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David Hume's Ideas on Skepticism, Causality and religion

David Hume philosophy

Learn about David Hume’s ideas on skepticism, causality and religion in this detailed overview of the Scottish philosopher's philosophy. 

 David Hume is one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment era and his work covers a wide range of topics, such as Skepticism, causality, morality, and human ignorance. Explore the depths of his philosophy in this comprehensive overview and get to know more about David Hume today!

David Hume's Ideas on Skepticism, Causality

Biography of David Hume philosopher

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) was the most important and influential of the eighteenth-century British empiricists. Of good family and comfortable means, he was for some time engaged in the diplomatic profession and held the office of secretary to the embassy in Paris. David Hume  was a Scottish philosopher whose philosophical views challenged the standard beliefs of his time. He is best known for his skeptical views of causality and knowledge, as well as his emphasis on human ignorance. Through his writings, he argued that causality is not necessarily linked to causes and effects, and thus should be regarded as a subjective inference based on our experience. Additionally, he believed in accepting the limits of one's understanding and refusing to accept conclusions based on prejudice or false assumptions.

David Hume works

His philosophical masterpiece—the Treatise of Human Nature—was published in 1739, when Hume was 28, and remained unsurpassed by his later writings. However, the book fell, in Hume’s words, ‘dead-born from the press’—the first of many disappointments. On returning from his post in France, Hume resumed his literary career in the atmosphere of intellectual activity which Scotland then enjoyed, writing, besides his Enquiries (1748–1751) (a shorter and modified version of the Treatise), many literary, political and philosophical essays. He also composed a History of Great Britain (1752–1777), remarkable for its elegance, scholarship and human insight. A sceptic and freethinker in his intellectual outlook, Hume was nevertheless a staunch and articulate Tory, a man seemingly at peace with the world, who conveyed to his contemporaries a love of life and serenity of outlook which attracted to him the affection and esteem of almost everyone whom he encountered.

What is Skepticism ?

Skepticism is the philosophical idea that, due to the limitations of human knowledge, no opinions, beliefs or conclusions should be held as true beyond a reasonable doubt. Hume argued that since humans can never be absolutely certain about any proposition or belief, our knowledge should always remain 'provisional'. In other words, we should only ever express an opinion when we have enough evidence to confirm it as being more likely than not - and all other doubts should be set aside.

Was Hume a skeptic?

 If a skeptic is one who doubts or even rejects the use of reason as a means of arriving at truth, then Hume was no skeptic. However, Hume recognized that many beliefs are pointless to doubt because one is literally incapable of disbelieving them or not taking them for granted in all one’s reasoning, including such philosophically contentious topics as the existence of external objects and the self, space and time, and the necessity of a cause to every beginning of existence. What makes Hume a skeptic is that he supposed one’s ineliminable beliefs skeptically unassailable not because they are founded on reasons too strong to be undermined by skeptical argument but because they are not founded on reasons at all.

Skepticism David Hume

Hume's philosophical skepticism revolves around his notion of the limits of human knowledge. He maintained that while we can use experience to infer probable outcomes, absolute certainty is not possible. To put it simply, Hume believed that our knowledge is unreliable and probabilistic in nature, and thus can never provide us with absolute truths or guaranteed solutions to theoretical problems. In addition, Hume supported the idea that skepticism can help protect us against unreasonable assumptions and prejudices by forcing us to accept our own ignorance about certain matters.

Skepticism and naturalism

There are two ways of reading Hume. The first is as a sceptic who defends, from empiricist premises, the view that the standard claims to knowledge are untenable. The second is as the proponent of a ‘natural philosophy’ of man, who begins from empirical observations about the human mind and concludes that the mind has been wrongly construed by the metaphysicians. The two readings are not incompatible, although the second has been emphasised in recent commentaries, partly because it parallels recent developments in philosophy.

Hume’s ‘naturalism’ is Newtonian: he tries to construct a science of the mind while making no unfounded assumptions and relying only on observation. If he rejects the theories of the metaphysicians, he implies, it is because he has been able to discover no grounds for affirming them. At the same time, he affects not to be a radical sceptic, since radical scepticism is against nature. He is a sceptic only in the moderate sense once defended in Plato’s Academy—seeking to curb the pretensions of human reason and to remind us of our true nature as passionate and custom-governed beings. When faced with a sceptical conclusion, therefore, Hume often appears to retreat from it, informing his reader that he has merely been discussing the operations of the human mind and not criticising the beliefs that spontaneously arise in us. However, his ironical style, and the barely discernible twinkle in his eye as he proposes his own ‘sceptical solutions’, make it difficult to be sure of his intention.

