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David Hume

For other people named David Hume, see David Hume (disambiguation).

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David Hume
File:Painting of David Hume.jpg
Born 7 May NS [26 April OS] 1711
Edinburgh, Scotland,
Great Britain
Died 25 August 1776(1776-08-25) (aged 65)
Edinburgh, Scotland,
Great Britain
Nationality British (Scottish)
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School
Main interests
Notable ideas

David Hume (/ˈhjuːm/; 7 May 1711 NS (26 April 1711 OS) – 25 August 1776) was a Scottish historian, philosopher, economist, diplomat and essayist known today especially for his radical philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

In light of Hume's central role in the Scottish Enlightenment, and in the history of Western philosophy,[2] Bryan Magee judged him as a philosopher "widely regarded as the greatest who has ever written in the English language."[3] While Hume failed in his attempts to start a university career, he took part in various diplomatic and military missions of the time. He wrote The History of England, which became a bestseller, and it became the standard history of England in its day.

His empirical approach places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others at the time as a British Empiricist.[4]

Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic "science of man" that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably René Descartes, he concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behaviour. He also argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. He argued that inductive reasoning and therefore causality cannot be justified rationally. Our assumptions in favour of these result from custom and constant conjunction rather than logic. He concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self.

Hume's compatibilist theory of free will proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles, and expounded the is–ought problem.

Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent western philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, the philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, theology and other movements and thinkers. In addition, according to philosopher Jerry Fodor, Hume's Treatise is "the founding document of cognitive science".[5] Hume engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Boswell, and Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume's influence on his economics and political philosophy). Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers".[citation needed]

Biography

Early life and education

David Home, anglicised to David Hume, son of Joseph Home of Chirnside, advocate, and Katherine Home, née Falconer, was born on 26 April 1711 (Old Style) in a tenement on the north side of the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. He changed the spelling of his name in 1734, because the fact that his surname Home was pronounced Hume in Scotland was not known in England. Throughout his life Hume, who never married, spent time occasionally at his family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire, which had belonged to his family since the sixteenth century. His finances as a young man were very "slender". His family was not rich and, as a younger brother, he had little patrimony to live on. He was therefore forced to make a living somehow.[6]

Hume attended the University of Edinburgh at the unusually early age of twelve (possibly as young as ten) at a time when fourteen was normal. At first, because of his family, he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning; and while [my family] fanceyed I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the Authors which I was secretly devouring".[6] He had little respect for the professors of his time, telling a friend in 1735 that "there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books".[7]

Aged around 18, Hume made a philosophical discovery that opened up to him "a new Scene of Thought", which inspired him "to throw up every other Pleasure or Business to apply entirely to it".[8] He did not recount what this scene was, and commentators have offered a variety of speculations.[9] Due to this inspiration, Hume set out to spend a minimum of ten years reading and writing. He soon came to the verge of a mental breakdown, suffering from what a doctor diagnosed as the "Disease of the Learned". Hume wrote that it started with a coldness, which he attributed to a "Laziness of Temper", that lasted about nine months. Later, some scurvy spots broke out on his fingers. This was what persuaded Hume's physician to make his diagnosis. Hume wrote that he "went under a Course of Bitters and Anti-Hysteric Pills", taken along with a pint of claret every day. Hume also decided to have a more active life to better continue his learning.[10] His health improved somewhat, but, in 1731, he was afflicted with a ravenous appetite and palpitations of the heart. After eating well for a time, he went from being "tall, lean and raw-bon'd" to being "sturdy, robust [and] healthful-like".[11]

Career

At 25 years of age, Hume, although of noble ancestry, had no source of income and no learned profession. As was common at his time, he became a merchant's assistant, but he had to leave his native Scotland. He travelled via Bristol to La Flèche in Anjou, France. There he had frequent discourse with the Jesuits of the College of La Flèche.[12]

