Doctor Who meets David Hume

Doctor Who meets David Hume August 20, 2015

This delightful video explains David Hume’s view of miracles and why you shouldn’t believe in them, using illustrations from Doctor Who. Fantastic!

Of course, as I have pointed out before, this is precisely the point at which Doctor Who sends mixed messages. It regularly expresses disdain for superstition and belief in the supernatural, and yet depicts precisely the same things supposedly happening as a result of wibbly-wobbly reversals of the neutron flow.

When you watch the video, it is definitely worth paying close attention to the details.

Many thanks to Burke Gerstenschlager for drawing the video to my attention on Facebook.

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  • I am not impressed by Hume’s reasoning because I don’t feel the arguments for naturalism impressive.
    In other word, I don’t think you can show that paranormal events are extraordinarily unlikely to occur without begging the question or relying on unproven assumptions.
    I’m certainly open to being proven wrong on that.
    Here are some of my thoughts on related issues:

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Hi Lothar

      I would like to put a question to you. Something that is often said in defence of Richard Carrier’s approach is that we unconsciously use Bayesian reasoning all the time; so all we have to do is to make those unconscious judgements explicit. It strikes me that it might be very difficult to make intuitive reasoning explicit. Let me give an example. Consider these two phrases:

      a big yellow taxi, a yellow big taxi

      You can see immediately that the first phrase is a normal English construction and the second isn’t. However, you may not be able to say exactly why this is the case. You may not know that adjectives of size generally precede adjectives of colour – “a little black book”, not “a black little book”. Or, rather, you DO know that adjectives of size precede adjectives of colour, but you don’t know that you know. Your knowledge is implicit rather than explicit.

      Trying to make our intuitive knowledge explicit can be a very difficult process. The danger is that if we can’t explain exactly how we know something then our judgements will be dismissed. I don’t see how Carrier’s approach can explicate all of the thinking that goes into the sort of expert judgement that biblical scholars make.

      I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

      • Hi Cecil.

        First of all, let me say I truly appreciate your comments and would be delighted to correspond with you privately 🙂
        My email is lotharson57(at)
        You are right it is very hard to make all these things explicit. As a rule, I think we should try to do so in order to avoid falling prey to misleading intuitions.

        As for classical Bayesianism (all our beliefs can be represented by a single number), I think it’s a deeply flawed epistemology.

        There is a huge difference between
        1) a piece of money we know to be evenly poised due to a thorough physical analysis
        2) a piece of money we tossed 500000 times whereby the frequency oscillated very closely around 0.5
        3) a piece of money we know absolutely nothing about

        Traditional Bayesian are committed to saying that the probability of the coin falling heads is 0.5 in all three cases.

        In the first case, we say “Since I know the physical properties of the evenly poised coin, I know it is as likely to fall heads as odds”
        In the second case we say “Since I know that the relative frequency converges towards 0.5, I know it is as likely to fall heads as odds”

        AND in the third case we are supposed to say “Since I know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THE COIN, I know it is as likely to fall heads as odds”
        (application of the infamous “principle of indifference”).

        Let this sink in. Doesn’t the last sentence sound completely absurd?

        It magically turns ignorance into knowledge.

        This problem has led many Bayesians to adopt an imprecise framework according to which the probability isn’t given by a single value but by a probability interval.

        So, in the first case this would be [0.5;0.5] = 0.5
        In the second case something like [0.499998; 0.49999999].
        And in the third case [0;1].

        The obvious advantage of this approach is that there is a clear distinction between the two first situations (knowledge) and the third one (utter ignorance).

        Philosopher of science Norton argued that both the multiverse theory and the fine-tuning argument relies on the same flawed logic:

        I think I’ll write a blog post showing that many probabilistic arguments used by both theists and atheists are completely invalid owing to a failure to appreciate the fundamental difference between knowledge and ignorance.

        As for Carrier, I have the impression that his methodology is inconsistent. He seems to talk like an imprecise Bayesian when it suits his interest and like a traditional Bayesian otherwise.

        So, I sincerely hope this wasn’t too indigestible! 🙂

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          That’s great, Lothar, thanks. And as you have pointed, we are dealing with a case that seems unprecedented – a celestial entity being rapidly historicised. We don’t even know whether such a thing is possible. We also don’t know whether it would have been possible for the early Christians to have regarded themselves as the brothers of a celestial being. On these issues the probability could flip between 0 and 1.

          I’ll definitely be looking out for your blog.

          • Hi.

            Actually, I didn’t mean that at all.

            [0;1] would be appropriate for a mythological angel becoming human in a culture we know nothing about .

            We know a LOT of things about the environment in which Christianity rose.

            So for example the transition “Non-existent divine being => human having walked the earth” never occured within Judaism
            If you consider all angels, none of them underwent that transformation, not even during the Greek era.

