Fifty Key Thinkers on Religion
This statement occurs in Section X “Of Miracles” in David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). It succinctly expresses a philosophical principle that has spawned much debate in the philosophy of religion about the relationship between faith and reason. It also expresses Hume’s general skepticism about any claims to knowledge not based on sensations. As an advocate of empiricism, Hume regarded sensation as the primary source of whatever ideas we might enlist in forming and justifying beliefs. He combined skepticism about claims based entirely on human reason (rationalism), be they philosophical or religious, with an uncompromising empiricism that limits knowledge claims to what our senses tell us. David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up at the
family estate, Ninewells. His father died when he was two and his mother raised and educated him until he entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of eleven (he was, as his mother remarked, very “acute”) with the intention of preparing for a career in law. However, his interest in the law waned and he turned his attention to the study of history and philosophy. He never succeeded in gaining an academic appointment because of his skepticism in religious matters but he did become, after some initial disappointments, a celebrated writer, earning fame as both a philosopher and a historian. His sixvolume History of England (1754-62) became the standard work for many years. Hume, by all accounts a respected and even-tempered man, found
religious beliefs not only intellectually restrictive but also lacking any convincing proof. Many theologians and philosophers of his day viewed Christianity as a reasonable and rational religion whose truth could be established by two basic arguments: the argument from miracles and prophecy and the argument from design. Hume included a discussion of both in two sections of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He began his discussion of miracles and prophecy by establishing
the principle that experience will be his guide in reasoning about these matters. Although he recognized that experience is not free of error, those who are wise will carefully weigh the evidence experience aﬀords and proportion their beliefs accordingly, from the least certain to those with the highest degree of probability.