An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding II.

David Hume
David Hume by Allan Ramsay @ Scottish National Portrait Gallery

I wish Hume had taken Philosophy 101, with an emphasis on Logic, from Aristotle. That thought crossed my mind many times when reading the Enquiry. Hume should have known that many ideas he had difficulty expressing had been defined by Aristotle long before him. He could have saved himself some trouble reinventing the wheel –and his reader some time clearing away the rubble of logical inconsistencies, and focused on his unique insights and contribution to the philosophy of science.

Hume aims to undermine the epistemological certainty and conceit of philosophers and theologians, however, in doing so, he unwittingly, if not inevitably, shows his own conceit. As a caution against hubris, his skepticism is very humbling and refreshing, but that is the extent of its usefulness. Whenever Hume steps outside his own skepticism, and attempts to make assertions, he falls flat on his face.

Miracles, Faith and Reason

I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian Religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure….and indeed, all prophecies are real miracles, and as such only, can be admitted as proofs of any revelation. If it did not exceed the capacity of human nature to foretell future events, it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven. So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

In my readings and discussions about Hume, I find a very interesting pattern: Everybody interprets Hume from his own perspective. An observer can gauge a reader’s position on the spectrum of beliefs based on his interpretation of Hume, which is rather a reflection of the reader himself than that of Hume.

To paraphrase the above passage, human reason, being based on common experience, is incompatible with the notion of miracles, which is beyond common experience. Since Christianity is founded on miracles, any attempt to defend Christianity by “reason” is bound to fail. Christianity must by necessity be based on faith and revelation, not experience and reason.

An atheist would likely assert that Hume is being sarcastic when he write about “faith”, but a theist would find a tinge of reverence in the same passage.

Sarcasm is effective only when the audience is (made) aware that the contrary of what is said is true. But what Hume says about Christianity has been acknowledged by Christians themselves since the beginning. Anybody familiar with their doctrine and history would be aware of that. For example, Paul writes that the Crucifixion is foolishness to the Greeks who seek after wisdom, and the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. Paul himself was converted by a miracle, no less. When Hume writes that Christianity “cannot be believed by any reasonable person without a miracle”, he is being perspicacious, not foolishly sarcastic.

Incidentally, I perceive the influence of Hume’s epistemology on Kierkegaard, who was regarded by many as a Fideist, and elaborated on the paradox between faith and reason in Philosophical Fragments.

Hume notes two types of miracles in his treatise: those that happen in history, like the Resurrection, and those that happen in the believers themselves. Both are experiences that strengthen belief, and both are by his definition acts of God. If Christianity “cannot be believed by any reasonable person without a miracle”, the fact that the majority of the people in the West have believed in Christianity, including many great scientists and philosophers in history, would prove that miracles are real, and God exists.

If reason is based on experience, then religious experience is the rational basis of religion. William James, perhaps building on Hume’s empiricism, argues in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience that religious experience has the same epistemic status as sensory experience, and advocates a pluralistic society where people respect the religious beliefs and experiences of others.

Hume does not reject faith and revelation, at least not openly. His treatise sets the limit of “reason”, and allows space, if not need, for divine revelation, though he cautions against superstition. It is curious what Hume really thought about religion, and Christianity in particular. I’m intrigued to read his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, if only to solve this mystery.

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8 thoughts on “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding II.

  1. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here. First, Hume was no dummy; he graduated from the University of Edinburgh when he was only a teenager, and was a product and leader of the Scottish Enlightenment. His contemporaries were well familiar with Aristotle. Like many in the European Enlightenment, Hume was skeptical of Aristotle because Aristotle was associated with the Catholic Church and Medieval philosophy, which prevented post-Renaissance philosophers from really appreciating him; but they knew his Logic. They were, however, trying for a fresh start. Many of Hume’s comments about substance, for example, don’t relate to Aristotle so much as they do to John Locke. Locke attempted to found philosophy on an empirical epistemology, deriving all human concepts from experience. However, at times his logic is strained, as he attempts to justify things like “substance” that just seem like common sense to him. Hume’s point is that Locke was exceeding the limits that he had laid down for himself, by accepting such concepts as substance and causality as if they were known on the basis of sense experience. Hume argues that they are accepted more from habit and from inborn instinct.

    As to Hume’s views on religion, my professor M. Jamie Ferreira says that he was an atheist and she’s read his letters and I haven’t, so I have to take her word for it. But Johann Georg Hamann took large portions of Hume’s philosophy over and made it the basis of his own faith-based epistemology; this in turn is what Kierkegaard read and largely accepted. Hume was a skeptic; Hamann accepts Hume’s claim that pure empiricism leads to skepticism, and argues that to overcome skepticism and have knowledge of the world, one must make a choice to believe the world as it reveals itself to the senses. This opens one up to error, Hamann admits, but so does refusing to believe what is true; so after doing one’s best to perceive the world accurately, at some point one must simply choose to believe, or not. In this Hamann resembles much of what goes on in the “Interlude” in Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a book that acknowledges its debt to Hamann.