            Likewise, to the best of my knowledge we know of no Greek, Roman or Egyptian god who was “turned” into a human within the next 50 years following its
            appearance in the religious landscape. It might even be that such a rapid transition never occurred anywhere at any time.

            Consequently, using Carrier’s own methodology the probability of

            “Jewish angel => human living on the earth / within 50 years”

            should be considered as very low.
            The Roswell analogy is incredibly poor given the fact it has almost nothing in common with what Carrier is interested to argue beyond the fact that some far-fetched beliefs can quickly emerge.

            The example of the Ethiopian emperor adored by Bob Marley illustrates the REVERSE transformation “Real human => God” and is therefore also pretty irrelevant.

            The angel Moroni created by Joseph Smith is also not germane to the conversation.

            Therefore, I do think that the probability is very low and might be given by an interval such as [0.00000001; 0.0000001] or even worse.


          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Right, I’ve got you. So what do you think about “brother of the Lord”? I don’t know of any example of a group whose members called each other “brother of X”, where X is a celestial being.

    • Andrew Dowling

      How are the assumptions against paranormal events unproven? To the contrary all of the assumptions underlying the absence of any supernatural/paranormal phenomena are on extremely solid ground (and this IMO says nothing about whether God does or does not exist; I’m talking purely supernatural interventionism)

      • Okay Andrew, what are these solid grounds?

        I addressed some of them in my initial comment (see my links).

        But it might be you mean other arguments I didn’t consider there.

        Or it might be you don’t agree with my arguments and find them faulty.

        Either way, I’d be genuinely interested to learn more about why you think that way.

        Best wishes.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Hi Lothar,

          From perusing the blog posts, you seem to be arguing vs certain atheist arguments against theism. But I’m failing to see rational that supernatural interventions are as plausible as naturalistic explanations. An argument that we simply don’t know everything (which I’d concur with) is not strong enough to over-ride dismissal of any claims that XYZ was caused by supernatural intervention. As incredible as life can be, there is nothing that has ever occurred that can not be explained through the normal mechanisms of the laws of accepted natural occurrences. We do not see regular, occasional or even very rare occurrences of people flying, or shooting lasers out of their eyes, or take a jog over the nearby lake.

          Accounts of such in ancient religious literature and common folklore tell us much about about the motifs and metaphors common within those types of literary narratives (along with the culture/beliefs of those who composed them); they tell us nothing about possibilities of natural law being overturned on the physical level, anymore than the accounts of Hogwarts tell me about the actual experiences of children who fly on brooms.

          • Hi Andrew.

            I’m very thankful for your civic tone given a topic many people passionately argue about 🙂

            I define paranormal phenomena as events which are very unlikely to occur given our current knowledge. .
            In and of itself, this definition is compatible with a future materialism which could well account for them.

            The same could be say about your examples:

            “We do not see regular, occasional or even very rare occurrences of people flying, or shooting lasers out of their eyes, or take a jog over the nearby lake.”

            it is quite possible that beings living on another planet dispose of such abilities without violating the laws of physics.

            So what I’m really arguing is that, in general, paranormal phenomena (according to my definition above) have not been proven to be unlikely which, in probabilistic terms mean either the value 0.5, the interval [0;1] (complete ignorance) or an ill-defined quantity.

            Concerning a normal mortal jogging over the nearby lake, we have on the one hand extremely strong theoretical grounds speaking against this , on the other hand the fact that we never observe anyone doing this.

            In the last case, the relative frequency of water-walking humans must be extremely low and comprised, say, within the interval [0, 1E-10].
            But what about the probability that a given individual can walk on the water?

            You can only assimilate this probability to the above frequency IF you know from the outset that God doesn’t act or act in an uniform way among the human population.
            But what if God selectively grants such an ability only to a chosen few who have a special relationship with him?
            In that case, you can no longer equate the probability of God granting this ability to Jesus with the frequency of a random human receiving it.

            In order to do that, you have to either argue for atheism or find theological arguments showing that God would most likely not do such a thing.

            Consequently, I’m agnostic about that specific miracle reported in the New Testament.

            Finally, I believe we have decent (albeit not extraordinary) evidence for the existence of UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) which are, please note, no synonym for alien spacecraft.
            While there is an incredibly huge amount of absolute non-sense in that field (e.g. Roswell), I have found certain cases to be genuinely anomalous in that conventional explanations seem very unlikely to be their causes.

            If you’re interested, here are several cases I investigated:

            Many others could be mentioned.

            I am in no doubt you find all of this extremely ridiculous.
            I don’t write this to convince you but just to explain you my position.

