Hume closes his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by laying out the implications of his views:
- When we run over libraries, persuaded by these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
One can see from such a statement how Hume gained the reputation, in his day, of being a nemesis to religion. It doesn’t, however, follow from the arguments and claims he makes in the book beforehand.
In the sections immediately preceding this conclusion, Hume argues that skeptical arguments, as outlandish as some their conclusions may seem, show us that the powers of human reasoning are limited. Such arguments include doubts about our senses or the existence of the world. Certainty about these matters is something we want, but not something to be had. Earlier in the book, Hume offers his own skeptical argument, arguing what we take to be empirical “facts” about the world, i.e. knowledge, are ultimately based on the principle of cause and effect. We assume that all the events we observe around us have causes. Hume, however, questions how we know this to be the case. Hume argues that we don’t, if by “know” we mean that we’re certain. We repeatedly observe events that happen before and after each other and infer some kind of causal connection; but, as we know, inferences can be wrong.
Hume points out what today is commonly referred to as “the problem of induction.” We look to the empirical sciences to establish “knowledge”, i.e. beliefs that are true. Repeated experimentation, with similar results, however, doesn’t yield certainty. There’s always the chance that the experiment will turn out differently the next time, or, that we’ve interpreted the data incorrectly. So, at best, we’re left with statistical probability. This raises problems for conceptions of knowledge as being comprised of certain beliefs. (Descartes, as we’ve examined in a previous post, understood a characteristic of knowledge to be indubitability.)
The disturbing implication of Hume’s argument is that the basis for empirical “knowledge,” the principle of cause and effect, is not a “law” of nature, but something we infer. From this inference, we make further inferences, and all this, if we think about it, leads to uncertain conclusions. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume Hume is right about causation; it’s not something we can be certain about. This supports his more general claim that the powers of human reasoning are very limited.
Hume continues to argue that this general point should lead to the acknowledgement that “there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought forever to accompany a just reasoner.” Most people, Hume points out, are affirmative and dogmatic in their options, seeing things only from one side and having no idea of or interest in counter arguments. Reflection on “the strange infirmities of human understanding”, Hume claims, should induce a rightful sense of modesty and reserve.
Secondly, and more controversially, recognizing the limitations of our reasoning capacities should lead to the regulation of our rational inquiries to topics and subjects that fit our narrow capacity, i.e. empirical matters. Furthermore, when it comes to empirical matters, one should limit their reasoning to matters of quantity and number. We can see how Hume’s articulates the approach and attitude of modern science.
Suppose one agrees with Hume on these points as well. Does this, then, support his claim that books that do not deal with empirically quantifiable matters “contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” and, furthermore, that such books should be burned? Obviously not. When I discuss this passage with undergraduates, a bright student is usually quick to point out that by Hume’s own criteria, his own book should be torched! Secondly, it’s unclear, given Hume’s view of human reasoning, how he would know so certainly that books that address issues outside the parameters he sets are really full of falsehoods, or in his terms, “sophistry and illusion.” Perhaps what he means is that such books falsely present themselves as providing certain knowledge, when they really exceed what we can actually reason or be certain about, not that they are actually full of falsehood; such a claim would be more defensible.
But even if Hume’s arguments as expressed in An Enquiry do not entail the falsity of books that deal with non-empirical and non-quantifiable matters, the distinctions he makes raises important questions about the nature of knowledge. What is scientific knowledge? How is this different from the kind of knowledge that is imparted when one reads or studies literature and poetry? Or history? Is one form superior to the others? (Is studying the humanities less important, just as important, or more important than studying the sciences?)
And of course, there is the question of theological or religious beliefs. Religious believers understand their beliefs to be based on God’s revelation of God’s self. Can this also be considered a form of knowledge?
I hope we can discuss these questions further below. However, a brief note in closing. The issues Hume addresses seem go to the heart of the current debate about creation and evolution in our community. We agree that God created the world, but there is disagreement on the how of this creation. What inductive reasoning, i.e. science, tells us seems to be in conflict with some of our cherished interpretations of what has been revealed, i.e. theology.
I think Hume’s claims about the limited powers of human reasoning are important for all sides of the debate to keep in mind. Induction is probable. Interpretation is fallible. Neither gives us certainty. Even if one does not agree with Hume’s ultimate conclusion in the Enquiry, one can still appreciate the general point he is trying to make. Reflection on “the strange infirmities of human understanding,” to paraphrase Hume would, “should naturally inspire us with more modesty and reserve, and diminish our fond opinion of ourselves and our prejudice against antagonists.” In this way, skepticism can be beneficial, even for religious believers. In agreement with Hume, one might argue that understanding the reality of human intellectual frailty should lead us to deep intellectual humility toward others, making genuine conversation possible, and even to a deeper trust in God, who is gracious to finite and fallen creatures.
1 Section XII, Part III, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
2 Section IV, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
3 I won’t attempt to address Hume’s point here, although next month, the plan is to explore a response to Hume on this point by Immanuel Kant, who read Hume and claims that doing so awoke him from his “dogmatic slumbers.”
4 Section XII, Part III, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
5 Section XII, Part III, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2619