Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Baggini on Hume

There's a Guardian series of posts from Julian Baggini on Hume on religion. In the first, Julian says:

The most pressing and telling critiques of religion not only cannot, but should not, attempt to deliver any fatal blows...


Cannot? Should not?

Julian does not explain why he makes these claims in the first post. Looking forward to hearing his arguments, though, which I'll certainly be discussing - and, I anticipate, criticising - here.

27 comments:

DSK Samways said...

I suspect that Julian may be correct with the "cannot" (that really depends on the type of theist one is speaking to), but I don't understand what he means by "should not".

Brian said...

Excellent, Hume's my favorite philosopher (I haven't read any of your books yet Stephen).

I notice he didn't mention the Treatise, which, while not containing much in the way of direct attacks on religion, it certainly has some stuff in there. I'm thinking of the section about existence and how if we can conceive of something not existing or existing and in neither case there is a contradiction then that thing is only contingently existant. That sinks the ontological argument right there, as I can say there is a God or there is no God where God has the Abrahamic stuff and there's no contradiction. God must be contingent (not logically necessary).

anticant said...

Our inimitable Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has just proclaimed that Christians are regarded by the rest of society as "mad" because - unlike the non-religious - they are motivated by charity and compassion:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/4681357/Archbishop-of-York-Dr-John-Sentamu-Christians-are-regarded-as-mad-by-society.html

He did have the grace to add that "it is not as if we are the only ethically minded people on the block – far from it." But it's still the old 'We're OK, you're not OK' stuff.

The whole article, by the 'Telegraph's' religious affairs correspondent, is a prolonged whine about all the unjust discriminations currently being heaped upon Christians.

reason42 said...

Anticant,

Notice how The Telegraph has recently been inflating the notion of 'Christianophobia'?

There's a bigger agenda over there at the religious affairs department and we all know that Christians are jealous of the success of 'Islamophobia'.

Timmo said...

Quick question for you Stephen. Hume is often regarded as antagonistic toward theism, but I don't know of any place in Hume's writings in which he endorses atheism or agnosticism. As I recall, Hume says at the closing of the Enquiry theism's "best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation." Across the board, Hume's skeptical project seems to be knocking Reason from its hallowed place in faith, morals, and even science. He never says "there are no good arguments for theism so we should give it up" anymore than he says "there are no good arguments for the principle of the uniformity of nature so we should give it up."

Brian said...

He never says "there are no good arguments for theism so we should give it up" anymore than he says "there are no good arguments for the principle of the uniformity of nature so we should give it up." Read his dialogs concerning natural religion. But he hides himself quite well. A prudent thing to do in a time when being an atheist or agnostic would get you into quite a lot of trouble. Whoops, you were asking Stephen. My Bad.

Timmo said...

Brian,

Yes, in the Dialogs Hume effectively criticizes natural theology through the voice of his mouthpiece, Philo. However, this does not show that Hume is hostile to theism as such.

What I am suggesting is another reading of Hume: he belongs in the skeptical, fidestic tradition of Agrippa and Gassendi. After his discussion of miracles, Hume explains that his skeptical arguments "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..." Hume is very explicit that he wants to curb the pretensions of Reason and human understanding, but makes no suggestion that theism is false.

Brian said...

"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..."

I always took this as Hume being doubly ironic. We know what he thinks, but he gives a pious sounding tidbit so he can't be persecuted easily. The irony on top of that is that in a way he's right, there's no rational foundation for faith, so there's no point defending it with reason.

From what I understand Hume had religious friends, what he detested was what he called the pious and priestly and superstition.

Hume is very explicit that he wants to curb the pretensions of Reason and human understanding, but makes no suggestion that theism is false.

What Hume wanted to do was show how we think, and on what evidence we hold things to be true. He was an empiricist to the bone and was going against rationalists who held that by thought alone we can know things about the world. He wanted to curb the metaphysical flights of fancy of folks like Malebranche, Descartes et al and the schools.

