On David Hume

As I’ve previously mentioned, I teach and study European history, and within that, my main area of interest is intellectual history, or the history of ideas.  As a result, this is one of my favorite times of the year because I get to teach my students about the Enlightenment.  Just so you understand, I have a bust of Voltaire prominently displayed on one of my bookcases, and a framed picture of him in my classroom.  I fell in love with history through the study of his ideas, and those of the other philosophes.

David Hume

Whereas Voltaire may have been my first love, David Hume captured my mind and heart in a more significant manner.  His elegant writing and impeccable argumentation, the expression of his massive intellect that shows in every perfectly selected word and phrase, and the kindness and gentleness that pervade the majority of his writing, are what I find exhilarating and intoxicating.  And today, my class of 27 sophomores were introduced to him.  They were assigned chapter ten from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of Miracles,”  and although they first found it a bit daunting, they were soon converts to Hume.  As soon as we began the discussion, I saw the same excitement in their eyes that I feel when reading him.  They “got” his astonishingly insightful understanding of human nature, and they were giddy with how seamlessly he argued something that were not prepared to want to accept… namely, the undermining of religion through an undermining of miracles.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature… There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

His “Of Miracles” was one of the first things I read that really liberated my thinking from the restraints imposed on it during my childhood.  It was very much a combination of discovering my love of science (namely astronomy and physics) with reading the philosophers who used that science to make sense of their world that shaped and framed my intellectual growth.  As Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary,

 . . . a catechist announces God to children, and Newton demonstrates him to wise men.

So on that note, let me share a little Hume with you tonight.  This video is from the “Five-Minute Philosopher series, by Massimo Pigliucci.  Enjoy, and go read some Hume!

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