Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles

Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles

Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles

Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles

Synopsis

This vital study offers a new interpretation of Hume's famous "Of Miracles," which notoriously argues against the possibility of miracles. By situating Hume's popular argument in the context of the 18th century debate on miracles, Earman shows Hume's argument to be largely unoriginal and chiefly without merit where it is original. Yet Earman constructively conceives how progress can be made on the issues that Hume's essay so provocatively posed about the ability of eyewitness testimony to establish the credibility of marvelous and miraculous events.

Excerpt

An impressive amount of ink has been spilt over Hume "Of Miracles." It is almost universally assumed, by Hume's admirers and critics alike, that "Of Miracles" offers a powerful and original argument against miracles. On the contrary, I contend that Hume's argument is largely derivative, almost wholly without merit where it is original, and worst of all, reveals the impoverishment of his treatment of inductive reasoning. Hume scholars will no doubt be enraged by this charge. Good! There has been much too much genuflecting at Hume's altar.

If the only purpose of the present work were to bash "Of Miracles," it would not be worth the candle. But in fact, Hume's essay does have the virtue of bringing into focus a number of central issues in induction, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. It is my contention, however, that a proper treatment of these issues requires the use of the probability calculus that was being developed by Hume's contemporaries but of which Hume was largely unaware. In Part I of this monograph, I provide a detailed critique of "Of Miracles" from the perspective of the version of this apparatus developed by Thomas Bayes and Richard Price ("Bayesianism"). Part II reproduces some not easily obtained early writings on the Bayesian analysis of eyewitness testimony. Also included are documents that set the historical context in which Hume was working; without this context, a fair evaluation of Hume's contribution is impossible. Readers will also want to consult Tweyman (1996) which reprints selections from tracts, from 1752-1882, reacting to Hume's essay.

The selections from primary texts in Part II are arranged as follows. The first selection, from Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding, sets the general problem of which miracles is a special case; namely, how is belief to be apportioned when uniform experience conflicts with eye- witness testimony? The next three selections from Spinoza, Locke, and Samuel Clarke illustrate the conflicting conceptions of miracles and their role in Christian apologetics that were extant in Hume's day. Next come selections from Thomas Sherlock and Peter Annet, which give some of the flavor and substance of the eighteenth-century miracles debate in Britain. This is followed by the text of Hume "Of Miracles"; the changes that Hume made in various editions are recorded. Then come excerpts from two of the contemporary reactions to Hume's essay. The first, by . . .

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