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Tuesday, September 27, 2011


By the end of Part IX, Hume has pretty well put paid to the two millennium long effort to prove the existence of an infinite, omniscient, perfect Being, call it God, Yahweh, Allah, or the Prime Mover, but Hume has a good bit more to say, and he says it with characteristic elegance. He signals a shift in tone and emphasis at the very beginning of Part X by allowing both Demea and Philo to disparage the efforts of philosophers to deal with a question that engages ordinary men and women at a more immediate and personal level. As Philo says, "I am indeed persuaded that the best and indeed the only method of bringing everyone to a due sense of religion is by just representations of the misery and wickedness of men."

But such "just representations" raise a difficulty that has bedeviled the devout since at least the time of Job. Philo draws not on the Old Testament but on the ancient Greeks [this is, after all, the Augustan Age].

"Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" Demea opines that no one has ever denied the reality of human misery, but Philo corrects him, noting that no less a philosophical luminary than Leibniz has done so. He is referring, of course, to Leibniz' Theodicy, in which that immortal genius, following the logic with impeccable rigor, concludes that, in the rendering by Voltaire's wonderfully satirical figure, Dr. Pangloss, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." [Personal aside: I have always been much taken by Leonard Bernstein's musical rendering of Candide. if readers of this blog are unfamiliar with it, I strongly recommend obtaining a recording and listening to it. The operatic aria, "All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds" is worth the price of the DVD.]

There is not a great deal to be said about the Problem of Evil. It is, I suppose, more than any other single thing, what permanently separates the believers from the unbelievers. I rather like Emily Dickenson's version of the problem. She points out that God has so arranged things that we must die to see His face, a fact that she finds incompatible with any conception of his Divine Mercy.

Demea does best, and really, his defense of God in the face of human misery is as good as any, but really, it is a hopeless undertaking. Philo's response is worth quoting, as a forceful statement of his larger theme:

"I will allow, that pain or misery in man is compatible with infinite power and goodness in the Deity, even in your sense of these attributes: What are you advanced by all these concessions? A mere possible compatibility is not sufficient. You must prove these pure, unmixed, and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone. A hopeful undertaking! Were the phenomena ever so pure and unmixed, yet being finite, they would be insufficient for that purpose. How much more, where they are also so jarring and discordant!"

Hume continues the discussion in the next Part, hammering home the point that even if we allow for the compatibility of God's infinite power and benevolence with the manifest misery of the human condition, still no one could possibly maintain that these attributes of God could be inferred from that misery. Here is Philo turning on its head the characterization of God as the Divine Architect of the world order:

"Did I show you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building, were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtlety, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: The alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect."

Or, as I like to put it, If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent, could He not at least have managed a world without mosquitoes?

Philo carries on in this vein for some pages, driving home the utter unsustainability of Demea's position. At the end of Part XI, Pamphilus remarks, "Thus PHILO continued to the last his spirit of opposition, and his censure of established opinions. But I could observe that DEMEA did not at all relish the latter part of the discourse; and he took occasion soon after, on some pretence or other, to leave the company."

So Cleanthes and Philo are left to draw the discussion to a close. Hume does his very best to repair the damage that has been done in the previous eleven Parts to all received religious belief. He allows Philo to say, for example, "You, in particular, CLEANTHES, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy; you are sensible, that notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of nature. A purpose, an intention, a design, strikes every where the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it."

It takes no intelligence and only the most cursory attention to see that this statement is utterly in conflict with everything Philo has been saying for eighty pages! But Hume persists in his dissimulation, allowing first Cleanthes and then Philo to utter conventional endorsements of a deistic point of view that the arguments of the Dialogues have destroyed. Along the way, in this final Part, there are some nice digs at religious fanaticism, or "enthusiasm," as it was then called. Cleanthes offers the opinion that "[r]eligion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all," but Philo immediately responds: "How happens it them. if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs?"

In the very last sentence of the Dialogues, Pamphilus offers his summary evaluation of the debate. "I confess, that, upon a serious review of the whole, I cannot but think, that PHILO's principles are more probable than DEMEA's; but that those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer to the truth."

Even such sophisticated and knowledgeable readers of the Dialogues as Kemp-Smith have accepted this as Hume's own evaluation of the matter, but that seems to me transparently false. Hume was, saving the presence of Kant, the smartest person of his time. The arguments he placed in the mouths of his characters were, after all, his arguments. One need merely compare those arguments with the arguments of the Treatise, all of which of course are presented in his own persona, to see which he truly endorsed.

There is, however, one final bit of biographical evidence we can bring to bear, in the form of a very famous and apparently true story about Hume's final days. James Boswell, the indefatigable biographer and general dogsbody of Samuel Johnson, was obsessed with fears of death. Hume's well-known atheism troubled him greatly, and when that good man was on his deathbed, Boswell hurried to see him. "Well, David," he himself reports that he said, "now that you are about to die, do you still hold to your scepticism about a Deity and an afterlife?" Hume was serene and calm in the face of his own death, and replied that he saw no new evidence that would cause him to come to a different conclusion. Boswell hurried away terribly upset. That night he had a dream in which Hume appeared and told him that he did indeed believe in the afterlife. Boswell was, he tells us, much comforted by this dream, and reassured by it.

And thus I end my tutorial on the Philosophy of David Hume. There is of course a great deal more that could be said, and many other writings we might examine, but this has gone on for well over twenty-seven thousand words, and it is time to bring it to a close and deposit it, along with all my other tutorials, on


Ulf said...

The Dialogues are extraordinary.

I have qualms about one aspect of your interpretation, and I'd be curious what you think.

