Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles
Earman (John)
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Back Cover Blurb

  1. Philosophers and historians of ideas have been endlessly fascinated by Hume's famous "Of Miracles," which notoriously argues against the possibility of using eyewitness testimony to establish the credibility of miracles. Hume's admirers declare that he succeeded in offering a line of reasoning that provides "an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures." Even Hume's critics agree that he offered a powerful and ingenious argument that must be answered.
  2. Going against common wisdom, John Earman offers a vital, new interpretation of Hume's "Of Miracles." By situating Hume's popular argument in the context of the eighteenth-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. While advances in the discussion of these issues required the use of the probability calculus that was being developed by Hume's contemporaries, Hume chiefly ignored its development. Earman skillfully employs a version of probabilistic reasoning inspired by the Reverend Thomas Bayes to finally bring precision to these issues.
  3. Earman organizes the study into two parts. Part I offers his critique of Hume's argument against miracles. Part II consists of primary source material that provides the context for understanding Hume's contribution to the miracles debate and the reaction of his contemporaries and successors to his miracles essay.
  4. This unique book simultaneously makes a major contribution to the history of ideas, the philosophy of religion, and probability and induction.
  5. John Earman is University Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He has published widely in the philosophy of science on topics ranging from the history and foundations of modern physics to confirmation theory. His books include A Primer on Determinism (1986), which won the Lakatos Award, and Bangs, Crunches, Whimpers, and Shrieks: Singularities and Acausalities in Relativistic Spacetimes (Oxford, 1995).

Preface (Full Text)
  1. An impressive amount of ink has been spilt over Hume's "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.
  2. 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.
  3. The selections from primary texts in Part II are arranged as follows. The first selection, from Locke's 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's "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 George Campbell, is better known and rhetorically more forceful: the second, by Richard Price, though less well known and not as rhetorically successful, is more philosophically interesting and gave Hume greater pause. Finally, there are three selections, from Anonymous (George Hooper?), Laplace, and George Babbage, that illustrate attempts to use the probability calculus to quantify the effects of eyewitness testimony and, in particular, the effects of multiple witnessing in boosting credibility and the effects of error, self-deception, and deceit in diminishing credibility. Except where noted otherwise, the italics in the text is from the original author.
  4. I hope that the present work will be found useful by students in the history of philosophy, in epistemology, and in philosophy of religion. Toward this end, the bibliography contains a representative sample of references to recent literature on Hume's miracle argument. I have not attempted to respond to all of this literature — that would require a book in itself. Rather, I have attempted to present an analysis that, whatever its other merits and demerits, is self-contained and thematically unified.
  5. In criticizing Hume's argument against miracles, I have occasionally been subjected to a kind of reverse inquisition: since I attack Hume, must I not have some hidden agenda of Christian apologetics? I find such inquisitions profoundly distasteful since they deflect attention from the real issues. I am not averse, however, to laying my cards on the table. I find much that is valuable in the Judeo-Christian heritage, but I find nothing attractive, either intellectually or emotionally, in the theological doctrines of Christianity. If I had need of Gods, they would be the Gods of the Greeks and the Romans. The attack on Hume is motivated purely by a desire to set the record straight and frame the issues in a way that makes discussion of them more fruitful — but I must admit, after a bit of soul searching, that the sharpness of the attack is in part a reaction to what I see as pretentious sneering.
  6. I gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments on earlier drafts of my essay received from a number of people. If I tried to name them all I would be sure to insult some by forgetting them. But I would be remiss if I did not give special thanks to Richard Gale, Rodney Holder, Colin Howson, Philip Kitcher, Patricia Kitcher, Noretta Koertge, Laura Ruetsche, David Schrader, and Teddy Seidenfeld. → Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 2000

