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.
- “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” by David Hume
- Beware of Procrustes
- “Philosophical Fragments” by Søren Kierkegaard