You quote Philo's restatement of the basic appearance of purpose and design from part XI ("You, in particular, CLEANTHES, with whom..."), and then you go on to say that this is in conflict with everything Philo has said before, and that this is part of Hume's dissimulation.

I take a different view. I believe Philo concedes that purpose and design ARE evident in nature, because they strike us "with the force of sensation," as was stated earlier. He concedes, in part XI and elsewhere, that to dispute this is to "cavil," and that his arguments that appear to dispute it are "raillery" -- a personal weakness of his, which he is most tempted to engage in around people like Demea (who has left by part XI).

The real aim of Philo's arguments is not to dispute what strikes us with the force of sensation, but to clearly draw the limits around what this actually shows us. That is, to draw the limits around the rational, cognitive content that can be supported by this vivid impression of purpose. That, of course, is very similar to what Hume himself does with things like "necessary connexion," and preserves the idea that Philo is an appearance of Hume himself. But it also begins to make more sense out of a persistent theme in the Dialogues, namely the nature of philosophical and skeptical argumentation.

It is indeed a wonderful piece of philosophy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I see your point, and I do not think we disagree, save in emphasis. Hume, I think, is indeed perfectly willing to acknowledge that we find in nature arrangements of things that are similar to those we find in purposively made objects. But he insists, as I think you agree, that no religious conclusions can be drawn from this fact.

I still think that taken as a whole, the Dialogues are a masterful piece of misdirection and concealment in plain view, as it were.

Really to talk this through, we would have to sit down with the text in hand and read out large portions of it [which would be a great deal of fun!].

John S. Wilkins said...

I think you (or Hume's protagonist) unfairly maligne Leibniz, as did Voltaire. He did not deny that suffering occurred. He said that this universe was, what we would now say, a Pareto tradeoff among all possible worlds. The suffering is necessary to create the best of all possible worlds, which this one is by definition (since the all powerful, fully benevolent, and omicognisant deity would create no other one, and this world is obviously made).

Hume's point (Philo's point in Part V) about this perhaps being a world in which God has tried and failed on the way to other worlds where he does better is recognition of this argument. The sort of deity Leibniz is discussing would be constitutionally unable to make a substandard world, or to learn by trial and error.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I know what Leibniz said. I just think, as did Hume, that it is a pretty lousy argument.

Look, if you start from the premise [obtained somehow] that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God, then it follows trivially that this is the best of all possible worlds. How could it be otherwise? You must then either conclude that there is in fact no evil in the world, despite what seems obvious to our [admittedly imperfect] minds, or else that for reasons beyond our ken, it is logically impossible to make a better world. That doesn't need a book to say. Fifty words is enough. Hume's main point is that, starting from this world as we know it, you could never INFER the existence of that perfect God. But beyond that, if you are actually concerned with, as the saying goes, justifying God's ways to Man [and Leibniz was concerned with doing just that], you are going to have a pretty tough time convincing a grieving mother that it is really better for her baby to have died.

John S. Wilkins said...

I grant you that it is at best a matter of coherence and consistency from those premises (which I do not share, by the way); but to say that Leibniz dismisses suffering as unreal or illusory is, I think, to erect a strawman (the Candidan Fallacy). Much is wrong with the Leibnizian argument (is it truly the case that this is the best world God could create? What could his utility functions be if that were the case?), but not that he makes suffering unreal.

However, the problem of evil in the theological tradition is far from being resolved by a "best of all possible worlds" argument, so the fifty words (and from memory Leibniz didn't use much more than that in the Monadology) is not a tautology. In my opinion, the problem of evil is not resolved by a Pareto solution (a single evil event is inconsistent with the existence of that kind of deity). Leibniz has undercut at least one of the premises. I was merely making an interpretive point.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ok. I don't think we disagree, really. I suspect you have given more thought to the matter than I have anyway.

John S. Wilkins said...

I have a piece coming out in Zygon in which I ask if a Leibnizian deity could have chosen a world in which Darwinian accidents occur. The argument is a consistency argument for theistic evolutionists who do not believe God is a deterministic micromanager. So the topic was in the forefront of my mind.

Here's a manuscript version, if anyone is interested:

john c. halasz said...

Oh, dear. Not to get to deep into the ever diplomatic, ever slippery Herr Leibniz, but it's worth pointing out the context/problematic, from which the "best of all possible worlds" thesis takes its "force", as opposed to its obvious parody. I've never been sure just how Leibniz arrived at his monadology, -(I tend to understand it backwards from Whitehead and then forwards from Aristotle).- but the basic constituents AFAICT, within the effort to provide physical explanation within the 17th century "mechanical movement" in "natural philosophy", were: a) a principle of economy of explanation, producing the most diversity of results from the least or minimum of means, combined with b) a principle of "harmony", providing the maximum of contrast and variety within an overall order, combined with c) a principle of ontological perfectionism, or IOW providing for the fullest possible realization of each instance of being within an overall economy of Being. Of course, it's all insanely optimistic and benevolent, but so is Spinoza, in accordance with the "spirit of the age". But it's not completely unintelligible, given that "God" is both premise and result. What it doesn't involve is a denial of human suffering, since, after all, suffering is an aspect of contrast in overall goodness and since suffering is not reducible to a simplistic binary contrast between pleasure and pain. The older sense of "suffering" as "passion", i.e. something undergone or endured, is probably referent here, which is not to be eliminated, but rather optimized.

But what I don't think can be found in either Leibniz or Hume is any sense of the breaking of traditional metaphysical constraints to allow for the emergent evolution of novelty. That's just too much to ask for.

John S. Wilkins said...

Nor would I suggest that. Leibniz' deity is merely useful as a test case. Let theists make whatever concessions they need, so long as evolution is accepted as correct.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Professor Wilkins, I was not able to access the paper. Would you like to post it here as a guest blog?