A modest proposal [Book Review]

What thesis is Hume trying to establish in his essay “On Miracles” and does he succeed? John Earman’s answer to the latter question is clearly conveyed by the title of his new book. Earman uses a Bayesian representation of the problem to make his case. For Earman, this mode of analysis is both perspicuous and nonanachronistic, in that probability reasoning was central to the 18th century debate about miracles in particular and testimony in general. Indeed, one of Hume’s most interesting antagonists, Richard Price, was the person to whom Thomas Bayes entrusted his now-famous essay for posthumous publication. For Earman, Price is the proper Bayesian, while Hume’s essay provides only “rhetoric and schein geld”. Earman’s tone is consistently prosecutorial and sometimes snide; he says that his animus is not so much against Hume himself as against those who smugly invoke Hume’s essay as definitively settling the matter. This tone should not deter potential readers who are convinced that Hume’s essay contains something of value. Earman’s book is interesting and provocative in multiple ways—it places Hume’s essay in its historical setting, it offers an insightful close reading of the text, and it shows how the resources of Bayesianism can be powerfully put to work. Besides Earman’s own essay, the volume also contains Hume’s essay and relevant work by others, including Locke, Spinoza, Samuel Clarke, Price, Laplace, and Babbage. The book would be an excellent choice for an advanced undergraduate or graduate seminar
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DOI 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2004.tb00361.x
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