            I hope we can continue to agree to disagree 🙂


          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Hi Lothar

            I just want to make sure that I have followed your argument properly. Would you say that the prior probability of the Resurrection was [0;1]?

          • Hello Cecil.

            Thanks for this terrific question.

            This is a very complex topic and I am not going to give you any definitive answers.

            I haven’t answered you earlier because I’m busy proof-reading my own novel and must write scientific articles for my work.
            So I’ve quite a lot of things to do 🙂

            If there is no God, the probability of the resurrection is an objective number.
            How often does the random movements of molecules lead a dead body to become alive again?
            Quantum fluctuations allow for that and they also allow for a cow flying to the moon as well as for the sudden appearance of a Boltmann’s brain.

            Nevertheless, those events are so incredibly unlikely that they have never been observed during the entire history of our kind.

            So given the truth of materialism, the initial probability of the resurrection is astronomically low, indeed.

            But let us consider the following situation: there may very well be a perfect God who is the ultimate reality.
            Let us further assume that we have a completely neutral attitude toward his existence and assign it the interval [0;1].

            This immediately raises a new question:

            “What is the prior probability of God raising Jesus from the dead, provided there is a God?”

            Ideally, I think that probability can (if at all) only be employed as an objective degree of support for a hypothesis and not as one’s subjective degree of belief.

            I’m going to oversimplify things a bit in order to illustrate the main problematic.

            Sceptics will say:
            “If we count all dead mystics, prophets, artists, kings or moral reformers who died and were later claimed to have been raised from the dead, we consistently find out that the stories were either faked or the result of hallucinations, illusions or false memories. Therefore if 2000 resurrection stories can all be shown to be fictitious, we should (generously) assign a prior probability of 1/2000 to Christ’s resurrection”.

            The first problem is that they treat God as a blessing machine who randomly chooses people who will experience a miracle.
            If that were the case, we could naturally say that the probability of a random human being called Jesus being picked by the divine wheel is less than 1/2000.
            Of course, if God is an Intelligence our finite minds cannot begin to comprehend, we cannot suppose he always act uniformly.

            The second problem is the specific nature of Christ’s life and death which do not appear to be shared by most of these people who were wrongly claimed to have come back to life.
            At this point, a minimalist theology seems to be necessary to draw any conclusions.
            Given the circumstances of Christ’s death, executed after having preached unconditional love, self-sacrifice and God’s love toward the poor, it wouldn’t personally stun me to see God raise Jesus bodily in order to vindicate his ministry, even if it goes against the natural order He himself made.

            I would be very astonished to see Elvis come back to life because this would be quite a meaningless event.

            I wouldn’t have been surprised, however, if God had (spiritually or bodily) raised Martin Luther King after he had been shamefully murdered.

            On an objective level , I’m completely unable to assign an prior “degree of support” to Christ’s resurrection.

            So I don’t even know if I’d attribute it the interval [0;1], another interval or perhaps conclude that it is meaningless to talk of probabilities in such a context.

            Overall, I think that believing in Jesus (with all its consequences) or believing Christianity all began with a huge mistake is a choice highly dependent on one’s own plausibility structures, prejudices and world-view assumptions.

            Given my own background, it makes sense to me to believe in the reality of a spiritual world and in Christ’s central role but I cannot prove it to another rational person.

            As I explained, I consider faith as hope in highly desirable things which haven’t been shown to be implausible.


            In other words, if people managed to prove that Jesus probably didn’t rise from the dead without begging the question , I’d cease being a Christian.
            But as long as it hasn’t been done, I think it is intellectually permissible to *hope* in Christ as the image of God, even if it cannot be proven.

            I sincerely apologise for this terribly long comment.

            As always, I’d be delighted if you could contact me at lotharson57(at)


          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Thank you for your detailed reply, Lothar. You have given me much food for thought. And good luck with the novel!

  • I’ve always found the wibbly wobbly hand-waving of Doctor Who part of the campy humor of the show. Not only does the Doctor encourage skepticism towards superstition and the supernatural, he doesn’t even want us to take his own pseudo-science very seriously.

  • Matt Brown

    I think there is very good reason from philosophers to doubt Hume’s argument; simply on the basis of it being question-begging. If extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence then you could never make a case because of your presupposition.

    • arcseconds

      It would be question begging perhaps if the only purpose of the criterion was to rule out miracles.

      But in fact wanting stronger evidence the more unusual the claim is just the appropriate and rational approach to any claim (and is a principle that’s easily derived from Bayes’s Theorem).

