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.
Before reading Earman, I revisited Hume's Of Miracles, trying to summarize, in a logical fashion, his line of argument. Give it a try. This in itself will likely expose many of Hume's weaknesses. Then you'll be in a better position to appreciate Earman's critique. Conveniently, Earman includes Of Miracles in his collection of readings in the second half of his book.
Earman contends that Hume applied, in a sloppy and inconsistent manner, the empiricism he preached with such fervor. Many of Hume's arguments can be interpreted in multiple ways, none of which seem to make much sense upon detailed analysis. By applying Bayesian probability, which was being developed during Hume's day, Earman demonstrates the futility of Hume's contentions.
If you're not trained in Bayesian probability, you won't be able to follow Earman's equations, but you'll still get the gist of his arguments, many of which don't depend upon the equations. In fact, some might find equal profit by reading the responses of some of Hume's contemporaries (also included in the second half of Earman's book), especially those of George Campbell (A Dissertation on Miracles, 1762) and Richard Price (Four Dissertations, Dissertation IV - "On the Importance of Christianity and the Nature of Historical Evidence, and Miracles," 1768). These essays, in clear and logical prose, expose Hume's slippery definitions (leading to the logical fallacy of equivocation, for instance, with the word "experience"), contradictions, and hopelessly muddled reasoning. Those teaching philosophy should consider making these brief essays(now free in public domain) available for their students to read as counterpoints.
Earman also exhibits some clear and lively prose. He summarizes one section with a challenge:
"Commentators who wish to credit Hume with some deep insight must point to some thesis which is both philosophically interesting and which Hume has made plausible. I don't think that they will succeed. Hume has generated the illusion of deep insight by sliding back and forth between various theses, no one of which avoids both the Scylla of banality and the Charybdis of implausibility or outright falsehood."