Perhaps the best way of reconciling the two Hume is to take seriously his repeated emphasis on custom and instinct as guides to human life. Those who take reason as their master, he seems to suggest, will always be led into confusion; and from this confusion scepticism will spring. Having relied upon reason to guarantee our beliefs, we are thrown into doubt and consternation when reason proves its incapacity. If we rely on custom, however, we are led by our own nature to the beliefs by which our lives are conducted, and will never find a better guide, since custom is a summary of genuine knowledge—knowledge established by experience.

Nevertheless, even if that irenic Hume sometimes speaks from his pages, he made no impression on Hume’s contemporaries, who heard only the radical assailant of received ideas. To his early readers, Hume seemed to be arguing against the existence of God and the truth of religion; indeed, he seemed to reject the very concepts of God and the soul, along with such concepts as substance upon which the rationalist world-view had been constructed. He seemed to be sceptical about the existence of material objects, about the objectivity of moral beliefs and even about the fundamental concepts of science, including—most famously—that of causation.

 David Hume theory Meaning and ideas

Hume’s philosophy depends, like those of Locke and Berkeley, on a theory of meaning, and the theory is substantially the same, designed to articulate the fundamental empiricist postulate that there can be no concept except where there is experience. Hence there can be neither grounds for believing in, nor adequate means for expressing, the metaphysical theories of rationalist philosophy. Berkeley had taken Locke’s theory of knowledge to its logical conclusion (as he saw it), and abolished therewith the belief in a material world, elevating the subject and his own mental states into the premise and the conclusion of his philosophy. Hume took Locke’s theory of meaning as his point of departure, and drew conclusions which were at once more radical and more disturbing than those of Berkeley.

As already noted, Hume presented his philosophy as though it began from a natural science of the human mind, being the results of observations which could be confirmed by his readers through direct introspection. He distinguished among the contents of the mind ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’. The first correspond to what we should call sensations and perceptions, the second to what we should call concepts, or ‘meanings’. When I perceive a horse, I have a particular impression (in this case a visual impression); when I think of a horse, I summon up an idea: this idea belongs to a class which together constitute the meaning (for me) of the word ‘horse’.

What is the difference between impressions and ideas?

 For Hume it lies in their respective ‘force’ or ‘liveliness’. The impression is received through the senses, and is vivid and forceful during the moment of its reception. The idea is what remains thereafter, when liveliness and force have dwindled. However, Hume also describes ideas as ‘copies’, ‘representations’ and ‘images’ of impressions: they are ‘the faint images [of impressions] in thinking and reasoning’.

David Hume ideas

Hume follows Locke in distinguishing simple from complex ideas and makes the claim that ‘all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent’. He seeks to prove this important claim by empirical investigation, though his arguments are far from scientific, and he even admits the counter-example of an idea that can be acquired before the corresponding impression (the ‘missing shade of blue’). This does not prevent him from taking the empiricist principle— no impression, no idea—as the starting point of his philosophy.

Complex ideas are built from simple ideas; hence all ideas can be traced to the impressions from which they derived. It follows that no term is meaningful (expresses an idea) unless there is an impression from which its meaning can be learned. The meaning of everything that can be said consists in its sensory or empirical content. Hume also endorses Berkeley’s attack on abstract ideas, arguing that a term acquires its generality not through being related to a special kind of ‘general’ idea, but rather through being related to a class of particular ideas, each being nothing but a faded sensory impression, having no real existence outside the mind of the thinker. It would now be natural to reinterpret Hume as saying, not that ideas necessarily originate in sensory impressions, but that their content must be given in terms of those impressions. But the philosophical significance of the doctrine in either case remains the same.

So far there is little difference between Hume and Locke, and, in following Berkeley’s method of pruning away Locke’s redundant assumptions, it would not be surprising if Hume were to arrive, like Berkeley, at a form of idealism. However, Hume’s theory of meaning leads him in quite a new direction. First, he divides all significant propositions into two kinds: empirical and logical. In the first case they derive what meaning they have from experience; in the second case they speak only of the relations between ideas. Hume explains the distinction thus:

"All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic, and, in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain…. Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe…. Matters of fact…are not ascertained in the same manner, nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible, because it can never imply a contradiction".

