Truth suffers from too much analysis

Hume’s Philosophy of Religion

Posted by allzermalmer on December 8, 2011

This blog is based on a paper written by Nicholas Capaldi. It was published in the philosophical journal International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp.233-240. It’s called Hume’s Philosophy of Religion: God without Ethics.

The author wants to bring up six things about Hume, and his talk on God and things of that nature. These can be derived from Hume’s philosophical works; the works be of Treatise of Human Nature, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

Here are the 6 points:
[1.] “Hume never denied the existence of God.”
[2.] “He rejected the “ontological argument.””
[3.] “He accepted the existence of God, and he accepted the argument from design.”
[4.] “God exists, but his properties are unknown to us.”
[5.] “Morality is independent of religion (but not of God).”
[6.] “No one of the characters but every one of the characters in the Dialogues speaks for Hume. The message : morality is independent of religion.”

Point 1: There’s no where in Hume’s books does he say that God doesn’t exist, imply that God doesn’t exist, or say that he believes that God doesn’t exist.

What should be noticed about this is that Hume is considered the “Common Ancestor” from which all forms of modern empiricism are derived. To play off of the words of A.N. Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of the Empiricist philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to David Hume.”

As Bertrand Russell once said of him, “David Hume (1711-76) is one of the most important among philosophers because he developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent made it incredible. He represents, in a certain sense, a dead end: in his direction, it is impossible to go further. To refute him has been, ever since he wrote, a favourite pastime among metaphysicians. For my part, I find none of their refutations convincing; nevertheless, I cannot but hope that something less sceptical than Hume’s system may be discoverable.”

And, by James Seth:”It would be unjust to both Locke and Berkeley to say that they stopped short of these [sceptical] conclusions from theological or other prejudices. The truth is that empiricism was only a part of their philosophy, the other part  being…of a rationalistic type; so that we cannot describe the sceptical philosophy of Hume as the complete logical development of the Lockean and Berkeleyean philosophy, but only as the logical completion of the empirical element in the philosophy of his predecessors. That which had for them been a part becomes for Hume the whole: he is an empiricist pure and simple, and he shows us with singular insight the ultimate meaning and consequences of pure empiricism.”

Point 2: Hume objected to the “ontological argument” for God. The reason that he rejects such an argument is that it is a priori, or not based on experience. Being an empiricist, he found problems with a priori arguments. And of his time, a priori arguments were very common and so had a problem with those arguments.

Hume is notorious for his assessment of causation (which was done by other philosophers like Al-Ghazali, Malebranche, and Berkeley). The a priori arguments usually dealt with causation, and especially necessary causation. With Hume’s treatment of these things, he found them all unacceptable. Thus, he rejected them. But he even affirmed his belief in causation (based on his empiricist position), and also affirmed the argument from design (a posterior argument).

Point 3: Hume accepts the existence of a God, and he does it through the argument from design. And this point usually comes as a shock from people. They tend to think that Hume didn’t believe in God, let alone accept the argument from design. But he happens to make this point throughout his writings.

“The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind . . .” Treatise of Human Nature

“Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe.” A Letter From A Gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh

In the Enquires Concerning Human Understanding, there is a section called “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future state”. In this section, Hume’s friend defends Epicurus, and accepts the arguments from “the order of nature”.

“The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author ; and no rational enquirer can after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion” The Natural History of Religion

He accepts the “truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God” in the Dialogues.

Point 4:

“Even though God exists, we cannot know any of his properties or characteristics. The argument from design proves the existence of a cause but not the nature of the cause. It is the failure to note this distinction which leads some readers to misinterpret Hume and attribute to him a rejection of the argument from design.”

He goes on to think that we come to accept that God exists, but beyond this we can say no more. The reason is that experience shows it, under Hume’s position, but that we can’t tell anything more from it. So, reason supports the belief, but reason stops there. To pick between particular religions  or religious belief, is beyond the mere acceptance of God and experience. The rest we draw out from this acceptance isn’t drawn from experience, but is drawn from faith and divine revelation.

As Hume said around the end of the Enquires Concerning Human Understanding, “Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls, is composed partly of reasonings concerning particular, partly concerning general facts. It has a foundation in reasons, o far as it is supported by experience. But its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation.”

Point 5: Hume denied that morals need to be grounded on a religious foundation. He believes that we can have morals, and follow through with them, without having recourse to a religious foundation for the morals.

“In the Enquiry Concerningt he Principles of Morals, Hume develops his entire moral theory with utter disregard for religion. He does make an important statement about God in order to show that his moral theory is compatible with the existence of the God one finds in the argument from design (p. 294). Since God is the “cause” of nature, including human nature, the naturalistic ethics to be found in man is also the “effect” of God. The important distinction to be kept in mind is that Hume’s ethics is consistent with the existence of God, but it is not derived from religion.”

The point is that it’s compatible with God, but it does not necessarily entail that one needs a religious foundation for morals to have morals. It should be obvious that one doesn’t need to belong to a religion to believe in God. And if one doesn’t belong to a religion, then they just might not have a religious foundation for morals. The point is that Hume “maintains a skeptical
posture” towards the religious foundations of morals.

Point 6: In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he happens to make two points. There are three characters involved in a dialogue, and all three agree on two things. These two things seem to point to Hume’s actual beliefs, among those that he’s already stated in his other works.

These two points are already characterized in the previous 5 points. Two of them are agreed up on by all the people in the dialogue. Thus, we seem to be able to reasonably infer that he held to these two things and a foundation of some of his beliefs.

These two beliefs are that Hume “accepts the existence of God” and accepts that “morals need not be founded on religion”. All three characters, Philo, Cleanthes, and Dema, agree upon these points. As Capldi said, “First, all of the characters agree that God exists. Second, all of the characters agree that no moral implications follow from the initial agreement.”

Further, there is something interesting brought up, which seems consistent with what Hume has said else where. The author points out that Hume points out that “We cannot legitimately infer moral conclusions, that is, practical conclusions for guiding human behavior, from theological premisses.” This looks to be of the Is-Ought gap that Hume had pointed out, and became infamous for.

Hume, basically, said that we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. This “ought” would be like moral statements of “You shouldn’t kill people except in self-defense”. A statement of “is” would be like the descriptive statement of “Brutus helped kill Julius Caesar.” We can’t derive the moral statement from a descriptive statement of what we’ve observed with experience.

The reason that we can’t derive a moral conclusion from a theological premise is because of two things. The major one is that Hume pointed out that, from his empiricism, we can’t go beyond affirming the existence of God. We can’t go further because we can only get the conclusion of the existence of God but not of his properities. And these theological premises are going to add on properties to God, once they accept the existence of God.Hume takes this as illegitimate.

The second point is the Is-Ought divide, which he pointed out. Even if these theological premises were in fact true, descriptions of how things are, you still can’t derive the moral conclusions from those “is” statements. You can’t derive that moral conclusion from those (true) theological premises.

So even if we don’t accept God, we still can’t accept a moral conclusion from true (non-theological) statements. We can see how Hume would come to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a religious foundation for morals. Both groups can’t derive their moral conclusion from descriptive statements.

The other point, for Hume, was that even if we affirm the existence of God, it doesn’t imply moral conclusions. “Prior to Hume it was common for philosophers first to “prove” God’s existence and then to draw moral implications from that proof. Hume pointed out that these are two
separate questions, and the positive answer to the first by no means
implies a positive answer to the second.”


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