him the attack on superstition was simultaneously against atheism. Return

44. An article attacking atheism was published in a journal founded by Palmer, and it may evince familiarity with Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. The anonymous author (probably Dennis Driscol) of “A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God,” The Temple of Reason, (Nos. 1―2, 8 & 15 Nov 1800), reprinted in Walters, The American Deists, pp. 311―22, gives a design argument in which Epicurus, Lucretius, Tully, and the “modern discoveries in astronomy” are all mentioned in the same passage (Walters, p. 319―21). His contention is that the new evidence supports God’s existence still more strongly than the ancient arguments. Exactly the same constellation of references occurs in Hume’s Dialogues, Part V, 165, where Philo uses a similar a fortiori argument to claim that our newly enlarged view of the universe makes it all the more improbable that God can be as anthropomorphic as Cleanthes supposes. Whereas Philo argues that our partial view of the world does not warrant an inference that the whole is designed, this author argues that our “partial view of a few small portions of his dispensations” does not permit us to reject the argument for God’s existence because of the problem of evil (Walters 323). Return

45. “Of Miracles” is directed to “the wise and learned”; see p.1. I presented evidence for Hume’s conviction that enlightenment would never be a mass phenomenon in “Hume on Curing Superstition,” Hume Studies, XII, 2 (1986), pp. 122―140. Return

46. The quotation continues, “otherwise they can never extricate themselves from that superstition they chance to be educated in.” Hume opts for this “otherwise.” The sentence is the heading of Ch. XIII of Christianity as old as the Creation, which is devoted to defending the discernment of the common people. Tindal acknowledges that the masses are “incapable of Metaphysical Speculations” but believes that moral reasoning suffices to identify superstition (ibid., p. 237). Return

47. From a poetic attack on Allen by the orthodox Timothy Dwight, quoted in Morais, p. 102:

In vain thro realms of nonsense . . . . ran
The great clodhopping oracle of man.
Yet faithful were his toils: What could he more?
In Satan’s cause he bustled, bruised and swore.
Copyright © 1998, James Dye

Last Updated 18 September, 1998