Simon Blackburn “Miracles and Testimony”

Blackburn’s main aims in this selection are to present arguments in favor of belief in God’s existence that stem from the testimony of others that they have seen miracles and Pascal’s Wager. Though initially persuasive, Blackburn argues that there are strong reasons to reject both of these sorts of arguments.

Arguments on the basis of miracles, Blackburn claims, usually derive from 3rd party sources. The reason for this is that miracles, if such there be, are things that are thought to be uncommon and remarkable occurrences and thus are not part of the everyday life of most people. This invites us to the conclusion that if such events do occur, then they really could be evidence in favor of God’s existence. However, the problem that Blackburn discusses in his recounting of David Hume’s argument is that the character of miracles makes it such that we ought not to believe people’s testimony that they occurred since they are so unlikely and fantastical. In such cases, it is much more likely that the person is just wrong—that is, there being wrong is much more likely that the fantastical even they have claimed to have witnessed.

Pascal’s Wager is a peculiar argument in that it departs from the kinds of evidential arguments so far discussed in favor of God’s existence. It offers an argument that belief in God is in everyone’s best interest as we all have reason to believe if it offers the possibility of eternal reward and makes impossible a life of eternal punishment. We might wonder, claims Blackburn, if t he payoffs of such belief really do follow Pascal’s claims—must it be thought that God could only reward those who believe? From whence comes our certainty? Also, there is the ever present problem that there are many Gods we could believe in. In the face of such religious diversity, it is difficult for the person who follows the Wager’s line of reasoning to know what to believe to ensure entrance to heaven.

Finally, Blackburn considers the argument that faith even on the basis of no good evidence perhaps is a good thing or at least harmless. Blackburn grants that there are some ways in which faith and the kind of life it makes possible is a good but cautions that fealty without a critical eye could leave us unable to recognize the ways in which belief in God might lead us to make poor moral choices.


1) What kind of things do you think Miracles are if they are to be the kinds of things that serve as a basis for belief in God? Do you think that this characterization of such events makes it less likely that we ought to believe in them occurring when we are told by a third party?

2) Do you think God would reward someone who believed only on the basis of the Wager? If not, how could we get ourselves to believe on some other basis in order to ensure eternal reward?

3) Are the lives lived by people who exhibit blind faith better than those who are skeptical atheists? If yes, in what way? If no, in what way?

Multiple-Choice Questions

1. When it comes to our beliefs on the basis of testimony, Hume claims…

a. People never believe in miracles.

b. People generally think people’s testimony is true.

c. People generally think people’s testimony is false.

d. People have reason to be skeptical of God’s existence.

2. The inference from “someone told me that p” to “p is probably true” is

a. Necessary.

b. Obvious.

c. Insufficient.

d. Empirical.

3. If someone were to tell you something that is false…

a. They must be lying.

b. It would be surprising.

c. It couldn’t be evidence for God’s existence.

d. A miracle occurred.

4. Hume thinks that…

a. Miracles are impossible.

b. Miracles are not evidence for God’s existence.

c. Miracles are always good things.

d. Miracles are to fantastical and unlikely to be believed.

5. Pascal’s Wager assumes…

a. We don’t have good evidence for or against God’s existence.

b. God punishes those who believe in God.

c. Hell isn’t as bad as we think it is.

d. God exists whether or not we have good evidence or not.

6. Pascal claims that we must stupefy ourselves for the following reason:

a. Doing so will be the best way to come to convince ourselves that heaven is worthwhile

b. Atheism is difficult to reject

c. It is the only way we will believe in way that will be rewarded by God.

d. A religious lifestyle is preferable since it makes people happier.

7. The Wager is an instance of…

a. Proof of the truth of the theist’s beliefs.

b. Wishful thinking.

c. Belief on the basis of what’s best for us.

d. An irrational argument.

8. The Wager, if it is to work as Pascal intends, must involve

a. The possibility of other Gods.

b. People hiding their skepticism from God.

c. An afterlife

d. Polytheism

9. Blackburn thinks that blind faith…

a. Is always bad.

b. Involves an overly inflated option of oneself.

c. Might sometimes be beneficial.

d. Is consistent with a philosophical approach to God’s existence.

10. The history of blind faith…

a. Contains far more bad than good.

b. Shows it cannot help humans fulfill some fundamental needs and desire.

c. Led Hume to be aware of how it can be harmful.

d. Demonstrates that we ought to be optimistic about its prospects for not being exploited as an excuse for morally wrong actions.

T/F Questions

1. Hume is an agnostic.

2. Blackburn thinks that miracles demonstrate that God has our best interests at heart.

3. Utility is the same thing as evidence.

4. It is uncontroversial that everyone’s beliefs are subject to protection from all criticism.

5. The test of blind faith being a good thing is if it makes the world a better place.

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