Hume here expresses three fundamental views which, in one form or another, have reappeared as definitive of empiricism from his day to ours. Conclusions established by pure reasoning are certain and necessary only because they are, if true, empty. Even mathematics expresses nothing but the relations among ideas, so that its propositions are true only by virtue of the ideas expressed in them, or, what amounts to the same thing, ‘true by virtue of the meanings of terms’. Secondly, the only alternative mode of knowledge, that of matters of fact, does not generate necessary truth, but simply summarises what happens to be true and what might have been otherwise. Thirdly (as Hume goes on to make clear), the only source of any knowledge of matters of fact is experience.

The ideas expressed in factual propositions will all ultimately derive their content from the impressions that served to generate them. There can thus be no a priori proof of any matter of fact. For example, we could not demonstrate a priori that the world either does or does not originate from a God; that either we do or do not survive death; that either there are or are not ‘substances’ which constitute the reality behind the veil of appearance. In this way Hume raises what is the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics; that they are not properly a science, but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding; or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these entangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness.

From this standpoint Hume is able to adopt and turn to his own sceptical ends the criticisms that Berkeley had offered of Locke’s supposed theories of ‘material substance’ and of ‘abstract ideas’. The first, together with the associated distinction between primary and secondary qualities, Hume rejected immediately as superstition, scarcely bothering to examine either Locke’s real intention or Berkeley’s scant but vivid reasoning against it. (As Hume put it, in the terms of his theory of meaning—a theory to which he held dogmatically despite its intended status as a conclusion of scientific observation—there can be no impression of material substance; it follows therefore that there can be no idea of it, so the very term ‘material substance’ is meaningless.) The theory of abstract ideas Hume regarded as incompatible with a fundamental premise of his philosophy, referring to Berkeley’s ‘great and valuable discovery’ that, since everything that exists is both individual and determinate in all its properties, the very idea of an existent with the attribute of ‘generality’ involves an absurdity. In the place of this absurd supposition Hume argued that individual ideas might ‘agglomerate’ so as to introduce into our thinking the necessary element of generality.

This theory—the theory of the ‘association of ideas’—he took in essentials from Locke (who had taken it from Harvey). The theory retains in Hume its original status of a refutable empirical hypothesis. This fact eventually caused it to fall in confusion before the onslaughts of Kant’s theory of knowledge. Nevertheless from these unpromising beginnings Hume was able to formulate a philosophy that presented a powerful challenge to metaphysics. The first subject of his sceptical attack was the concept of causality, fundamental to every scientific enterprise, including that enterprise in which Hume supposed himself to be engaged.

David Hume and causation 

The idea of cause is one of ‘necessary connection’, according to Hume. His argument points in two directions: first, towards the demolition of the view that there are necessary connections in reality; secondly, towards an explanation of the fact that we nevertheless have the idea of necessary connection. The argument undergoes significant alterations in the first Enquiry and abounds in subtleties and complexities which cannot here detain us. In essence it is this.

The idea of necessary connection cannot be derived from an impression of necessary connection—for there is no such impression. If A causes B, we can observe nothing in the relation between the individual events A and B besides their continguity in space and time, and the fact that A precedes B. We say that A causes B only when the conjunction between A and B is constant—that is, when there is a regular connection of A-type and B-type events, leading us to expect B whenever we have observed a case of A Apart from this constant conjunction, there is nothing that we observe, and nothing that we could observe, in the relation between A and B, that would constitute a bond of ‘necessary connection’. In which case, given the premise that every idea derives from an impression, it may seem as though there were no such idea as that of necessary connection, and that those who speak of such a thing are uttering empty and meaningless phrases.

Why is Hume so confident that ‘necessary connections’ between events cannot be observed? His reasoning seems to be this: causal relations exist only between distinct events. If A causes B, then A is a distinct event from B. Hence it must be possible to identify A without identifying B. But if A and B are identifiable apart from each other, we cannot deduce the existence of B from that of A: the relation between the two can only be a matter of fact. Propositions expressing matters of fact are always contingent; it is only those conveying relations of ideas that are necessary. If there were a relation of ideas between A and B, then there might also be a necessary connection—as there is a necessary connection between 2 + 3 and 5. But in that case A and B would not be distinct, any more than 2 + 3 is distinct from 5. The very nature of causality, as a relation between distinct existences, rules out the possibility of a necessary connection.