In Adam Smith's letter about Hume's final days, Hume apparently said "Have a little patience, good Charon; I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition."

I don't think he liked religion and I do think he thought it superstition.

Brian said...

By the way, I'm not sure atheists can claim Hume either. He was might have been agnostic or even deist. We'll never know because it wasn't a popular thing to be mentioning, lack of belief or doubt, even the treatise got him into trouble with the zealots.

Kosh3 said...

Hume's thinking is usually assumed to be that of Philo's, but the most Philo admits to is agnosticism. I think what many people have in mind is that Hume, if he had lived in a time more tolerant of atheism, would have come out with his atheism. I can certainly accept that, but it is not beyond doubt that he would have remained agnostic (putting aside the fact that some think agnosticism is equivalent to atheism, since technically, if one is agnostic, one lacks a belief in god, which is the definition of atheism).

Stephen Law said...

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on what Hume believed. Deist, atheist, agnostic - I don't know.

Actually, I am not even that interested. What interests me are the arguments and what, if anything, they establish.

The "He's one of ours", "No, he's one of ours" debates always strike me as a bit pointless.

anticant said...

Yes, it is pointless, but tribalism is the essence of religion and some atheists/agnostics buy into it too.

Brian said...

Stephen:

The "He's one of ours", "No, he's one of ours" debates always strike me as a bit pointless.
Agreed. I was only pointing out that it's a bit of a stretch to call Hume a theist of the fidistic stripe. The thing I admire about Hume, which I admire about Darwin is not their trenchant attitude (though that is admirable when backed by reason) but by the commitment to following the evidence and subjecting accepted truths to the gauntlet of evidence.


Another thing, often you read about Darwin giving a space for natural theories of life away from arguments from Design as if it were a novelty, I think this is incorrect. Darwin gave a coherent theory that showed how life could be as it is without a designer, but it was already philosophically allowed.

Hume (echoing Epicurus) opened up a philosophical space to show that a god, or designer, is not necessary for the world and life to be as it its. His dialogs are still brilliant at ripping down the argument from design and the cosmological argument. It's curious to me that Paley thought his argument would work - after all, we only observe human designers, working in teams, design house or watches and others making them. We never observe disembodied spirits designing universes, we never have observed a universe designed or made, we've nothing that supports the analogy, and the analogy asks us to consider facts that we know from observation - as it was written after Hume. Then again, it's curious to me that Lane-Craig thinks you can demonstrate the existence of God. When as we know there is no contradiction in saying there is no God. Now if you could demonstrate the existence of God, then his existence would be necessary, because his existence follows logically. As I've just said there is no God and hit no contradiction, then obviously all demonstrations of God fail (it's not logically necessary), because if the a demonstration follows from the conclusion, and the conclusion can be denied without contradiction, then the only problem can be with the premises. So, the premises of a demonstration of the existence of God are false. This assumes the God of the Abrahamic religions and that logic works, which I don't think is controversial.

That's all there in Hume's dialogs and the Treatise. Kant reworked a bit of it as well, but it's there in Hume.

Brian said...

The reason why I say that I don't think the acceptance of logic is controversial is because ontological, cosmological and design arguments invoke logic. So if logically they fail, then they can't turn around and say well God isn't logical because that's a whole foisting on a petard or 3.....

Brian said...

Final thing before I go to bed, even Richard Swinburne concurs with what I've written about ontological and cosmological arguments being false because they can be denied without contradiction. He dares not argue with Hume, and instead tries an inductive argument for the existence of God. ;)

anticant said...

In his recent book “Political Hypocrisy”, David Runciman quotes Viscount Morley as saying in “On Compromise” that Hume once wrote to a young friend advising him to become an Anglican clergyman notwithstanding his doubt about the articles of his faith:

“It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and their superstitions to pique oneself on sincerity with regard to them…I wish it were still in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it, and the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to an innocent dissimulation, or rather simulation, without which it is impossible to pass through the world.”