      Let’s say we’re writing an article about a local personality Jane for the local rag. Some things we can just take her say-so on, like buying groceries last week. It’s such a common occurrence that she’s quite likely to buy groceries every week. Other things we’d probably want to do a modicum of fact-checking for, like her claim to be on the olympic swim team back in the 80s. Here, if we’re being responsible journalists, we’d want to do at least a modicum of fact-checking, and at least see a newspaper article. If someone claims she murdered her husband, the usual standard for agreeing with that in print is her being convicted by a court: even if we find a newspaper article claiming she did murder her husband that isn’t enough. And if she claims to have built an anti-gravity device, then we’d want even firmer evidence: investigation by a team of experts, perhaps, or engineers being able to replicate her device. Even video evidence of it working wouldn’t cut it, because that can be faked.

      (And if you’re just prepared to take people’s word for everything… I have a bridge to sell you.)

      This might mean that a case can never be made for ancient miracles, as there never could be strong enough evidence for them. But if that’s the standard of evidence required, and there’s no way of meeting that evidence, then that’s the situation. The alternative is to lower the bar for evidence, which might mean that we get to affirm miracles that really did happen, but would certainly mean we’d affirm a lot of miracles that did not.

      • arcseconds

        In order to make the same point on a topic where you might be more inclined to agree, a murder that happened 50 or a 100 years ago may not be able to be solved. The evidence available tends to decrease with time as memories fade, eyewitnesses die, fingerprints get washed away, entire buildings get demolished, etc.

        It’s not circular reasoning to insist on a certain standard for assigning criminal blame, and then to acknowledge that many crimes will never be solved to that standard.

      • Matt Brown

        So then you could never believe a news report on someone winning the lottery correct? Because such an event is highly improbable and since we should not believe claims that are highly improbable therefore we should doubt the news report.

        • arcseconds

          No, we should think about how likely the newspaper would be reporting it if it wasn’t true.

          Involved in that assessment is how good the newspaper is likely to be at working out the truth of the matter.

          Winning a lottery isn’t really that rare. One in millions for a particular run of a particular lottery, but they often run every week, and there are lots of them around the world. (And someone wins, so the chances of there being a lottery winner are very high! ) So there’s probably a handful of lottery-winners in every good-sized city.

          And it’s presumably not hard for the newspapers to work out that a lottery claimant won. Aren’t the results often published by the lottery runners?

          On the other hand, I don’t pay much mind to a lot of science factoids that get in the newspaper, like ‘study finds gene for believing in miracles’ or whatever. Newspapers are not all that great at reporting science, and while they’re probably not making up the fact that a study was published, they are probably misconstruing it massively and reporting it in the most sensational way possible.

          Plus the study probably hasn’t actually established for sure that even the effect they actually claim exists exists.

          So I’m not expecting them to get that right, and as a result even if I thought there probably was a gene for believing in miracles, I would’t really be any more certain about that having read the newspaper article.

          So, yeah, I believe newspapers when I think they’re likely to get things right, and not otherwise.

          • Matt Brown

            OK. And why would you not do the same for a miracle report? It would be wrong-headed to just assume that someone’s claim about a miracle happening is wrong without looking at the evidence first…wouldn’t you agree?

          • arcseconds

            Well, I think it’s fairly safe to say that it probably is wrong. Let’s take a dead person returning to life, for example. Perhaps in some cultures this is thought to happen all the time, but in the West, even among those who believe in magic and miracles, everyone thinks this is an extremely rare occurrence. Significantly more rare than winning lotteries, or even noble prizes, or maybe even formulating a revolutionary new theory which totally reforms physics.

            On the other hand we know that stories of miracles often turn out to be stories the origin of which we can’t trace, exaggerations, misunderstandings, people in unusual mental states, things that have a totally ordinary explanation, or outright hoaxes. We also know there are plenty of people who have some kind of vested interest in people believing in a particular miracle. For some people it vindicates their belief structure, and for others it might mean an increase in local tourism, or a market for their books. And I don’t think these necessarily come cleanly apart: people don’t have to be cynically lying to be motivated by selling books. The attention and income (and possibly the exictingness of the idea) just mean one asks less questions than one might if one was on guard against a con, say.

            So even without the evidence I think we can make a fairly safe bet here: it probably didn’t happen. Or, if we want to bet on things that can actually be assessed: there probably will not be convincing evidence forthcoming now or within the next five years, let’s say.

            In principle this could be wrong, of course, so yes, in principle we should look at the evidence. But it needs to be very good evidence indeed, as it needs to put us in the position where it rules out an elaborate hoax. And an elaborate hoax can look an awfully lot like a genuine miracle. Do we know for sure it’s them and not a dead ringer or a lost twin? That’s just one of the many questions to ask.

          • Matt Brown

            Sorry, but I still see the presupposition here. It is one thing to be skeptical, yes. But it is another thing to automatically assume that this skepticism must be true before looking at the evidence.

            A miracle is still highly improbable just like the odds of you winning say 100 Billion Dollars tomorrow. No matter what is more rare or not both are in the same pool of something being considered extremely improbable.

