At last we have a thinker who draws the conclusion from the assumptions of the new science that we can have no reason to think there is a God.
Hume attacks on three fronts: On the arguments from miracles, on the argument from design, and on the origin of the idea of monotheism. Some of these arguments are found in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and not in the text we are working with. I will concentrate on those that are in our text.
(Read Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Section X, 'Of Miracles'.)
Miracles are often invoked in support of the validity of religious beliefs.
Hume took the argument to be of the form: something has happened which violates the laws of nature. The only way this can have happened is for someone with the appropriate power or authority to have 'overridden' the law.
For example, a stone statue of Christ is said to be issuing blood from the hands and feet.
The church may say: it is impossible in the ordinary run of nature for stone to ooze blood. But we observe such a thing to happen. Therefore the ordinary laws are suspended in this instance.
But why not say the laws which we had thought ruled out blood coming from a stone are not quite universal? Usually, blood doesn't come from a stone. But if we accept these reports we shall have to accept that there are some exceptions to the general run.
The incorrupt body
of St Bernadette Soubirous in the convent of St.Gildard in Nevers, France.
Courtesy Catholic Shrines in
When scientists find anomalies to their theories don't they accept that their theories have to be altered?
The difficulty then is in showing there is enough evidence to prove
(a) there is a universal law of nature; and
(b) x, which would, if it had happened, be an exception to the universal law, has in fact happened.
A reminder of what a law of nature
Buzz: Is this argument of Hume's valid?
Hume attacks the teleological argument that had dominated the 18th Century: If we looked at nature, the evidence of a designing intelligence lay all around. William Paley (1743-1805) was the most well-known representative of this argument, and it was he who drew for us the analogy of the man walking along and finding a watch among the pebbles. If we make such a find, argued Paley, we would conclude that here was something that could not have been assembled by chance.
From Paley's Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802.:
. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.
Further excerpts from Paley's Natural Theology kindly made available by Gary Varner.
Note and pic courtesy Berkeley.edu
More from this source on his argument here.
One of Hume's points against this so-called argument from design was that if things weren't well-adapted to their environment, they wouldn't be there at all, and so of course all the things that were available to be inspected were well-adapted.
There is a variant of the argument from design that achieved widespread popularity in the 18th Century:
Things in nature always appear well-adapted to human convenience. But all things which are well-adapted have a designer behind them. Therefore, there must be a designer behind the adaption in nature.
But, Hume says:
There are plenty of things in nature which are not helpful to human beings.
Once again Hume's scepticism derives its great power from his analysis of causation.
|Hume's main discussion of the basis for our prephilosophical belief in an world independent of our perceptions is in the Treatise, which you might on this topic like to savour. Jonathan Bennett offers an incisive commentary in chapter XII of his stimulating Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Oxford, 1971.|
Did Hume believe there was an external word, or did he not?
From what we have considered, the implication would be I think that he couldn't have.
Hume inherits the Cartesian legacy of human experience being a sequence of mental events - a sequence of 'ideas' - impressions, perceptions, feelings, images, notions, sensations and so on - which parade through the mind.
This is the Cartesian bedrock, the conception Descartes bequeathed of the human being.
Hume accepted also the legacy of Locke, which was that none of these ideas came with any special authority. We had no ideas that carried any kind of independent guarantee. There were none, for example, which came directly from God, none carrying the Almighty's guarantee of 'authenticity'.
Hume thought like Locke that they all derived 'from the senses'. (Hume expresses this by saying that all our ideas derive from impressions.)
But if we say that, as Hume did, we get started on a line of thought that he does not want to follow.
If ideas come from the senses, don't we have to think of them as being generated by the external world? Isn't that what you suggest if you suggest they come from the senses? Don't you suggest that stimulation, starting in the external world, impinges on the senses, which in response to this stimulation somehow create ideas in the mind? That is Locke's account. Things in the external world have qualities, and these qualities impact on our sense organs, which generate ideas in the mind. Some of those ideas are like the qualities which give rise to them - when those qualities are primary - and some qualities - secondary - give rise to ideas which are unlike themselves.
