David Hume

Philosopher and champion of materialism, 1711-1776

Hume is widely considered to be the materialist "Big Bad Wolf" that gobbled up Paley and cleared the way for science's war against religion.

It is often pointed out that Hume denied cause and effect, but in Craig's "Kalam Cosmological Argument" p141 he comments "Even Hume himself confessed that his academic denial of the principle's demonstrability could not eradicate his belief that it was nonetheless true." Reference the quote:

"But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that that anything might arise without a cause: I only maintain'd, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration; but from another Source." (David Hume to John Stewart, February 1754, in The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols, ed. J. Y. T Greig[Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1932], I:187)

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

"Is 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 evil?" p. 244

Some skeptics call this "the inconsistent triad"

  • An omnibenevolent God would want to eliminate evil.
  • An omnipotent God would be able to eliminate evil.
  • Yet evil conspicuously still exists.
  • Ken Samples suggests some responses to this triad in "Without a Doubt" Ch 19, using thoughts from Swinburne and Plantinga.

    There is a thought from the participant Cleanthes in this work that we seem to see "the image of mind reflected on us from innumerable objects in nature." Lennox cites this on p129 of Cosmic Chemistry. His response: "Many who quote Hume assiduously against miracles do not seem to be aware of his sympathy with intelligent design."

    Response to Hume on Problem of Evil

    Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

    "Abstract of a Treatise on Human Nature", Indiana, Hackett Publishing Co., 1993.

    Statement of the "Problem of Induction" 4.1, p. 15.

    "All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but never connected." In description of a billiard cue stick and ball "he could not pronounce that the one event was connected but only that it was conjoined with the other. After he has observed several instances of this nature, he then pronounces them to be connected. What alteration has happened to give rise to this new idea of connection? Nothing, but that he now feels these events to be connected in his imagination, and can readily foretell the existence of one from the appearance of the other. When we say, therefore, that one object is connected with another, we mean only that they have acquired a connection in our thought ..." 7.2 p. 49.

    "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience as can be imagined. ... It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." 10.1 pp 76-77

    Lennox responds to this in Ch 12 of God's Undertaker, and Anthony Flew, a long-time champion of Hume's, responds as well. Lennox has a more extensive discussion of Hume starting at p121 of Cosmic Chemistry.

    Lennox analyzes Hume's two arguments:

    1. There is an argument from the uniformity of nature
      • Miracles are violations of the laws of nature.
      • These laws have been established by 'firm and unalterable' experience.
      • Therefore, the argument against miracles is as good as any argument from experience can be.
    2. There is an argument from the uniformity of experience.
      • Unusual, yet frequently observed, events are not miracles - like a healthy person suddenly dropping dead.
      • A resurrection would be a miracle because it has never been observed anywhere at any time.
      • There is uniform experience against every miraculous event; otherwise it would not be called miraculous.

    Lennox on p 198 of God's Undertaker argues that Hume's view of miracles is deeply flawed because:

    1. Since he denies that the uniformity of nature can be established, he cannot turn round and use it to disprove miracle.
    2. Since he denies necessary causation, he cannot regard nature as described by laws embodying necessary relationships which would preclude miracle.

    "You then, who are my accusers have acknowledged, that the chief or sole argument for a divine existence (which I never questioned) is derived from the order of nature; where there appear such marks of intelligence and design, that you think it extravagant to assign for its cause, either chance, or the blind and unguided force of matter. You allow, that this is an argument drawn from effects to causes. From the order of the work, you infer, that there must have been project and forethought in the workman. If you cannot make out this point, you allow, that your conclusion fails; and you pretend not to establish the conclusion in a greater latitude that the phenomena of nature will justify. These are your concessions. I desire you to mark the consequences."

    "When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect. A body of ten ounces raised in any scale may serve as proof, that the counterbalancing weight exceeds ten ounces; but can never afford a reason that it exceeds a hundred. If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect." p93.

    [This is considered to be at the heart of Hume's attack on the "argument from design" which from the writings of Paley and others had held sway for a long time.]

    [Lennox also responds to Hume in Ch 4 of "Gunning for God", p97ff and in Ch 7, starting p165.]

    The Natural History of Religion

    With an Introduction by John M Robertson, A and H Bradlaugh Bonner, 1889.

    "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion." From Introduction

    Hume's "is to ought" dilemma, commonly referred to as "Hume's fork"

    "I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explain'd; and at the same time that reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason."

    [Lennox cites this passage on p100, Ch 4 of "Gunning for God" and discusses why "is to ought" is a category error.]

    Windows of Creation
    Evidence from nature Is the universe designed?
      Reasonable Faith Go Back

    Response to Hume on The Problem of Evil

    "Is 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 evil?" Hume

    Some skeptics call this "the inconsistent triad"

  • An omnibenevolent God would want to eliminate evil.
  • An omnipotent God would be able to eliminate evil.
  • Yet evil conspicuously still exists.
  • Argue from the gift of life and the fine tuning of creation that God is good, and conclude "When you cannot see His hand, trust His heart." For the Christian, the fact the Jesus Christ was willing to suffer for us gives us an example of redemption through suffering, and helps us to trust His heart.