We say that A causes B, then, because of a constant conjunction between A and B. This constant conjunction causes us to associate the idea of B with the impression of A, and so to expect B whenever we encounter A. Such is the force of habit, that the experience of A compels this idea of B, which therefore arises in us with the kind of involuntariness and vivacity which, according to Hume, are the distinguishing marks of belief. Hence we are compelled to believe that B will follow A, and this impression of determination gives rise to the idea of necessary connection.

The impression is not an impression of a causal relation—or an impression of anything else in the external world. It is simply a feeling that arises spontaneously within us, whenever we encounter the constant conjunction of events. Nevertheless, we misread the resulting idea, as though it had been derived from an impression of necessary connection between A and B. Thence comes the idea of cause as necessary connection. This is an instance of the mind’s tendency to ‘spread itself upon objects’—to see the world as decked out in qualities and relations which have their origin in us and which correspond to no external reality.

This criticism of the common concept of causation was not entirely new, but it was pursued by Hume at great length and with considerable rigour, and the dispute to which it gave rise remains one of the enduring problems of metaphysics. In addition, Hume presented a further problem to the advocates of scientific investigation. This problem has come to be known as the problem of induction. Since the relationship between distinct objects and events is always contingent, there can be no necessary inference from past to future. It is therefore perfectly conceivable that an event which has always occurred with apparent regularity and in obedience to what we call the laws of nature, should not occur. The sun may not rise tomorrow, and this would be entirely consistent with our past experience.

What then justifies us in asserting on the basis of past experience either that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that it is even probable that it will do so? This problem can be seen to be general. Since scientific laws state universal truths, applicable at all times and in all places, then necessarily no finite amount of evidence can exhaust their content. Hence no evidence available to finite creatures such as we are can guarantee their truth. What therefore justifies us in asserting them?

Hume’s Ideas on Causality, and Ignorance.

David Hume’s views on causality were revolutionary in his time, as he famously argued that all events can be explained in reference to natural forces. In arguing this, Hume rejected the notion of divine intervention and miracles. Furthermore, Hume believed that human ignorance was an essential part of our knowledge. He argued that, due to the limitations of human understanding, it is impossible for us ever to achieve a full explanation of any event – all we can do is to speculate on it most likely cause(s). This idea became known as Hume's Principle of Phenomenalism.

According to Hume, many of our opinions are based on habit, prejudice and tradition rather than on actual knowledge or rigorous reasoning. He argued that since human knowledge is limited, so too are our opinions. To back up this idea, Hume discussed the distinction between "matters of fact" - those which can be established through observation or experience - and "relations of ideas," or matters which cannot be established as true through observation. Hume asserted that humans should only hold an opinion when there is sufficient evidence to support it, and should stay away from mere speculative beliefs for which there is no basis in reality.

David Hume’s Skepticism of the External World

While Hume’s most original contribution to metaphysics is to be found in that systematic attack on the Cartesian idea of an a priori science, he also added a new dimension to scepticism of a more traditional form. This is the scepticism which arises from reflections on the disparity that exists between our knowledge of ourselves as subjects and our knowledge of an objective world. Hume begins from the idea that things which exist at different times must be both distinct and in principle distinguishable. A fundamental ingredient in our conception of a physical object is that of ‘identity through time’. Without identity through time the idea of objectivity is imperilled. In a world of instantaneous things, it would seem impossible to distinguish our fleeting experiences from the objects which occasion them. There would be exactly the same evidence for our judgements about both, in which case the distinction between them (between appearance and reality) would break down.

Hume argued that we cannot rely on the concept of identity over time in order to make this distinction. If we could rely on this concept, then we could come to the conclusion that objects endure from one moment to another, and hence that they may exist, in principle, when unobserved. But how could we have the idea of existence unobserved, when there can be no corresponding impression? Such an idea cannot be referred to the ‘outer’ world, but only (as Hume diagnoses it) to the workings of our imagination. The imagination constantly constructs from the fragmentary deliverances of sense-perception the images of enduring things. The resulting idea—of ‘identity’—is, like that of necessary connection, a product of custom and association. Hume contrasts the idea of ‘identity’ with that of ‘unity’. Whenever we are presented with an impression we are simultaneously presented with an impression of unity. This unity of a thing with itself is indistinguishable from the impression, and therefore from the idea, of an ‘object’.


