This little essay was published in the THE for 5th March 2009


Hume 10 —Rest of the world 0


I suspect that many professional philosophers, including ones such as myself who have no religious beliefs at all, are slightly embarrassed, or even annoyed, by the voluble disputes between militant atheists and religious apologists. As Michael Frayn points out in his delightful book The Human Touch, the polite English are embarrassed when the subject of religion crops up at all. But we have more cause to be uncomfortable.

            The annoyance comes partly because of a sense of déją vue all over again. But it is not just that old tunes are being replayed, but that they are being replayed rather badly. The classic performance was given by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the middle years of the eighteenth century. Hume himself said that nothing could be more artful than the Dialogues, and it is the failure to appreciate that art that is annoying.

            In the Dialogues there are three principal characters. The first is Philo, a religious sceptic, whose voice is clearly that of Hume himself.  Cleanthes is an apologist whose stock-in-trade is the argument to design for the existence of a deity: the familiar argument that the delicate and wonderful adjustments of nature irresistibly point to the existence of a divine architect: all nature declares the Creator’s glory. Finally there is Demea, who wants the God of the philosophers: infinite, perfect, immutable, eternal, or transcending space and time, incomprehensible and mysterious. Hume’s art consists firstly in setting these two at each other’s throats. Each represents an element in monotheistic religious belief. Yet they cannot fit together. In some of the most humorous passages—and it is a very amusing work— Philo sides with Demea in trashing the conception of the deity available to Cleanthes, and indeed calling him little better than an atheist, but then sides with Cleanthes who trashes the conception of the deity available to Demea, and in turn calls him too little better than an atheist. On each front, Philo wins, by two votes to one. The two wings of theology, one making God immanent, something to be understood as analogous to ourselves, and one making him transcendent, beyond spatio-temporal physical understanding, simply cannot be reconciled. The believer has to oscillate incoherently, averting attention from first one and then the other.

            The problems with the divine architect, creating a cosmos in a way analogous to that in which a human designs an artefact, are manifold and familiar. Our own creative activities are highly dependent on the delicate adjustments of the physical world. Our ideas are ideas of the things we come across in that world. Human designers are dependent on parents, not self-caused or self-explaining. Their aims and their passions are adapted to the animal and social lives they lead. None of this is supposed true of the divine architect. But suppose we waive those difficulties, we still have it that human designers work in groups, refine the designs of others, sometimes lose interest in their designs, go on to make improved versions, and so on. Cleanthes’s theology leaves it open that the world, ‘for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.’ And Philo rightly concludes that ‘I cannot, for my part, think that so wild and unsettled a theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all’. Demea agrees: Cleanthes is little better than an atheist.

            Later in the Dialogues Cleanthes gets another day in the ring, when the moral attributes of the deity come into the picture. But this only bruises him further, for it is obviously absurd to advance an a perfectly benevolent, all powerful, and all knowing archtect as the best explanation of the spotty and often appalling course of human and animal lives. We cannot infer, from the way of the world, a deity that has any preference for good above evil, any more than he has for heat above cold or day above night.

            So then we turn to Demea’s transcendental conception of the deity. But this quite outruns anything with any analogy to those things of which we have experience, and which therefore provide the origins of our ideas. We cannot understand how anything could be necessarily existent, beyond time, immutable yet active. Since we have no idea of what the property of being necessarily existent in this way might be, then for all we can understand it might as well belong to the whole given cosmos as anything else. Some might suggest that the world of abstract mathematical objects provides an example of the kind of existence needed, but most philosophers hold onto Frege’s insight that numerals are adjectives rather than nouns. So they deny that there is a ‘world’ of mathematical objects in a relevant sense. And even if we were to talk that way, it would give us no usable concept of a deity. The number four is not on the face of it a source of moral and political authority, or an actor in the world’s affairs, or the target of prayers or the source of consolation, although it has as much claim to be the sustaining ground for the ongoing order of nature as anything else we can try to imagine. Cleanthes agrees: Demea can say nothing intelligible about his deity, and this makes him little better than an atheist.