He worked for four years on his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, subtitled "Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects", completing it in 1738 at the age of 28. Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in Western philosophy, the critics in Great Britain at the time did not agree, describing it as "abstract and unintelligible".[13] As Hume had spent most of his savings during those four years,[10] he resolved "to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literature".[14] Despite the disappointment, Hume later wrote, "Being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country."[14] There, in an attempt to make his larger work better known and more intelligible, he published the An Abstract of a Book lately Published as a summary of the main doctrines of the Treatise, without revealing its authorship.[15] Although there has been some academic speculation as to who actually wrote this pamphlet[16] it is generally regarded as Hume's creation.[17]

After the publication of Essays Moral and Political in 1744, which was included in the later edition called Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Hume applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. However, the position was given to William Cleghorn[18] after Edinburgh ministers petitioned the town council not to appoint Hume because he was seen as an atheist.[citation needed]

File:David Hume 1754.jpeg
An engraving of Hume from the first volume of his The History of England, 1754

During the 1745 Jacobite rising, Hume tutored the Marquis of Annandale (1720–92), who was "judged to be a lunatic".[19] This engagement ended in disarray after about a year. However, it was then that Hume started his great historical work The History of England. This took him fifteen years and ran to over a million words. During this time he was also involved with the Canongate Theatre through his friend John Home, a preacher.[20]

In this context, he associated with Lord Monboddo and other Scottish Enlightenment luminaries in Edinburgh. From 1746, Hume served for three years as secretary to General James St Clair, and wrote Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Often called the First Enquiry, it proved little more successful than the Treatise, perhaps because of the publishing of his short autobiography, My Own Life, which "made friends difficult for the first Enquiry".[21] In 1749 he went to live with his brother in the countryside.

Hume's religious views were often suspect. It was necessary in the 1750s for his friends to avert a trial against him on the charge of heresy. However, he "would not have come and could not be forced to attend if he said he was not a member of the Established Church".[22] Hume failed to gain the chair of philosophy at the University of Glasgow for his religious views, too. He had published the Philosophical Essays by this time which were decidedly anti-religious. Even Adam Smith, his personal friend who had vacated the Glasgow philosophy chair was against his appointment out of concern public opinion would be against it.[23]

Hume returned to to Edinburgh in 1751. In the following year "the Faculty of Advocates chose me their Librarian, an office from which I received little or no emolument, but which gave me the command of a large library".[24] This resource enabled him to continue historical research for The History of England. Hume's volume of Political Discourses, written in 1749 and published by Kincaid & Donaldson in 1752,[25] was the only work he considered successful on first publication.[26]

Eventually, with the publication of his six volume The History of England between 1754 and 1762, Hume achieved the fame that he coveted.[27] The volumes traced events from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, and was a bestseller in its day.

Later years

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Tomb of David Hume in Edinburgh

From 1763 to 1765, Hume was invited to attend Lord Hertford in Paris, where he became secretary to the British embassy. While there he met and later fell out with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1765, he served as British Chargé d'affaires, writing "despatches to the British Secretary of State".[28] He wrote of his Paris life, "I really wish often for the plain roughness of The Poker Club of Edinburgh ... to correct and qualify so much lusciousness".[29] In 1767, Hume was appointed Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. Here he wrote that he was given "all the secrets of the Kingdom". In 1769 he returned to James' Court in Edinburgh, and then lived, from 1771 until his death in 1776, at the southwest corner of St. Andrew's Square in Edinburgh's New Town, at what is now 21 Saint David Street.[30] A popular story, consistent with some historical evidence, suggests the street may have been named after Hume.[31]

Diarist and biographer James Boswell saw Hume a few weeks before his death, which was from some form of abdominal cancer. Hume told him he sincerely believed it a "most unreasonable fancy" that there might be life after death.[32] This meeting was dramatised in semi-fictional form for the BBC by Michael Ignatieff as Dialogue in the Dark.[33] Hume asked that his body be interred in a "simple Roman tomb". In his will he requests that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, "leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest".[34] It stands, as he wished it, on the southwestern slope of Calton Hill, in the Old Calton Cemetery. Adam Smith later recounted Hume's amusing speculation that he might ask Charon to allow him a few more years of life in order to see "the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition." The ferryman replied, "You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years ... Get into the boat this instant".[35]

