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Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195127386
ISBN-10: 0195127382
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Editorial Reviews


"Unlike so many who have gone before, Earman does not merely intend to expose Hume's fallacies. His aim is to sketch an epistemology that allows for both the possibility of miracles and a healthy skepticism toward miracle claims--twin goals that many theists also embrace. As a whole, this is a very good book."--Philosophia Christi

"[the] argument itself is very clear, very cogent, and very apposite to present debates."--Mind

About the Author

John Earman is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of "World Enough and Space-Time: Absolute vs. Relationship Theories of Space and Time" (1989) and "Bayes or Bust? A Critical Examination of Bayesian Confirmation Theory"

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 23, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195127382
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195127386
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 0.9 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,759,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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