David Hume

Hume was a Scottish philosopher born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Hume is famous for continuing the tradition of empiricism, started by Locke and followed by Berkeley, which sees knowledge as coming originally from sense experience. Hume differs from these philosophers, however, in that he remains skeptical about what causes our perceptions of things. While Locke assumes there is a material substance which causes our perceptions, and Berekeley presents the radical thesis that the cause of our perceptions originates in the Mind of God, Hume refuses to make either assumption. His skepticism leads him to question there really are “causes” and “effects,” or if our concept of causality is merely the result of the mind’s practical nature? Hume will also argue against classic philosophical arguments for God’s existence, and refer to popular religion as “superstition.”

The English philosopher Locke had pointed out that since all knowledge comes ultimately from sense experience, we can only know the appearance of things and not their true nature. Hume embraced this empirical understanding of knowledge as his starting point. Like Locke, he denied as Descartes had believed that there are “innate ideas” in the mind. Because the mind is a blank slate, it is through our perceptions and later reflections about things that the mind gathers impressions and ideas.

Hume differs from Locke in that while Locke assumes there is a material substance which causes our perceptions, Hume does not grant this assumption. Rather than Berkeley, who offered his own alternative hypothesis (that our perceptions are caused by God), Hume commits to remaining skeptical about what it is that causes our perceptions. Of course, he acknowledges that while this skepticism, put forth in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, guides his philosophy, he nevertheless must act practically in “real life” by assuming his perceptions are caused by real objects.

Hume explains that while all of our impressions and ideas come from sensory experience, the mind then creates relationships between these ideas which affects how we experience things. For example, the mind wants things to be coherent. If we see a flower, we want to believe that the flower will exist when we turn away from it. Our mind fills in the gaps, imagining what it no longer perceives and assuming this imagination corresponds to reality. Hume writes that we assume “interrupted perceptions are connected by a real existence” and in doing so we the mind “produces the fiction of a continu’d existence.”

Based on his understanding of the mind as “filling in the gaps” in our perceptions in order to make sense of our experiences, Hume explains that the mind itself is a concept rather than a necessarily existing substance. He writes, “What we call a mind, is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations, and suppos’d, tho’ falsely, to be endow’d with a perfect simplicity and identity.” Likewise, Hume explains that causality, the idea that there are real “causes” and real “effects” is not true. He explains that “cause” and “effect” are simply mental constructs which we use to draw relationships between things in order to turn our perceptions into a meaningful and coherent experience.

Hume, like Locke and Berkeley, also sought to do away with the longstanding philosophical belief that abstractions are real. Scholastic philosophers such as Aquinas and Anselm believed that abstract concepts such as “man” or “table” existed as real things. Likewise, Descartes believed that things such as triangles and circles really exist, and that the knowledge of these things was given to him by God. Hume explains that “man” and “triangle” are both mental constructs, abstractions created by the mind generalizing off of the commonalities between different particular perceptions. Likewise, space and time do not “really” exist, but are simply mental constructs based on experience.

In the same way that Hume strives to understand the origin of ideas based on a “scientific” understanding of human nature, likewise he takes the same approach to morality. Hume recognizes that most of the beliefs about what is moral or not in Europe are based on the mythologies of religion. Hume believes that an honest morality recognizes that people prefer pleasure rather than pain, for themselves as well as others. He explains that morals are practical by nature, since they are rooted in the desire to see real actions being done in the world. Likewise, they are based on feeling, emotion rather than reason. Hume therefore takes the position that morality neither is, nor should be, based on reason.

Hume explains how societies are practical by their very nature, and that the laws and virtues which a society upholds are therefore to serve practical ends. Every society has its own customs and conventions, ways in which it strives to maximize the good for its citizens. Hume therefore explains that “justice” is not some thing that exists and can be known, but is simply the feeling people have when their “rights” are protected. Likewise, “injustice” is the feeling that their rights are being abused. Laws therefore do not have some claim to any higher authority than their practical value.

Hume’s skepticism led him to become an outspoken opponent of religion. He writes, “Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men’s dreams.” Hume saw the popular Christian concept of God as a being who desires to be worshiped or who would send that which he created to a fiery afterlife of eternal damnation as superstitious and absurd. He considers miracles, that which violate the laws of nature, as unlikely and likewise denies immortality since he explains that the mind is merely a “bundle of perceptions.”

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he asks whether it’s possible to discover a “natural religion” according to the light of reason. He examines classic philosophical arguments for the existence of God, however, concludes they do not stand up to critical analysis. He refutes the argument that God must necessarily exist if we have an idea of him, which Descartes put forth in his Meditations, by explaining we can have all sorts of ideas of things that don’t actually exist. He refutes the argument that God must exist since the world shows signs of having been “intelligently designed,” writing “This world… is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard…” Further, he brings up the age old question of how an all-knowing, wise God could allow so much evil to exist in the world? Because of his skepticism and atheism, Hume was hated by many Christians and his books were banned by the Catholic Church.

Unlike Descartes, Hume believed that animals do feel pain. Hume believed that it was man’s arrogance to believe he is better than animals, that philosophers are better than “common people,” or that men are in some way better than women. Hume believed in the equality of the sexes, and that animals are just as intelligent as human beings. For example, he points out the mother bird who shields her eggs in a perfectly crafted nest as a creature of great wisdom.

Although Hume put forth a skeptical philosophy, he sought to find a balance between thought and action in his daily life. He tell us, “In all the incidents of life we ought still to preserve our scepticism. But we should also dine and play backgammon with our friends.” His philosophy was the culmination of the empirical tradition, and the inspiration for the philosophy of Kant. Hume represents modern man, bringing down the beliefs of tradition, and inspiring new questions. Seeking to live well and contribute to the betterment of mankind, he encourages us, “Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”