Berkeley thought this account of Locke's was indefensible. One way of putting the difficulty is this: if all we are aware of is our ideas, the contents of our mind, how can we ever have reason to think there is something other than our ideas? If we try and check up on the 'validity' of an idea, all we can ever do is encounter other ideas! We can never get behind our ideas and see what lies behind them. The proposal that there are things out there which give rise to our ideas - this proposal Berkeley treats with derision. How can we ever have reason to think there are such things? All we have to go on, all we can ever have to go on, are the mental items in our minds.
Hume accepted Berkeley's analysis on this crucial point.
So that when he says that all our ideas derive from the senses he does not want to be committed to the view that stimuli impinge on the senses from an external world. We can't know about any such proposal. (You might say he ought to claim that such proposals just don't make sense.)
Hume thinks that we cannot reach outside the circle of our ideas and talk about a world beyond. If there is a world beyond, we could never know that there was. All our knowledge - and all our opinion - we know has to be built on the things of which we are aware, namely our ideas.
But, as in the case of causation, Hume acknowledges that in ordinary prephilosophical thought, we seem to think there is something which philosophising renders indefensible. We seem to think there is an external world, in which exist enduring physical objects, just as, prephilosophically we seem to think there are necessary connections between some pairs of events.
'It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated. ...
It also seems evident, that, when men follow this blind and powerful instinct of nature, they always suppose the very images, presented by the senses, to be the external objects, and never entertain any suspicion, that the one are nothing but representations of the other. ... But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us, that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image or perception ...
It is a question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects, resembling them: How shall this question be determined? By experience surely; as all other questions of a like nature. But here experience is, and must be entirely silent. The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects. The supposition of such a connexion is, therefore, without any foundation in reasoning.'
Hume, Enquiry concerning human understanding, Section XII Part 1
Hume tries to account for the naive belief in the external world in the same way that he tries to account for the naive belief in causal necessity.
Remember that his account of that was that our minds get into the habit of passing from the idea of one event of a conjunct to the idea of the second event, and that we project that habit onto nature.
His suggestion is that much the same sort of thing happens to give rise to our confused thought that there are physical objects.
Suppose I look at the brown lectern. Then I look away before looking back. I look at it every week. I think of this as my seeing one and the same object on several occasions. That is, I assume there is an enduring object which exists independently of me, one which is there when I am not looking at it as well as when I am.
Why do we think of this as a case of seeing an enduring object?
One commentator offers the following gloss:
'When some of our sense perceptions resemble each other, or when some of them occur together, and this happens repeatedly, Hume holds that the mind has a tendency to associate them together, and to consider them as unified. And it tends to project this unity beyond the period in which we actually perceive the impressions in question to be connected, and to regard them as having an enduring continuity and identity.' Schacht, Classical Modern Philosophers, Routledge, London and New York, 1984, p. 200.
(But are there in fact two different problems here?)
The outcome anyway is that Hume thinks any belief in the external world is unfounded. He thinks there may be something there, but if there is we can know nothing about it.
Hume's approach to the problem of how we come by our unshakable conviction that we live in an objective world (furnished with objects which (a) are not ourselves and (b) endure through time) itself makes the assumption that the answer must lie somehow in the 'workings of consciousness'. The habit we form which means that when we receive one set of impressions we form a second set without further prompting the mechanism invoked is mental, one of 'association'. It is an associative effect that is a product of the workings of our mind. Hume is here sharing a perspective with early Enlightenment thinkers: assciationist psychology was a matter of establishing what our mind-workings were.
The question Hume had identified was later answered, schematically at any rate, by those pursuing a different perspective, cognitive science. Cognitive science asks: from the data streaming in through our senses, taken in conjunction with the information that is already there in our computing resources, how does the brain software build for us a model which makes a distinction between input which is to be thought of as coming from independent enduring objects and input which is thought of as not originating in this way.