Writings

In the introduction to A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote, "'Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature ... Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man." He also wrote that the science of man is the "only solid foundation for the other sciences" and that the method for this science requires both experience and observation as the foundations of a logical argument.[36] On this aspect of Hume's thought, philosophical historian Frederick Copleston wrote that it was Hume's aim to apply to the science of man the method of experimental philosophy (the term that was current at the time to imply Natural philosophy), and that "Hume's plan is to extend to philosophy in general the methodological limitations of Newtonian physics".[37]

Until recently, Hume was seen as a forerunner of logical positivism; a form of anti-metaphysical empiricism. According to the logical positivists, unless a statement could be verified by experience, or else was true or false by definition (i.e. either tautological or contradictory), then it was meaningless (this is a summary statement of their verification principle). Hume, on this view, was a proto-positivist, who, in his philosophical writings, attempted to demonstrate how ordinary propositions about objects, causal relations, the self, and so on, are semantically equivalent to propositions about one's experiences.[38][not in citation given]

Many commentators have since rejected this understanding of Humean empiricism, stressing an epistemological (rather than a semantic) reading of his project.[39] According to this opposing view, Hume's empiricism consisted in the idea that it is our knowledge, and not our ability to conceive, that is restricted to what can be experienced. Hume thought that we can form beliefs about that which extends beyond any possible experience, through the operation of faculties such as custom and the imagination, but he was sceptical about claims to knowledge on this basis.

Induction and causation

The cornerstone of Hume's epistemology is the problem of induction. This may be the area of Hume's thought where his scepticism about human powers of reason is most pronounced.[40] The problem revolves around the plausibility of inductive reasoning, that is, reasoning from the observed behaviour of objects to their behaviour when unobserved. As Hume wrote, induction concerns how things behave when they go "beyond the present testimony of the senses, or the records of our memory".[41] Hume argues that we tend to believe that things behave in a regular manner, meaning that patterns in the behaviour of objects seem to persist into the future, and throughout the unobserved present.[42] Hume's argument is that we cannot rationally justify the claim that nature will continue to be uniform, as justification comes in only two varieties—demonstrative reasoning and probable reasoning[note 1]—and both of these are inadequate. With regard to demonstrative reasoning, Hume argues that the uniformity principle cannot be demonstrated, as it is "consistent and conceivable" that nature might stop being regular.[44] Turning to probable reasoning, Hume argues that we cannot hold that nature will continue to be uniform because it has been in the past. As this is using the very sort of reasoning (induction) that is under question, it would be circular reasoning.[45] Thus, no form of justification will rationally warrant our inductive inferences.

Hume's solution to this problem is to argue that, rather than reason, natural instinct explains the human practice of making inductive inferences. He asserts that "Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable [sic] necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel." Agreeing, philosopher John D. Kenyon writes: "Reason might manage to raise a doubt about the truth of a conclusion of natural inductive inference just for a moment ... but the sheer agreeableness of animal faith will protect us from excessive caution and sterile suspension of belief."[46] Commentators such as Charles Sanders Peirce have demurred from Hume's solution,[47] while, some, such as Kant and Karl Popper, saw that Hume's analysis "had posed a most fundamental challenge to all human knowledge claims."[48]

The notion of causation is closely linked to the problem of induction. According to Hume, we reason inductively by associating constantly conjoined events. It is the mental act of association that is the basis of our concept of causation. There are at least three interpretations of Hume's theory of causation represented in the literature: (1) the logical positivist; (2) the sceptical realist; and (3) the quasi-realist.[49]

The logical positivist interpretation is that Hume analyses causal propositions, such as "A caused B", in terms of regularities in perception: "A causes B" is equivalent to "Whenever A-type events happen, B-type ones follow", where "whenever" refers to all possible perceptions.[50] In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote:

power and necessity ... are ... qualities of perceptions, not of objects ... felt by the soul and not perceiv'd externally in bodies.[51]

