Friday, July 07, 2006

Fogelin's A Defense of Hume on Miracles

I intended to write a quick review of Fogelin's A Defense of Hume on Miracles last week, but I became distracted first by the relevant discussion at FQI, and then by being out of town. So here's a basic version, without much development. (You can read the essay Fogelin is defending here.)

The primary flaw in this work is that it is far too skimpy to do what it claims to do. As a defense of Hume on miracles it is very limited -- he only considers a few criticisms, and doesn't look at them in much detail. In the Introduction, Fogelin says that he wants "to show that Hume's treatment of miracles, when properly understood, exhibits a level of richness, subtlety, coherence, and force not generally appreciated" (p. 3). It doesn't really do this, either; it would be more accurate to say that it gestures in the direction of this as a possibility.

That's a pretty big flaw. Nonetheless, I think people interested in this subject need to read it carefully and with an open mind for a couple of reasons.

(1) I think it's clear that Fogelin's treatment is, as far as Hume scholarship goes, the nail in the coffin of the claim that Part I of Hume's essay involves an 'a priori' or 'in princpile' argument against miracles. This came up in the FQI thread, which see. It's not that you can't find evidence to defend the in-principle reading of Part I; Tim McGrew in that thread does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which it can be a reasonable reading. While reasonable, however, it has never been promising, either in itself or as an interpretation of Hume, and the evidence for it turns out to be much less significant on a closer inquiry than it might appear on first glance. There is no a priori in-principle argument against miracles in Part I. Fogelin overstates the case against this reading on a few points, but he's basically right. There are better ways to interpret Part I.

(2) The most popular criticism of Hume right now is John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure. Fogelin's book provides at least a partial, and a much-needed, counterweight to Earman's criticism, particularly given that there is too much of a tendency to accept Earman's contentions uncritically. Part of what makes me sensitive to this is that the approach is Bayesian, and I am in no way a fan of Bayesian models of non-demonstrative inferences; but even setting this aside, it's a bit disturbing how quickly some people seize on Earman's criticisms.

(3) While more work needs to be done in this direction, Fogelin's discussion of the direct test and the reverse test are a very promising way to look at Hume's discussion of the balance of proof against proof.

Some disappointments, besides the general one noted above:

(1) My most serious criticism is that Fogelin radically underestimates the power of the circularity objection. Not only does he dismiss it too swiftly (particularly for someone providing a defense of Hume on this point), he misdiagnoses its foundation. His idea is that it is based on the supposition that Part I is an in-principle argument. But any serious look at the various formulations of this objection shows that it has nothing whatsoever to do with this. The circularity objection focuses on Hume's problematic claim that there is uniform experience against miracles. This claim is problematic whether Part I is an in-principle argument or not. Fogelin does very little to give us an understanding of what Hume could mean that wouldn't commit him to circularity; his argument against Johnson on this point, for instance, is absurdly underdeveloped, particularly since Johnson appears to be basically right in his understanding of proof versus proof, and that Fogelin nowhere makes clear how his own position differs from Johnson on this own point. All he does is make some vague comments about the relation between Part I and Part II, which are not to the point. (One of the major issues that arose in the FQI discussion is that I think Hume's most famous early critic, George Campbell, puts forward the circularity objection but not the claim that Part I is an in-principle argument; and this ended up being discussed at great length.)

(2) Fogelin's treatment might perhaps have been improved by a more serious examination of how Hume's argument against miracles is supposed to parallel Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation. Since Hume himself claims the parallel, such an examination should be a key part of any serious interpretation of the essay, but Fogelin relegates it to a rather non-conclusive appendix. There is a lot more to be said about the subject, particularly given that Hume's summary of the overall argument in Part II does, in fact, seem broadly similar to claims made by Tillotson in A Discourse Against Transubstantiation. There is no reason to expect that they would be exactly the same, of course, but if Hume thought the parallel significant enough to mention, interpreters should consider it significant enough to take seriously. In particular, any interpretation of the argument of the Essay that can't make room for at least a rough parallel should be subjected to higher standards of proof and evidence than an interpetation that does.

(3) Least importantly, but still noticeably, Fogelin wastes a lot of space complaining about the rhetoric of Hume's critics that could have been spent on serious argument.

[X-posted at Houyhnhnm Land]

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