The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 30 Reason From Passion: David Hume, The Great Infidel

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Reason From Passion: David Hume, The Great Infidel

Humans are frightfully good at getting used to things. The phenomenal becomes the commonplace with depressing regularity, all newness sopped up and defused by our habit-prone brains. We devour novelty, reduce it to normalcy, and move mundanely on without a second thought. But what is the machinery of that process, of breaking down new experiences into old ones and cataloguing them, of making the new routine? And what are the consequences of that mental machinery’s operation?

The arc of those questions forms the intellectual life of one of humanism’s greatest lights, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). While analyzing the formation of our mental habits, he uncovered new principles about the psychology of morality and the arbitrary nature of religious certainty that earned him the epithet of “The Great Infidel,” and brought emotion and instinct crashing back into the realm of pure philosophy.

DavidHumeFor the first forty years of his life, he was a man adrift, full of talent and startling ideas and with no idea whatsoever of how to apply them. He attended the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve, proved himself a first-rank student, and then left before obtaining an actual degree. This was common practice at the time—you went to university, brushed up on your Latin and classics, and then left when a chance at a real career offered itself, without troubling too much over the whole graduation thing.

Hume, however, didn’t have a career waiting for him. He was a bookworm whose whole purpose was reading classics and refining the style of his written English, even as his spoken language was, and forever would be, a mass of (to an English ear) impenetrable Scotticisms. He was philosophically against the Church, and didn’t terribly fancy soldiering, which just left a career in trade, which he tried in 1734 for a few months, only to get summarily fired for systematically correcting the English of his employer’s outgoing letters. So, he continued to drift, spending some time in France in the 1730s and even turning into an improbable military man when he accompanied General St. Clair on a farcical attempt to capture Lorient on the south coast of Brittany for no particular reason in 1746.

That’s not to say that he was intellectually sterile during these years, just that the world seemed particularly dedicated to ignoring the revolutionary works of his mind and pen. His A Treatise of Human Nature, which he conceived while still a teenager but didn’t manage to publish until 1739, was an archetypal misunderstood masterpiece. The force of its originality is still potent 270 years later, and it’s no wonder that the few people who took notice of the book upon its first publication utterly failed to grasp its meaning.

The Treatise lays out the themes that Hume elaborated on for the rest of his career, and for pure youthful daring and novelty, there are few books to equal it. Here he wonders about where reason and knowledge really fit into our behavior and societal assumptions, and his persistent question is, “Might things be otherwise?” All of our non-mathematical knowledge, he demonstrates, is based upon appeal to experience. We see one billiard ball strike a stationary ball, followed by the resultant motion of that stationary ball, and our brains stitch up the space in between those observations with causality. Prior to any experience with the transfer of momentum, we could imagine a thousand different effects resulting from the collision. Perhaps both balls stay still. Perhaps they both end up going backwards. Perhaps the second one leaps three feet up in the air. There is nothing in the motion of that first rolling ball which forces us, prior to experience, to expect a transfer of momentum and a resultant forward motion of the second ball. When we say cause, we mean a temporal proximity of events that we have experienced enough times to link together mentally in a cause-effect system.

Hume’s few early commentators took all this to mean that he believed that anything could cause anything, and that causality was a deep lie. They either deliberately or carelessly missed the subtlety of his parsing of our intellectual experience of causation. They couldn’t see how he was, even as a teenager, sapping the walls of reality and common-sense reason and drawing attention to how we actively form our world by acts of unconscious mental creativity. And his critics certainly didn’t appreciate his application of this skeptical system to morality.

Philosophy had been engaged, for a millennium or two, in the task of finding an absolute morality, a morality that had been perfected through reasonable argumentation until it rested at last in its ultimate form. Hume, melding his own insights into our unconscious smithing of reality with the emotional theories of Francis Hutcheson, maintained that this effort was not only impossible but undesirable, that morality comes not from some theoretical unified reason, but from a moral sense lodged in the motive powers of sympathy and self-interest. Passion, that maligned and “brutish” feature of humanity, Hume locates at the center of our moral creativity and suggests that, so long as moral theory disdainfully does without the input of sympathetic instinct in favor of theological or philosophical perfection, it will only be a hobbling approximation entirely incapable of explaining the growth and evolution of societal morality.

This new morality was distinctly not appreciated.

Shaken by the critical and financial failure of the Treatise, Hume experimented with the form of the essay, gaining success by publishing a series of moral and political short pieces attuned to the essay-mania of the mid-eighteenth century. Buoyed by the reception of those works, he reworked the Treatise in several less-abstract forms, including the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which contained the new sections Of Miracles and Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State, both of which alerted the clergy who weren’t already in the know to the implications of Humean thought for theology.

