God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
Apr 22, 2013. According to the `Abdu’l-Bahá – the son and successor of the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith – there are four accepted methods of comprehension. These are sense-perception, reason, tradition, and intuition. None of them is sufficient as a basis for certain knowledge:
[A] man is not justified in saying, “I know because I perceive through my senses,” or “I know because it is proved through my faculty of reason,” or “I know because it is according to tradition and interpretation of the Holy Book,” or “I know because I am inspired.” All human standards of judgment are faulty, finite. (‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 20).
David Hume (1711-1776, also see Hume in Wikipedia), sometimes called the “most important philosopher ever to write in English,” would have agreed.
Famously skeptical, he viewed philosophical metaphysics and the continental European celebration of reason and rational thought as entirely unfounded.
He was a thorough-going empiricist. Like Locke and Berkeley before him, he believed that knowledge comes only through sense experience. But such knowledge was neither certain nor beyond question. Cynically (or perhaps not, the case is hard to tell) he viewed human conviction as ruled by passion. Human morality – he believed – was founded on a self-interest that colored all attempts at certainty.
Hume had little love for religion, no regard for tradition, and no regard for intuition. Here is how he summarized his case against the three in The Natural History of Religion:
Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.
(Understandably, this view won him a formidable reputation as an atheist).
Yet Hume is one of the most delightfully readable of the philosophers, and his philosophical preoccupations have proven very influential, not only in utilitarianism, logical positivism, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, the economics and political philosophy of his friend Adam Smith, but in science as well, where he is regarded as one of the founding fathers of cognitive science.
Hume on Religion
Given the wide range of Hume’s thought, it perhaps best to consider his philosophical perspectives as they relate to religion – our topic. This is an arena where his skepticism seems to have had a powerful impact on the world.
Hume seems to have been an entirely irreligious man. Apparently, he held religion to be entirely based on human needs. Roy Porter, writing in The Creation of the Modern World, his history of the British enlightenment, characterizes Hume’s aforementioned The Natural History of Religion thus:
Hume trained his scepticism against … the Deists, reasoning that their much-vaunted pristine monotheism or natural religion was but wish fulfilment. In reality, all religion had its origins in fear and ignorance, and the first faiths had been crude and polytheistic.
In time, the progress of the mind drew monotheism out of polytheism, clarity out of confusion. Monotheism, however, in its turn bred enthusiasm, defined in Johnson’s Dictionary as ‘a vain belief of private revelation, a vain confidence of divine favour or communication’. … Hume’s strategic distinction between enthusiasm – fanatically intolerant but driving men to assert their liberties – and the superstition which made men law-abiding through cowed objection – was to prove highly influential, notably in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
Thus Hume sabotaged Christianity by advancing a naturalistic account of the religious impulse, while equally discrediting the Deist myth of prehistoric monotheism.
In this essay, Hume pioneers a naturalist account of the causes, effects, and historical development of religious belief. Hume locates the origins of religion in emotion, particularly fear and the desire to control the future. He further argues that monotheism arises from competition between religions, as believers seek to distinguish their deities as superior to all rivals. The monotheist drive [is] to dominate other beliefs, and to burnish the primitive, emotional core of religion under a veneer of theology. Hume concludes that this yields intolerance, intellectual dishonesty, and unnatural moral doctrines.
Personally, I find it hard to square Hume’s highly speculative causal argument with his views on empiricism, the importance of avoiding fallacious and simplistic metaphysical arguments, and his skeptical insights. His arguments don’t stand up to his own standards of proof.
It doesn’t seem that Hume trained his brilliantly skeptical mind in the methods of self-aware self-examination that a truly scientific methodology requires. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a skeptic viewed his own reasonings as beyond skeptical reproach.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Hume delayed publication of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion until after he died. It is a delightful read. Presented as a dialogue between Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea, it explores the prevailing philosophical views about proof of the existence of God, presenting arguments for and against them. Many of the points Hume made are highly regarded even to this day and continue to provide ammunition for those who hold to the view that belief in God is inconsistent with modern reason.
One of the most important points Hume makes is that the idea of God is – using the modern way of talking about it – contentless. Hume, like Hobbes before him, thinks that human reason cannot comprehend God. Because – Hume believes – all of our ideas are derived from sensory experience (either directly or built up from them) there is no way that we can get real-life empirical proof of the existence of God. And true to his empiricist convictions, he can’t believe in the power of reason to point towards causal proofs.
Hume also attacks the cosmological argument, which in the 18th century was based on two ideas that happen to feature strongly in the writings of `Abdu’l-Baha. This is the idea that “nothing can come from nothing” and that therefore the universe must have a first cause (i.e., God). The grounds supporting this view are two maxims:
- Whatever exists must have a cause or ground for its existence.
- No cause can produce or give rise to perfections or excellences that it does not itself possess.
Hume attacks this position by claiming that the necessary causality hasn’t been proven to hold. From his point of view, the maxim’s are metaphysical assumptions – and it is entirely possible that something can come from nothing. (Note that this is a conclusion that is inconsistent with scientific accounts of the university which hold that there are laws of nature that hold everything in a kind of cosmic causal thrall.)
The Argument from Design
Closely related is the argument from design, which holds that the universe has perfections that show that it must be designed by an intelligence similar to that of a human mind. Hume puts the following argument into the mouth of Cleanthes:
Look around the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines… All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, exceeds the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed.
This can’t hold true, Hume argues, as the relationship between human and machines is far different from that between the author of the universe and nature. You can’t extend the analogy. Hume has his mouthpiece Philo say:
In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: But beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis.
This, of course, is recourse to empiricism. Nobody has seen the world arising from design, so the evidence is lacking.
Nor can one claim perfection for the world – because it contains evil, it is imperfect. Hume has Philo suggest that the world “is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard … [created by] some infant Deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance … [or] the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated Deity.”
Hume then brings up the problem of evil. As summarized on the Stanford Internet article on Hume and Religion, the problem can be put as questions:
Is God willing to prevent evil but unable to do so? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is God able to prevent evil but unwilling to do so? Then he is malevolent (or at least less than perfectly good).
If God is both willing and able to prevent evil then why is there evil in the world?
Hume denies that bad things that happen in this world are compensated for in the next, the usual answer to this problem. Again, its empiricism. We don’t have any way of measuring it and thus proving it, therefore we have to just accept the idea that the world is imperfect. Therefore, we cannot infer that God is perfect.
Of course, the belief in miracles and the existence of the soul are all met with similar fates. We can not attain true knowledge about God or religion – Hume claims – from these approaches.
Putting aside Hume’s unreasoned hostility to religion – clearly, not liking it is in his DNA and he has a hard time not thinking of anyone who likes it as a fool – its amazing how strong the correspondence of his thought is with`Abdu’l-Bahá’s analysis of the failure of the four ways of knowing. As far as I can tell, Hume is in total agreement with `Abdu’l-Bahá’s points that sense-impression, reason, tradition, and intuition don’t lead to reliable knowledge.
`Abdu’l-Bahá concludes with a statement about how reliable knowledge is to be found.
Briefly, the point is that in the human material world of phenomena these four are the only existing criteria or avenues of knowledge, and all of them are faulty and unreliable.
What then remains? How shall we attain the reality of knowledge? By the breaths and promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is light and knowledge itself. Through it the human mind is quickened and fortified into true conclusions and perfect knowledge. This is conclusive argument showing that all available human criteria are erroneous and defective, but the divine standard of knowledge is infallible.
I wonder what Hume would say?
Next week, we study Rousseau.
This is the 24th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.