Apr 26, 2013

Happy Birthday, David Hume

Today, were he still alive, would mark the great Empiricist philosopher, David Hume's 302nd birthday -- an event which (as we know from his philosophy), since conceivable, is possible -- though far enough from likely that we would give it little thought, other than play within our imaginations and discourse. 

Though I'm quite far from Hume on many philosophical matters, and  even think him dead-off on some very important  and implication-rich points, I have to admit that, like Thomas Hobbes, he remains among one of my favorite philosophers to read, puzzle over, and to teach, perhaps in some part precisely because of our considerable differences of outlook.  There is something stark -- both in the sense of being sharply clear because underdeveloped and reductive, and in the other sense of being robust, bold, daring -- to Hume's deliberately, deceptively mellifluous prose.

This last week in my Introduction to Philosophy class, we worked our way through one of my favorite works by Hume, his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (video of the first of two lectures available here) It has deservedly become a classic text within the field of Philosophy of Religion, often anthologized, frequently quoted or even lifted from (sometimes, perhaps, without the person citing realizing the provenance of their ideas).  Once the students get past Hume's now-archaic vocabulary, and take a place to listen to the discussions carried out among the three interlocutors, they are confronted with the play and parry of philosophical arguments bearing upon acknowledgedly murky topics of religion -- God's existence and nature, creation and the universe, human and divine minds. . .

So, to celebrate the birthday of the affable and paradoxical Mr. Hume, I've decided to focus in on, and linger over, three aspects of the Dialogues that can get lost from time to time amongst all the arguments being made for and against.. . .  well, sometimes one even loses track of which particular issue is at stake!  Accordingly, I won't be discussing the many imaginative alternative models of deity Hume has his character Philo proffer as live possibilities.  Nor am I going to explore the ins-and-outs of Demea's a priori cosmological arguments or Cleanthes a posteriori design arguments.  I'll leave the speculations about moral and natural evil entered into at the end for others to address, and I'll even resist the temptation to comment on the initial sparring over the propriety of philosophical skepticism the three erstwhile friends engage in in the early parts.

I'll even hold myself back from doing more than just mentioning the clearly intentional similarities, even homage by Hume to an earlier work by one of the classic authors he frequently and approvingly cites, Marcus Tullius Cicero's (i.e. "Tully") dialogue On The Nature of the Gods. I will note, though, that my students were primed to glimpse those connections, as we tackled that text earlier in the semester (videos of the sessions here, here, and here).


Last Man Standing:  Hume's Purpose

Hume never really shows his full hand in the composition, the arrangement, the intention of these Dialogues between Philo, the skeptical philosopher, Cleanthes the avowed "Anthropomorphite," and the "Mystic" and "orthodox" Demea.  There are two passages, however, in which he does frame the project -- in one of them, he does so openly, explicitly, while in the other, he reveals even more, by way of aside and opining, through a remark of Philo's.

So, the first.  In the beginning, speaking in his own voice, Hume tells us that
There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of composition. 
What are these sorts of subjects?  Those which tend towards two opposed extremes
Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious that it scarcely admits of dispute, but at the same time so important that it cannot be too often inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject; where the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept; and where the variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may appear neither tedious nor redundant.

Any question of philosophy, on the other hand, which is so obscure and uncertain, that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard to it; if it should be treated at all, seems to lead us naturally into the style of dialogue and conversation. Reasonable men may be allowed to differ, where no one can reasonably be positive. Opposite sentiments, even without any decision, afford an agreeable amusement; and if the subject be curious and interesting, the book carries us, in a manner, into company; and unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society. 
Both of these extremes characterize natural religion.  On the one hand,
What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments? What truth so important as this, which is the ground of all our hopes, the surest foundation of morality, the firmest support of society, and the only principle which ought never to be a moment absent from our thoughts and meditations? 
Nevertheless:
[I]n treating of this obvious and important truth, what obscure questions occur concerning the nature of that Divine Being, his attributes, his decrees, his plan of providence? These have been always subjected to the disputations of men; concerning these human reason has not reached any certain determination. But these are topics so interesting, that we cannot restrain our restless enquiry with regard to them; though nothing but doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction, have as yet been the result of our most accurate researches.
Does Hume really think that some truths of religious doctrine or belief are so assured, so solid, as he seems to be saying here?  Clearly not, is the conclusion one must arrive at, after reading his Dialogues.  In fact, he does consider these matters obscure, tangled precisely because at bottom -- he thinks -- religious beliefs are irrational and unfounded, and religious arguments accordingly will turn out to conceal ambiguities, contradictions, unwarranted assumptions, points rotten with hidden weakness.

