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The Eighteenth Century’s Boundless Optimism Collides with David Hume
“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” —David Hume
David Hume’s “real” subject was human nature (falling within categories then labeled “morality,” natural philosophy, and natural theology), to which he dedicated himself, pursuing the scientific method of Isaac Newton. He began with the human mind, how it works, its faculties and elements, and, above all, what it can know. He justified beginning his inquiries there by arguing that any further investigation must rest on understanding the limits of what we can know and with what degree of certainty.
He concluded that we can know only our perceptions (our sense “impressions” and the connections we make among them, our “ideas”). We cannot know if they are caused by “reality” or what might exist in addition to our experiences—emphatically, we cannot know any “metaphysics.” Such speculations—leaping beyond empirical experience—have kept philosophy chasing its own tail for centuries.
Skeptical Methodology Applied to Nature and God
With this foundation, Hume turned to man’s relationship to nature and God. In this area of inquiry, Hume encountered the tidal wave of eighteenth-century optimism about man’s relationship to nature and to nature’s (including man’s) Creator. This fundamental optimism was a legacy of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution and two decidedly positive conclusions that it drew. First, man’s mind is part of nature (not a spirit world). Second, man can understand through nature its Creator and that His creation is intended for the benefit of man.
In this world, man is at home, exercising his faculties to penetrate nature’s laws, using his faculties to improve his lot, and (like the Deists) making understanding of nature also an understanding and appreciation of God.
Hume, of course, had laid the foundation for dealing with such assertions—speculations, as he saw them, on the metaphysics of existence and God’s nature. In fact, he said, those premises, and all optimism, result from a wild leap of our minds beyond all experience—on speculation cut adrift from the empirical methods of science. Besides, the premises themselves manifest contradictions. We cannot even know if some kind of “nature” exists because we have only our own experiences (as Berkeley had argued before Hume). We cannot know nature and most certainly not the qualities and characteristics of some supposed creator of nature. This is the worst kind of speculative metaphysics, right back to “faith” posing as reason and science.
Hume proceeded to fashion arguments against claims to God’s existence and qualities that are still widely cited today. For example, the analogy between a human workman and his creations and God and his creation of the world is lamentably weak. The two processes are merely fancifully similar.
In this context, Hume made a classic statement of the “argument from evil.” If God did create the world, which has as much disorder as order and evil as good, then either He is not benevolent or, if he could not preclude evil, then He is not omniscient or omnipotent. In fact, we can know nothing with any certainty about the creation of the world; but, on the evidence, if it had a Creator we must conclude that that Creator is at best indifferent to man’s needs and hopes.
And so, believe in God if you wish, but don’t claim that your belief rests on reason or science. And your optimism is entirely misplaced; it rests on a leap of faith and conclusions that even if accepted as stated give no basis for optimism or worship. At times, Hume became sarcastic: “It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause.”
Hume brought it all together in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the volume that friends and his publisher had persuaded him not to publish during his lifetime. It was all in all too dangerous. Already, Hume had long been under attack as atheistic, and many friends had tried to defend him from that charge. Published in 1779, three years after Hume’s death (at first, with no author’s or publisher’s name), Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion remains a not-always-loved, but always-referenced, classic on the philosophy of religion.
The precocious young Scotsman, lover of good living, fierce in his logical consistency, had taken the errors of Locke (that we cannot be certain we perceive reality, only our sensory “impressions” and “ideas”) and derived from those errors absolute skepticism about our ability to know reality.
Not to conclude, however, on Hume’s unrelieved skeptical note, we might allude again to this counter argument: But Mr. Hume, there is no such thing as perceiving reality by “no means.” To identify our means and our form of awareness does not invalidate that awareness. In fact, identifying the means and form of awareness further confirms the validity of the senses as our direct awareness of reality.