Hume's Inexplicable Mystery

Hume's Inexplicable Mystery: His Views on Religion

Keith E. Yandell
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 352
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    Hume's Inexplicable Mystery
    Book Description:

    The eighteenth-century Scottish empiricist David Hume has been regarded as a notorious enemy of religion. Still, his discussion of religion is systematic, sophisticated, and sustained. Focusing mainly on two of Hume's works, the relatively neglectedNatural History of Religionand the more widely readDialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Keith Yandell analyzes Hume's treatment of a subject that he described as "a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery." In so doing, he explores the relationships between Hume's philosophy of religion and his general philosophy.

    Hume's "evidentialism," applied to religion, can be summed up by saying that it is unreasonable to accept a religious belief unless one has evidence for it. Since it is also Hume's view that there is no evidence for any religious belief, he concludes that no one is ever reasonable in accepting a religious belief. Yandell examines the explanations that Hume gave for such acceptance inNatural History of Religion. Addressing theDialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he compares Hume's views to those of such authors as Herbert of Cherbury and Bishop Joseph Butler, traces changes in Hume's theory of meaning, and discusses the ontological and cosmological arguments and Hume's treatment of the problem of evil. Yandell then considers other lesser known writings by Hume that are relevant to his philosophy of religion.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0405-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-2)
    (pp. 3-6)

    Hume’s philosophy of religion is best understood as predicated on two assumptions: that it is unreasonable to accept any belief unless it is either appropriately basic or something for which we have evidence; that no religious belief is appropriately basic. It follows from these assumptions that no religious belief is reasonably accepted by anyone who lacks evidence for it.

    Hume thinks that beliefs are appropriately basic only if one’s having them can be explained by reference to what Hume calls “original” propensities of human nature. An original propensity of human nature is a propensity with these features: it produces the...

  6. PART ONE: The Natural History of Religion
    • CHAPTER 1 The Content of the Natural History
      (pp. 9-44)

      Hume tells us that the more humans consider the causes of human ills, and “the uncertainty of their operation, the less satisfaction do they meet with in their researches; and, however unwilling, they must at last have abandoned so arduous an attempt, were it not for a propensity in human nature, which leads into a system, that gives them some satisfaction” (N,40). He plausibly suggests that seeking “a system, that gives . . . some satisfaction”—no explanation is given of exactly what sort of satisfaction is in question—is inescapable. But what system should one accept? In fact,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Treatise Repetition of the Natural History Pattern of Explanation
    (pp. 45-68)

    The pattern of explanation that Hume uses to explicate theistic and polytheistic belief in theNatural Historyis not unique in Hume’s writings. Part Four:Of the sceptical and other systems of philosophyin Book One ofA Treatise of Human Naturecontains explanations that manifest the same pattern.¹

    In Part Four, Section One:Of scepticism with regard to reason, Hume sets the stage for these explanations. He considers a remarkable argument.

    Having thus found in every probability, beside the original uncertainty inherent in the subject [that is, the subject matter], a new uncertainty deriv’d from the weakness of that...

  8. PART TWO: Hume’s Discussion of Natural Theology
    • CHAPTER 6 Hume’s Evidentialism
      (pp. 133-143)

      A radical evidentialist regarding religious belief will require that a religious belief is reasonably accepted only by someone who has evidence in its favor—better evidence for than against if the evidence is mixed, evidence that raises the probability of the belief being true over .5 if quantifiable evidence is relevant, but in any case data of some solid sort that supports the belief in question. Evidentialists need to be careful about their evidentialism. Evidence, it seems, stops somewhere; some belief or other must be rationally embraceable without one’s having to have still more propositional evidence for it. In this...

    • CHAPTER 7 Hume’s Theory of Meaning
      (pp. 144-162)

      In theDialogues,Philo plays the role of the critic of natural theology or of the attempt to prove religious belief without appeal to religious authority. Cleanthes unwaveringly supports the argument from design but opposes other pieces of natural theology. Since he constrains his notion of Deity to what he thinks the design argument substantiates, his concept of God is considerably less rich than that of orthodox Judaism or Christianity. Demea opposes the design argument, but favors the aprioriportion of natural theology. While Demea is represented as an orthodox Christian, the representation is dubious. Besides championing apriori...

    • CHAPTER 8 Design, Causality, and Purpose
      (pp. 163-185)

      Demea reiterates the theme that obviously God exists (in some sense or other of the word “God”). He writes of “that fundamental principle of all religion . . . . No man; no man, at least, of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning thebeingbut thenatureof God” (D,141).ThatGod is, is certain;whatGod is, is “altogether incomprehensible and unknown to us.” Demea’s qualification “no man, at least, of common sense” is echoed in Philo’s supposed “reversal”...