            I don’t think it is enough to say ” Well a lot of miracle stories turn out to be false and so we should not believe that any occur at all, even if there is legitimate evidence.”

            If the evidence is legitimate and is not a hoax, then I still don’t see why that is not sufficient enough for one to hold that something miraculous may have occurred. Evidence is justification for belief. A claim in of itself, no matter how absurd, does not require evidence beyond reasonable doubt. For there is no such thing as 100% certainty. But as you agree, probability trumps certainty.

            I think this is one of the things that David Hume missed in his paper.

          • arcseconds

            I’m not assuming it must be true. I’m saying it probably is true, but I allow that the evidence should be looked at.

            I don’t see the difficulty here, and wonder whether you have actually read the whole of my comment.

            The important thing is that the evidence needs to rule out even an elaborate hoax, as we have plenty of those on record. Elaborate hoaxes are rare, but they’re a lot less rare than miracles, so if the evidence isn’t good enough to rule out an elaborate hoax, that is reason for doubt.

          • Matt Brown

            I would disagree and say that you should remain agnostic until you look at the evidence.

            But as you said before you would need to weigh the probability of the reliability of the newspaper report if you didn’t have the evidence against the probability of it having evidence.

            That would be the proper thing to do with miracles

        • Nick G

          I think you’re confusing “improbable” with “extraordinary”. It is improbable that any particular person should win the lottery, but it is not extraordinary, because someone wins every (honest) lottery, and moreover, we know (or can know) exactly how it comes about – a piece of paper is drawn out of a hat, or a computer generates a random (or more likely, pseudo-random) number, or whatever – it is an ordinary, literally everyday, occurrence. It would be extraordinary if the same person kept winning lotteries, and we should indeed want stronger evidence than a single report in a single newspaper; and moreover, we would reasonably suspect that there is chicanery involved somewhere.

          • Matt Brown


            I see no reason to distinguish one from the other. If something is improbable than that means it as a very small chance of happening. It is rare for it to occur. If I told you right now that I won 100 Billion dollars in the lottery, you would be extremely skeptical of me. Why? Well because it is so incredibly rare that only few people win it. It is not something that happens to every person in the world. That is the same thing as extraordinary. It is beyond normal and not something that you experience everyday.

          • You can’t see the difference between a lottery win and a miracle?

            A lottery win may be rare for any given individual, but the occurrence of a lottery win is not rare at all. It happens every time a winner is purposely selected. It is quite common actually, intentionally produced, and a proven, factual occurrence.

            A miracle isn’t just rare; it is unproven. There is no sufficient evidence to prove that a supernatural miracle has ever occurred. Lottery wins occur virtually every day.

            You don’t understand Hume, if you think that by “miracle”, he is discussing events that are merely “rare”. Everything from lighting strikes to nuclear explosions are “rare” at the level of any one man’s experience. But in terms of their proven occurrence in the universe, these are events that happen every day. A miracle is something for which even a single occurrence – at any time and to any individual – is improbable and unproven.

          • Matt Brown

            And this distinction is mistaken, for if something is highly improbable then that means it doesn’t occur frequently, no matter how you slice it down to the bone. The lottery is not something that happens to every person in the universe. It is an extremely rare occurrence. You have basically a 1 in trillion chance of it happening to you in your life.

            Miracles aren’t violations of the natural law but are beyond the casual or natural explanation of natural law.

            And besides, what evidence would be sufficient to prove that a miracle occurred? No amount would prove a miracle because you already assume they can’t or don’t happen.

          • Weird, Matt. You keep insisting that lottery wins are like miracles because they are “rare”; what on earth does this have to do with Hume? Have you even read “Of Miracles”. Paul (below) is right. Are you really a college student? Because this sort of reasoning would be embarrassing in any philosophy course.

            There are actually interesting arguments that philosophers have used to challenge Hume. You don’t seem to have read or understood them.

          • Matt Brown

            Another reason is that Hume rules God out and so of course a miracle would be considered improbable because Hume thinks God doesn’t exist. But one can make good arguments for God’s existence.

            Another thing is that one can never actually demonstrate a miracle repeatedly for that is not necessary or possible because science is not our only measure of truth.

          • Again, Matt, one wonders if you have actually read Hume. Your statements not only lack coherence, they don’t even address Hume’s arguments.

            Your second statement, in particular, is logically incoherent. Regardless of whether science is or is not “our only measure of truth”, this has nothing to do with the repeatability of miracles.

          • Matt Brown

            That is certainly one of the objections that one must take into account when talking about miracles.

            How is my second statement logically incoherent? You said that miracles are not true because they are not repeatable. That is basically saying that you think there is testable way of finding out if they are true. But not all things can be repeatable or demonstrated via testing.

