Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

6. God

In addition to his treatment of free will and divine responsibility, Hume in the first Enquiry also draws important consequences from his theory of causal reasoning and causal necessity for the topic of testimony for miracles (EHU 10) – a kind of testimony that, Locke had argued, could provide strong evidence to support claims of divine revelation. Hume first draws from his account of probable inference the conclusion that experience must be our only guide concerning all matters of fact, and that the ‘wise’ will proportion their beliefs to the experiential evidence. Thus, where there is a proof (in the sense of a widespread and exceptionless experience), the wise place a full reliance; where there is only probability (in the narrow sense distinguished from proof), they repose only a more hesitating confidence. Accordingly, where a proof comes into conflict with a mere probability, the proof ought always to prevail. Hume then applies these general principles to the specific topic of testimony. Testimony cannot possess any inherent credibility independent of its relation to experience; rather, testimony of a particular kind properly carries weight only to the extent that one has experience of the reliability (that is, conformity to the truth) of that kind of testimony. Finally, Hume applies this principle about testimony, in turn, to the special case of testimony for the occurrence of a miracle, understood as a violation of a law of nature. Since regarding a generalization as a law of nature is to regard it as having a proof (in Hume’s technical sense), it follows that to suppose an event to be a miracle is, ipso facto, to allow that there is a proof against its occurring. In consequence, testimony for a miracle cannot establish the occurrence of the miracle if there is only a probability, rather than a full proof, that the testimony is reliable. Rather, testimony could establish the occurrence of a miracle only if the falsehood of that testimony would itself be an even greater miracle – and even in that case, Hume remarks, there would be ‘proof against proof’, requiring one to look for some greater basis for credibility in one proof than in the other (such as might be found in its ‘analogy’ with yet other proofs) and resulting in at most a very hesitating acceptance of whichever proof was found to be stronger. In effect, then, Hume argues that one should always accept the least miraculous explanation available for the occurrence of testimony for a miracle.

After arguing for this very high general standard for the credibility of testimony for miracles, Hume goes on to consider the quality of actually existing testimony for miracles, the psychological mechanisms that stimulate the offering and acceptance of false testimony of religious miracles, the high proportion of miracle testimony originating among ‘primitive and barbarous’ peoples and the counteracting effect of testimony for miracles offered in support of conflicting religions. He concludes from this survey, first, that no actual testimony for miracles has ever met the standard required, nor, indeed, has ever even amounted to a probability; and second, that no testimony could ever render a miracle credible in such a way as to serve to establish the claims of a particular religion.

Another application of Hume’s account of causation and causal reasoning in the first Enquiry concerns ‘providence and a future state’ (EHU 11) and is presented in the form of a dialogue between Hume and a ‘friend’. Because observed constant conjunction provides the only basis for inferences concerning the unobserved, the friend argues, we cannot infer more in an unobserved cause than we have observed to be required for an observed effect; and hence a dilemma faces those who hold that the reasonable prospect of rewards and punishments in an afterlife provides an essential motive to moral behaviour. For if the present life is not so arranged as consistently to reward the good and punish the evil, then there is insufficient experiential basis to conclude that God will be any more concerned consistently to reward the good and punish the evil in the afterlife. If, on the other hand, the present life is so arranged that the good are consistently rewarded and the evil consistently punished, then the inference to similar rewards and punishments in an afterlife may be reasonable, but the conclusion will be unnecessary to motivate moral behaviour after all – for the present life itself will offer sufficient incentives in its own right. (It might, of course, be suggested that revelation provides a different and independent source of knowledge about the nature of the afterlife; but Hume has also implicitly attacked claims to have trustworthy divine revelation by attacking the credibility of testimony for miracles used to support claims to revelation.) Hume’s final remark in the dialogue raises the question of whether, given the uniqueness of the origin of the universe and our lack of experience regarding it, anything at all can be inferred about its cause.

Dialogues concerning Natural Religion takes up this suggestion in detail, offering an application of Hume’s theory of causal reasoning to examine what is often called the ‘argument from design’, or ‘teleological’ argument, for God’s existence. The character of Demea – representing philosophical theologians such as Samuel Clarke – proposes that the existence of God can be deduced from the need for a necessarily existent being to serve as the cause of the series of contingently existing beings. However, the characters of Cleanthes (a theist who accepts the view that all causal claims can be established only by experience) and Philo (a sceptic who also accepts the view that causal claims can be established only by experience) reject the notion of necessary existence – since anything can be conceived either to exist or not to exist – and agree that a good argument for the existence of God must be based on empirical evidence that the universe is the product of intelligent design. Their dispute concerns the strength of such arguments. Since we have no experience of the creation of universes, Philo argues, we are in a poor position to assess their causes, and explaining the orderliness of the universe by appealing to the activity of an orderly divine mind seems to be an unnecessary step, for the order of the divine mind itself would equally require explanation. If we must speculate, however, there are many hypotheses possible, at least some of which seem to have the advantage over that of intelligent design. Perhaps, for example, the universe arose through a process of animal generation: experience provides many examples of that process giving rise to intelligence, but no examples of intelligence giving rise to the process of animal generation. Furthermore, if we do suppose that the evidence favours the hypothesis that the cause of the universe resembles a human designer, we cannot limit ourselves to the quality of intelligence but will be obliged to treat that cause anthropomorphically – as embodied, gendered, limited and plural, just as we find the designers of complex human artefacts to be.

Yet despite these objections Philo finds himself moved and even confounded by the immediate persuasive power of Cleanthes’ statement of the argument from design, despite its ‘irregular’ character as judged by the standards of proper causal inference. Philo reports himself to be on psychologically stronger ground when he goes on to argue that the existence, nature and distribution of evils in the world renders it improbable that an intelligent cause of the universe, if there is one, is morally good or concerned to foster human wellbeing. None the less, Philo takes a notably conciliatory tone at the end of the Dialogues, conceding that ‘the cause or causes of the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence’. This need not be considered a complete concession to Cleanthes, however, as he has earlier allowed that ‘the rotting of a turnip’ also bears some remote analogy to human intelligence. While strongly criticizing the pernicious consequences for human society of religious faction and superstition, Philo suggests that the dispute between theists and sceptics is a ‘verbal’ one, based to a considerable degree on differences of temperament: whereas theists emphasize the admitted analogies between the universe and known products of intelligent design, sceptics emphasize the admitted disanalogies. While commentators continue to dispute the extent to which Philo or Cleanthes can be taken to speak for Hume, it is generally agreed that the Dialogues provide a seminal critique of the argument from design.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. God. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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