(continuing from part I)
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 Aristotle long before him. He could have saved himself some trouble reinventing the wheel — and saved his reader some time trying to clear 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 the philosophers and theologians, however, in doing so, he unwillingly, if not inevitably, shows his own epistemological conceit. Nevertheless his criticism is humbling and refreshing.
Cause and Effect
Hume examines how logic works, and questions whether our logical inferences are valid. He analogizes causal relations between two associated ideas to a physical movement between two points on a line. First, the space between the two points is almost infinitely divisible, therefore the causal movement is almost impossible. Second, just because two events follow each other in spacetime, it doesn’t mean that one is the cause of another. IOW, succession or correlation is not causation.
To my mind, Hume’s notion of cause is encapsulated in Aristotle’s notion of “essence”, i.e, that which necessarily causes a thing to be what it is. However, being able to define something, is not the same as possessing its power. For example, being able to define life is not the same as possessing the power of creating and subsisting life. It is the latter to which Hume assigns cause proper, and as such, causes are “secret springs and principles”, and not known by us from any experience.
Hume makes two main propositions:
First, the cause and effect relations that people commonly observe and experience are not cause and effect proper.
Second, ideas are derived from or based on experiences, without exception, including the ideas of cause and effect.
There is a self-contradiction here: If the cause and effect relations that we experience are not cause and effect proper, then it follows that the idea of cause and effect proper is not based on experience. Hume should have reflected on his own thought process, and concluded that many ideas are not based on experience.
Faith and Reason
I had thought that Hume was a closet atheist, until I came across this paragraph in Section X. “Miracles”, which suggested to me that Hume might be a Fideist:
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.
Some argued that Hume was being sarcastic when he wrote about “faith”, but I don’t sense irony or sarcasm here. On the contrary, there seems to be a tinge of reverence.
I would paraphrase Hume thus: Human reason, being derived from common experience, is incompatible with the notion of miracles, which is by definition opposed to 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.
Here, 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 his works.
A Deist, by definition, rejects revelation, but Hume does not reject faith and revelation, at least not openly. His arguments set the limit of “reason”, and allow space, if not need, for divine revelation, though he cautions against superstition. It is curious what he 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
- “Philosophical Fragments” by Søren Kierkegaard