This view is rejected by sceptical realists, who argue that Hume thought that causation amounts to more than just the regular succession of events.[39] Hume said that when two events are causally conjoined, a necessary connection underpins the conjunction:

Shall we rest contented with these two relations of contiguity and succession, as affording a complete idea of causation? By no means ... there is a necessary connexion to be taken into consideration.[52]

Philosopher Angela Coventry writes that, for Hume, "there is nothing in any particular instance of cause and effect involving external objects which suggests the idea of power or necessary connection" and that "we are ignorant of the powers that operate between objects".[53] However, while denying the possibility of knowing the powers between objects, Hume accepted the causal principle, writing, "I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause."[54]

It has been argued that, while Hume did not think causation is reducible to pure regularity, he was not a fully fledged realist either. Philosopher Simon Blackburn calls this a quasi-realist reading.[55] Blackburn writes that "Someone talking of cause is voicing a distinct mental set: he is by no means in the same state as someone merely describing regular sequences.[56] In Hume's words, "nothing is more usual than to apply to external bodies every internal sensation, which they occasion".[57]

The self

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Statue of Hume by Alexander Stoddart on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

Empiricist philosophers, such as Hume and Berkeley, favoured the bundle theory of personal identity.[58] In this theory, "the mind itself, far from being an independent power, is simply 'a bundle of perceptions' without unity or cohesive quality."[59] The self is nothing but a bundle of experiences linked by the relations of causation and resemblance; or, more accurately, that the empirically warranted idea of the self is just the idea of such a bundle. This view is forwarded by, for example, positivist interpreters, who saw Hume as suggesting that terms such as "self", "person", or "mind" referred to collections of "sense-contents".[60] A modern-day version of the bundle theory of the mind has been advanced by Derek Parfit in his Reasons and Persons.[61]

However, some philosophers have criticised Hume's bundle-theory interpretation of personal identity. They argue that distinct selves can have perceptions that stand in relations of similarity and causality with one another. Thus, perceptions must already come parcelled into distinct "bundles" before they can be associated according to the relations of similarity and causality. In other words, the mind must already possess a unity that cannot be generated, or constituted, by these relations alone. Since the bundle-theory interpretation portrays Hume as answering an ontological question, philosophers, like Galen Strawson, who see Hume as not very concerned with such questions have queried whether the view is really Hume's. Instead, it is suggested by Strawson that Hume might have been answering an epistemological question about the causal origin of our concept of the self.[62] In the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume declares himself dissatisfied with his earlier account of personal identity in Book 1. Philosopher Corliss Swain notes that "Commentators agree that if Hume did find some new problem" when he reviewed the section on personal identity, "he wasn't forthcoming about its nature in the Appendix."[63] One interpretation of Hume's view of the self has been argued for by philosopher and psychologist James Giles. According to his view, Hume is not arguing for a bundle theory, which is a form of reductionism, but rather for an eliminative view of the self. That is, rather than reducing the self to a bundle of perceptions, Hume is rejecting the idea of the self altogether. On this interpretation, Hume is proposing a "no-self theory" and thus has much in common with Buddhist thought.[64] On this point, psychologist Alison Gopnik has argued that Hume was in a position to learn about Buddhist thought during his time in France in the 1730s.[65]

Practical reason

Hume's anti-rationalism informed much of his theory of belief and knowledge, as well as his treatment of the notions of induction, causation, and the external world. But it was not confined to this sphere, and also permeated his theories of motivation, action, and morality. In a famous sentence in the Treatise, Hume circumscribes reason's role in the production of action:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.[66]

Hume's anti-rationalism is defended in contemporary philosophy of action by neo-Humeans such as Michael Smith[67] and Simon Blackburn.[68] It is opposed by cognitivists such as John McDowell, concerned with what it is to act for a reason,[69] and Kantians, such as Christine Korsgaard.[70]

