On Hume

A reflection on the philosopher’s enduring enlightenment


I’m mostly random with the books I read. I don’t have a list I want to get to. I just pick up books that come my way and read them — except in this, I make it a point to always be reading or looking to read a “classic.”

In recent years, I’ve read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Of course, classics means “dead white men,” in some cases, but I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I like to be wrought up in difficult language, densely expressed as if to confuse as opposed to illuminate. Saying precisely what ones wants to — it’s the great daily struggle. Michel Foucault, James Agee, Toni Morrison are mapping their minds when they write, turning inside out to reveal what they know the best way they can. I’m encouraged as I struggle with others’ ways out of silence, out of ignorance.

I’ve been studying Siddhartha for about 10 years now. Not long ago, I read a piece by Allison Gopnik in the Atlantic Monthly about how it was possible that David Hume, 18th-century Sottish philosopher and bon vivant, had read about Buddhism while briefly living in a monastery in France. Since I’d read Locke, Sterne, and Jefferson, I realized I needed to read Hume.

I casually picked up An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, but it’s dense, heavy, soporific reading. Still, I allow myself time with a book like this (although I did give up on e.e. cummings’ EIMI).

It stayed by the bed, buried for weeks under baseball, memoir, fiction, anything other than Hume. I might read two or three pages at a time. I understood these were Hume’s ideas about the physical and social sources of “empiricism.” Beyond that, much of the logic passed me by. I slogged through the first nine sections.

But then I read Section 10, “Of Miracles,” a miracle itself!

It starts with a refutation of “Dr. Tillotson’s writings,” which claimed that the authority of “the Christian religion” is based on “the testimony of the apostles, who were witnesses to those miracles of our Savior,” which he called real presence.

Hume replies, “Were the doctrine of real presence ever so clearly revealed in scripture, it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning.” This is a ringing declaration to me, that humanity can be rational, each person can rule themselves with reason.

The rest of the book is full of wonders. My wife has suggested that this be my epitaph: “All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes.” Not every effect follows from the cause you presume it does. The mind, Locke said, is molded by associations. Hume says, “A wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence…inclines with doubt and hesitation…what we properly call probability.”

After a lovely section about how, even on a good day, human testimony is poor evidence, Hume reminds us, “A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.” I hoped this notion was still true, but recent events have proved otherwise.

Here, Hume responds to those who accused him of atheism: “Allowing, therefore, the gods to be the authors of the existence and order of the universe; it follows, that they possess that precise degree of power, intelligence, and benevolence, which appears in their workmanship; but nothing farther can ever be proved, except we call in the assistance of exaggeration and flattery to supply the defects of argument and reasoning.”

He grants a monotheistic god but denies that She knows, watches, or cares about you. That’s a nice delusion to be rid of.

And then, where many people stagger when considering the renunciation of religion, Hume give us a lovely support in the face of the existential dilemma. I hear Siddhartha in the passages in Section 11, "Of a Providence and Future State": “Every argument, deduced from causes to effects, must of necessity be a gross sophism.

“While we argue from the course of nature, and infer a particular intelligent cause, which first bestowed and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a principle, which is both uncertain and useless. It is uncertain; because the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of the human experience. It is useless; because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from the course of nature, we can never, according the rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause with a new inference...”

There may be a god, but we can’t say that god controls the events of nature. We control ourselves.

I can give many more such examples, but better to exhort my dear reader to delve into this book, ride the waves of David Hume’s mind. Peruse all of written history. Let it remind you of our common humanity, the trappings and limitations of consciousness, and the delusions we all gladly suffer so we can see others’ suffering, too. Higher-order intellectual functioning as practice for more higher-order intellectual work. Ganbatte!

Y.S. Fing is a composition lecturer at a local university and a literary gadfly in the DC area. Recently, he has been experimenting with short essay form in Fingism and Finglish.

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