It is particularly interesting that Hume does not attempt any sort of frontal, wholesale assault on religious doctrine and argument here.  His method is much more circuitous, more subtle, more cunning -- all he needs to do, seemingly, is to allow various representatives of  religious positions to engage each other, to make their arguments, to criticize the arguments of -- as well as the assumptions and implications made by -- the other participants in the dialogue.  What is the intended effect? Philo tells us at the end of part 8:
All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a compleat triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: for this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgment is here our only reasonable resource. And if every attack, as is commonly observed, and no defence, among Theologians, is successful; how compleat must be his victory, who remains always, with all mankind, on the offensive, and has himself no fixed station or abiding city, which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend.

Authors, Books, and Minds

One of the most interesting exchanges that takes place between the two committed but incompatible theists, Demea and Cleanthes, stems from the latter's attempt to shore up his initial argument from analogy by providing additional similarly structured arguments -- in effect, analogizing to a second power -- one of which has to do with books.  He proposes a thought experiment worthy of Borges (who of course, is clearly influenced and inspired at times by Hume!)
Suppose that there is a natural, universal, invariable language, common to every individual of human race; and that books are natural productions, which perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables, by descent and propagation. . . .

Suppose, therefore, that you enter into your library, thus peopled by natural volumes, containing the most refined reason and most exquisite beauty; could you possibly open one of them, and doubt, that its original cause bore the strongest analogy to mind and intelligence? When it reasons and discourses; when it expostulates, argues, and enforces its views and topics; when it applies sometimes to the pure intellect, sometimes to the affections; when it collects, disposes, and adorns every consideration suited to the subject; could you persist in asserting, that all this, at the bottom, had really no meaning; and that the first formation of this volume in the loins of its original parent proceeded not from thought and design? 
This by itself provides a startling supposition whose implications are well worth thinking through.  But, Demea complicates these matters yet more.  If you attend only the purpose of his remarks, their entire structure, you will come away with the impression that he has simply knocked down Cleanthes' argument, deflating its pretensions to deliver us some knowledge about the existence and the nature of God:
Your instance . . . drawn from books and language, being familiar, has, I confess, so much more force on that account: but is there not some danger too in this very circumstance; and may it not render us presumptuous, by making us imagine we comprehend the Deity, and have some adequate idea of his nature and attributes?

When I read a volume, I enter into the mind and intention of the author: I become him, in a manner, for the instant; and have an immediate feeling and conception of those ideas which revolved in his imagination while employed in that composition.

But so near an approach we never surely can make to the Deity. His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. And this volume of nature contains a great and inexplicable riddle, more than any intelligible discourse or reasoning
I have introduced much closer paragraph breaks to this passage than Hume's original provides, in part because I want to draw attention to some of the ideas in isolation.  Think about certain of the implications of the second passage for a moment, the coincidence it postulates between writer and reader. 

After all, would not this very logic apply to Hume's own work?  When we read his texts, do we enter into the mind and intention of Hume the author?  Perhaps, one might respond, this greatly depends on the skill of the author, in composition, in arrangement, in choice of word, thought, and image. . .  And, on the other side of the literary divine, perhaps it depends as well on the effort, the attentiveness, the imaginative flexibility, and the education of the reader?  All sorts of issues, quandries, and questions could be raised at this point -- but just for the sake of pressing further, let's set those aside before they bloom and buzz into potential confusions.

Say that Hume is a great author -- as by all sorts of measures he certainly was, or is -- and say we are all correspondingly excellent readers.  Do we experience -- or rather, enter into -- this sort of communion, or coincidence, or should we say contamination in which our own mind and the writer's mind somehow commingle?  Is this merely a conjecture placed in the mouth of one of Hume's characters to attain some sort of effect within an argument?  Or should we take Demea as faithfully relating his maker's and designer's own thoughts on the matter?

It is an interesting problem to raise, isn't it, since if it really is Hume's view on these matters, we would do right in reading the thoughts of the author into the expressions he has accorded his character -- we would grasp Hume's own mind, his ideas, his thoughts, his sentiments, under the guise of another, fictitious person's words.  Think this out a bit further, however; this is a dialogue, is it not?  And, this dialogue represents to us a fundamental clash of perspectives, a set of conflicts, seeming side-changes, critiques and counter-arguments -- one which actually becomes too much for one of the characters, who "not at all relish[ing] the latter part of the discourse. . .  took occasion soon after, on some pretence or other, to leave the company."

