Hume on Skepticism

David Hume (1711 – 1776) was the king of the skeptics. Many, if not most, of the modern skeptical attacks on Christianity are warmed-over versions of what David Hume said more powerfully. Here are a couple of interesting tidbits that Hume wrote that are relevant to other arguments for Christianity.

In his work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume lays out his system of attack on religion in general and Christian claims in particular. In the midst of his skeptical work, he makes the following claim:

The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction upon any subject. (Enquiry, p.159)

This is interesting. Hume is the same man who claimed that we cannot know cause and effect, not even that of knowing the cause of movement when one billiard ball strikes another. Hume was so thorough in his skepticism that he was willing to give up knowing cause and effect entirely, a quite high price to pay. Yet in the quote above he claims we cannot get to the point where we completely doubt our senses such as in Rene Descartes’ famous mental exercise of doubting all sense perceptions. The point is that even the king of the skeptics, David Hume, holds that full skepticism leads to not being able to know anything . . . presumably including the skeptical conclusions in Hume’s books. Thus Hume trusts his mind enough to make his points about skepticism, but conveniently mistrusts his mind when it comes to making conclusions about the existence of God.

Next, Hume touches on the nature of infinite regress, which is a point important in the Kalam cosmological argument. The Kalam says, briefly, that all effects require causes, the universe is an effect, and therefore the universe requires a cause. It quickly follows by saying that infinite regresses are impossible, therefore when we trace the cause of the universe, we end up with a first, original cause. Hume’s comment is as follows:

An infinite number of real parts of time, passing in succession, and exhausted one after another, appears so evident a contradiction, that no man, one should think, whose judgement is not corrupted, instead of being improved, by the sciences, would ever be able to admit of it. (Enquiry, 157)

It would appear then that the king of the skeptics, the fount from which most of the modern attacks on Christianity spring, would look upon the modern atheists who hold to actual infinites and say their judgement is corrupted.

Perhaps the most ironic of Hume’s statements in the book is found in the last sentence of the book, drawing his conclusion:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity of school of metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (Enquiry, 165).

Hume is giving a skepticism that most modern atheists would support. Can a person’s statement be measured in quantity? No. Can it be demonstrated so we can experience a physical test? No. Then commit it to the flames, for it is but illusion.

Let’s put Hume’s book and his skepticism to the test, and most modern skepticism along with it. Does Hume’s book contain quantity and measurement? No. Does Hume’s book show demonstration of things on which we can perform an experiment? No. Then commit Hume’s book to the flames, and his skepticism along with it, for it is but sophistry and illusion.

In conclusion, such skepticism is either self-refuting, inconsistent, or both. If we want to know truth, we should look to the New Testament, specifically John 14:6.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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2 Responses to Hume on Skepticism

  1. J.W. Wartick says:

    Very often, at least it seems to me, the skeptical writings make assertions like this (eg there must be abstract reasoning with quantities, etc.) without applying it to themselves. When you point that out, the response is not to acknowledge that the categories don’t work but rather to either assert you don’t understand what is being argued or that those categories–for some reason–do not apply to the skeptic’s reasoning.

    Thanks for this interesting post!

  2. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 3/27/15- Star Wars, Aesthetics, Feminism, and more! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

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