When presented with two impressions at different times, we are presented with an impression not of unity but of duality, and no effort of the imagination can justify, even if it may in some way produce, the thought of ‘identity’ as a distinct and discriminable experience. Lacking the impression of identity, we lack also the idea, from which it would seem to follow that the whole notion of an external world is thrown in doubt. All that we can legitimately signify by referring to such a world is some element of ‘constancy’ and ‘coherence’ among our impressions.

It should be noted that Hume—while he also relied on and to some extent reiterated Berkeley’s attack on Locke—has, in this argument, focused on a wholly new aspect of the problem of the external world. In submitting the concept of ‘identity through time’ to sceptical examination,

Hume brought to the attention of later philosophers the fundamental pattern of thought on which all our ideas of objectivity finally rest. The principle of his scepticism—that of the contingent connection between distinct existences—shows the extent to which the concept of causality and that of objectivity are vulnerable to the same doubts and might (as Kant was to argue) be protected by the same anti-sceptical strategies. It was to become increasingly apparent that there are not two problems— one concerning causality and induction, the other concerning the external world—but one, the problem of objective knowledge as such. This problem could be manifest in many ways, but it remained solved or unsolved in accordance with the ability of a philosopher to argue for real connections between separately identifiable objects.

David Hume on the self

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Hume’s scepticism is to be found in his theory of the self. It might be thought that a philosopher so determined to emphasise the inadequacy of our claims to knowledge when set beside the secure basis of experience would at least be content with the Cartesian position that, being certain of my own experience, I know that I exist.

But what, asks Hume, is this ‘I’ whose existence is so audaciously asserted in all thinking? When he looks into his own mind, he finds many separate particulars: impressions, ideas and the activities exemplified in their relations. But he finds no particular, whether impression or idea, which corresponds to the ‘I’ of which we so confidently assert existence. If I ask myself what I am, then the only satisfactory answer is that I consist, not in this or that impression or idea, but in the totality of my impressions and ideas. This theory, sometimes referred to as the ‘bundle’ theory of the self, arises by extending into the mental realm the familiar objections to the concept of individual substance. These objections Berkeley had already levelled against Locke’s theory of the physical world, and Hume largely approved of them. In the absence of any mental ‘substance’, there is nothing for me to be identical with, save either an impression, or an idea, or some bundle of the same. With the same spirit that had unearthed what were to become the standard epistemological problems of metaphysics, Hume proceeded to disclose parallel difficulties for ethics. Two in particular serve to cast doubt on the possibility of an objective moral system. The first is introduced thus:

"In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with…the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning…when of a sudden I am surprised to find that, instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and that at the same time a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it."

As in his criticism of induction, Hume is here arguing that the relation between propositions which we accept and the evidence that we adduce for them is not, and cannot be, deductive. In which case, on what do we base our confidence that the ‘evidence’ provides us with any reason at all for asserting the propositions that we suppose to be grounded in it? Here the difficulty is that of finding a satisfactory relationship between propositions about what is and propositions about what ought to be. That there is no deductive relation between an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ is a proposal which is sometimes known as Hume’s law. If true it has seemed to many that this ‘law’ must jeopardise all claims to moral knowledge and leave ethics at the mercy of subjective whim, against which no arguments can be cogently delivered.

The second difficulty that Hume discerned for the objectivity of morality is more profound and more far-reaching in its implications. This is a difficulty not for the idea of moral judgement, but for the more fundamental idea upon which moral judgement rests, the idea of practical reason. Hume denied that there could be such a thing as practical reason. For reason to be practical it is not sufficient that it be applied to practical matters; it must also be capable of generating practical conclusions. As Aristotle argued in the Nicomachean Ethics, practical conclusions are not thoughts but actions. Reason, in its practical employment, must therefore generate actions in just the way that, in its theoretical employment, it generates thoughts and beliefs. But how can this be so?

