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Hume's "Of Miracles," Peirce, and the Balancing of Likelihoods KENNETH R. MERRILL ALTHOUGH CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE may well be the most gifted philosopher ever to offer an opinion on Hume's essay "Of Miracles," his vigorous and radical criticisms of Hume's method in that essay seem almost unknown? This neglect is regrettable, for if Peirce is justified in characterizing Hume's method as "essentially absurd" and "irremediably and radically wrong," much In citing the works of Hume and Peirce, I shall use the following abbreviations: E: David Hume, Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, third edition with text revised and notes by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). CP: CollectedPapers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). Volumes 1 through 6 were edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss and published in 1931. Volumes 7 and 8 were edited by Arthur Burks and published in 1958. References to Peirce's CollectedPaperswill be to volume number, followed by a decimal point and paragraph (not page) number(s). Thus, "CP 7.165" refers to Volume 7, Paragraph 165. Eisele: Historical Perspectives on Peirce's Logic of Science: A History of Science, Part 9, ed. Carolyn Eisele (Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers, 1985). This work contains Peirce's "The Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents," which appears in more fragmentary form in the CollectedPapers. To make it easier for the reader, I have cited both the CollectedPapers and the Eisele volume in all cases where both references exist. L: Charles Sanders Peirce, "The Laws of Nature and Hume's Argument against Miracles," in Philip Wiener, ed., Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings (New York: Dover, 1966), 279-321. This essay was commissioned by Samuel P. Langley, who was then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Several of Peirce's letters to Langley are printed as a kind of preface to the essay proper. References to these works will be enclosed in parentheses and given in the text. All quotations from Hume are from "Of Miracles," which is Section 1o of An Enquiry concerningHuman Understanding. ' So far as I know, there is no extended treatment of Peirce's criticisms of the Humean doctrine of balancing likelihoods. The only writers known to me who have anything to say about [85] 86 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 29:1 JANUARY 1991 of what has been written about the notorious essay is beside the point. But even if Peirce is too severe in his judgment of Hume's method, he still puts his finger precisely on the crucial issues involved. Accordingly, any serious discussion of what Hume does in Part 1 of"Of Miracles" should take account of the substance of Peirce's strictures. (Part 2 of the essay contains virtually nothing that is distinctively Humean, so I shall ignore it.) In this paper I want to do two things: (1) set out both an informal and a more formal account of Hume's method, with a view to exhibiting it as an application of the calculus of chances (or the calculus of probabilities); and (2) collect, systematize, and discuss Peirce's somewhat scattered animadversions upon Hume's method. As part of (2), I will follow up some lines of thought that Peirce suggests but does not develop. By calling attention to Peirce's important commentary, I hope to provoke others to have an independent look at it.2 I. I should say at the outset that Peirce has no interest in trying to confer respectability on belief in miracles. He concedes that Hume may be right in his skepticism about miracle stories, but he argues that Hume is hopelessly confused about the proper method for justifying that skepticism. It is a commonplace of logic that a thoroughly bad argument may have a true conclusion. The nub of Peirce's attack on Hume's method is quite independent of the actual credibility of testimony about alleged miraculous happenings. Indeed, despite the title of Hume's essay, the most important thesis of "Of Miracles" the topic are the following: Robert H. Ayers, "C. S. Peirce on Miracles," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 16 (t 98o): 242...


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