Amazon Customer Review1
  1. First of all, don't bother buying this, it is available for download2 from John Earman's page at Pittsburgh University - just search for 'John Earman Bibliography'. I assume he is able to do this because he has retained the copyright in himself. Earman's essay is only 74 pages long, the rest being notes and source material, some of it interesting.
  2. Hume's maxim on miracles is 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.' If T is the testimony and M is the miracle, this appears to have a definite probabilistic interpretation: P(~T)
  3. Anyway to Earman's contribution. His mathematical interpretation of Hume's maxim is one of the most breathtakingly disingenuous I have come across. Nevertheless he accepts that miracles are extremely rare and so their probability is very very low. His thrust then is that, no matter how low the probability, it can be outweighed by a sufficient number of trust-worthy witnesses. The analysis assumes that (a) the witnesses are equally trust-worthy; and (b) they are independent. This keeps the maths simple, but is not really credible in practice. How many social science studies are there of multiple witnesses to the same event reporting widely differing accounts?
  4. Finally, Earman comes down to the view that the importance of miracles is not that they are a violation of the laws of physics but that they confirm religious doctrine - doh!
  5. This is classic 'God of the gaps' book. Even though Earman is not, apparently, a believer in miracles, he attempts to use the tools of rationalism (maths, set theory, probability, etc.) to argue for the truth of an irrationalist position and fails miserably, as he inevitably must. Unlike religion, rationalism is a completely coherent set of rules that can explain other rational events - it simply does not admit irrational solutions. Probability theory is a rational field of study - why do authors such as Earman even think that the probability of an irrational event has a value, let alone a value bigger than zero? P(A|{}) where {} is the empty set is undefined for all A's.
  6. There really is no other view than Stephen Jay Gould's 'Non-overlapping Magisteria'.

In-Page Footnotes ("Earman (John) - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles")

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: See Link.


"McGrew (Timothy) - Review of Robert Fogelin's 'A Defense of Hume on Miracles'"

Source: Mind - 114/453 (January 2005)

COMMENT: Fogelin's book is an attack (inter alia) on "Earman (John) - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles".

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

Source: Mind - 111/441 (January 2002)

  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”.

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

In-Page Footnotes ("Swinburne (Richard) - Review of John Earman's 'Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles'")

Footnote 1:
  • This is just a brief file-note. I intend to return to this matter in more detail later.
Footnote 2:
  • So, this is in flat contradiction of Hume.
Footnote 3:
  • Doh! I can’t see why this wouldn’t have a probability of error of 10-22.
  • Read the text in Earman!
Footnote 4:
  • People have always been keen to report events that comport with their beliefs, whatever reputational risk is involved – witness contemporary people happy to claim being abducted by aliens.
  • It’s not clear that the disciples were – simply by believing and reporting the resurrection of Jesus – at risk of anything much – that came from their actions in the light of that belief.
Footnote 5:
  • I don’t know whether the claim about “purported laws”, or its rejection, is of any importance in this context

"Earman (John) - Hume on Miracles"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

  1. Abstract – 1
  2. Hume's Religious Orientation – 4
  3. The Origins of Hume's Essay – 6
  4. The Puzzles of Hume's Definitions of “Miracles” – 8
  5. Conceptions of Miracles – 9
  6. What a Miracle Is for Hume – 12
  7. The Eighteenth-Century Debate on Miracles – 14
  8. The Structure of Hume's Essay – 20
  9. Hume's Straight Rule of Induction and His “Proof” Against Miracles – 22
  10. Hume, Bayes, and Price – 24
  11. Bayes and Bayesianism – 26
  12. The Bayes-Price Rejection of Hume's Straight Rule – 29
  13. Hume's Stultification of Scientific Inquiry – 31
  14. The Indian Prince – 33
  15. Hume's Maxim – 38
  16. What Is Hume's Thesis? – 43
  17. Hume's Diminution Principle – 49
  18. Multiple Witnessing – 53
  19. More Multiple Witnessing – 56
  20. What Is Right About Hume's Position – 59
  21. Fall Back Positions for Hume – 61
  22. Probabilifying Religious Doctrines – 65
  23. Hume's Contrary Miracles Argument – 67
  24. Conclusion – 70
  25. Appendix on Probability – 75
  26. Works Cited – 87

"Spinoza (Benedict de) - Of Miracles"

Source: A Theologico-Political Treatise, Chapter 6; Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Locke (John) - A Discourse of Miracles"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Clarke (Samuel) - A Discourse Concerning the Unalterable Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelations"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Sherlock (Thomas) - The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Annet (Peter) - The Resurrection of Jesus Considered: In Answer to the Tryal of the Witnesses"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Price (Richard) - On the Importance of Christianity and the Nature of Historical Evidence, and Miracles"

Source: Four Dissertations (#4); Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Campbell (George) - A Dissertation on Miracles"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Hooper (George) - A Calculation of the Credibility of Human Testimony"

Source: Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Laplace (Pierre Simon) - Concerning the Probability of Testimonies"

Source: A Philosophical Essay on Probability; Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

"Babbage (Charles) - On Hume's Argument Against Miracles"

Source: Nineth Bridgewater Treatise, Chapter 10; Earman - Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument Against Miracles, 2000

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