Ethics

Hume's writings on ethics began in the Treatise and were refined in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). His views on ethics are that "[m]oral decisions are grounded in moral sentiment." It is not knowing that governs ethical actions, but feelings.[71] Arguing that reason cannot be behind morality, he wrote:

Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.[72]

Hume's sentimentalism about morality was shared by his close friend Adam Smith,[73][not in citation given] and Hume and Smith were mutually influenced by the moral reflections of their older contemporary Francis Hutcheson.[74] Peter Singer claims that Hume's argument that morals cannot have a rational basis alone "would have been enough to earn him a place in the history of ethics".[75]

Hume also put forward the is–ought problem, later called Hume's Law,[75] denying the possibility of logically deriving what ought to be from what is. He wrote in the Treatise that in every system of morality he has read, the author begins with stating facts about the world, but then suddenly is always referring to what ought to be the case. Hume demands that a reason should be given for inferring what ought to be the case, from what is the case. This because it "seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others".[76]

Hume's theory of ethics has been influential in modern day meta-ethical theory,[77] helping to inspire emotivism,[78] and ethical expressivism and non-cognitivism,[79][not in citation given] as well as Allan Gibbard's general theory of moral judgment and judgments of rationality.[80]

Aesthetics

Hume's ideas about aesthetics and the theory of art are spread throughout his works, but are particularly connected with his ethical writings, and also the essays Of the Standard of Taste and Of Tragedy. His views are rooted in the work of Joseph Addison and Francis Hutcheson.[81] In the Treatise he wrote of the connection between beauty and deformity and vice and virtue,[82] and his later writings on this subject continue to draw parallels of beauty and deformity in art, with conduct and character.[83]

In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume argues that no rules can be drawn up about what is a tasteful object. However, a reliable critic of taste can be recognised as being objective, sensible and unprejudiced, and having extensive experience.[84] Of Tragedy addresses the question of why humans enjoy tragic drama. Hume was concerned with the way spectators find pleasure in the sorrow and anxiety depicted in a tragedy. He argued that this was because the spectator is aware that he is witnessing a dramatic performance. There is pleasure in realising that the terrible events that are being shown are actually fiction.[85] Furthermore, Hume laid down rules for educating people in taste and correct conduct, and his writings in this area have been very influential on English and Anglo-Saxon aesthetics.[86]

Free will, determinism, and responsibility

Hume, along with Thomas Hobbes, is cited as a classical compatibilist about the notions of freedom and determinism.[87] The thesis of compatibilism seeks to reconcile human freedom with the mechanist belief that human beings are part of a deterministic universe, whose happenings are governed by physical laws. Hume, to this end, was influenced greatly by the scientific revolution and by in particular Sir Isaac Newton.[88] Hume argued that the dispute about the compatibility of freedom and determinism has been continued over two thousand years by ambiguous terminology. He wrote: "From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot ... we may presume that there is some ambiguity in the expression", and that different disputants use different meanings for the same terms.[89][90]

Hume defines the concept of necessity as "the uniformity, observable in the operations of nature; where similar objects are constantly conjoined together",[91] and liberty as "a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will".[92] He then argues that, according to these definitions, not only are the two compatible, but liberty requires necessity. For if our actions were not necessitated in the above sense, they would "have so little in connexion with motives, inclinations and circumstances, that one does not follow with a certain degree of uniformity from the other". But if our actions are not thus connected to the will, then our actions can never be free: they would be matters of "chance; which is universally allowed to have no existence".[93] Australian philosopher John Passmore writes that confusion has arisen because "necessity" has been taken to mean "necessary connexion". Once this has been abandoned, Hume argues that "liberty and necessity will be found not to be in conflict one with another".[90]

Moreover, Hume goes on to argue that in order to be held morally responsible, it is required that our behaviour be caused or necessitated, for, as he wrote:

Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.[94]

Hume describes the link between causality and our capacity to rationally make a decision from this an inference of the mind. Human beings assess a situation based upon certain predetermined events and from that form a choice. Hume believes that this choice is made spontaneously. Hume calls this form of decision making the liberty of spontaneity.[95]

