on June 5, 2006
John Earman has written a wonderful book that shows the value of using the precision of probability theory to bring clarity to a murky issue. Long have certain philosophers marvelled at David Hume's essay, "On Miracles," supposing it to be an original and creative refutation of believing in miracles. Earman shows that Hume's arguments are neither original nor sound at establishing his pessimistic outlook on miracles. Moreover, using probability calculus, Earman is able to establish clearly that Hume's argument is a failure. In fact, Earman shows that many of Hume's contemporaries were familiar with probabilistic reasoning and were able to demonstrate Hume was wrong within in his own lifetime. So, not only was Hume wrong, but his failure cannot be attributed to the lack of development of inductive reasoning in his time. Earman works hard trying to understand what exactly Hume meant by examining Hume's personal letters and the developments of Hume's essay as it was published in various editions. After several attempts to read Hume charitably, Earman finds Hume's application of probabilistic reasoning is muddled and confused, at best. Furthermore, Earman shows that if Hume was right, this would spell disaster for inductive reasoning that confirms (or disconfirms) scientific reasoning. Those who endorse Hume's argument against miracles are supporting a line of reasoning that would eqully undermine science.
Earman's book is commendable for a number of reasons. First, it is a first-rate work in philosophy that is written clearly. Earman's rigor coupled with his readable prose make for a rewarding study. Second, this book makes significant contribution to Humean scholarship where Earman convincingly argues for various ways to interpret Hume, which he substantiates with cross-referencing the work of Hume and his interaction with his contemporaries. Third, the book is a powerful lesson in probability theory (especially Bayesianism). Some background in probabilistic reasoning may be needed to understand parts of the book, but even a cursory knowledge of probability theory will be nourished by Earman's work. Fourth, this book puts forward some substantial theories relevant to philosophy of religion, especially the nature of miracles. Fifth, the second half of the book is filled with important sources on the 18th century deist controversy, which are invaluable to studying probability and confirmation of miraculous events by eyewitness testimony. For those who find these issues to be important and wish to get a better handle on how to think clearly through these issues, this book will be a welcome piece of scholarship.
on May 17, 2007
In Hume's Abject Failure - The Argument against Miracles, John Earman offers a cogent and comprehensive refutation of Hume's argument against miracles originally published as "On Miracles" in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Hume's contention is that given the "unique" nature of miracles no human testimony can suffice to render them credible - i.e. day-to-day experience necessarily trumps claims of the miraculous or novel. This argument has provoked interesting and occasionally heated discussion throughout the years. While containing some apparent truisms - such as the need for good reasons in an evidentiary construct and the gullibility of people- Hume's claims are generally viewed as being overstated. In criticising Hume, Earman is not arguing for the truth of any alleged miracles, rather he is contending that Hume's attempt to dismiss miracles a priori is unwarranted. It is interesting to consider the implications of Hume's assertion if it were true - much modern scientific theory such as quantum mechanics or Darwinism would be decimated. Some commentators have tried to minimize this logical extension by arguing that science deals with a different subject matter and as a consequence is immune from this criticism- this seems contrived and unconvincing.
Though not original in his assessment of Hume's failure, Earman's exposition of the issue is the most comprehensive and well articulated that I have encountered. He highlights two important factors that likely contributed to Hume's failure, an inadequate understanding of inductive argumentation and wishful thinking. With regard to former, Earman highlights many of Hume's shortcomings and in the process does a nice job in explaining Bayesian probability.
While, in regard to wishful thinking, seeing what we believe is not unique to Hume. It seems evident that reason can be skewed by belief and emotion. Arguments concerning ethics or faith issues are particularly notorious in this regard. As Earman notes, faith positions (e.g. naturalism or atheism) often seems to play a role in defences of Hume's argument against miracles. It is interesting that at the outset Earman feels compelled to state his lack of theistic belief - in an apparent effort to diffuse similar criticism.
This small book (approx. 200 pages) is divided into two parts. In the first part, Earman lays out his case, while the second part is comprised of various historic writings that pertain to the issue. These extracts include "On Miracles" and various other historic criticisms of Hume's. I find this structure very helpful - not having to go back and forth to primary sources. Aside from the lucidness of Earman's argument I was especially impressed by the quality of thought exhibited by some of Hume's early critics whom I had not previously encountered, Price is especially impressive.
