Thursday, September 25, 2014

Miracles and the king of Siam

I have been reading Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts in preparation for a speaking event in the future, and I have really been enjoying it. Keener's treatment of David Hume's argument against miracles is particularly powerful; Hume's argument really is not very good at all, and Keener does a great job of refuting it from a number of angles.

I was impressed by the following counterargument that some objectors of Hume gave him in his own day. It is a story about the King of Siam:

Hearing from Dutch visitors about riding horses on top of rivers that became so cold that they became hard like stone, this rule "knew that the men were liars." The king's inference was a logical one based on the reality with which he was familiar; it was his expectation of a rigid uniformity in the human experience of nature that proved inaccurate (p. 104).

Remember that Hume's argument against miracles goes something like this: A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as an argument from experience can possibly be imagined (quoted at p. 107). In other words, uniform human experience tells us that the laws of nature as a certain way, and a miracle would mean something else happened contrary to these laws.

There are many, many, many things wrong with Hume's argumentation here; Keener lists probably five or six or seven different devastating objections one might proffer. In any case, the point here is that Hume's affirmation of the uniformity of human experience is woefully mistaken. It is precisely those who bring forth testimony that a miraculous event has occurred who ought to be taken into the calculation of what constitutes human experience; yet Hume evidently rejects them simply because their experience is contrary to his own and that of his circles.

Like the King of Siam, Hume blindly and irrationally assumes that the world must be exactly as I have experienced it in my small number of years in this small corner of the globe. As Keener says, The prince, who lacks experience of freezing, cannot extrapolate with certainty from his nonexperience of it, and people in everyday situations cannot extrapolate from their nonexperience of potential situations of special divine significance (p. 105).

The King of Siam may have been convinced in his own mind, and "rational," but woefully mistaken. Rivers freeze in other parts of the world, even if he had never seen it before. But to my mind it seems woefully myopic, in the face of the limitations and finitude of one's own being, that one's experience of the world is representative of all humanity and more or less adequate to base judgments of what is possible and what isn't.