Hume is a master of mimetic composition, able to do something extraordinary difficult and thus equally admirable -- to depict, engagingly, entertainingly, and intelligibly, seemingly real people engaged in high-level philosophical discussion.  But, we ought to ask -- which of these is he?  Which of them represents the mind of David Hume, the train of the author's ideas?  Could it be that all of them do?  Or perhaps none of them?  Or Philo more than the others, but not entirely?

I would like to say that, at least in this particular work, in terms of how he generates the thoughts and words  of characters, in time and in dialogue, even vividly depicting sentiments, Hume's literary skill approaches to the level of such great masters as Plato, Cicero, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Borges -- a selective list to be sure, but one in which each author masterfully depicts living, believable beings, mulitfarious thought placed at odds with itself, scattered across the fictitious minds, comportments, and discourse of multiple characters. 


What Kind of Theism? Anthropomorphism and Mysticism

Hume prefigures many late modern movements of critique and criticism which would like to culminate in an easy repose, afforded by adopting a stance expressed in a dilemma for the religious believer. "Explain your God," they say.  "Just what is He supposed to be?  And how are we to know or even conceive anything about your God?" 

The basic problematic is this -- and Hume has very artfully placed Cleanthes and Demea at antipodes representing both horns of the dilemma -- if our knowledge of God basically has to be confined to the experiential realm, and the extra-experiential penumbra into which we can penetrate by some sort of argumentation, then either we get to preserve the traditional transcendence of  God at the cost of rendering the very idea of God vacuous, or we get to accord God attributes analogous to those of human beings at the cost of abandoning much of the content of our traditional conception of God.

All of this depends, it should be pointed out, on adopting a metaphysics and epistemology that, if not Hume's itself, assumes similar lines and grounds itself on similar assumptions -- a point about philosophical commitments that was all too easily overlooked by the largely British, early 20th century participants in discussions about God as an invisible gardener, verifiability, and all of that sort of stuff.  But, let's say -- since it is his birthday after all -- we uncontentious accept Hume's philosophical scheme.  Then, there really is an interesting problem, and the solutions turn out to be yet more interesting.

Demea gets labeled a "mystic" by Cleanthes, who presumably does represent Hume's own views at least on that point.  Why?  He's really of two minds, since he does advocate the sorts of cosmological arguments that hosts of previous theists worked out in considerable detail, with interesting variations.  God is the ultimate cause, the metaphysical originator.  Isn't understanding that to know something at least about God? Add to that God's perfection, his infinity and eternity, the simplicity of not only his mind but his very being -- that's not nothing, surely?

Yet, in Demea's hands, these do become quite literally vacuous.  There can be no similarity whatsoever between God and human being, according to him -- and that leaves Cleanthes, Hume, and us all wondering what those attributes can possibly mean, in any tangible, positive sense.  Demea is indeed a mystic in some sense, since he embraces that outcome.

The history of ideas is full of Mystics, though, so perhaps they're not quite as interesting as the kind of thinker Cleanthes will turn out to be.  In order to preserve the possibility of knowledge of God by analogy to human beings, he will actually deny a number of traditional assumptions about God's transcendence.  He starts by denying the simplicity and immutibility of the divine mind in part 4.
I can readily allow, said Cleanthes, that those who maintain the perfect simplicity of the Supreme Being, to the extent in which you have explained it, are compleat Mystics, and chargeable with all the consequences which I have drawn from their opinion. . . .  A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable, is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all. It is an abuse of terms to give it that appellation; and we may as well speak of limited extension without figure, or of number without composition.
Later in part 12, in order to preserve at least one attribute as absolute -- goodness -- he will argue that claims that God is all-powerful or infinite must be abandoned.
The terms, admirable, excellent, superlatively great, wise, and holy; these sufficiently fill the imaginations of men; and any thing beyond, besides that it leads into absurdities, has no influence on the affections or sentiments. . . .  If we preserve human analogy, we must for ever find it impossible to reconcile any mixture of evil in the universe with infinite attributes; much less can we ever prove the latter from the former. But supposing the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind, a satisfactory account may then be given of natural and moral evil, and every untoward phenomenon be explained and adjusted. A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater; inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end; and in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present.
I'll close by noting that, while they are certainly in the minority among contemporary religious believers, there are some theologians and philosophers who have been espousing, endorsing, and experimenting with the idea of such a "limited God", or if you like a God-Lite -- one can hardly worry about being irreverent towards a God conceived along those lines, now can one?