British theologians had been having a hard-enough time fighting off the English deists  but had been holding their own (or so they felt) so long as the ground of conflict was the historical position of the Church and interpretation of the Scripture. With Hume, however, a new front had been opened, a concentrated and philosophically formidable attack on every possibility of religious certainty. Hume had, through the growing popularity of his essays, gone from an abstract non-entity to a religious threat greater than Voltaire, Diderot, and all the English deists put together.

The best place to see what they were so scared of is in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which he considered the finest of all his writings, but which his friends wouldn’t let him publish during his life. Written largely in the 1750s, it is a conversation between an orthodox theist, a philosophical theist, and a skeptic, and it is devastating. The majority of the book is given over to a sustained analysis of the argument from design—the argument that since a watch needs a watchmaker, the universe, being ever more intricate than a watch, therefore must have a supreme designer, which is God.

Hume quickly summarizes the easy objection to this argument, that it rests on analogy, and makes clear that arguments by analogy are only as good as the two items being compared are similar, and that the act of creating a watch and that of creating a universe are so wholly different that all sense of proportion rails against analogous treatment. He then moves into a virtuoso display of ingenuity that could have come from no one but David Hume. He steps back from the blatant anthropomorphism of the argument from design to point out that selecting design as an analogical starting point is essentially arbitrary: “What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?” He then proceeds to spin with dizzying novelty a series of alternate cosmogonies, based on analogy from other observable aspects of nature.

If you analogize backwards not from design, but from vegetative generation, you get a model of a succession of universes producing each other mechanically, as a tree produces seeds that produce new trees. If you choose to focus on how finite goals are produced from the contributions of multiple finite entities, you create a polytheistic cosmogony. Looked at evolutionarily, perhaps the earth is the first experiment of a limited God who hasn’t quite figured the whole process out. Taking gravity and magnetism as your central analogical objects, perhaps motion and attraction can generate order from within, and therefore the universe is its own God. With unchecked mirth, he rolls through the possibilities and demonstrates how each is, under the conventions of analogical reasoning upon which the argument from design rests, equally likely. To construct a whole cosmogony on man’s design of machines is about as fruitful as constructing one on a plant’s ability to produce seeds or a constructions crew’s ability to specialize tasks to create a unified and diverse object—they are all equally probable, analogically speaking, and therefore none of them are certain or necessarily compelling.

It was that same capacity of stepping back from habit to conceive of how a system appears before we have habituated ourselves to its premises that sparked the controversial ingenuity of the Treatise and that devastated religious orthodoxy in the Dialogues and a small clutch of other works besides. Hume’s sharp capacity to stab at unperceived weak spots in the very concept of certainty itself made him a dangerous enemy of intellectual conformity, one who used his increasing reputation to speak out in favor of man’s right to suicide, against all forms of organized religion, and for the world-changing power of applied empathy.

But what was really the final insult of all was that David Hume, the arch-heretic, was at the same time considered the most delightful man one could possibly befriend. Many of his closest friends were priests and theologians who abhorred the powerful skepticism of his writings but who could not help but loving the man personally. The great infidel was at the same time le bon David, whose reputation for basic goodness and mildness of temper was beyond question. Upon his return to France as a diplomatic secretary in the 1760s, he was greeted as a national hero by king, commoner, priest, and atheist alike. When he was attacked in the press, it was the moderate clergy of Scotland who were the first to rise to his defense. Even James Boswell, who as friend to Dr. Johnson ought to have reviled Hume, couldn’t help but attend the great infidel in his final sickness, to sit and wonder at how a man with no sense of religion could remain so composed and even cheerful in the face of death.

Hume put to an end the idea that irreligion and personal immorality must necessarily go hand in hand. For a Britain that had taught itself that there was something low and vicious about the English deists, David Hume was the first great public example of a man entirely and publicly without religion who was nonetheless happy, moral, and internationally venerated. His History of England was the standard text for a century after his death. George III honored him with a pension and a position as diplomatic charge d’affaires in France and then as undersecretary in England, setting a precedent for allowing the avowedly irreligious to serve with distinction in government. As a philosopher, we owe Hume much, but as a human, we owe him much more.

Further Reading

The Life of David Hume by E.C. Mossner (1954) has been the Hume book of record for a while now—and for good reason. In spite of stretching to a considerable 600 pages of often dense text, its total grasp of Hume’s life and political/intellectual world are not only beyond question, but delivered with a humor and appreciation of humanity that you don’t often find. To paraphrase Captain Kirk, of all the books I’ve encountered in my studies, his was the most Hume-an (sorry!). There is also an intriguing new work by James A. Harris, Hume: An Intellectual Biography (2015), which is also the requisite 600 pages but which, at $55 a copy, is too rich for my blood. I’ll let you know about it when the paperback comes out.