          • What is one of the “objections that one must take into account”? Vagueness doesn’t help you.

            And why do you quote people saying things that they didn’t actually say? Are you being purposely dishonest, or just making things up as you go? I didn’t say “miracles are not true because they are not repeatable”. You seem to be conducting some strange argument against yourself – not Hume … or even me.

          • Matt Brown

            You said in an earlier post that miracles have never been proven and repeatable like the lottery

          • No, I didn’t say “repeatable”. You’ve now had the chance to re-read my post and yet you still make false claims about what I’ve said?

            I tire of your dishonesty, Matt. If you want to deal with what I say, then quote me. Don’t put your own words in my mouth. I have no interest in watching you argue with your own straw men.

          • Matt Brown

            You said in your first post that miracles have no evidence of occuring multiple times as compared to a lottery system. This implies that you don’t think miracles are repeatable, correct?

          • No, Matt, on the contrary, if miracle stories are credible, then miracles are supposed to be quite repeatable, given how often Jesus and other ancient religious figures are purported to have performed them. Just look at the number of healings that are mentioned in the gospels.

          • Matt Brown

            That’s not a very good argument(No offense).

            Something being credible does not mean repeatable. The Big Bang is not a repeatable event and is not something that we can observe happening right now, nor was there anybody else around to see it back then. Should that be reason to doubt such an event happened? No. Why? Because when you deduce the scientific evidence it leads to that conclusion.

          • Good lord, Matt, can you read? (No offense).

            I did not say that miracle stories must be repeatable in order to be credible! I merely pointed out that miracles in the Bible and other religious tales often are repeated. I did NOT say “if miracle stories are credible”, then they MUST be repeatable; I was only saying that, If the bible is true, then Jesus repeated miracles. That’s all.

            Whether they are repeated (or repeatable) has nothing to do with Hume’s argument or mine.

            You are the one who seems determined to say that miracles are not repeatable; you keep trying to make it my argument – I have no idea why. I could not care less if miracles are repeatable.

            You’ve said nothing about my (or Hume’s) argument. You’ve only answered some ridiculous argument about “repeatability” that exists in your own head.

            We have just spent an annoying series of comments with you childishly and dishonestly trying to insist that I am arguing that miracles are not repeatable. All so that you can insist that it is a bad argument. For the umpteenth time, I have NOT made the argument that miracles must be repeatable in order to be true.

            You know, you’re going to need to practice basic reading comprehension skills if you plan to have an academic career.

          • Matt Brown

            Yes. They are often repeated in multiple independent sources that are early and that are not portrayed as taking in place in a mythical realm.

          • To which supernatural stories are you referring? The miracles of Vespasian? The miracles of Alexander? The witches in Salem? The Cottingley fairies? The Uri Gellar spoon bending? Peter Popoff’s healing miracles? These all have multiple independent sources.

          • Paul E.

            This is an example someone once brought up to me in a similar discussion and I was taken aback by how embarrassing it seemed. To hear it brought up again in a similar context makes me think it may be an apologetic, echo-chamber meme of some sort.

          • Every time I’ve seen Matt Brown comment, he does seem to be following a repetitive meme, with no sense that he actually understands the argument. “Echo-chamber” is a great description.

          • Nick G

            Actually, no lottery has a prize within orders of magnitude of $100 billion, so of course I would be extremely sceptical, but that’s a side issue.

            It is beyond normal and not something that you experience everyday.

            You are simply ignoring the clear difference already pointed out to you: it is not something that happens to a given individual everyday, but large lottery wins do happen to someone very frequently, and as I have already said, we understand exactly how they happen. This is not true of miracles.

            The fact that you have difficulty understanding a perfectly clear difference indicates to me that you have an ulterior motive for not doing so. But I’ll try once more. If I toss a fair coin 1000 times and record the results, the chances of the specific sequence I get appearing is 1 in 2^1000 but – assuming there is no strong pattern to it – there is nothing extraordinary about it. Of course if the sequence turns out to be 1 head, 2 tails, 3 heads, 4 tails…, that would be extraordinary, and any rational person would want extraordinary evidence that it happened, and again, would suspect chicanery.

          • The simple fact is that we have lots of reliable witnesses to, and evidence for, a great many people winning the lottery. It might be worthwhile for a philosopher to look at the differences and alleged similarities between that and miracle accounts. But until that is done, there is simply no valid comparison between the two. Lotteries are mundane events, just like driving. Winning and being involved in accidents are a subset of those mundane events, and there is nothing extraordinary about them, however rare they might be.

          • John MacDonald

            There’s nothing extraordinary about your number matching the number drawn by the lottery corporation, it’s just good luck. There is certainly nothing “miraculous” about two numbers matching one another.

