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Introductory Notes on Hume

Rationalism vs. Empiricism

1. Recall (from Introductory Notes on Descartes) that in the 17th and 18th centuries Western
philosophers were divided into two camps, the rationalists and the empiricists. These two
camps had different views about the nature of human knowledge, the source of our ideas and
the limits of human reason. The rationalists, on the one hand, included Descartes, Baruch
Spinoza (1632~1677) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646~1716). The empiricists, on the other
hand, included John Locke (1632~1704), George Berkeley (1685~1753), and David Hume
(1711~1776). Let’s now characterize these two views of rationalism and empiricism more
precisely.

2. Rationalism: the view that we can have (at least some) substantive information about the
world independently of experience, i.e., by means of self-evident truths and deductive
reasoning. (In other words: rationalism is the view that we can have a priori knowledge
about some matters of fact.)

3. Empiricism: the view that we can have substantive information about the world only by
means of direct experience and inductive reasoning. (In other words: empiricism is the view
that we can only have a posteriori knowledge about any matter of fact.)

4. Now to explain each of these two views with some illustrative examples. The rationalists
note that there are some basic truths of logic, arithmetic and geometry, e.g., tautologies in
logic like “either p or not-p”, simple arithmetic like “2 + 2 = 4”, truisms in geometry like
“the three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees”. They point out that these basic truths
are self-evident to us: we can’t deny their truth without contradicting ourselves, and we seem
to know that they are true without having to consult experience.

More controversially, the rationalists claim that there are other basic, self-evident truths
which we know independently of experience, i.e., “Every event has a cause”, “God is a
perfect being”, etc. (the rationalists used to call these “innate ideas”, and Descartes called
them “clear and distinct ideas”). These basic truths, combined with the kind of deductive
reasoning we use in mathematical calculations, geometrical proofs and deductive logic (as in
Ch.6 of Weston) give us substantive information about the world, e.g. that the world must
have God as the cause, that God must exist, and so on.

5. The empiricists, on the other hand, claim that all of our knowledge comes ultimately from
experience. More precisely, everything that we know comes from what we have directly
observed or experienced, or indirectly from experience by means of inductive reasoning (as
explained in Chs.2~5 of Weston: arguments by example, by analogy, from authority, about
causes, and so on). So, for instance, we know directly from past experience that whenever
we touched fire we got hurt. Generalizing from these past observations, we know by
inductive reasoning that we will get hurt the next time we touch fire. These are things we

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learn by observing the world around us, and though we can deny their truth without
contradicting ourselves, their falsehood is highly unlikely.

As for the truths of logic, arithmetic and geometry, the empiricists typically claim that we get
these truths by reflecting on the ideas we receive from experience, and observing the ways in
which our ideas are related to one another. So, for example, while we seem to know that “2 +
2 = 4” even without observing what the world is like, that is because we know it’s true
simply by noting how our ideas of ‘2’, ‘4’, ‘+’ and ‘=’ are related together.

Empiricists typically deny that claims like “Every event has a cause” are self-evident truths
which we know independently of experience. “Every event has a cause” is a generalization
from observed cases: every observed event has a cause, so we generalize this to all events,
observed or unobserved. Empiricists also typically deny that claims like “God is a perfect
being” can give us substantive information about what the world is like. Rationalists note
that our idea of God is that of a perfect being, and they claim to prove the existence of such a
being in the world independently of experience. Empiricists like Hume respond that “God is
a perfect being” only tells us how our idea of God is defined in terms of our idea of
perfection, but can tell us nothing about whether such a being exists in the world.

Hume’s Empiricism

6. Let me explain David Hume’s empiricist stance in terms of two principles, the Copy
Principle and Hume’s Fork.

7. The Copy Principle states that all simple ideas are copies of impressions received from the
external senses (the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste) and internal feelings
(such as pain and pleasure, joy, sadness, anger, etc.). Since complex ideas are combinations
of simple ideas, this principle implies that all ideas come ultimately from experience. In
other words, the Copy Principle denies the rationalist position that we can have innate ideas
(i.e., ideas which do not come from experience).

In Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, you can find Philo using the Copy
Principle to deny that we can have any idea of God’s nature. In Part II, p.15, Philo says:
“Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: We have no experience of divine attributes
and operations. I need not conclude my syllogism: You can draw the inference yourself.” In
other words, the argument is:
(a) Every idea comes from experience. [implied by the Copy Principle]
(b) We have no experience of God’s nature. [known from experience]
(c) Therefore, we have no idea of God’s nature. [from (a) and (b)]

8. To explain Hume’s Fork we need to first define some terms:


“a priori knowledge”: what we know independently of experience
“a posteriori knowledge”: what we know on the basis of experience
“relations of ideas”: what ideas are in the mind and how these ideas are related together
“matters of fact”: what things are in the world outside the mind and how these things are related together

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Hume’s Fork states that all genuine human knowledge is either:
(a) a priori knowledge about relations of ideas, or
(b) a posteriori knowledge about matters of fact.
We need a posteriori knowledge for matters of fact because we cannot know about the world
outside our minds without experiencing what the world is like. We can have a priori
knowledge about relations of ideas because we don’t need to experience the world outside
our minds to tell what ideas are in our minds and how they are related together. But the most
important aspect of Hume’s Fork is this: it denies the rationalist position that we can have a
priori knowledge about matters of fact. If we can have a priori knowledge about matters of
fact, that means we can tell what things exist in the world and how they are related together
just by looking at the contents of our minds without any experience of what the world is like.
That seems impossible! (Suppose someone claims that we can know whether the contents of
a book—e.g., a biography or an atlas—are true just by looking at the contents of the book
and not at the world—e.g., the actual lives of people or the geopolitical features of the globe.
Hume is basically saying that the rationalist claim is as absurd as that.)

Hume proposes a test by means of which we can tell whether the knowledge we have is a
priori knowledge about relations of ideas or a posteriori knowledge about matters of fact:
(1) We cannot conceive/imagine that what we know a priori is false. For instance, we
cannot imagine that “2 + 2 = 4” is false, and that is because the ideas of ‘2’, ‘+’, ‘=’ and
‘4’ are defined and related in such a way that “2 + 2 ≠ 4” is a self-contradiction.
(2) We can conceive/imagine that what we know a posteriori is false. For instance, we can
imagine that “Pigs don’t fly” is false, because we can consistently imagine a world where
there are mutant pigs with wings or a world where the law of gravity does not hold, etc.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

9. What is “natural religion”? In order to understand what Hume means by “natural religion”,
we need to contrast it with “revealed religion”. Here are the definitions:
Revealed religion: religion based on the belief that God has revealed God’s will to us
(typically through scriptures like the Bible);
Natural religion: religion based on rational considerations and scientific evidence.

10. In Hume’s Dialogues, the existence of God is taken for granted by all the participants in the
debate. The issue being debated is whether we can use human reason and observation of
facts about the world to understand the nature of God.1 We can characterize the debate in
Hume’s Dialogues in two ways, first as a debate between fideists and deists, and secondly as
a debate between mystics and anthropomorphites.

11. Let me first present a definition of fideism (given by Alvin Plantinga, contemporary
philosopher of religion) following this up with a corresponding definition of deism—

1
See p.13 where Demea says, “The question is not concerning the being but the nature of God.”

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Fideism: “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent
disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious
truth.”
Deism: exclusive or basic reliance upon rational inquiry and scientific considerations about
the physical world, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of revealed religion.

12. Another distinction is between what Hume calls mysticism and anthropomorphism—2
The mystics believe that God’s nature is incomprehensible to human reason. They are
skeptics about the ability of human reason to discover truths about God’s natural and moral
attributes, and think that we have very limited, if any, understanding of God’s nature (even
though they believe God is a perfect being). Human reason is finite and has limitations,
while God’s nature is infinite and perfect, so we cannot understand God using human reason,
or figure out God’s perfect plan for the universe.
The anthropomorphites believe that God’s nature is akin to human nature. There can be
crude or refined versions of anthropomorphism. (E.g., a very crude anthropomorphic view of
God, found in movies, is that God is an old white man with a flowing beard wearing a white
robe.) A more refined version of anthropomorphism (in the case of Cleanthes) maintains that
divine intelligence is similar to human intelligence. So anthropomorphites like Cleanthes
believe that we can use human reason and observation of the world to make inferences about
what God’s natural and moral attributes are like.