    1. I kew someone would bite. What fun is there in philosophy if there is no disagreement? 🙂

      As a rationalist, I may be biased against the empiricists. But, I think both Locke and Hume make many logical errors in their writings. There are many non sequiturs, and self-contradictions. I’m certainly not saying that they are dummies, but I expected better from them as influential philosophers.

      Hume is clear-sighted enough to see that one cannot infer the attributes of God from one’s limited experience, in other words, one cannot deduce cause from effect. In the Logic of Aristotle, logical deduction can only work from cause to effect, not the other way around. Therefore, one cannot deduce First Principle (God) from experience. I think this is why revelation is necessary. Unless God reveals Himself to man, there is no way man can know God, neither by sensory experience, nor by reason. I thought that was one of the points Kierkegaard was making in the Fragments, by arguing that God is absolutely unlike “Reason”.

      Just out of curiosity, is Prof. M. Jamie Ferreira an atheist, theist or agnostic?

  2. Nemo,

    Well, I am pleased to see that you are reading Hume. Bravo. I would strongly encourage you to go on to reading the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I think you know that Hume’s writings on this subject were necessarily colored by what Leo Strauss explored in “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” That syndrome is probably best illustrated by the story of Hume’s having fallen into the bog between the Castle and New Town where he had built his comfortable home based on the earnings from The History of England. He called for help from a woman passing by. She said, “Isn’t that Davie Hume, the famous blasphemer? I would never help you.” He reportedly replied to the effect that he really was a believer and would she not kindly save his life. A little lie is necessary in cases of life and death.

    When Boswell visited Hume when Hume was dying and putting the finishing touches on the Dialogues, he had little doubt that Hume was not a believer. Boswell wrote that Hume “persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. . . .But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history. Said he: ‘You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution.’” I think the long passage on faith that you quote must be considered in this light.

    Hume wrote the Inquiry in hopes of gaining some better reputation and employment after the cool reception to the Treatise. He had lost the opportunity for a faculty position at the University of Edinburgh because of suspicions of atheism. So he had good reason to dress his writings in ambiguous garb. But I don’t find the discussion of miracles from the Inquiry so hard to fathom: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. . . . Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happen in the common course of nature. . . .When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened.” Miracles are events that don’t happen!

    As for Hume’s suggested deficiencies in understanding Aristotle’s logic, I might say that the logic(s) that we study today have much more in common with the logic of the Stoics than with Aristotle. And we would know very little about the Stoics, if not for the survival of the books containing attacks on their work by the famous sceptic, Sextus Empiricus, a forebear of Hume. I think Hume’s scepticism is clear and that it is a strong reason why he has been so highly esteemed by modern philosophers, like old Bertie and Simon Blackburn, among many others.



    1. Nice to hear from you again, Randal. 🙂

      Reading your comment, I wish I were a better writer than I am, and able to clarify and summarize Hume’s arguments as I understand them. I think they are more nuanced than most people believe.

      It’s quite possible that Hume was an atheist – that is what I thought before reading the Enquiry, it’s also possible that he was camouflaging for survival in a country where blasphemy was a criminal offence. I heard similar thing said about Descartes, who made logical arguments for God’s existence in his Meditations.

      I tend to focus on the arguments themselves, not the people who made them. If the arguments are logically coherent and do not contradict known facts, they should be accepted, whether the people who made the arguments meant what they said is irrelevant. It would be quite irrational on their part, if they don’t believe the rational arguments they presented themselves.

      If I understand Hume correctly, he is saying that miracles contradict our common experience (miracles are by definition uncommon), and therefore people tend to judge by their own experience and reject miracles. It is not a logical argument against miracles, but simply an observation on the psychology of belief. Hume further suggests that we weigh the experiential evidence on both sides, and choose the one with more weighty support.

      1. Ciao Nemo,

        Hume doesn’t say that miracles are uncommon. He says that they are “a violation of the laws of nature.”

        There are lots of logics: Aristotelian logic, Stoic logic, classical two-valued logic, three-valued logics like that of Lukasiewicz, four-valued logics like that of Post, Brouwer and Heyting’s intuitionist logic and Graham Priest’s logic of contradiction. I have reviewed Susan Haack’s attempt at dismissal of many of these here: As a sceptic, I prefer a four-valued logic: depending on the context, statements can be true, false, uncertain or truly contradictory. So to make a judgment on a given argument we need to define the logical theory upon which that judgment is based. Different logics can come out with different judgments. In the words of anti-realist and Christian logician, Michael Dummet, we need to establish a “logical basis of metaphysics.” My logic allows for self-contradictory statements like “This sentence is false,” but I don’t think that dead men rise from the dead.

