Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Conclusion of Hume’s Book

The first exposure I had to a lot of details of the artistic and philosophical history of Europe came from Francis Schaeffer’s book entitled How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer definitely had a particular way of interpreting art spiritually, and he probably committed some errors of fact in his historical details. But when I was about eighteen years old, he got me thinking about history and art and philosophy and cultural criticism at a level I had never worked at before. And he was exactly right about at least one observation. He said that the colleges ignore the last part of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, the part labeled “Conclusion of This Book.” A few years after I read Schaeffer’s book for the first time, I took a philosophy class as part of my Ph.D. program, and we covered Hume and his Treatise of Human Nature, and, sure enough, we did not discuss the “Conclusion.”

Hume spends most of the treatise applying empiricist skepticism to the world and showing that we don’t rationally know that things exist and can’t logically know that cause and effect exist. All we know, he says, is that we experience phenomena, and that the phenomena come in patterns. This part of the book leaves us without any basis for science, love, or faith; life seems meaningless. As my professor duly pointed out, Kant says that reading Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumber,” and that he set about finding a system that would “save” God and science. But in the “Conclusion,” Hume says:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [i.e. the uncertainty that God, people, morals, and causality exist], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.
Maybe God and science didn’t need saving. I suspected Hume just tossed these lines out in order to try to stave off public criticism of his nihilism, but, retaining my own brand of skepticism, I entertained the thought that he wrote the words sincerely. After all, they are in the “Conclusion to This Book,” and “conclusion” doesn’t only mean the end: it might mean that this position marked the final resting place of his thoughts on the subject.

This year, I read Hume’s other most known works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The former covered much of the Humean territory familiar to me, but I was amazed to see that the author started right at the beginning explaining that he had no desire to pull the rug out from under religion and science. He makes his point abundantly clear: we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science, but the basis of these human activities is not in the understanding. We can’t prove that cause and effect exist the way we can prove the Pythagorean theorem, but we still believe in them rightly because we have been made with another mechanism of knowledge, which he calls “custom.” A few minutes ago, when I read the passage I quoted earlier, words stood out that I had never noticed before. I had remembered “reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds” and “I play a game of backgammon” and “they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous.” But I did not remember the words “nature herself suffices to that purpose.” Hume only rejects reason here, not our beliefs. He just wants to show that these beliefs come to us by a path that has nothing to do with arguments and syllogisms.

So now I’m thinking about Kant again. Was he really concerned, as I’ve thought, that Hume made belief in God and science impossible? Or did he see that Hume still believed? In other words, was he disturbed only that Hume placed belief on a foundation other than that of reason?

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