Philosopher David Hume on Providence and a Future State Summary

SECTION XI: on Providence and a Future State

102-03. I offer this account of a conversation I had with a friend.

Hume : I admire philosophy for the liberty it received from the freedom and toleration of the age and country of its first birth. It was not cramped by creeds and confessions. Except for the banishment of Protagoras and the death of Socrates, that age lacked the bigoted jealousy of the present one. Epicurus lived to an advanced age in peace and tranquility in Athens. Even Epicureans were permitted to officiate at the altar in the sacred rites of the established religion. Philosophy in her youth did not have to bear the persecution that blows upon her at present.

Friend : I know persecution never has arisen out of calm reason but entirely from passion and prejudice. Epicurus could have defended himself from those who tried to persuade the public to hate him.

Hume : Make a speech on behalf of Epicurus that might satisfy at least those in Athens who would have been more philosophically astute.

Friend : This will not be difficult. I shall be Epicurus and you, Mr. Hume, respond for the Athenian people.

Hume : Agreed! Proceed upon these suppositions.

104-10. Friend: I come to you, O Athenians, to justify to you what I teach in my school; and I find myself rejected out of hand rather than engaged with calm enquiry. Rather than seeking the common good you are diverted by questions of fruitless, speculative philosophy. If I cannot persuade you that these questions are indifferent to the real needs of society, its peace and security of government, then send me back to my school and I shall concern myself only with your most speculative questions.

David Hume - Citizen of the World

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Those philosophers who are interested in religion but reject the traditions of your forefathers and the doctrines of your priests are trying to discern how far religion can be established on the principles of reason. Their doubts are rightly aroused as they should be in any meaningful enquiry. They describe the beauty and order of the universe and ask if such a display of intelligence could come from atoms or if chance could produce this sublime universe. It is sufficient that I prove that this question is entirely speculative; but I propose that by my denial of providence and a future state I, rather than undermining the foundations of society, actually advance solid principles.

You believe that the only argument for believing in divine existence is derived from the order of nature that shows such intelligence and design that it must have such an intelligent designer and that chance or unguided nature could not be the cause. You reason from an effect to a cause, and you further reason that the cause must be of sufficient stature to create the effect. But, of course, we must not ascribe to the cause any qualities not required for the effect. From looking at a painting, you are not also going to suggest that you know that the painter must also be a sculptor and an architect. We must keep to the universe, the particular work that is under our consideration.

So the gods possess the precise degree of power, intelligence, and benevolence as is required for their workmanship. Nothing in them more than this can be proven without exaggeration and flattery beyond our appropriate reasoning. We cannot go from the universe as effect to Jupiter as cause, and then move to another effect as if the present one is not glorious enough. We can only know of a cause what can be directly derived from the effect. They must be perfectly adjusted to each other, with neither inferring anything not found in the other. You cannot claim that the cause could have created something better, more perfect and with less disorder. For such a greater intelligence does not exist. If we believe that we do not live in a perfect world then we cannot believe in a perfect creator. So let your gods, O philosophers, be suited to the present appearances of nature and do not try to enhance them in order to make them more suitable to the attributes you so fondly ascribe to your deities.

When your priests and poets, supported by your authority, O Athenians, talk of the golden age of the past before the one of vice and misery today, I listen with reverence. But when philosophers who choose reason over authority say the same thing, I am provoked into asking, &How do you know this, who opened to you the book of fate, that your deities will have any purpose beyond what appears?& I say that they have gone beyond reason, raised on the wings of imagination. For they argue from cause to effect rather than from effect to cause, presuming that such a perfect cause would make a more perfect world. But they cannot ascribe to a creator any perfection that is not found in his creation. And it is fruitless to try to exonerate Jupiter by saying that the laws of nature control his power and make him create mankind and animals so imperfect and so unhappy. I must admonish you if you depart from reason and add to the attributes of a cause beyond what appears in the effect, or add in your imagination to the effect in order to increase the worthiness of the cause.