13. There are three characters in Hume’s Dialogues, Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo. I will briefly
explain their positions in light of the above distinctions.
(a) Demea: the most orthodox in his religious beliefs among the three characters. He is
partly fideist (he doesn’t think the Design Argument works) and partly not (he thinks
the First-Cause Argument and other a priori arguments for the existence of God are
successful). He is also a mystic.
(b) Cleanthes: a deist like Sir Isaac Newton, who was much admired by Hume. A
proponent of the Design Argument and an anthropomorphite, who believes that we
must assume some analogy between human intelligence and divine intelligence. If
we think there can be no analogy at all, we end up being mystics who either don’t
know what God is or believes all sorts of absurd things about God—then, Cleanthes
argues, mystics are just as bad as atheists or agnostics (see pp.28~9). Unlike Demea
and Philo, who believe that God must be infinitely perfect (in wisdom, power, and
goodness), Cleanthes maintains (in response to the Problem of evil) that God is
finitely perfect (see p.67).
(c) Philo: a thoroughgoing fideist, much like Hume himself. Like Hume, Philo is a
skeptic about human reason: our reason is limited and very much liable to error.
Hence human reason cannot be used to comprehend the nature of God. Like Demea
and unlike Cleanthes, Philo is a mystic, and he relentlessly criticizes Cleanthes’s
Design Argument and anthropomorphism. [But Philo does think that an a posteriori
2
In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the terms ‘mystic’ and ‘anthropomorphite’ are introduced on p.28.
Each of these two positions are discussed elsewhere in the book as well, e.g., Philo on mysticism (p.4), Demea on
mysticism and anthropomorphism (pp.13~4), Cleanthes’s criticism of mystics (pp.28, 29), Philo’s criticism of the
Design Argument based on its reliance on anthropomorphism (Part V), and Philo’s criticism of the Design Argument
and Cleanthes’s anthropomorphism based on the Problem of Evil (Part XI).

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argument like the Design Argument is more plausible than an a priori argument like
the First-Cause Argument. This is not because it is rational to accept the Design
Argument (Philo is a die-hard skeptic about reason), but because nature forces the
belief in intelligent design upon him even though there is no rational justification for
the belief. Thus Philo confesses, “In many views of the universe and of its parts…,
the beauty and fitness of final causes strike us with such irresistible force that all
objections appear… mere cavils and sophisms…” (p.66). His more nuanced position
is that the order, complexity and natural beauty of the world seem to give us some
indication of God’s natural attributes, but the admixture of good and evil in the world
gives us no indication of God’s moral attributes. Philo’s final and cautious
assessment is: “That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some
remote analogy to human intelligence” (p.88).]

14. The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion discusses the Design Argument in Parts II~VIII,
the First-Cause Argument in Part IX, and the Problem of Evil in Parts X~XI. Although
Hume presents these as arguments concerning the nature of God, it is also possible to
reinterpret them as arguments concerning the existence of God. Suppose we adopt the Judeo-
Christian understanding of God as:
(a) a unique and personal being, infinitely perfect in wisdom, power, goodness, justice,
(b) who transcends space and time and is the creator and sustainer of the universe, and
(c) who is the ultimate cause or explanation of everything.
Then, given this conception of God, the arguments help establish the existence or
nonexistence of such a God. The Problem of Evil raises a difficulty for (a), difficulties with
the Design Argument pose a problem for (b), and difficulties with the First-Cause Argument
pose a problem for (c). So, if we assume a Judeo-Christian understanding of God, these
arguments can help establish the existence or nonexistence of a being that fits the
descriptions (a)~(c).

Arguments for the Existence of God

15. Let us now run through the list of arguments for the existence of God, at least the ones we’ve
covered in this course. Here are the briefest summaries of each argument—
The Ontological Argument: We have an idea of completely perfect being (i.e., God) and
existence is one of the perfections. Therefore, completely perfect being (i.e., God) must
exist.
The Trademark Argument: We have an idea of perfect being (i.e., God). Now, all ideas
must come from somewhere. But just as something cannot come from nothing, so something
more perfect cannot come from something less perfect. In the same way, the idea of
something perfect can only come from something just as perfect. Therefore, our idea of
perfect being can only come from perfect being (i.e., God), and God must exist as the cause
of our idea of God.
The First-Cause Argument (a type of Cosmological Argument): It is an uncontroversial
principle that everything which begins to exist is brought into existence by something else,
which we shall call ‘the cause’. Now, there are two options to consider. Either (a) every

