atheism, philosophy

Reading Mackie “Miracle of Theism”: Chapter 1

I’ve been reading through The Miracle of Theism by J.L. Mackie. The book is known as one of the more powerful philosophical explications of atheism. You can read my thoughts on the introduction here (along with links to the rest of the series as they appear).

Chapter one thoughts:

Mackie begins with a brief outline of Hume’s argument, which he first outlines in five points, and refines it further thereafter. The five points from Hume, according to Mackie (p. 14-16) are: 1) “Hume says there are no really well-attested miracles…”; 2) “the human mind has a positive tendency to believe what is strange and marvelous”; 3) “reports of miracles ‘are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barborous nations’. Where they are believed by civilized peoples, these ‘will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors’, so that the stories will have acquired the authority of received opinions before the nations in question have developed powers of criticism and traditions of rational inquiry…”; 4) “different religions are in conflict: their claims therefore undermine and destroy one another…”; 5) “Hume says, the very fact that a miracle story is used to introduce a new religion or to support an existing one is an additional reason for skepticism. Many people have an intense desire to believe in some religious object…”

I see very little to commend among these five points. In fact, I find them all rather horribly mistaken. In regards to 1, this is simply begging the question. This “argument” is less a premise than it is an axiomatic denial of miraculous claims. It’s a broad, sweeping claim with no reason to accept it. There is nothing to support the second claim. I actually see it as a bit of “folk psychology of religion,” as it were. Isn’t it funny that the person, like Hume, who makes this point is believing a rather marvelous claim: that they are epistemically in a position to judge everyone else? It’s quite patronizing to make a point like 2, and given that the only evidence Mackie is willing to offer to support the claim is a vague hand wave towards people who believe in flying saucers, I don’t see any positive evidence to accept 2.

Regarding 3, we have a wonderful example of the genetic fallacy. Not only that, but I think we have a decent amount of evidence to show that this claim is simply false. While there are certainly persons who uncritically accept reports of miracles, there is a startling tradition within Christianity specifically which tells us to test such things for truth (cf. the comment to test the truth of spirits by the received Spirit in 1 John 4:1). And, of course, we could grant the third point and still find little reason to undermine the truth of miracles. Just because we have “received opinions” doesn’t mean these opinions are false. Mackie/Hume again just assume falsity, and apply folk psychology. It’s not a very objective method.

Point 4 is interesting because Mackie grants that “[4] has less force now than it had when Hume was writing.” But this is due, according to Mackie, not to the radical overvaluing of religious conflict, but because, according to him, various religions have made efforts to conform and take in aspects of each other—allowing for a broader spectrum and less internal conflict with claims of miracles from other religions. Fair enough, but I think there’s an even better reason to think the argument has little force: it doesn’t follow that because claims conflict, they are all false. Or, as I often like to put it, “Diversity of opinions does not entail the falsehood of them all.” I still struggle to see what the problem is supposed to be about miracle reports. It’s clearly false to say that they would cancel each other out, as Hume so ineloquently assumes. Suppose we apply this to another example: a murder investigation. One expert witness comes forward and says that the DNA evidence is positive. Another expert says it is negative. According to Hume’s standards, they’re both wrong, because they have conflicting opinons! But one of them has to be correct. I see no reason to accept 4 whatsoever because it literally tells us nothing useful.

Against 5, there must be some argument to show that 5 should be true, apart from more folk psychology. What evidence does Hume have to show us what he is saying is correct? I haven’t seen any offered.

Interestingly, Mackie actually grants a number of things which give credibility to the Resurrection. For example, he grants that independent witnesses increase the value of testimony (25). But, perhaps with the argument from the historicity of the resurrection in mind, he quickly modifies this account in an ad hoc way to provide himself a way out: “Not only in remote and barbarous times, but also in recent ones, we are usually justified in suspecting that what looks like distinct reports of a remarkable occurrence arise from different strands of a single tradition between which there has already been communication” (26). But of course Mackie gives no reason to accept this premise, and that is what it is: a premise. Mackie is positing that given a “remarkable occurrence” which is testified by different sources, we are justified in believing that they aren’t really independent, but are strands of a single tradition. Why should we believe him? What justifies us (epistemically) to do this? It is a rather monumental claim made by Mackie here, because he’s literally telling us that we are justified in question-begging any independent testimonies of miraculous reports out of existence.

Finally, Mackie closes the chapter with another remark similar to those he’s grown accustomed to throughout the chapter: “…it is all too easy to explain [a miracle/violation of a natural law] immediately by the automatic communication of beliefs between persons and the familiar psychological processes of wish fulfillment, and ultimately by what Hume himself was later to call ‘the natural history of religion’” (29). Well this sounds quite impressive, but Mackie has given us no reason to think that these explanations serve as the best explanation or presented us with evidence for the supposition that a natural explanation is always preferable to a supernatural one.

I can’t say I’m very impressed with Mackie’s critique of miracles. Hume’s argument fails to take into account anything but folk psychology, and Mackie’s additions really just amount to “Beg the question against the believer, and you’ve explained miracles.”



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


3 thoughts on “Reading Mackie “Miracle of Theism”: Chapter 1

  1. Do you plan on reviewing the rest of the book?

    Posted by Jonny | June 6, 2012, 6:54 PM


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