Actions are generated by motives, but reason alone, Hume argued, can never provide a motive to action. All reason can do is present us with a picture of the means to given ends; it cannot persuade us either to adopt those ends or to reject them. Reason is confined in its operation to matters of fact and the relations among ideas. ‘After every circumstance, every relation, is known, the understanding has no further room to operate nor any object on which it could employ itself.’ Whatever conclusions we may draw as to the way things are, we are still as far as ever from the motive to action. It is therefore ‘not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’. What we take to be practical reasoning is simply the working out of the best means to the satisfaction of desires that have their origin not in reason, but in passion. Indeed, Hume goes so far as to say, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ As a modern philosopher would put it, all practical reasons are relative to some antecedent desire, which is therefore the sole origin of their persuasive power. In which case, no amount of reasoning can persuade evil people (those with evil desires) to any course of action except that which already attracts them. This ethical scepticism can be seen as a further application of the thought that there can be only contingent relations between events identified at separate times. If reason could provide a motive to act, then an action could be determined by the reasoning which precedes it. But the relation between this reasoning and the action would have to be necessary, which contradicts the assumption that the action follows the reasoning and is distinct from it.

Why does Hume say that reason ought to be the slave of the passions? and Surely this is hardly compatible with his far-reaching scepticism about the word ‘ought’? 

The answer to this is to be found in the part of Hume’s philosophy which was most obviously a product of the intellectual environment into which he grew: his theory of the moral sentiments, and of their immovable centrality in human nature. Hume insists that, despite apparent local variations, there is a basic uniformity of moral sentiment among human beings. Like the British moralists discussed in the last chapter, Hume thought that in every locality and in every period of history, people have been drawn to favour some things and disapprove of others, through the innate disposition, inseparable from human nature, to sympathise with their fellows. It is from the sentiment of sympathy, the origin and object of which lies in man’s social condition, and from the benevolence which alone makes that condition possible, that the world comes to appear to us as decked out in the colours of morality.

But we should not therefore think that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are properties that inhere in things independently of our disposition to approve or disapprove of them. By an extension of the Lockean idea of a secondary quality, Hume argued that there is no fact of the matter here, other than our moral sentiments. ‘Vice and virtue…may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.’ With the result that, ‘when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious you mean nothing but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame towards it.’

In his description of the moral sentiments Hume drew heavily on the analysis of moral feelings given by Aristotle, Hutcheson and, to some extent, Spinoza. His perception of the complexity of these feelings and his attempt to give a truthful account of their significance led to a system of ethics which mitigated his scepticism about the place of reason in determining human action. Having subverted the ‘vulgar’ systems of morality, Hume raised in their place a balanced and dispassionate picture of the good life for man. This picture was not wholly dissimilar from that already defended by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.

Indeed, by extending his naturalism into the realm of ethics, Hume produced a moral philosophy which contains an interesting and to some extent credible answer to moral scepticism. The sceptic supposes that nothing holds sway in the human heart besides its own emotions, and that we each pursue our own goals, resisting those who impede us.

Morality is merely a fiction, with which we try to hoodwink those who stand between us and our prize. In fact, Hume argues, this picture entirely misrepresents our nature as social beings. There are occasions when we are not in the grip of passion, when our goals recede from view and when we contemplate the human world from a position of detached curiosity. This happens when we read a story, a tragedy or a work of history. It happens too when others set their case before us, as in a court of law, and solicit our judgement. In such cases our passions are stirred not on our own behalf, but on behalf of another. This movement of sympathy is natural to human beings and informs all their perceptions of the social world. Moreover, it tends always in the same direction.

Whatever our goals, you and I can agree once we have learned to discount them. If two parties to a dispute come before us, then we shall tend to agree in our verdict, provided the facts are clear and provided neither you nor I have a personal interest in the outcome. This discounting of personal interest leaves an emotional vacuum which only sympathy can fill. And sympathy, being founded in our common nature, tends to a common conclusion.

Such is the origin of morality for Hume: the disposition that we all have, to discount our interests and reflect impartially on the world. Although the resulting passions are faint compared with our selfish desires, they are steady and durable. Moreover, they are reinforced by the agreement of others, so that, collectively, our moral sentiments provide a far stronger force than any individual passion and lead to the kind of public constraints on conduct that are embodied in custom and law.

And here lies the justification for Hume’s claim that reason ought to be the slave of the passions. For if we assign to reason the final authority in matters of moral judgement, we shall be driven to scepticism, upon discovering that reason has no competence in the matter. Here as elsewhere reason must give way to custom, as the final guide to human life and the embodiment of our human nature.