    • CHAPTER 9 Inductive Arguments and Analogical Arguments
      (pp. 186-209)

      Philo’s critique is plainly powerful. Cleanthes does perhaps the one thing left to do besides quit the field. The plausibility of an axiom of inductive inference is reduced or removed if a plainly successful inductive argument violates it. In part, the art of constructing axioms of inductive inference rests on intuitions about which inductive arguments initially (that is, prior to rules) are cogent and which initially are not.

      Then one can ask what renders the unacceptable inductive endeavors subject to cognitive disapproval. If one is so fortunate as to discover an axiom that many unreliable arguments and no acceptable ones...

    • CHAPTER 10 Design Arguments and Multiple Models
      (pp. 210-226)

      Philo begins at this point a task that continues through Part Five, namely, acquainting Cleanthes with

      the inconveniences of that anthropomorphism, which you have embraced; and I shall prove that there is no ground to suppose a plan of the world to be formed in the divine mind, consisting of distinct ideas, differently arranged, in the same manner as an architect forms in his head the plan of a house which he intends to execute. [D, 160]

      Philo begins by querying what advantage one reaps by adopting Cleanthes’ position. Suppose we grant that the order of the universe is caused...

    • CHAPTER 11 Other Theistic Arguments
      (pp. 227-242)

      The ninth section of theDialoguesraises a new problem. As Demea asks, “if so many difficulties attend the argumenta posteriori. . . had we not better adhere to the simple and sublime argumenta priori, which, by offering to us infallible demonstration, cuts off at once all doubt and difficulty” (D, 188)? The “simple and sublime argument” is the ontological. It endeavors to show that “God does not exist” is a contradiction, and hence “God exists” a logically necessary truth. If successful, the argument thus shows that necessarily, not merely probably, God exists. We are not left...

    • CHAPTER 12 Evil, Happiness, and Goodness
      (pp. 243-255)

      In Parts Ten and Eleven of theDialogues, Hume deals with some among the set of issues usually referred to as “the problem of evil.” Demea opens by suggesting that “each man feels the truth of religion within his own breast; and from a consciousness of his imbecility and misery, rather than from any reasoning, is led to seek protection from that Being on whom he and all nature is dependent” (D,193). Philo cheerfully assents that “the best and indeed the only method of bringing every one to a due sense of religion is by just representations of the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Evil, Prediction, and Probability
      (pp. 256-278)

      We have noted that Part Eleven contains arguments which question whether the theist can explain the existence of evil even in the most general terms (whether he can consistently say that God is either the “direct” or the “indirect” cause of evil) and whether “God is good” is intelligible. But though these matters loom large in Part Eleven, they do not begin it. Pride of place is given to theprediction argument:

      It must, I think, be allowed, that, if a very limited intelligence, whom we shall suppose utterly unacquainted with the universe, were assured, that it were the production...

  9. PART THREE: Further Humeana
    • CHAPTER 14 Superstition, Enthusiasm, Suicide, and Immortality
      (pp. 281-314)

      Hume views superstition and enthusiasm as “corruptions of true religion” (O,146). He suggests that “the corruption of the best of things [true religion] produces the worst [superstition and enthusiasm]” (O,146). His account of superstition and enthusiasm derives them from emotion run riot. The darker emotions that arise from public or private failure, illness, or melancholy can cause a state of mind in which “infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents” (O,146).

      Where real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power...

    • CHAPTER 15 Miracles
      (pp. 315-338)

      Richard swinburne offers this definition: “To start with we may say very generally that a miracle is an event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a god, and of religious significance."¹ As will become clear, and as is plain in any case, Hume’s main concern is with alleged miracles whose occurrence is important to Christian belief and practice. It ismiracles as possible evidence for religious beliefthat occupies his attention. So instead of “a god,” I will simply talk about God—that omnicompetent, unembodied Spirit whom Judeo-Christian theology believes to be Creator, Providence, Judge, and Savior, and to...

    (pp. 339-342)

    Hume’s philosophy of religion has been presented. TheNatural Historytheory of religious belief caused by second-order propensities; the theory of human nature on which its core is comprised of original and universal propensities elicited by universal experiences yielding identical beliefs; the view of religious belief as a danger to fragile personal unity; the claim that all but the thinnest religion is poison to morality; the tension between two notions of what a person is; the extrapolation of Hume’s theory of religious belief to religious experience; the question of the epistemic impact if Hume’s explanation of religious belief and experience...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 345-352)
    (pp. 353-356)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 357-361)