            So is Hume himself an atheist? The word does not fit, and he never so described himself. He is much too subtle. Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal. And this is Hume’s conclusion. At the end of the Dialogues, the little boy, Pamphilius, who is present as an auditor, says that Cleanthes’s arguments appealed to him the most, and even Philo, surprisingly, makes some apparently complimentary remarks about the design argument, provided it has a completely undefined conclusion. Some commentators have rather flat-footedly thought that this was some kind of recantation on Hume’s part. But of course it wasn’t. It was a supreme piece of his habitual irony. Since by the end neither Cleanthes nor Demea can defend any usable conception of a deity, it mattters not in the least whether you are drawn to say that ‘it’ exists or to deny it. There is no inference to be drawn about anything—moral, political, empirical, or theoretical—from either the assertion that ‘it’ does or the atheist assertion that ‘it’ does not. Joining in on either side equally implies that we know what we are talking about, and the right philosophical attitude is just to laugh at persons who suppose that.

            Hume therefore elegantly sidesteps the common charge that dogmatic atheism is just as much a ‘matter of faith’ as faith itself. You cannot make that claim against someone whose mocking irony is careful to issue no ‘ism’ at all. He also escapes the debating point that atheism is ‘parasitic’ on religious belief. A contented absence of belief is no more parasitic on what is absent than the absence of crocodiles in England is parasitic on them being there, although it is also true that you could not laugh at faiths without them being there to be laughed at. But it is also wrong to call him an agnostic. That would imply a definite question about which we do not know the truth. But since there is no definite question at issue, that too lapses.

             Hume knew that he was unlikely to be understood.  He also knew that the interesting questions now shift to the study which he pioneered in The Natural History of Religion, the comparative study of religious practices and the psychological and social mechanisms that give rise to them, and to which they give a voice. The interesting questions surround the anthropology of activities such as dramas, dances and music, rituals and ceremonies. Here the question of belief subsides, and the focus turns to what Wittgenstein later called the ‘stream of life’ which issues in these doings. There is no doubt that those doings and sayings have a function, for good or ill. They may express hope or fear, safety in the universe or unease at its harshness, and for that matter tribal solidarity and hostility to others, or universal benevolence and brotherly love. Since religious practices are those of ordinary people, they inherit both the better and the worse sides of human nature. According to Hume all human beings have ‘some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and the serpent’, and even Christians are human. Some of their music, architecture, and poetry is rather good. Some parts are less so.

            The bad things happen when people decorate their bare, inchoate, unstable and inconsistent imaginings with the baser trappings of their culture. They come out of the fog bearing ludicrous beliefs about cosmology or biology, or carrying their envies and fears, their embarrassments about sex in general or certain varieties in particular, their desire to steal some land or make war on their neighbours. Deities then become dangerous: megaphones through which emotions get whipped up and particular moral demands are given a spurious authority. To carry the megaphones people need prophets and priests, who are often supposed to signal their rapport with the deity by making remarkable things happen. Hume also completely destroyed the reasons for believing in any such revelation and signal of revelation in the other prong of his scepticism: the devastating argument against belief in testimony of miracles. This strips away the pretension to special authority, and then we can go on to test the moral injunctions in their own terms, standing on our own feet. The scandal is when the forum for debate, such as our own House of Lords, is stacked with just one set of devotees, with the kind of result witnessed in its defeat of Lord Joffe’s assisted euthanasia bill.

            The upshot then ought to be not dogmatic atheism but sceptical irony. Of course, sceptical irony is just as infuriating to those making special claims to authority, and perhaps more so. Men and women of God may find it invigorating and bracing to meet disagreement, but even benevolent mockery is mockery, so they would find that it is much harder to bear the Olympian gaze of the greatest of British philosophers.


Simon Blackburn’s book How to Read Hume was published by Granta in 2008.