Review of John Earman's 'Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles'
Swinburne (Richard)
Source: Mind - 111/441 (January 2002)
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Swinburne broadly agrees with Earman’s essay in Part I ("Earman (John) - Hume on Miracles") that "Hume (David) - Of Miracles" “is a largely unoriginal and really poor piece of philosophical reasoning. Not merely so, but Hume had no excuse for not doing better. For Hume makes sweeping statements about probability, entirely ignoring the more sophisticated work on probability being done in his day, especially by Richard Price”.
  2. Swinburne helpfully divides up Part II as
    1. “General pieces about the epistemology of testimony (Locke),
    2. Contributions to the eighteenth-century debate about the Resurrection (such as Sherlock and Annet),
    3. Responses to Hume (Campbell), and
    4. More detailed work on the probabilistic principles involved in the assessment of testimony (Price and Laplace).
    5. They end with Babbage's brilliant (though not fully clear) demonstration that 'it is always possible to assign a number of independent witnesses, the improbability of the falsehood of whose concurring testimonies shall be greater than that of the improbability of the miracle2”.
  3. The latter claim is supported by a rather simplistic model that shows that even if an event is of probability 10-12, it can be reasonable to believe it on the testimony of 11 independent witnesses3 who are 99% reliable.
  4. Swinburne agrees that Hume vacillates between two claims about the (im)possibility of the violation of a law of nature:-
    1. “Claiming that there cannot be strong enough testimony to probabilify the occurrence of a violation, or at any rate testimony strong enough thereby to probabilify a religious doctrine, and
    2. Claiming that there has not been so far in human history strong enough testimony to probabilify such an occurrence.”
  5. What Swinburne personally found most valuable about the book was:-
    1. “The details of the historical context,
    2. The discussion on Bayesian principles of the extent to which the improbability of an event requires stronger testimony to overcome it,
    3. The clarification of Babbage's result about the force of multiple testimony to an improbable event, and
    4. The extension of this discussion to the force of multiple testimony to different improbable events.”
  6. Swinburne notes that “Many people who make honest and accurate reports on a certain proportion of occasions are very much less likely to make such reports in certain circumstances: They are much less likely to report
    1. Accurately when they believe that they are perceiving something which they very much want to be true; or
    2. Truthfully, when they have a deep personal interest in people not knowing what really happened.”
  7. However, Swinburne claims that things are often round the other way:-
    1. “Some people who do not normally observe goings-on very closely may do so when it seems that they are perceiving something of deep metaphysical significance. And
    2. Some people may have a deep personal interest in others believing that a miracle occurred while not wishing for the publicity and contumely which would result from their reporting.”
  8. There are important discussions of whether – in our society – people would report, or admit to having seen, a miracle if they saw one, given the secular climate. Swinburne claims that “the probability of someone saying that they had witnessed a miracle when they believed they had not done so but were liable to be crucified (literally) for saying that they had, must be very small indeed; and that, of course, was the situation of some of the first Christians.”. My view is that the situation is much more complicated, both then and now4.
  9. The review ends with the demonstration that “the extremely improbable does sometimes happen.”: the usually-reliable Earman has misinterpreted Swinburne, who still believes that5it seems not unnatural to say that a purported law is no less a law for there being a non-repeatable exception to it; and then to describe the exception as a ‘violation’ of the law”.


Review of "Earman (John) - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Footnote 5:

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