    Swinburne and Plantinga's argument that it is for the greater good

    Samples' "Without a Doubt credits Plantinga with revisions of Hume's triad, and these are his statements of what he takes from Plantinga.

    • God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent.
    • God created a world which contains evil and had a good reason for doing so (for purposes of a greater good).
    • Therefore, the world contains evil, but evil is consistent with the Christian view of God.

    Another approach considers how God may act over time.

    • An omnibenevolent God would want to eliminate evil.
    • An omnipotent God would be able to eliminate evil.
    • Though evil exists now, God will eliminate it in the future.

    In Ken Samples' "Without a Doubt", p243, he responds to Hume with: "If evil and suffering can potentially yield a greater good, it seems reasonable to conclude that an omnibenevolent God might not necessarily desire to eliminate all evil and suffering, at least not immediately. Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne thinks that this greater-good theory is the key to answering the problem of evil. He explains: 'The basic solution is that all the evils we find around us are logically necessary conditions of greater goods, that is to say that greater good couldn't come about without the evil or at any rate the natural possibility of evil'.. An infinitely wise, just, and loving God may similarly allow evil and suffering to exist because they serve a greater purpose for human beings and the universe, and ultimately lead to the greater glory of God himself. The existence of evil and ultimate divine goodness are not then necessarily incompatible. God may simply have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering for a time."

    Plantinga suggests "To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore he [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil." Plantinga, "God, Freedom and Evil", p30

    p339-341 of Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis in reference to Paley provides an excellent review and response to Hume's supposed negation of Paley's Watchmaker.

    p339-341 "According to Paley, we would never infer in the case of a machine, such as a watch, that its design was due to natural processes such as the wind and rain; rather we would be obliged to postulate a watchmaker. Living things are similar to machines, exhibiting the same sort of adaptive complexity and we must, therefore, infer by analogy that their design is also the result of intelligent activity."

    "One of the principal weaknesses of this argument was raised by David Hume, who pointed out that organisms may be only superficially like machines but natural in essence. Only if an object is strikingly analogous to a machine in a very profound sense would the inference to design be valid. Hume's criticism is generally considered to have fatally weakened the basic analogical assumption upon which the inference to design is based, and it is certainly true that neither in the eighteenth century nor at any time during the past two centuries has three been sufficient evidence for believing that living organisms were like machines in any profound sense. "

    "It is only possible to view an unknown object as an artifact if its design exploits well-understood technological principles and its creation can be precisely envisaged. For this reason, stone age man would have had great difficulty in recognizing the products of twentieth-century technology as machines and we our selves would probably experience the same bewilderment at the artifacts of a technological civilization far in advance of our own."

    "It has only been over the past twenty years with the molecular biological revolution and with the advances in cybernetic and computer technology that Hume's criticism has been finally invalidated and the analogy between organisms and machines has at last become convincing. In opening up this extraordinary new world of living technology biochemists have become fellow travelers with science fiction writers, explorers in a world of ultimate technology, wondering incredulously as new miracles of atomic engineering are continually brought to light in the course of their strange adventure in to the microcosm of life. in every direction the biochemist gazes, as he journeys through this weird molecular labyrinth, he sees devices and appliances reminiscent of our own twentieth-century world of advanced technology. In the atomic fabric of life we have found a reflection of our own technology. We have seen a world as artificial as our own and as familiar as if we had held up a mirror to our own machines." "Paley was not only right in asserting the existence of an analogy between life and machines, but was also remarkably prophetic in guessing that the technological ingenuity realized in living systems is vastly in excess of anything yet accomplished by man."

    "Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design which existed in the watch exists in the works of nature with the difference, on the side of nature, being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation ... yet in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances ... than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity." Paley

    "The almost irresistible force of the analogy has completely undermined the complacent assumption, prevalent in biological circles over most of the past century, that the design hypothesis can be excluded on the grounds that the notion is fundamentally a metaphysical a priori concept and therefore scientifically unsound. On the contrary, the inference to design is a purely a posteriori induction based on a ruthlessly consistent application of the logic of analogy. The conclusion may have religious implications, but it does not depend on religious presuppositions."

    "If we are to assume that living things are machines for the purposes of description, research and analysis, and for the purposes of rational and objective debate, as argued by Michel Polyani and Monod among many others, there can be nothing logically inconsistent, as Paley would have argued, in extending the usefulness of the analogy to include an explanation for their origin."

    "It is interesting to speculate how the theory of natural selection might have fared in t he nineteenth century had the analogy between the living and mechanical worlds been as apparent then as it is today. The depth of the machine-organism analogy would have more than satisfied William Paley, and would certainly have provided Darwin's antagonists with powerful ammunition with which to resist the idea of natural selection."

    "Although the argument for design has been unfashionable in biology for the past century, the feeling that chance is an insufficient means of achieving complex adaptations has continually been expressed by a dissenting minority, and this dissent is undiminished today."

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