          • Matt Brown

            There’s no such thing as extraordinary evidence. That’s just being subjective. A claim, no matter how farfetched needs evidence that would lead one to believe that something miraculous haooened happened.

          • Logical incoherence is your mainstay, Matt. You are saying that there is “no such thing as extraordinary evidence” because it is “subjective”. How does that make sense. Things that are assessed subjectively don’t exist?

          • Matt Brown

            In theory it sounds logical but in reality, it is totally unrealistic to ask for extraordinary evidence. There is no such thing as evidence that is extraordinary. If so, then what counts as “extraordinary”?

          • So in your estimation, nothing is extraordinary? We should remove the word from our dictionary? Or are you simply saying that extraordinary things are unrealistic.

            So then, unless you think miracles are unrealistic, are you arguing that miracles are ordinary?

          • Matt Brown

            No. I’m saying that extraordinary evidence is a meaningless term. When is evidence considered extraordinary? What criteria determine this?

          • How silly. Far greater minds than yours have been using the phrase “extraordinary evidence” for years. (Though not David Hume – you’re still side-stepping his arguments).

            Besides, aren’t you skipping a step, Matt? If you claim that “extraordinary evidence” is meaningless, then presumably you would regard anything extraordinary as meaningless (not just “evidence”). When is anything considered extraordinary? Or miraculous?

          • arcseconds

            It can be explained quite simply on Bayesian grounds.

            Evidence that is very, very unlikely if the hypothesis being considered is not true, but likely if it is true.

            And, as I have been trying to explain to you, this is just the the criteria that Bayes’s theorem uses to assess any evidence and claim. It’s not a special technique deployed purely for miracles. It’s just that to raise the probability of a miracle happening to a point where it has appreciable probability, rather than nigh-negligible, the evidence would have to be very strong in just this sense.

            And it would have to rule out hoaxes, as hoaxes are much more likely than miracles, and even evidence that at first blush seems quite impressive can be expected on the hypothesis there’s a hoax.

            I don’t like the wording particularly, myself. I mean it makes for a nice phrase, but it suggests that the evidence is somehow as bizarre and outlandish as the miracle itself is. But the evidence could potentially be of a fairly mundane nature, it would just have to be very unlikely to have occurred by some other means.

            For example, if everyone in Times Square filmed someone flying through the air like superman on their cellphones, and all swore affidavits that they saw it happen, we have a familiar enough kind of evidence for an unfamiliar event. But it’s very unlikely that they would all be participating in a hoax, or that someone had written a virus to put the video on there while simultaneously mesmerising the whole square, etc.

            So we’d probably have to believe at least the person appeared to fly through the air like superman in a way that was capturable by video footage, and maybe we’d have to conclude that they really were where they seemed to be (if we had enough camera angles or whatever), but of course we couldn’t rule out some non-miraculous means of propulsion (wires? a disguised jetpack? completely unfamiliar technology like an antigravity belt?).

          • Matt Brown

            Your example is exactly what I’m arguing for. I am saying that evidence that is actually legitimate and not showing any signs of hoaxes or sleight of hand would lead one to believe that something miraculous did happen.

          • arcseconds

            It would have to do better than ‘not show signs of hoaxes’, as a successful hoax wouldn’t show any signs of being a hoax, and successful hoaxes are still much more probable than miracles, as they don’t require believing in anything that’s not understood.

            They would have to actively rule out the possibility of a hoax.

            To give an example, if we found a picture of someone levitating five feet in the air from the 1950s, and gave it to a whole bunch of photographic experts or whatever and they said that they couldn’t see any way it could have been faked with the technology of the time, then there are at least two possibilities that are still more likely than someone actually levitating: there was a rare technique used (perhaps just in this one case) that did exist in the 1950s that was lost to history, or that it’s not actually from the 1950s at all, but a very clever modern forgery. Even if we have no direct evidence that either of those things are true, they are possibilities, and more likely possibilities than levitation.

          • Matt Brown

            That seems to be moving the goalposts a bit. You can never rule out the possibility of something unless you show the concept of it to be a contradiction. You wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a hoax but the probability of a hoax happening because anything is possible.

            I could never rule out the possibility that I am a body lying the matrix somewhere or that I am a brain hooked up by electrodes being stimulated by a mad scientist to think I exist. I can however show that these explanations are more than likely to not be the case of reality.

            In your example, you could easily rule out the latter explanation as being a modern forgery if photographic experts are clear that no signs of forgery exist in the photo. In the former explanation, you would need more information about the picture, the person, and the event that took place in order to understand whether such trickery was involved.

          • In other words, Matt, if you feel you can dismiss “extraordinary evidence” as meaningless, then we can just as easily dismiss “extraordinary claims” as meaningless.