Education writer Richard Wright considers that Hume's position rejects a famous moral puzzle attributed to French philosopher Jean Buridan. The Buridan's ass puzzle describes a donkey that is hungry. This donkey has on both sides of him separate bales of hay, which are of equal distances from him. The problem concerns which bale the donkey chooses. Buridan was said to believe that the donkey would die, because he has no autonomy. The donkey is incapable of forming a rational decision as there is no motive to choose one bale of hay over the other. However, human beings are different, because a human who is placed in a position where he is forced to choose one loaf of bread over another will make a decision to take one in lieu of the other. For Buridan, humans have the capacity of autonomy, and he recognises the choice that is ultimately made will be based on chance, as both loaves of bread are exactly the same. However, Wright says that Hume completely rejects this notion, arguing that a human will spontaneously act in such a situation because he is faced with impending death if he fails to do so. Such a decision is not made on the basis of chance, but rather on necessity and spontaneity, given the prior predetermined events leading up to the predicament.[88]

Hume's argument is supported by modern day compatibilists such as R. E. Hobart, a pseudonym of philosopher Dickinson S. Miller.[96] However, P. F. Strawson argued that the issue of whether we hold one another morally responsible does not ultimately depend on the truth or falsity of a metaphysical thesis such as determinism. This is because our so holding one another is a non-rational human sentiment that is not predicated on such theses.[97][98]

Writings on religion

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that Hume "wrote forcefully and incisively on almost every central question in the philosophy of religion." His "various writings concerning problems of religion are among the most important and influential contributions on this topic."[99] His writings in this field cover the philosophy, psychology, history, and anthropology of religious thought. All of these aspects were discussed in Hume's 1757 dissertation, The Natural History of Religion. Here he argued that the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all derive from earlier polytheistic religions. He also suggested that all religious belief "traces, in the end, to dread of the unknown."[100] Hume had also written on religious subjects in the first Enquiry, as well as later in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.[101]

Religious views

Although he wrote a great deal about religion, Hume's personal views are unclear, and there has been much discussion concerning his religious position.[102] Contemporaries considered him to be an atheist, or at least un-Christian, and the Church of Scotland seriously considered bringing charges of infidelity against him.[103] The fact that contemporaries thought that he may have been an atheist is exemplified by a story Hume liked to tell:

The best theologian he ever met, he used to say, was the old Edinburgh fishwife who, having recognized him as Hume the atheist, refused to pull him out of the bog into which he had fallen until he declared he was a Christian and repeated the Lord's prayer.[104]

However, in works such as Of Superstition and Enthusiasm, Hume specifically seems to support the standard religious views of his time and place. This still meant that he could be very critical of the Catholic Church, dismissing it with the standard Protestant accusations of superstition and idolatry,[105][106] as well as dismissing as idolatry what his compatriots saw as uncivilised beliefs.[107] He also considered extreme Protestant sects, the members of which he called "enthusiasts", to be corrupters of religion.[108] By contrast, in his The Natural History of Religion, Hume presented arguments suggesting that polytheism had much to commend it over monotheism.[109]

Philosopher Paul Russell writes that it is likely that Hume was sceptical about religious belief, but not to the extent of complete atheism. He suggests that perhaps Hume's position is best characterised by the term "irreligion",[110] while philosopher David O'Connor argues that Hume's final position was "weakly deistic". For O'Connor, Hume's "position is deeply ironic. This is because, while inclining towards a weak form of deism, he seriously doubts that we can ever find a sufficiently favourable balance of evidence to justify accepting any religious position." He adds that Hume "did not believe in the God of standard theism ... but he did not rule out all concepts of deity", and that "ambiguity suited his purposes, and this creates difficulty in definitively pinning down his final position on religion".[111]

Design argument

One of the traditional topics of natural theology is that of the existence of God, and one of the a posteriori arguments for this is the argument from design or the teleological argument. The argument is that the existence of God can be proved by the design that is obvious in the complexity of the world. Encyclopaedia Britannica states that this is "the most popular, because [it is] the most accessible of the theistic arguments ... which identifies evidences of design in nature, inferring from them a divine designer ... The fact that the universe as a whole is a coherent and efficiently functioning system likewise, in this view, indicates a divine intelligence behind it."[112][unreliable source?]

