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An Intervention into the Flew/Fogelin Debate Kenneth G. Ferguson Under an aggressive title, Robert FogeUn has recently undertaken to reveal "What Hume Actually Said About Miracles."1 He felt this necessary to correct whathe considers a serious misreading ofHume's essay "OfMiracles" (sec. 10 ofthe Enquiries2), a reading which infers that Hume did not argue thatmiracles are impossible a priori (Fogelin, 81). One writer at least regards this reading so common that she has dubbed it the "traditional interpretation" of Hume's account of miracles.3 At any rate, it finds a strong advocate in Anthony Flew,4 against whom the majority ofFogelin's comments are directed. What I find fascinating about this debate is that both Flew and FogeUn appear to be right. On the one hand, Hume does have the textual resources to marshall a fully deductive argument against miracles, at least, once a strict definition of miracles is admitted. On the other hand, while exploiting these resources, Hume somewhat clumsily mingles in vestiges ofa not-fully consistent inductive argument against miracles which he bases on the balancing of probabilities. I will attempt to identify these two skeins ofargument, in the anticipation that this will help to temper the debate between Flew and Fogelin. Hume opens section 10by promisingan argument that will furnish "an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion" (E 110). Moreover, he claims that "there is here a direct and full proof... against the existence of any miracle" (E 115), a quote which Fogelin repeats seven times (toextractits full flavour). C. S. Peirce, wholate inlife took an interest in Hume's argument, conjectured that Hume hoped to provide a general disproof of all miracles that would not require "a minute analysis of each story"; such a procedure was in fact popular amongthe miracle debunkers ofHume's day, forexample, Rev. Thomas Woolston, whose books were extremely popular.5 Hume's boast of "a direct and full proof might be assumed, offhand, to augur an a priori argumentbased on the comparison ofideas; butitmust notbe forgotten that back in the Treatise (for which the essay "Of Miracles" was originally drafted6) Hume defines a "proof" as an argument "deriv'd from the relation of cause and effect."7 There he contrasts "proofs" explicitly with the type of assured knowledge that comes "from the comparison ofideas" (T 124). Still, Hume requires that proofs, despite their empirical origin, must nonetheless be "entirely free from doubt Volume XVII Number 2 105 KENNETH G. FERGUSON and uncertainty" (T 124); proofs, then, must be superior to ordinary causal arguments that are able to offer only a degree of probability (T 124). By his own examples, namely, that "the sun will rise to-morrow" and "all men must dye" (T 124), likewise from the essay "Of Miracles" itself, that "lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air" and that "fire consumes wood" (E 114), Hume makes it clear that "proofs" are simply to be causal arguments uniformly confirmed by a great wealth of past experience: empirical conclusions so sound that any who deny them "wou'd appear ridiculous" (T 124). Taking Hume's definition of "proof" to heart, we might infer that his "direct and full proof against miracles is not then to be an a priori or deductive conclusion, but instead merely a fully convincing induction, along the Unes of"all men must dye." This,would appear to dispel Fogelin's hope to portray the argument as a priori; but the logic ofHume's special proofagainst miracles is somewhat complicated. As Hume's own selection of examples verify, a proof, at least ordinarily, issues in the confirmation of a law of nature. This contrasts with the special proof against miracles where the object is, of course, not to defend a law of nature, but rather to exploit reasoning about the formation of such laws to prove a result regarding the occurrence of miracles. The proof against miracles, consequently, concerns causes, but is not necessarily a causal argument in the ordinary sense. Indeed, it might be properly thought ofas a "meta-causal" argument, if such a term is allowed. And such an argument may potentially have, as Fogelin proposes, an a priori...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 105-112
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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