          • Matt Brown

            So what counts as extraordinary evidence?

          • Surely the first question is “What counts as an extraordinary claim?” You can’t have evidence unless you know what claim you’re discussing.

            Why should I try to convince you that anything counts as extraordinary evidence. If you think extraordinary things are meaningless, then presumably you think that extraordinary claims are meaningless.

          • Matt Brown

            So then you would agree that if multiple independent source report an event that is considered miraculous then it is credible, right?

          • No, why should I?

            Multiple independent sources have claimed that:

            Over two dozen citizens in Salem, Massachusetts were witches cavorting with the devil and deserved to hang.

            Alien beings are abducting humans in the night to perform experiments on their bodies.

            Joseph Smith was given golden plates by the angel Moroni, which he translated into the book of Mormon.

            The emperor Vespasian performed miracles of healing with the aid of the god Serapis.

            And the list goes on and on.

            I’m not sure why you suppose that multiple independent sources of supernatural or outlandish events make such things credible. Historians certainly don’t think so.

          • Matt Brown

            The thing is we don’t have multiple independent sources for those events you mention. Nor do any of these events corroborate each other in terms of what they actually claim.

            Joseph Smith is the only one who said he found the tablets and yet no archaeologists have been able to back this up. Not only this but even Smith’s eyewitnesses can’t agree what really happened. Some say they saw the plates. Others say they didn’t see the plates. And yet others say they only saw a vision or imganied the plates. ://

            Alien encounters have not been confirmed or at least many of them don’t seem to contain corroborating sources for the events that supposedly happened.

            Tacitus is the only one who reports this about Vespasian and in fact, he is skeptical that Vespasian performed such miracles. The whole story is a tongue-in-cheek kind of satirical story that Tacitus wrote.

            The Salem Witch Trials are based on accusations by younger girls blaming older women for such behavior. And yet, the behavior had no diagnosis because medicine had not developed back then. Such behavior was considered demonic because Puritans were strictly religious.

          • Your first sentence is completely false.

            Whether the eyewitnesses of the plates agree or disagree (most agree), those who saw the plates constitute multiple independent sources – and if they don’t agree – well neither do the gospels! Your wikipedia link does nothing to change the “multiple independent sources” for the golden plates.

            I don’t know what you mean by alien encounters being “confirmed”. Beyond being vague, that just changes the goalpost to something that the gospels can’t claim either. Alien abductions most certainly do have multiple independent sources. Tons of them!


            You are completely wrong about the reports of Vespasian’s miracles. (Did you even bother to look up whether Tacitus was the only source before you stated that falsehood?) Tacitus is most certainly not the only writer who reports the miracles. It was independently reported by Suetonius


            and Cassius Dio


            Your triablogue website fails to mention this and the weak “tongue in cheek” characterization is a vague opinion offered by one apologist who isn’t even a biblical scholar or historian! Tacitus himself says:

            “Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.”

            Young girls were not the only accusers claiming to be witnesses at the Salem witch trials. Thomas and Anne Putnam, Sarah Bibber, Nathaniel Ingersoll, and other adults number among the independent sources as well (you are so obviously wrong on this point – you really should do your research!).

            This information is easily found, Matt, which makes me wonder if you are being willfully dishonest. Moreover, we know the names of the witnesses in all of these cases, while the writers of the gospels are anonymous. Furthermore, it’s laughable to call the writers of the gospels “independent” when three of the gospels copy copious passages from each other verbatim! Any biblical scholar would tell you, Matt, that the writer of Matthew and Luke (definitely) and the writer of John (probably) had full access to Mark. They were not only dependent on Mark – they copied it!

            Most importantly, Matt, historians do not subscribe to your “multiple independent sources” method of assessing the truth of supernatural claims in any of these cases, even if they had “multiple independent sources” for the gospels – which they don’t.

            It seems to me, Matt, that we’ve had this very discussion before. You have a penchant for telling falsehoods.

          • Incidentally, Matt, since you brought up the evidence for the Big Bang in our other thread, I have to say that I consider the evidence for the Big Bang rather extraordinary. It is certainly not an idea that is intuitively true. But it has been backed up by a plethora of cosmological observations confirming:

            The redshift expansion of virtually all the galaxies in our view with few exceptions.
            The cosmic background radiation that was predicted by the theory before it was discovered.
            The spectroscopic composition of the stars showing that heavy elements did not exist in the first generation of stars.
            The ratios of trace elements seen from every quadrant of the universe.
            The modeling of the large scale structure of the universe (the big bang theory is the best explanation for it).

            And yet, even with all of this evidence, physicists would still reject or refine the big bang model if more evidence lead them to a new conclusion.

          • Matt Brown


          • Now, that’s extraordinary evidence!