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume wrote that the design argument seems to depend upon our experience, and its proponents "always suppose the universe, an effect quite singular and unparalleled, to be the proof of a Deity, a cause no less singular and unparalleled".[113] Philosopher Louise E. Loeb notes that Hume is saying that only experience and observation can be our guide to making inferences about the conjunction between events. However, according to Hume, "we observe neither God nor other universes, and hence no conjunction involving them. There is no observed conjunction to ground an inference either to extended objects or to God, as unobserved causes."[114]

Hume also criticised the argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). In this, he suggested that, even if the world is a more or less smoothly functioning system, this may only be a result of the "chance permutations of particles falling into a temporary or permanent self-sustaining order, which thus has the appearance of design."[112]

A century later, the idea of order without design was rendered more plausible by Charles Darwin's discovery that the adaptations of the forms of life are a result of the natural selection of inherited characteristics.[112] For philosopher, James D. Madden, it is "Hume, rivaled only by Darwin, [who] has done the most to undermine in principle our confidence in arguments from design among all figures in the Western intellectual tradition."[115]

Finally, Hume discussed a version of the anthropic principle. This is the idea that theories of the universe are constrained by the need to allow for man's existence in it as an observer. Hume has his sceptical mouthpiece Philo suggest that there may have been many worlds, produced by an incompetent designer, who he called a "stupid mechanic". In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume wrote:

Many worlds might have been botched and bungled throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out: much labour lost: many fruitless trials made: and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.[116]

American philosopher Daniel Dennett has suggested that this mechanical explanation of teleology, although "obviously ... an amusing philosophical fantasy", anticipated the notion of natural selection, the 'continued improvement' being like "any Darwinian selection algorithm."[117]

Problem of miracles

Main article: Of Miracles

In his discussion of miracles, Hume argues that we should not believe that miracles have occurred and that they do not therefore provide us with any reason to think that God exists.[118] In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section 10), Hume defines a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent". Hume says that we believe an event that has frequently occurred is likely to occur again, but we also take into account those instances where the event did not occur. Hume wrote:

A wise man [...] considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments [...] A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments [...] and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.[119]

Hume discusses the testimony of those who report miracles. He wrote that testimony might be doubted even from some great authority in case the facts themselves are not credible. "[T]he evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual."[120]

Although Hume leaves open the possibility for miracles to occur and be reported, he offers various arguments against this ever having happened in history:[121] He points out that people often lie, and they have good reasons to lie about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion or because of the fame that results. Furthermore, people by nature enjoy relating miracles they have heard without caring for their veracity and thus miracles are easily transmitted even where false. Also, Hume notes that miracles seem to occur mostly in "ignorant and barbarous nations"[122] and times, and the reason they do not occur in the civilised societies is such societies are not awed by what they know to be natural events. Finally, the miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles across the world fit Hume's requirement for belief, the miracles of each religion make the other less likely.[123]

Hume was extremely pleased with his argument against miracles in his Enquiry. He states "I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures."[124] Thus, Hume's argument against miracles had a more abstract basis founded upon the scrutiny, not just primarily of miracles, but of all forms of belief systems. It is a common sense notion of veracity based upon epistemological evidence, and founded on a principle of rationality, proportionality and reasonability.[123]

The criterion for assessing a belief system for Hume is based on the balance of probability whether something is more likely than not to have occurred. Since the weight of empirical experience contradicts the notion for the existence of miracles, such accounts should be treated with scepticism. Further, the myriad of accounts of miracles contradict one another, as some people who receive miracles will aim to prove the authority of Jesus, whereas others will aim to prove the authority of Muhammad or some other religious prophet or deity. These various differing accounts weaken the overall evidential power of miracles.[125][not in citation given]