David Hume philosophy of religion

At a fairly early age, Hume discarded the Calvinistic doctrines which he had been taught in boyhood. Once he had shed his initial Calvinism, religion was for him a purely external phenomenon and in this sense he was an irreligious man. Furthermore, he came to the conclusion that the influence of religion was far from beneficial and religion impairs morality by encouraging people to act for motives other than love of virtue for its own sake. According to Hume, religion originated in such passions as fear of disaster and hope of advantage or betterment when these passions are directed towards some invisible and intelligent power. In the course of time men attempted to rationalize religion and to find arguments in favour of belief. Hume refused to recognize the validity of metaphysical arguments for God’s existence; that is to say, he refused to allow that the existence of God is demonstrable. It is plain from the Dialogues that he disliked any form of the argument which is based on principally on an analogy between human artificial constructions and the world. The fact of the matter seems to be that Hume set out, as a detached observer, to examine the rational credentials of theism, maintaining in the meantime that religion rests on revelation, a revelation in which he personally certainly did not believe. The result of his investigation was to reduce the religious hypothesis to a meager a content that it is difficult to know what to call it. Its content is ambiguous, and Hume meant it to be ambiguous.

The Idea of God

Hume professed agreement with Locke that the idea of an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being has its origin in one’s reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom. Nevertheless, he also maintained that the attempt to realize this definition in an idea is fraught with difficulty. Thus Hume ended up on the same side as the most pious monotheists in insisting on the incomprehensibility of the nature of the divine.

Religious Belief

Having established that one has no clear idea of God to underwrite religious discourse or any rational basis for religious belief, Hume concluded that one believes in God and accepts the proofs of purported revelation from the same causes that lead one to form other beliefs not proportioned to experience (un-philosophical probabilities). The implication is that, however widespread a religious belief may be, it is not imposed on one by human nature, and so is not irresistible in the way that belief in causes, continued distinct existents, and the self are. Hume did not deny that religious belief can ever be agreeable or useful, either for the individual or society, but he did seem to think that, in the forms it actually takes-especially when vitiated by superstition or enthusiasm- it is neither.

David Hume concerning natural religion

In his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume demolishes to his satisfaction what he considers to be the principal arguments for the existence of God. His professed aim is once again to curtail the pretensions of reason and put instinct in their place. But his subdued protestation of a ‘faith’ that needs to be safeguarded from the absurdities of metaphysical speculation has seldom been read as other than ironical. Hume was well known among his contemporaries for his scepticism towards the idea of an afterlife. He is reputed to have found nothing more absurd in the idea that he should cease to exist on dying than in the idea that he began to exist at birth. 

Two vast periods of Hume lessness stretch before and after him—and why should he be concerned by either?

David Hume free will

In a famous essay, and again in the first Enquiry, Hume also mounted an argument, of which he was particularly proud, despite the fact that it had been anticipated by Spinoza, to show that belief in miracles is always irrational. The very laws of nature which suffice to summarise our knowledge of reality constitute the strongest possible evidence against the testimony of those who bear witness to miracles. For a miracle is, by definition, a violation of a law of nature, and is therefore ruled out by the rest of our scientific knowledge.

In the matter of human freedom, however, Hume appears once again in his irenic character. He held that there is in fact no contradiction between the belief that we are free and the belief that nature (including human nature) is governed by immutable and universal laws. If we examine the idea of freedom, he argued, we shall find in it nothing that supposes the abrogation of natural laws. For freedom does not mean the absence of causation. Rather, it is ‘the power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.’ Even if the universe is a fully deterministic system and human beings are governed by the laws that determine everything else, this does not contradict the belief that we have this power to act, according to the determination of the will. Indeed, the very definition of freedom shows that free will presupposes causality and therefore does not deny it. What has been thought to be a philosophical problem is no problem at all, but a metaphysical illusion caused by the failure to define our terms. This ‘compatibilist’ solution to the problem of free will has been greatly influential, even though few would now adopt it in the simple form put forward by Hume. Hume’s ‘dissolution’ of a traditional metaphysical question shows him attempting to remove rather than to create intellectual perplexity, over a matter where he regarded perplexity to be not natural, but artificial.

David Hume most famous books

  • David Hume on Causation
  • A Treatise of Human Nature
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Re...
  • David Hume works.
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