        I think Hume says much the same thing as you about judgment on seemingly impossible events. It follows directly after the quote I mentioned above: “I weigh the one miracle against the other, and according to the superiority which I discover I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his (the man who would say that “he saw a dead man restored to life”) testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.” I don’t think that there was any doubt in Hume’s mind that dead men don’t rise from the dead.



      2. He says that they are “a violation of the laws of nature.”

        As Hume duly noted, and Plato and Aristotle long before him, one of the main difficulties of doing philosophy is to define things as clearly as possible. Hume doesn’t define “law of nature” anywhere. So it’s arguable what he means by that term.

        Hume repeatedly says in his treatise that we don’t know the “secrets” of nature, the “secret powers”, “secret springs and principles”. We don’t know the real “cause” and “effect” of events. All we know about nature is what we learn from experience, and we assign “cause” and “effect” loosely.

        If we don’t know nature, wouldn’t it be presumptuous and self-contradictory to assert that something violates the law of nature?

        I think what Hume means by “law of nature” is simply the sum of those “causal” relations we derive from experience and observations. Miracles violate the law of nature because they contradict our experiences, not that they can’t happen, nor are they impossible.

  3. Ciao Nemo,

    Hume was a man of the Enlightenment. When he says that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature, I think he is talking about such things as Newton’s law of gravitation: If we drop an apple it will be attracted to the earth with a force proportionate to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. We now think that Newton’s laws of motion are good only as an approximation for speeds less than the speed of light. But they work very well in almost all practical cases. I use them nearly every day in my work as an engineer. Likewise, I agree that we can’t “know” the “secrets” of nature for once and for all time. This is what being a sceptic is all about! So, if you are saying that Hume was not a consistent sceptic, I can accept that. A consistent sceptic would have said that miracles don’t happen in our experience, but the same can be said of the laws of nature. They change, based on the march of science.

    Likewise, we can think of gods, but they are not elements of our experience. You have mentioned Descartes. I find it ironical that Hume wrote his Treatise in the same French town (La Fleche) as Descartes lived and studied. And also interesting that in Descartes’s famous Meditations, the “objections” that are printed in the text were those of none other than that other famous English empiricist, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes writes in his Tenth Objection to Meditation III,

    “God is conceived as the Creator of all that exists. I can form a kind of image of creation from what I have seen; e.g. from the birth of a man – his growth from a mere point to his present size and shape. No other idea is aroused in anyone by the word Creator. It is however not a sufficient proof of creation that we can imagine the work to have been created. So even if one had demonstrated the existence of a Being who was ‘infinite, independent, supremely powerful’ (quoting Descartes), and so on, it does not follow that a Creator exists. Unless somebody thinks the existence of a Being who ‘according to our creed’ (again quoting Descartes) created everything else is a valid proof that he did once create the world.”

    Descartes reply includes, “To prove the existence of God we used the idea of him that is inherent in us. Now this idea comprises power so immeasurable that we see it is a contradiction, if God exists, that anything else should exist without being created by him. It thus plainly follows, when once his existence has been proved, that we have also proved that the whole world, or whatever things there are apart from God, were created by God.”

    Of course, not many people these days think that Descartes’s proofs of the existence of God hold any water. You are right to suggest that Hume was a devil to Kant. Hume haunts the Critique of Pure Reason like a vampire that won’t die. Likewise, Hobbes was a devil to Descartes.

    Another relevant irony comes up in the work of Graham Priest. Priest maintains that there are true contradictions, that is, that statements like “This sentence is false” are both true and false. He maintains in his brilliant book, Beyond the Limits of Thought ( that these unusual contradictions arise at just those junctures which are beyond the limit of our experience, as in the quarrel between Descartes and Hobbes and, perhaps, in Hume’s discussion of miracles. Not that I am saying that I think that dead men rise from the dead!



    1. When he says that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature, I think he is talking about such things as Newton’s law of gravitation:

      What is the nature of the “law of nature”? People might take it for granted, but Hume reminds us that we don’t know what it is. Mathematical formulas like Newton’s law of gravitation don’t have prescriptive power, they are descriptive. They are not “law” strictly speaking. Neither are observed regularity and repeatability.

      Augustine writes to the effect that when we experience a work of God for the first time, it excites great wonder in us, and we call it a miracle, but if we experience it day after day, we cease to wonder at it, and call it law of nature instead.

      There is a quote attributed to Einstein, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

      (Descartes happens to be my favorite modern philosopher, and I managed an interview with him.)

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