Despite all this, Hume observes that belief in miracles is popular, and that "The gazing populace [...] receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition, and promotes wonder."[126]

Critics have argued that Hume's position assumes the character of miracles and natural laws prior to any specific examination of miracle claims, thus it amounts to a subtle form of begging the question. They have also noted that it requires an appeal to inductive inference, as none have observed every part of nature nor examined every possible miracle claim, for instance those in the future. This, in Hume's philosophy, was especially problematic.[127]

Hume's main argument concerning miracles is that miracles by definition are singular events that differ from the established laws of nature. Such natural laws are codified as a result of past experiences. Therefore, a miracle is a violation of all prior experience and thus incapable on this basis of reasonable belief. However, the probability that something has occurred in contradiction of all past experience should always be judged to be less than the probability that either ones senses have deceived one, or the person recounting the miraculous occurrence is lying or mistaken. Hume would say, all of which he had past experience of. For Hume, this refusal to grant credence does not guarantee correctness. He offers the example of an Indian Prince, who, having grown up in a hot country, refuses to believe that water has frozen. By Hume's lights, this refusal is not wrong and the Prince "reasoned justly"; it is presumably only when he has had extensive experience of the freezing of water that he has warrant to believe that the event could occur.[120]

So for Hume, either the miraculous event will become a recurrent event or else it will never be rational to believe it occurred. The connection to religious belief is left unexplained throughout, except for the close of his discussion where Hume notes the reliance of Christianity upon testimony of miraculous occurrences. He makes an ironic remark that anyone who "is moved by faith to assent" to revealed testimony "is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience."[128][129] Hume writes that "All the testimony which ever was really given for any miracle, or ever will be given, is a subject of derision."[120]

As historian of England

From 1754 to 1762 Hume published The History of England, a 6-volume work, which extends, says its subtitle, "From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688". Inspired by Voltaire's sense of the breadth of history, Hume widened the focus of the field away from merely kings, parliaments, and armies, to literature and science as well. He argued that the quest for liberty was the highest standard for judging the past, and concluded that after considerable fluctuation, England at the time of his writing had achieved "the most entire system of liberty that was ever known amongst mankind".[130] It "must be regarded as an event of cultural importance. In its own day, moreover, it was an innovation, soaring high above its very few predecessors."[131]

Hume's coverage of the political upheavals of the 17th century relied in large part on the Earl of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1646–69). Generally, Hume took a moderate royalist position and considered revolution unnecessary to achieve necessary reform. Hume was considered a Tory history, and emphasised religious differences more than constitutional issues. Laird Okie explains that "Hume preached the virtues of political moderation, but ... it was moderation with an anti-Whig, pro-royalist coloring." For "Hume shared the ... Tory belief that the Stuarts were no more high-handed than their Tudor predecessors." Further, "[e]ven though Hume wrote with an anti-Whig animus, it is, paradoxically, correct to regard the History as an establishment work, one which implicitly endorsed the ruling oligarchy".[132] Historians have debated whether Hume posited a universal unchanging human nature, or allowed for evolution and development.[133]

Robert Roth argues that Hume's histories display his biases against Presbyterians and Puritans. Roth says his anti-Whig pro-monarchy position diminished the influence of his work, and that his emphasis on politics and religion led to a neglect of social and economic history.[134]

Hume was an early cultural historian of science. His short biographies of leading scientists explored the process of scientific change. He developed new ways of seeing scientists in the context of their times by looking at how they interacted with society and each other. He covers over forty scientists, with special attention paid to Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Hume particularly praised William Harvey, writing about his treatise of the circulation of the blood: "Harvey is entitled to the glory of having made, by reasoning alone, without any mixture of accident, a capital discovery in one of the most important branches of science."[135]

The History sold well, becoming a best-seller, giving Hume financial independence,[136] and was influential for nearly a century, despite competition from imitations by Smollett (1757), Goldsmith (1771) and others. By 1894, there were at least 50 editions as well as abridgements for students, and illustrated pocket editions, probably produced specifically for women.[137]

Political theory