Monday, March 30, 2009

Hume's Mind, Hume's Books

Mark Vernon touches on David Hume:

Theologians, and their critics, get into the reasons 'afterwards', as it were, and also to help 'the faithful' with the important process of discernment: 'faith seeking understanding' in Anselm's famous formula. So there is an important, even vital, dialogue to be had between faith and reason. The arguments are worth having because of the way they shape faith, or the lack of it. But faith itself is prior to reason; it is the existence of faith that gets the debate about belief going in the first place.
I suppose there are two senses in which I can agree with this: first, yes, faith really does get the conversation going because it produces truth claims ("Jesus rose from the dead after three days," "Mohammed received the Koran directly from God," etc.) that may or may not hold up in the light of deeper scrutiny, hence the tensions between faith and reason. And yes, second, faith produces these truth claims in response to a basic human longing to understand our place in the universe. But to both, the answer is the same: so what? The same is true of any wild guess of any sort -- a dream, a misheard phrase, a drunken speculation, a game of word-association, a bout of paranoia, a moment of existential angst, etc.

Einstein is said to have had dreams that gave him some of the ideas that led to the formulation of special relativity. But the rigorous formulation and experimental validation of special relativity is what counts about it and qualifies it as knowledge worth acting on and building on, not the originating dream.

Vernon continues:
One thing that is striking about reading Hume's philosophy is the way he tends to distance himself from the arguments he conveys. He writes dialogues or uses irony. He is perhaps suggesting that all reason is inevitably provisional. When he is read by those who are already convinced of the positions he purportedly wholeheartedly supports - namely those associated now with atheism - they therefore risk missing the point. Hume is certainly anti enthusiastic superstition, which he saw all around him. But if he's against such evangelical belief he'd also be against convinced atheism. His main goal, I'd say, is to demolish the possibility of rational certainty in matters to do with the nature and origin of things at all.
I think this mistakes one form of caution for another. Hume was writing at a time when it would have been unthinkable to come out with a full-throated articulation of atheism and hope to live a free and respectable life, so he used characters in his Dialogues to speak lines. Philo was the character that most closely approximated the voice of atheism, but even that character held back on certain points. And underscoring the delicacy of the topic in the time -- Hume died in 1776, when anticlerical and anti-monarchical revolutionary stirrings were intermingled and none too well-received in elite Britain -- Hume famously provided the Dialogues be published only posthumously. This is not to say that David Hume secretly held to "convinced atheism," whatever that's supposed to be; we can't read his mind, just his books.


Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'll reiterate my view that "there is an important, even vital, dialogue to be had between faith and reason."

Thus, I reject the use of the two-word phrase "convinced atheism."

If one starts at "point zero" one might postulate a god, then decide to "believe" there is a god, i.e., take a leap of "faith." One is "convinced" due to one's own decision, in the notion of god.

One who does not take that leap of faith does not, thereby, assume the mantle of "convinced" atheism.

I have said it before, and until I am convinced otherwise will stay with my position, that by engaging in thought or dialogue that atheism is just another form of belief, is like me, with no skills in necromancy, entering a magician's competition.

I do not indulge my opponents by letting them design the playing field, and make all the rules. I would also, in a duel with pistols, allow my opponent to maintain and load the weapons, and make the choice of which pistol I got to use.

I do not "believe" there is/are no god/gods. I am empty of "belief" on this subject. I also am completely apathetic about it. Why, then, do I get into these discussions? Because religionists desperately want to have power over my life in some way or another, and I don't want them to, so I have to stay on my toes.

I know you were not espousing the notion of "convinced atheism" as such, and you made that clear with "whatever that's supposed to be."

Anonymous said...

Heck, I messed up my first sentence/paragraph above. I meant, of course: "I'll reiterate my objection to the view that . . ."