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cause itself begins to exist and the chain of causes extends infinitely back into the past, or (b)
the chain of causes is finite and there is a first cause which is not caused by anything else.
On option (a), the infinite causal chain itself requires an ultimate cause which explains the
existence of the chain as a whole, and this ultimate cause is by definition God. On option
(b), there is a first cause which is not caused by anything else and this by definition is God.
So, on either option, God must exist as the first or ultimate cause of all there is.
The Design Argument (a.k.a. the Teleological Argument): When we observe the natural
world around us, we find that it displays the same sort of order and complexity that are seen
in human artifacts, but on a much grander scale. Now, the order and complexity in human
artifacts are produced by intelligent designers. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that
the order and complexity in the natural world are probably produced by an intelligent
designer, with much greater intelligence and power than humans. And this intelligent
designer is God.

16. Hume would call the Ontological Argument, the Trademark Argument, and the First-Cause
Argument as a priori arguments. In contrast, the Design Argument is an a posteriori
argument. Hume classifies the first three arguments as a priori arguments because they
claim to prove the necessary existence of God by means of self-evident truths and deductive
reasoning. He classifies the Design Argument as an a posteriori argument because it claims
to establish only the probable existence of God by means of observation and inductive
reasoning.

17. According to Hume, the main problem with all a priori arguments is that they rely on this
rationalist assumption: we can have a priori knowledge about matters of fact. Recall (from
Note 8) that Hume’s Fork rules out the possibility of such knowledge. At best, a priori
arguments for the existence of God can only show how our ideas are related together: they
cannot show that God must exist in the world outside our minds.

18. An a posteriori argument like the Design Argument only claims to establish the probable
existence of God, on the basis of our experience of what the world is like and by means of
general rules which apply to observed cases. Such an argument has a chance of providing a
posteriori knowledge about matters of fact, and Hume’s Fork does not rule out the possibility
of such knowledge. This, combined with the fact that Hume is an empiricist, explains why
the Design Argument receives so much attention in the Dialogues. According to Hume it is
the most plausible of all arguments for the existence of God.

19. But it seems that we can reinterpret the Trademark Argument and the First-Cause Argument
as a posteriori arguments. These arguments rely on principles which can be supported by
experience and observation of the world. For instance, the Trademark Argument relies on the
principle that all ideas come from somewhere, and also on the more questionable principle
that something more perfect cannot come from something less perfect. The First-Cause
Argument relies on the principle that everything which begins to exist must have a cause, and
this has strong empirical support: there are no observed exceptions to this rule. Finally, if we
weaken the conclusions of these arguments, so that they claim not to establish the necessary
existence but only the probable existence of God, then these arguments need not rely on the
rationalist thesis that we can have a priori knowledge about matters of fact.

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20. Contemporary philosophers use a somewhat different taxonomy of arguments for the
existence of God. First we need to distinguish between deductive arguments and inductive
arguments. Deductive arguments (as in Weston, Ch.6) are arguments where if all the
premisses are true, the conclusion must be true. Inductive arguments (as in Weston, Chs.2~5)
are arguments where if all the premisses are true, the conclusion is not guaranteed to be true,
but is more or less likely to be true. The Ontological Argument, the Trademark Argument and
the First-Cause Argument can all be formulated as deductive arguments. The Design
Argument, on the other hand, is an inductive argument.

Secondly, we need to distinguish between a priori arguments and a posteriori arguments


(NB: note that this is different from Hume’s classification of a priori and a posteriori
arguments.) Let’s classify an argument as an a priori argument if none of its premisses is
known a posteriori (in other words, if all of its premisses are known a priori). And let’s
classify an argument as an a posteriori argument if at least one of its premisses can only be
known a posteriori. According to this way of classifying arguments, the Ontological
Argument is the only a priori argument, and the Trademark Argument, the First-Cause
Argument and the Design Argument are all a posteriori arguments.

So we get the following taxonomy of arguments for the existence of God:

A PRIORI A POSTERIORI

(2) The First-Cause Argument


DEDUCTIVE [a.k.a. the Cosmological
(1) The Ontological Argument Argument, in Hume, Part IX]
[in Descartes, Meditation 5]
(3) The Trademark Argument
[in Descartes, Meditation 3]

INDUCTIVE
(4) The Design Argument
[a.k.a. the Teleological Argument,
in Hume, Parts II~VIII]