Overall, this is an outstanding book. I highly recommend it to students of philosophical history and the philosophy of religion.
on December 18, 2001
Introductory philosophy courses in college or university invariably include Hume's argument against miracles in the philosophy of religion unit to convince students that one cannot use evidence of miracles (such as the resurrection of Christ) to argue for metaphysical truths. Of course, Hume's argument SHOULD be included in the course--but in the LOGIC section as an archetypal piece of bad reasoning. Finally, a professional philosopher--who is by no means a Christian believer--has done a thoroughgoing scholarly critique of Hume's argument, showing beyond all question that the argument is perfectly circular: Hume, with a pre-Einsteinian, 18th century mindset, assumes that "uniform experience" exists against miracles and concludes--surprise, surprise--that no evidence can ever be effectively marshalled to prove that a miracle has really occurred. This book should be read by every naive philosophical rationalist. It will open epistemological doors to a new appreciation of the potential of miracle arguments as a prime support to claims for a genuine, historical incarnation.
on May 9, 2013
Introduction to Philosophy classes - the only formal exposure to philosophy that most students receive - often include a reading of David Hume's "Of Miracles." Teachers who fail to critique Hume in class or offer counterpoint readings, leave students with the impression that Hume effectively ended all intelligent discussion of miracles and by extension any religious beliefs based upon miracles.
I recently read my son's college intro to philosophy text: Philosophy, by Cambridge professor Edward Craig. Of Craig's eight chapters, he devotes an entire chapter to "Of Miracles," lauding Hume as "the greatest of all philosophers who have written in English." Craig proceeds to lay out Hume's argument, defend it briefly against two criticisms, then move on to the next chapter on Buddhism. Startled, I searched the web for intro to philosophy syllabi and found the same pattern - discuss early philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, hit a few other prominent philosophers, proceed to Hume's Of Miracles, then move on to Eastern religions and philosophies. This approach obviously gives students the impression that Hume successfully destroyed any possibility of intelligent discussion of Western religions based upon miracles.
That's why it's hard to overestimate the importance of Earman's work. Here we have an accomplished and highly respected philosopher (PhD from Princeton, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, a past president of the Philosophy of Science Association), with no religious ax to grind (he's not a theist), arguing in great detail and with fine precision that the essay we offer to our students as an example of philosophy at its best, is not only a failure, but an abject (complete and total) failure.
Before reading Earman, I revisited Hume's Of Miracles, trying to summarize, in a logical fashion, his line of argument. Give it a try. This in itself will likely expose many of Hume's weaknesses. Then you'll be in a better position to appreciate Earman's critique. Conveniently, Earman includes Of Miracles in his collection of readings in the second half of his book.
Earman contends that Hume applied, in a sloppy and inconsistent manner, the empiricism he preached with such fervor. Many of Hume's arguments can be interpreted in multiple ways, none of which seem to make much sense upon detailed analysis. By applying Bayesian probability, which was being developed during Hume's day, Earman demonstrates the futility of Hume's contentions.
If you're not trained in Bayesian probability, you won't be able to follow Earman's equations, but you'll still get the gist of his arguments, many of which don't depend upon the equations. In fact, some might find equal profit by reading the responses of some of Hume's contemporaries (also included in the second half of Earman's book), especially those of George Campbell (A Dissertation on Miracles, 1762) and Richard Price (Four Dissertations, Dissertation IV - "On the Importance of Christianity and the Nature of Historical Evidence, and Miracles," 1768). These essays, in clear and logical prose, expose Hume's slippery definitions (leading to the logical fallacy of equivocation, for instance, with the word "experience"), contradictions, and hopelessly muddled reasoning. Those teaching philosophy should consider making these brief essays(now free in public domain) available for their students to read as counterpoints.
Earman also exhibits some clear and lively prose. He summarizes one section with a challenge:
"Commentators who wish to credit Hume with some deep insight must point to some thesis which is both philosophically interesting and which Hume has made plausible. I don't think that they will succeed. Hume has generated the illusion of deep insight by sliding back and forth between various theses, no one of which avoids both the Scylla of banality and the Charybdis of implausibility or outright falsehood."
on June 24, 2009
Earman attributes to Hume the view that "the probabibility of a miracle is flatly zero." (p. 23.) This is a serious misreading of Hume. As any undergraduate philosophy student knows, Hume would never say that the probability of ANY matter of experience is "flatly zero." Hume's most notorious trait was his epistemic fallibilism, which arose from his skepticism about induction. Sadly, Earman is so bothered by some of Hume's strong anti-miracle language that he fails to view these passages in the context of Hume's most central claims.
