Why Hume Matters

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (www.prpbooks.com).

Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile runs from the Queen’s residence at Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. At the corner where the Royal Mile intersects with the Mound, there stands a statue of a seated man. Occasionally seen wearing a traffic cone on his head, courtesy of exuberant and inebriated students, he nevertheless sits in dignified fashion, clothed in a toga and with a book perched on his knee. Every day thousands of people pass by him, but only a small minority of them are aware of the impact that he—or rather, the historical figure he depicts—has had on the culture in which they live and breathe.

Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh are more aware of his significance, not least because their lectures are held in a building named in his honor: the David Hume Tower. In many ways, Hume is viewed as a heroic figure, not only for the School of Philosophy, but also for the university as a whole—both the humanities and the sciences—representing, as he does, the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume’s significance was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Sunday Times in 1999, which awarded him the title “Greatest Scot of the Millennium,” edging out his close friend, the economist Adam Smith.

David HumeHume’s impact on Western civilization can scarcely be overstated. Traces of his thought can be detected in almost every aspect of our culture today. It was Hume’s writings that famously roused Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and motivated his “Copernican revolution,” which in large measure set the epistemological agenda for the next two centuries. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that without Hume, there would have been no Kant; and without Kant, no Hegel; and without Hegel, no Marx. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the pioneer of Protestant liberalism, propounded his new understanding of Christianity as grounded in religious experience, rather than verbal divine revelation, in response to the critiques put forward by Hume and Kant. Hume’s influential objections to natural theology (arguments for the existence and attributes of God based on natural reason) and to claims of miracles (such as the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus) may have been more responsible for the subsequent decline of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world than anything else. One often encounters today the received wisdom that revealed religion has never recovered from the “double hammer blow” of Hume and Kant.

Hume’s empiricist epistemology provided the inspiration for the logical positivist movement in the early twentieth century, according to which metaphysical, moral, and theological claims are cognitively meaningless: they don’t even rise to the level of falsehood. Logical positivism quickly succumbed to its own internal contradictions, but its spirit lives on in the crude scientism of the New Atheists and other modern critics of supernaturalism.

Hume’s innovative moral theory was arguably the primary influence on the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, a theory that underwrites many secular approaches to ethics today. Hume is certainly the patron saint of philosophers who seek a wholly naturalistic grounding for moral norms.

Meanwhile, in the philosophy of science, Hume’s ghost continues to loom over theories of causation and the laws of nature. The so-called problem of induction, the classic formulation of which is credited to Hume, remains a central problem in the philosophy of science, for which no widely accepted solution exists. Were it not for Hume’s critical analysis of inductive inference, Karl Popper would not have proposed his influential falsifiability criterion for scientific theories.

The above is but a sampling of the areas and disciplines in which Hume’s impact continues to be felt. Although he addresses a wide range of disparate topics, his writings have an underlying unity and consistency insofar as they represent the outworking of an ambitious philosophical and scientific program to understand the world, especially human thought and action, in entirely naturalistic terms. In a real sense, the credibility of Christianity hangs on the cogency of Hume’s critique of supernaturalism. For that reason alone, Hume’s thought demands our attention and assessment.

The goal of this book is therefore twofold: (1) to provide a summary exposition of the major points of Hume’s thought, and (2) to offer a critical assessment of them from a distinctively Reformed perspective. In the process, I hope to show that Hume’s arguments, far from refuting the Christian worldview, indirectly support that worldview by exposing the self-defeating implications of naturalism.