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Actually, I am not even that interested. What interests me are the arguments and what, if anything, they establish.

The "He's one of ours", "No, he's one of ours" debates always strike me as a bit pointless.


These two remarks seem to contradict each other. Part of understanding a philosophical text and its arguments is identifying its relation to its historical context and other strands in the history of philosophy. My suggestion to interpret Hume as a kind of fideist is a reading of the arguments and what they are intended to establish. I don't see the problem here.

Brian,

always took this as Hume being doubly ironic. We know what he thinks, but he gives a pious sounding tidbit so he can't be persecuted easily.

This is an assertion, not an argument. Why think that Hume is being ironic? Anticant mentions an interesting passage from personal correspondence, but a more detailed reference would be interesting.

I want to understand Hume better. It's kind of funny because he is very clear on the surface, but once that surface clarity is punctured a little bit, things really begin to fall apart.

Timmo said...

Brian,

What makes you think that you can deny the existence of God without contradiction? There are many propositions which do not seem like logical contradictions, but are. For instance, the naive comprehension principle in set theory is intuitively compelling and seems to be true. Yet, it turns out to be contradictory! Something may seem conceivable on the surface, but yet have hidden contradictions buried inside it.

Nigel Warburton said...

Hume expert Peter Millican has some textual evidence to support the idea that in later life Hume very probably was an atheist. See the post on my weblog Virtual Philosopher:

http://nigelwarburton.typepad.com/virtualphilosopher/2008/04/peter-millican.html

Or just Google 'Peter Millican Hume Atheist'

Timmo said...

Thanks for the reference, Nigel. I'll check that out.

Stephen Law said...

Timmo

Well, that Hume's arguments target e.g. the argument from miracles, the argument from design, etc. is uncontroversial, whether Hume is a theist, fideist, atheist or whatever. The question is, are Hume's criticisms of these theistic arguments sound? Contrary to what you suggest, we can assess Hume's counter-arguments without knowing the answer to the latter question.

Stephen Law said...

I'd forgotten about the Millican thing - thanks Nigel.

Stephen Law said...

Timmo said: "Something may seem conceivable on the surface, but yet have hidden contradictions buried inside it."

Precisely my view about the God hypothesis, in fact!

Of course, prima facie conceivability does count for something. The onus is then on those who say it's not really conceivable and/or possible to demonstrate this.

So if God's non-existence is prima facie conceivable, the onus is on those who deny this to show that it's not.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

The question is, are Hume's criticisms of these theistic arguments sound?

I am not sure it is possible, in general, to isolate the arguments in Hume from his general philosophical commitments and goals. We want to identify what the premises and conclusion are; what the logical relations between those premises and conclusion are; and the accuracy of those premises. Whether it is possible to do these things in a particular case may depend crucially on our understanding of that author's commitments and goals (say, to identify what that author takes for granted and doesn't say explicitly). It might be the case that we can lift certain arguments from Hume for our own purposes. On the other hand, it might not be. Isn't this a case by case thing? And won't it depend on good exegesis in every case?

wombat said...

A quick point of clarification please.

What in philosophy do we mean by conceivable and inconceivable?

Hannahhh said...

Gordon Bennett!- On the small chance that God does exist, and Hume's spirit is lurking about... I bet he's rolling his eyes right now :S

And yeah I agree with DSK Samways. I think it depends really on the individual, but "should not"?!

Brian said...

Timmo:
What makes you think that you can deny the existence of God without contradiction? There are many propositions which do not seem like logical contradictions, but are. For instance, the naive comprehension principle in set theory is intuitively compelling and seems to be true. Then the presentation of all demonstrations for the existence of God fail the naive test. But it's bigger than that. Demonstrations start from what we all observe, and then claim something that many deny. This is not a mathematical theorem.

And maybe read some Swinburne for example, who is a theist, to get the idea. :)