Before one gets overly taken with Dr. Earman, I would suggest reading Robert Fogelin's "A Defense of Hume on Miracles", a short book that demolishes Earman's claims about Hume.
on February 27, 2009
David Hume's argument against miracles has been widely cited by skeptics almost since the day it was written. The argument has generated much controversy over the 250+ years since it was penned by Hume. John Earman seeks to "set the record straight" with this withering and highly scholarly critique. Earman approaches David Hume's argument from the perspective of someone who himself doesn't believe in the reality of miracles. So why does he take Hume on? Because he thinks Hume's argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed, and recognizes that it is basically an exercise in "pretentious sneering."
Earman's argument is actually only 73 pages long. The remainder of the book is a compilation of relevant essays in the deist controversy, including Hume's original essay and a number of other short works by authors such as John Locke, Richard Price and George Campbell. Thus it is a handy reference not only for Hume's argument but also for the entire context of the 18th century deist controversy.
The critique itself is thorough and detailed. Earman goes through Hume's argument piece-by-piece in 24 short chapters, showing the errors and equivocations in Hume's thinking at every step. The pièce de résistance is Earman's use of Bayesian probability theory to show exactly where Hume's argument falls apart. He even sketches out some suggestions as to how Bayesian probability could theoretically be used to prove a miracle. Some of that revolves around the principle of multiple witnessing, and how Bayesian probability mathematically demonstrates that the cumulative effect of multiple witnessing can overcome even very low prior probabilities for putative miracle claims. This points the way to possible proofs for the Resurrection, which of course was the miracle claim at the heart of the deist controversy - a miracle claim which Earman notes Hume never deigned to actually address in his essay, instead choosing to focus on some rather more dubious miracle claims as if these were representative of all miracle claims.
This book is not light reading, and not recommended for the casual reader. It is not popular level material and contains some very in-depth analytic philosophy including heavy use of the probability calculus. However, for those with a strong background and interest in analytic philosophy and who are looking for a detailed and thorough response to Hume's argument against miracle claims, this book is worth its weight in gold. This should be a standard reference for anyone serious about scholarly-level arguments for or against miracles.
on February 25, 2006
This is a fascinating and useful new approach to the question of Hume on miracles, including many of the original essays relevant to the debate, plus an extended argument using Baysian probability logic. The result was quite eye-opening, and, although the classic arguments of Hume have an Enlightenment aura, there is a need for a more robust approach to the skeptic stance toward miracles. I doubt if theologians will get any ammunition from this argument. In the period of the New Age movement when a book like Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous is used by sufi sharks to lure people into cultic dependencies we need more than Hume's classic but limited consideration. Perhaps a warning about Mephistopheles and Faust might help.
There is something historically apt in the treatment here, since the use of Baysianism is also its history, in simultaneity historically with the life and times of Hume.
Great little book. I found this looking for the author's other book, Bayes or Bust, which I didn't obtain, but which looks interesting as a resource for this one.
on July 10, 2012
Basically, this book looks at the Hume arguments against miracles and finds his logic flawed. To really follow this book in detail one needs to be a good statistician, and I simply skimmed the math, assuming that someone else must have checked the logic of the numbers to ensure they work. If they do, and I assume they do, Hume fails in his logical argument against Miracles. This simple little book destroys the arguments of countless atheists who have based their proofs that God cannot exist and that the Bible is a fraud on the strength of David Hume's logic. Turns out that logic is flawed. Wow, that must a real kick in the gut of all those writers who just assumed that Hume's logic was right, and used his work as the foundation of their own work. Now, the foundation has been kicked out from under them! Wow, who would have thought? This is a tough read, but a good book to have in the library of the philosopher or the theologian.
on August 4, 2006
According to Hume, uniform experience is against miracles such that a report of a miracle is always suspect. For Hume, it is always more likely there was no miracle than if there was a miracle. Of course, Hume only knows the probability is against miracles in all cases if he knows all the reports of miracles are false.
