Great Issues in Philosophy
December 8, 2017
phrase a priori is a Latin term which literally means before the fact. When used to knowledge questions, it
means a type of knowledge which is derived without experience or observation. Many consider mathematical truths to
be a priori because they are true regardless of experiment or observation and
can be proven true without reference to experimentation or observation. Let’s say this for an example Nancy
has filed a civil lawsuit against her employer, claiming that she was
wrongfully fired from her job.
Nancy, who had worked as an administrative assistant at her job for about five
years, she had begun frequently arriving at work late, her excuses becoming
One day, Nancy was involved in an accident on her way to work and, because she
was transported to the hospital by an ambulance, nobody called her employer. Nancy’s supervisor assumed, a
priori, that Nancy was simply very late again, and fired her. In Nancy’s example, her employer
assumed based on her own prior behavior, even though they had no personal
knowledge of the situation that made her miss work that day.
term a posteriori literally means after the fact.
When used to knowledge questions, it means a type of knowledge which is derived
from experience or observation.
Today, the term empirical has generally replaced this. Many empiricists, like Locke and
Hume, have argued that all knowledge is essentially a posteriori and that a
priori knowledge isn’t possible.
Your date of birth is something known a posteriori. You cannot reasonably argue that your
date of birth occurred on any day or time without knowledge that has been
acquired empirically either a record of your birth such as a birth certificate
or dated home video, testimonial from a witness such as your mother, or some
freakish ability to remember your own birth.
Like all a posteriori knowledge, this statement could be false. A posteriori knowledge is often
considered to be true and is often very likely to be true, but it is fallible. In this example, a few things could
cause this knowledge to be false: birth records could have been misprinted or
falsified, a testimony could be a lie or your freakish recollection could be
inaccurate or even imaginary.
argument is not that miracles cannot happen, but that, given the amount of
evidence that has established and confirmed a law of nature, there can never be
sufficient evidence to prove that a law of nature has been violated. He believes that miracles have no
Hume was an empiricist, in other words, he believed that all knowledge is based
on evidence that we gain through our senses.
He argues that if a miracle goes against a law of nature, then it represents a
single piece of evidence that goes against all the rest. So, for example, if we let go of a
heavy object, it falls to the ground.
That observation, repeated many times, confirms our understanding of the law of
If then, an account is heard of the heavy object floating upwards of its own
accord, you can ask yourself, which is the more likely, that the report is
mistaken or that it happened.
However, Hume talks of laws of nature as if set in stone implying that Natural
Law can never be shown to be false.
The possibility for laws of nature to be false must be left open. Hume claims that, if we balance on
one hand the improbability of miracles occurring and on the other hand the
evidence that they have occurred, we will always conclude that it is more
likely that natural laws occurred rather than miracles.
offered his own definition, that miracles are “a transgression of a law of
nature by a particular volition of the deity” and Hume adds that a miracle
could be defined as a “break in the natural order of events in the material
For the most part, Hume puts forward that miracles are “impossible” and that testimony
to miracles should never be trusted.
This can be seen in Hume’s reason against the existence of miracles. He states that there has never been
anyone proving a miracle “of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and
learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves” and persuade us
that a violation of a natural law is possible.
Hume suggests that whenever anyone has witnessed a “miracle” they have been
deluded into thinking so.
fact, Hume argues that miracles are unbelievable.
He writes, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform
experience against every miraculous event, otherwise, the event would not merit
And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full
proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.” Hume further argues that
because the only evidence offered for miracles is eyewitness testimony, and
eyewitnesses have been known to be wrong, any reasonable man would assume the
eyewitness testimony in error rather than believe an abrogation of something as
consistent throughout time as natural law.
Whenever someone asks if miracles are probable or believable, they are really
asking is there a God, and that is the crux of the problem. You see, Hume at the start of his
inquiry dismisses God as a criterion for support.
Hume says we should judge miracles only based on natural evidence – what we
find occurring in nature as repeatable.
The less common an instance, the less rational it is to believe. If one assumes that nature is the
standard for judging the reasonableness of an event occurring, then Hume may
have a point.
But by assuming this, one assumes there is no God that rules over nature. However, if we have strong logical
reasons for believing the existence of the Christian God apart from miracles
then a belief in miracles is not illogical.
The argument can be stated thusly, The Bible asserts that an almighty God
created the universe and governs natural laws.
If God governs natural laws, God can suspend natural laws. A suspension of natural laws is a
definition of a miracle.
Therefore, if the God of Christianity exists, He can perform miracles. Using the above argument, one can
see that miracles are not placed outside the realm of logic as Hume would have
it. The question really
becomes does the God of the Bible exist.
is difficult to conclude whether miracles do logically exist. It easier to believe that there are
certain events that occur in our world that we cannot fully understand. At the time they may be deemed as
violations of a natural law however as scientific knowledge advances the event
may become part of natural law that we simply didn’t understand before. Some people will accept that God was
the ultimate cause of a miracle; because he is omnipotent he can do anything
which would include breaking natural laws and amazing people. Hume’s argument about testimony is
very convincing but I do not agree, that miracles do not happen. I think it is more than that these
events occur, and we do not fully understand their making.