How smart was Hume, anyway?

An intelligent man is perfectly capable of making a wrong argument, but never a weak one.

A brilliant essayist, but…

If you accept this distinction, then you have to ask yourself the question in the title. For Hume (d. 1776) decided to find an intellectual basis for his atheism (or, if you insist, agnosticism – a distinction without a difference).

In the process he committed a fallacy that philosophers call ‘category mistake’ – shifting things that belong in one category into another (e.g. “I’m pursued by money problems and the odd stray dog.”) Serious thinkers avoid such basic errors.

Hume should have stayed within the category of observable, or perhaps scientific, facts and rejected outright any terms of debate that didn’t belong there.

For example, he could have said he considered religion a silly superstition that both began and ended with an act of blind faith. If his opponents chose to believe that nonsense, it was their privilege. But no rational debate about a patently irrational proposition was possible.

Any competent debater could have then engaged Hume on that battleground and trounced him, although Hume would never have acknowledged defeat.

Even now, when science is immeasurably greater than at that time, it fails not only to answer what Dostoyevsky called ‘accursed questions’, but indeed even to ask them. Dishonest scientists try and fail. Honest ones shrug and say: “Let’s not go there – we can’t know such things.”

They are right: they can’t know them because they use a wrong cognitive system. But at least they avoid the category mistake into which Hume blundered so blithely.

He used a methodological trick wielded by many historical personages, from Socrates to Stalin: that of asking himself a question to which he already knew the answer. Hume in effect said: “Fine, let’s assume that God exists.”

On the basis of that assumption, which he knew a priori to be wrong, he then asked a series of questions that have since been repeated by such worthy organisations as Lenin’s League of the Militant Godless. (Their arguments carried the extra weight of being backed up with firing squads.)  

The questions Hume asked and considered rhetorical were: If God is merciful and good, then how does he permit evil? If it’s beyond his control, then how omnipotent is he? And if he doesn’t know what’s going on, is he really omniscient?

In other words, as far as he was concerned, the existence of evil proved the non-existence of God. Alas, Hume didn’t realise that he had strayed out of one category into another, and now had to engage his opponents on the ground of their choice.

For, by allowing the possibility of God’s existence, if only hypothetically, he entered a categorically different system of thought and had to accept its terms. In response, a Christian thinker no longer had to wade through a swamp of material facts. He could now field Hume’s questions within the confines of Christian doctrines.

The two doctrines that dismiss Hume’s questions scornfully are those of original sin and free will.

God gave man, as personified by Adam and Eve, a free choice between virtue and sin. Our progenitors chose wrong: they refused to obey God, and hence mankind was stigmatised with original sin corrupting not only man but the whole natural order.

God’s subsequent Incarnation as Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, his death on the cross and Resurrection established a new covenant between God and man.

Christ’s sacrifice wiped man’s slate clean of original sin. Yet as the evidence shows that man didn’t become pristine as a result, a second sin, Mark II as it were, must have replaced the first one, and chronologically this substitution could only have occurred after original sin had been redeemed.

Logically, this must have been the sin of rejecting Christ. That offence isn’t identical to original sin, though neither is it dissimilar to it. Both, after all, represent rejection of God: the first by disobeying and the second by failing to recognise him. If original sin Mark I was disobedience and therefore rejection, then Mark II is rejection and therefore disobedience.  

At the centre of the new covenant is God’s reiteration of his greatest gift to man: free will, the ability to make a free choice between good and evil. For that gift to have any meaning, evil has to exist.

Free will thus becomes the most important possession of man, and it can only remain so if we stand to gain from a correct choice or suffer the consequences of a wrong one. In fact, if our will weren’t free, if we were but puppets on God’s string, one would struggle to see why God would have bothered to make us so different from animals, or indeed to create us at all.

If we accept as a given that God loves us, then we must find it hard to explain how such love could have been expressed by removing evil and thereby depriving us of our freedom, making it irrelevant. God’s is the absolute freedom, but since we are created in his image, ours has to be at least a relative one. Only God can be totally free, but that doesn’t mean man has to be totally enslaved.

All this is basic theodicy, and its precepts were formulated by great men, from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas. They created Christian theology and then spun out of it a comprehensive system of philosophical thought.

Hume with his Socratic questions barged into that system and paid the heavy price of coming across as intellectually vulgar – at least within its confines. As Clint Eastwood said in one of his films, “a man should be aware of his limitations”.

P.S. I’d like to apologise to President Macron of France. The other day I inadvertently stated that he plans to replace the national anthem, La Marseillaise, with the hymn O Come, Emmanuel.

8 thoughts on “How smart was Hume, anyway?”

  1. I think the problem people have is the extreme and banal nature of some suffering. A pious priest being flayed alive or a schoolboy choking to death on his pen lid. It smacks of meaninglessness, seems irreconcilable with any sort of divine plan or exchange for good behaviour.

    True evil would be something supernatural, a demon or some other fantastic entity . I think what Hume means by ‘evil’ is just sheer bloody unpleasantness, not dependant on a heavenly opposite.

    1. I think it helps people if you allow the possibility that God also suffers, further, that suffering results necessarily from the defining characteristics of God. That way, suffering is redemptive and ‘of God’, irrespective of its cause.

      1. The implication being that a supposedly good God requires the existence of evil. In any case it’s not immediately clear what good came from, say, the Boxing Day tsunami.

        1. There are two ways of looking at that question. Firstly, if God exists, then so does paradise, so, if the tsunami was an act of God, those killed are surely now experiencing eternal bliss, which is good, for them. Those left behind grieve, and that’s very hard of course, but grief is an expression of love, the suffering is shared by God and is therefore holy, redemptive.

          Alternatively, freak weather is caused by the actions of man. The idea of man-made climate change is not wholly incompatible with the ideas outlined in Alex’s piece here. Man is given custody of the Earth by God, but through greed, wastefulness, lack of caring for future generations and other such manifestations of original sin, trashes it, bringing about its ultimate destruction. Old Testament treatments of bad weather as an expression of God’s wrath serve as a metaphorical version of ‘you brought this on yourselves’.

          I wonder, actually, if that’s the reason people in the West have latched so readily onto the theory of anthropogenic climate change. They may have largely rejected the Bible, but its lessons linger in the collective psyche.

  2. There is a difference between agnosticism and atheism. Moreover, for an empiricist, agnosticism is the only possible position; there is no observable proof either way.

    Furthermore, if one were to attempt a proof of the nonexistence of something, proof by contradiction is the way to go. (Define E as a set containing both properties p and q. If p and q give rise to a contradiction, then E is an empty set.) When E = God, p= infinite mercy and q = omnipotence, that is, the ability to prevent pain, then that looks like a contradiction, and it is, as long as one views suffering in the sense of sin and punishment, as you seem to. Xx

  3. “God gave man, as personified by Adam and Eve, a free choice between virtue and sin.” Although I am a Protestant Christian, I am certainly NOT a Calvinist by persuasion. How he can possibly remove ‘free choice’ to believe its all predestined is like a big cop-out, and it paints God as an impersonal monster!

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