For this reason, Earman, in his book Hume's Abject Failure, notes that in the binary language of probability, the probability of a miracle is zero. In other words, Hume rules out miracles a priori without allowing for any empirical investigation of testimony to miracles. Hume's own position is essentially unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless since he will not allow any evidence to contravene his position against miracles. Why is Hume against miracles? Because of his deist position of freemasonry. Hume is quite inconsistent. While asserting (in his treatise on human nature) the inability to assert personal identity, due to a radical discontinuity of experience, he writes books as if he were a cognizant reflective ego that endures through time. Hume is a mixed back of deism, Gnosticism and radical empiricism. And from a contradiction, everything flows out of Hume that he wants to flow. According to Hume's thesis on self identity, based on the radical discontinuity of experience concerning the self, how is the self able to generalize and formulate uniform experience? Hume is notoriously inconsistent.
C. S. Lewis exposed the circular reasoning in Hume in the book by Lewis entitled "Miracles." David Hume is often portrayed as a skeptic. On the contrary, he was a freemason and therefore a gnostic. He was skeptical of nongnostic positions, such as Christianity. He was an apologist for gnosticism. When looked at in that light, Christians are skeptics with respect to freemasonry. The title "skeptic" is a propaganda term much coveted by freemasons and juwes in order to assume the position of intellectual superiority.
Mr. Earman, who is nonChristian, has done a great job here in reviving criticism of Hume. Hume is worse than any god worshipped by any heathen since he demands uncompromising devotion to his position whether or not he is right or wrong.
Hume's chief argument against miracles is circular reasoning. Hume argues that miracles violate uniform experience. However, if uniform experience is against miracles, then they cannot happen. "Uniform experience" is his presupposition. And he defines "uniform experience" to exclude miracles. In other words, he begs the question. If miracles didn't happen, well, they didn't happen. This is Hume's argument in its circular entirety. This criticism came from Lewis. Although, I have a better argument than Lewis's and Mr. Earman's.
I would simply point out that pure logic cannot dispense with the empirical question of whether miracles happen. Afterall, mathematics is made up of tautologies. As such, pure logic or pure mathematics cannot have physical meaning. Pure logic, as Hume employs, cannot tell us anything about the world. Therein lies the sophistry. It boils down to the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Whether or not miracles happen depend not on logic, but on the existence of God who intervenes in human affairs and human life. As the former atheist Antony Flew said, it is impossible to argue against the existence of God in light of the evidence of the obvious intelligent design of the universe.
As soon as Hume "defined" a term "uniform experience," and inserted it in his argument, he entered the world of pure logic. In that world, no matter how far you search and how much you struggle and no matter how much you indulge in rationcination, you will end up where you started: with nothing. Beware of someone who makes definitions in the process of their argument with you.
If anyone went to the moon and found a green house that supplied oxygen, food and other human necessities, they wouldn't hesitate to posit an intelligent creator of that house. So why would anyone question the existence of God in light of this wonderful planet that supports our lives?
Atheism and pantheism are really the same thing. One denies God and the latter calls everything God. "Miracles" only make sense in a universe with a monotheistic God, not in a universe where nature is postulated as a god.
Earman makes reference to modern physics, which is unnecessary. Newton's physics didn't give any credibility to Hume's arguments since his arguments were pure sophistry. Anyway, Newton already embarked on relativity theory in the querys to his Optics. Query number one and number thirty already impinged on general and special relativity respectively. (Einstein, who plagarized Josiah Willard Gibb's book "statistical mechanics" in the Einstein papers on brownian movement also plagarized special relativity theory. Poincare, Fitzgerald, Larmar and Lorentz already conceived of special relativity. And the equations for general relativity divided by zero. David Hilbert noted that Einstein's equations were wrong, and Friedmann, the Russian pointed out that Einstein divided by zero three times.)
Intelligent design is all you need to establish a creator. A creator is all you need to ground miracles. Earman's book should be read. It's a welcome treatise in an age of brainwashed academics. The relation of academics to their students is well summed up in the parable of Jesus: "When one blind man leads another blind man, sooner or later they will both fall into a pit."
Unlike all other religions, Christianity offers the empirically grounded fact of Jesus's resurrection from the dead. Accept Him as your savior or be subject to Him as your judge.