Hume’sSkepticism of Reason Acrosshis body of work, philosopher David Hume professed his skepticism of reason,science, and religion. Born in Edinburgh, April 26 of 1711, Hume was drawn tophilosophy at an early age, he attended the University of Edinburgh at eleven.By his early, to mid-twenties, he had written and finished his first publishedwork, A Treatise of Human Nature.1 In it, Hume emphasized askepticism of a priori knowledge, knowledge based on pure reasoning andunrelated to experience.
This empirical thinking led Hume to believe thatmorality comes from experience in the world, not innate reason. This conclusionthat virtue was driven by these learned passions led him to famously state:”Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can neverpretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”2. Manyscholars of Hume’s era believed that the best way to seek truth and knowledgewas through pure reasoning. A methodology of thought put forward by ReneDescartes a century earlier in his work, Discourseon Method. In it, Descartes claimed the first step to his method was toonly accept what was undoubtedly true and then work up from there. ForDescartes, the only thing known for certain was that he existed; forced to gooff of only that, a priori knowledge and intense reasoning were used build.
Because of his experience and his methodology, Descartes espoused that reasonis key to knowledge, reason formed by the kinds of innate truths only availablethrough a priori knowledge, knowledge with no room for doubt or argument34.It is precisely this Cartesian construction of reason that Hume is so skepticalof. Humewas an empiricist like the philosopher John Locke before him; the school ofempiricism followed that in order for one to understand matters of fact andtruth about the natural, physical world, one had to go out, experience andstudy the world via a posteriori knowledge. This philosophical branchemphasized truths that were observable and testable, akin to today’s physicalsciences. Hume’s support of the empirical put him at odds with other forms ofthought in his era, such as the rationalist thinkers holding to a prioriwisdom, as is demonstrated in his 1779 work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume’swork maintains a consistent assault on the usefulness of a priori knowledge andthe truths it reveals. Conclusions drawn from a priori knowledge are proventrue only when the opposite statement would be a contradiction. For example: ifsomeone has at least ten apples, then they must have more than nine apples;because if they had less than nine apples, it would be a mathematicalcontradiction.
The issue Hume takes with this though is that in many cases, theopposite of a statement may very well be wrong, but it’s not contradictory. Aclaim that the sun will rise in the morning can’t come from a priori thought orreasoning because a scenario where the sun doesn’t rise isn’t a contradiction5. InDialogues Concerning Natural Religion,Hume uses the idea of natural religion, the belief that God’s existence can beproved through the natural world we live in, to further discuss therelationship between reason and understanding. The work is set up as a dialoguebetween three characters: Cleanthes, who supports the concept of naturalreligion; Demea, who sways on the issue of natural religion but believes thatif it can be proven, it’d be through reason and not scientific thought orinference; and Philo, who both refutes the concept of natural religion and theefficacy of reason as a modality of thought in such a debate.6 Thecharacter of Philo, the skeptic, is a very close representation of Hume interms of his views and beliefs.
Philo doubts the theological arguments of hiscompanions that rely on innate reasoning, such as Demea’s argument of the chainof causality. The chain is an idea he put forward, speculating that there’s achain of cause and effects that stretches back in time and that naturally,there must be a first link in the chain, an unmoved mover who started it all inmotion7. Hume’s distaste for reasonis even summed up in the beginning of DialoguesConcerning Natural Religion; when discussing when to introduce students totheology, the skeptic character of Philo says: Let us become thoroughlyaware of the weakness, blindness, and narrowness of human reason, paying proper attention to itsuncertainty and its endless contradictions, even in ordinary everydaysubjects.
.. The insults to reason continue intermittently through thesection. But Philo does concede that reason has a suitable application in thefield of mathematics because of the subject’s own self-evidence8.
ButPhilo also calls into question many of the conclusions that can be drawn from aposteriori knowledge as well. Hume uses the character to point out that thisinductive reasoning can’t prove anything as certain, only very probable; ifevent A is often followed by event B, it’s a probable assumption that event Awill always be followed by event B, but it’s not a certain assumption asthere’s no definitive cause between event A and event B, only a correlation9. It’sbecause of his diminished confidence in the certainty of inference, and hisdisregard for a priori reason Philo is such a tough skeptic in the dialogue.Hume writing as Philo proclaims subjects such as the qualities and existence ofGod, the beginnings of the universe, and thoughts of the afterlife have “gonequite beyond the reach of our faculties” due to the lack of personal experiencewith them; and instead, inductive thought is best applied to daily conceptslike trade, politics, and morals.10 The idea is that the moreexamples of cause and effect that are seen or experienced, the more evidencethere is to base inductive logic off of, and the stronger an empirical case itwill be. In the examples of argument by design, the belief that the naturalworld itself is evidence of God’s intelligent design, Cleanthes proposes thatthe universes mechanical-like nature, its level of perfectness, it’s beauty andcomplexity, are all examples that prove God created the universe and thereforeprove the existence of God through the universe.
Philo in response to thisdismantles every argument posed to him, often by showing the lack of evidenceand certainty in the empirical proof submitted.Inthe case of reason and morality, Hume proposes an approach that focuses onimmediate experiences and inferences. Human desires and necessities areresponsible for morality in the form of passions that reinforce themselvesthrough action. Desire motivates an action, that action either results inpleasure or pain for the individual, the mind connects these as cause andeffect through inductive inference, and a passion is created. In his Treatise on Human Nature he states: Animpression first strikes upon the senses, and makes us perceive heat or cold,thirstor hunger, pleasure or pain of some kind or other. Of this impression thereisa copy taken by the mind, which remains after the impression ceases; andthiswe call an idea. This idea of pleasure or pain, when it returns upon the soul, producesthe new impressions of desire and aversion.11 It’s only reactions of pleasure or painthat elicit the formation of a virtue or vice, respectively.
In this sense,passions are the driving force behind the morality that affects human action. Ourmorals are the passions we develop that are beneficial either to ourselves orothers, and the things we would deem immoral are often behaviors that areharmful. This implies that our morals come from a place of pragmatism, but aresomehow more than just stark self-interest. People admire the moral qualitiesof honor and courage even in their enemies, and whole cultures sing praises ofthe virtues of peoples long gone; we have a natural concern for the welfare ofothers, and an investment in our action’s effects on them12.This highlights another dynamic in Hume’s treatment of reason in regards tomorality: moral actions aren’t by nature reasonable, nor are immoral actionsdevoid of reason13. That’snot to say reason has no place in morality though.
In Hume’s construction ofmorality, reason has been relegated to an advisory role. Reason acts as judgmentto determine a course of action, while passion supplies the drive. To return toHume’s famous line from A treatise ofhuman nature, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”14.
Asan empiricist thinker, Hume harbored reservations toward the use of reason asan accepted method to understand the world. In addition to this, he also heldhealthy skepticisms about many proofs of induction using a posterioriknowledge, concerned about the availability of experience and information whendiscussing metaphysics and theology15.His doubt and critiques of information gleaned from either source gave Hume acritically skeptical view of philosophy. A view through which he expressed hisconcerns on non-empirical thought repeatedly, proposing that reason is aninadequate tool for understanding concepts like, morality, matters of fact, andeven theology. Bibliography Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method. Gutenberg.
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108 13 Hume. A treatise of human nature. 456-59 14 Ibid. 416 15 Ibid.