Doubting Hume was the greatest

Do you sometimes have the feeling that an opinion is coming at you from all sides? Right now, I have that feeling about the greatness of David Hume. The excellent Philosophy Bites had a recent podcast in which he was heralded as possibly the greatest English-speaking philosopher. Then I was reading Edward Craig’s Philosophy A Very Short Introduction with the same accolade and a whole chapter devoted to Hume’s Of Miracles. And, speaking at an event on secularism, he was again brandished as a champion.

Now, no less a figure than Bernard Williams said Hume had written one of the five top moral philosophy books of all time, his Second Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals – though Williams disagreed with him on Hume’s denial of objectivity in ethics: according to Williams, Hume confused what scientific and ethical truth might be.

Hume is also a great read, clear and complex: that makes him stand out, not least if you want to read some big-hitting philosophy in its original language and that language must be English.

However, I can’t help but feel that Hume’s trumpet is being overblown.

For example, it seems there is a profound paradox at the heart of his philosophy that he tries to finesse but that arguably renders it incoherent. On the one hand, he is a thorough-going sceptic – doubting everything from his sense of self to the power of induction in science. But on the other hand, he falls in with the common sense philosophy of Reid. So having doubted himself, he then, famously, dissolves the crisis in a game of backgammon. Or having unsettled the foundations of science, he then declares it to be the best grounds for knowledge.

This ambivalence comes to a head in his thoughts on religion. Take the celebrated chapter Of Miracles. Though packed with interesting arguments – which is why Hume is undoubtedly worth reading – his scepticism about miracles rests on the observation that to believe in miracles requires accepting what someone who has seen a miracle claims to tell you; that rests on the principle that the world for them is the same as it is for you. However, that same principle requires you to deny the testimony, because you do not see miracles yourself, having to rely on the testimony of others. Believing in miracles is, therefore, incoherent.

However, could not exactly the same be said about science? I do not experience a world made of atoms, for example. I have to rely on scientists who tell me that the hard stuff of daily life is, actually, mostly nothing. So on the same grounds that Hume doubts miracles, he’d have to doubt science, and perhaps all knowledge – which is maybe what he did in sceptical mode, until common sense told him that was ridiculous. Maybe, to the believer, believing in miracles is perfectly common-sensical too. Who’s to decide the difference?

Then, there’s Hume’s supposed atheism. Whilst he often begins lines of argument with a theologically positive statement, it is claimed that this is mostly self-preservation, and that if you read between the lines, his atheism shines through. I don’t see it myself. For one thing, his most sustained critique of belief in God, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, was published posthumously and presented its arguments via characters rather than in his own voice, both strategies for minimizing personal risk and maximizing self-expression.

And then, when you turn to the Dialogues, and see the character Philo as closest to Hume, since Philo is the sceptic, you read that Philo admits that the reasons for and against the existence of God ultimately hang in the balance: ‘(I) believe that the arguments on which it is established exceed the objections which lie against it,’ he concludes. This would suggest that Hume is certainly against organized religion but is an agnostic when it comes to the particular question of God.

The irony is that when the Dialogues were published they hardly caused a ripple.

In his own lifetime, I believe, Hume was known as a great historian. Maybe there is a good reason for that. Or am I missing something?