From this perspective Hume's idea of how a mental habit might be 'projected' (we cannot really say projected onto anything, the world say, because it is the thought that there is such a world that we are trying to account for) is not helpful, not just because it isn't coherent, but because an explanation in terms of mental mechanism is not necessary in this case. The question is how we gain our (unshakable) belief that we live in an objective world, and the answer broadly is that this sense is created for us by the software running on our brains. It is this software that creates our way of thinking of ourselves and our experience out of the data streaming in.
I am keen to say here that Hume is raising a question to which cognitive science supplies a possible answer, different from the one he himself gave. In offering the answer that he did, in Associationist terms, Hume himself clearly thought of his question as one for empirical psychology. He did not think of it as somehow 'philosophical', if that is construed as different from empirical psychology.
Was Hume wrong? is there a distinctively philosophical question asking something like What is the relationship between our experience on the one hand and our self-placement in an objective world on the other?
A possible metaphor (though not Hume's) for the Modern perspective is this:-
We are patients surrounded by screens, upon which patterns move and change. It may be that some of these patterns are shadows thrown on the screens of objects beyond them: but we don't know, and, unable in principle to leave our beds, will never be able to tell.
You may say: he should be saying that all talk of the possibility of things behind the screen is mistaken, and you would probably be right.
This means that two notions in particular do not derive from non-introspective sense but come from the workings of the mind (though,as you will remember, Hume has appeared to invalidate all talk of the mind as anything distinct from the heap of perceptions which the self is). They are identity and objectivity.
Like our notion of causal necessity, these notions are artifacts of the imagination.
Show that we have no grounds for thinking there are any real connections between things in nature and the bottom falls out of pretty well everything.
We have no reason to think there is a world, or a God, or 'anyone' in here at all.
Hume drives the conception of the human being created for the Modern world by Descartes, to what one might call its logical conclusion: no world, no Creator, no self.
Kant tried to build on Hume's idea that some of these things - the objective world, causality, time, space - were projections onto the world of something that belonged to the rational mind.
But I'm not clear myself that Kant's was an attempt to break the Cartesian mould in its fundamentals, the foundational distinction between inner and outer worlds.
You could say there have been two serious attempts to do that: by Husserl (phenomenology) and Wittgenstein.
But these have stories of their own.
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|A..If a miracle happened, we couldn't have sufficient evidence to prove that it had||B. The notion of a miracle is incoherent|
|C. Miracles can't happen||D. Not even God can break the necessary connexions in nature|
|A. It is not true in fact to say that all animals are adopted.||B. If an animal wasn't well-adapted to its environment it wouldn't be there to be inspected.|
|C. Animals and plants get to be adapted to their environment through evolution - no need to invoke God.||D. Animals and plants are no more adapted to their environment than watches.|
A. There is a world of enduring objects existing independently of our ideas.
|B. The objects which we prephilosophically assume exist continuously independently of our ideas even when we are not perceiving them in fact have an intermittent existence only.|
|C. We have no reason for believing that there is a world of enduring objects existing independently of our ideas.||D. We have no reason for doubting the existence of the external world.|
|A. The pockets of order that we see about us and which constitute our environment developed without any influence from outside from a soup of 'elementary particles' buzzing about, at an earlier stage of the Universe, in a state of complete disorder.||B. Natural selection produced the natural world as we see it today, but the process of natural selection cannot have got underway on its own: so the teleological argument in fact survives the Darwinian revolution.|
|C. The argument from design may work for the world as a whole but it doesn't work for stones or watches.||D. The argument from design assumes the existence of God|
|A. Nobody in their right mind believes this.||
B. You can't help believing this.
|C. Everyone believes this to begin with, but philosophising cures them of it.||D. You only have to play a game or two of billiards to see how true this is.||Ask a friend|
Header: David Hume Tower, Edinburgh University, to whom thanks
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