"The Real 'Letter to Arbuthnot'? a Motive For Hume's Probability Theory in an Early Modern Design Argument"

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 22 (3):468-491 (2014)
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John Arbuthnot's celebrated but flawed paper in the Philosophical Transactions of 1711-12 is a philosophically and historically plausible target of Hume's probability theory. Arbuthnot argues for providential design rather than chance as a cause of the annual birth ratio, and the paper was championed as a successful extension of the new calculations of the value of wagers in games of chance to wagers about natural and social phenomena. Arbuthnot replaces the earlier anti-Epicurean notion of chance with the equiprobability assumption of Huygens's mathematics of games of chance, and misrepresents the birth ratio data to rule out chance in favour of design. The probability sections of Hume's Treatise taken together correct the equiprobability assumption and its extension to other kinds of phenomena in the estimation of wagers or expectations about particular events. Hume's probability theory demonstrates the flaw in this version of the design argument.



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Catherine Kemp
John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)

Citations of this work

Dewey’s Darwin and Darwin’s Hume.Catherine Kemp - 2017 - The Pluralist 12 (2):1-26.

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References found in this work

A treatise of human nature.David Hume & D. G. C. Macnabb (eds.) - 1969 - Harmondsworth,: Penguin Books.
A treatise on probability.John Maynard Keynes - 1921 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
The Design Argument.Elliott Sober - 2019 - Cambridge University Press.
The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference.Ian Hacking - 1984 - Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Cambridge : Cambridge university press.

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