Why, then, do you find what I teach in my school -- or rather what I examine in my gardens -- so odious? For what do you find in this speculative discussion that enhances -- let alone is concerned with -- the security of good morals or the peace and order of society?

You say I deny providence and a Supreme Ruler of the world who guides events, punishes the unjust and rewards the virtuous. But I do not deny the course of events. I acknowledge that virtue is favoured over vice and from past experience mankind has found friendship the chief source of joy and moderation the source of happiness. But if divine providence is allowed to distribute rewards justly, I must expect to see better rewards for the good and greater punishment of the bad than I find.

And what must a philosopher think of that vain reasoning which places reward ultimately in the future so that this life is merely a porch to a greater building, a prologue that is merely an introduction? Where come such ideas concerning the gods? They cannot come from the present phenomena for it cannot point towards anything further that is different. No, these ideas come from imagination.

Is this a just world? If you say, &yes,& then I say that justice here must be complete. If you say, &no,& then I say that you have no right to ascribe such imperfect justice to the gods. And if you say, &justice now is in part, but later it will be complete,& I say that you have no right to speculate beyond what you see at present.

Thus, O Athenians, I have as much right to contemplation as do my antagonists. We must live in this world and regulate our conduct in this world according to the great standard set by experience. We cannot seek alternative help from the senate. Because this subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience, it is useless for us to seek any new inference.

111. Hume: You have put into the mouth of Epicurus those principles with which, as you know, I agree. But from experience it may be possible for me to refute this reasoning. If you saw a half-finished building with heaps of brick, stone and mortar about, could you not infer from this effect that it was the work of design and was in the process of being finished? If you saw a human footprint on the shore, would you not conclude that a person had walked that way? Why not apply this reasoning to the order of nature? Does it not suggest the possibility of a more finished scheme at some distant time or space? If the process of reasoning is the same, why accept one and reject the other?

Friend : I answer: because the subjects are different. From our observation of his numerous activities, we know man's methods of activity. From our experience we can conclude from a footprint not only that a person has gone that way, but that we can project from our experience other things about the person and his species. But the Deity is known to us only by his universe and he is one of a kind; and we can draw on no other experience by which, in our analogy, we can infer further attributes. We observe only a partial degree of wisdom and goodness and we can go no further. It is with conjecture that we put ourselves in the place of the Supreme Being that he will act in the same way we would act. To reason thus by analogy is fallacious because man and the Deity are so different and the one is so much inferior to the other. From experience we can infer what another person might do but not what such a Supreme Being might do. Man is as much like the Deity as a waxen taper is to the sun. What we imagine to be a superior perfection might really be a defect. Just reasoning and sound philosophy does not permit us to ascribe to a Supreme Being as perfection what appears to us as imperfect. Religion, as a species of philosophy, cannot carry us beyond experience or give us measures of conduct that are not furnished by common life. The political interests of society are not served by metaphysics and religion as philosophical disputes.

Hume : You believe that religious doctrines and reasonings ought not to have influence on life. But this does not mean that they cannot have any influence. Many do not share your views and they draw many consequences from belief in a Deity. They may suppose a divine source for punishment and reward. Even if this reasoning lacks justice is irrelevant. The influence is the same. And those who try to remove prejudice from believers in religion may reason well but they cannot be good citizens. For in trying to remove one restraint they create another and make it easier to infringe on the laws of society.

Every principle of philosophy ought to be tolerated by the state. For what is of danger to the sciences and the state is the consequence of opening the way for persecution.

My main difficulty with your reasoning is your supposition that a cause can only be known by its effect or to be so distinctive that no analogy can be formed from our experience of other causes. It is only when two things are constantly conjoined that we can infer the one from the other. And where we only observe an effect that is distinctive, I do not see how we can draw any inference concerning its cause. If experience is our only guide, cause and effect must bear relationship to other causes and effects that are similar and that we have found conjoined.

Those who stood against Epicurus supposed the universe to be proof of a Deity. Your reasonings on the supposition merit attention.

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