[Summer vacation has jostled the usual 2nd/4th Saturday schedule. Nevertheless, here’s a second installment for July. We’ll hope to return to regular programming in September.]
David Hume, doyen of the Scottish Enlightenment, is often read as if he were the Voltaire of Edinburgh. He takes a certain delight in subverting pious assumptions. Given the longstanding alliance between religion and various sorts of idealism and rationalism from Plato through Descartes, Hume’s empiricism regularly bumps up against religion, and certainly many contemporaries posited that Christianity and empiricism were mutually exclusive. Thus Hume acquired a reputation as a skeptic and likely atheist.
But what if, in fact, he’s a mystic?
Hume’s reputation congeals as a bias we bring to reading him. Here I’d like to just engage in an exercise of close reading, slowing down our take in order to see a curious move Hume makes in the Enquiry. (In a subsequent newsletter I’ll take up a similar move in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and we’ll conclude with some reflections on Christianity and empiricism.)
Granted, you can see how the reputation is acquired. Take his infamous essay, “Of Miracles” (Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) which begins with what looks like a fundamental challenge to the truth of Christianity: “Our evidence,” Hume asserts, “for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses.” The burden of the essay is to undermine any attempt at “proofs” for miracles, or invoking miracles as “proof” for religion. Since “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature,” and since there is “a uniform experience against every miraculous event,” there is, Hume concludes, “a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.” Thus he ends with a “maxim”: “that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”
This does not sound like someone given to believe in the Resurrection. Indeed, this would seem to strike at the very heart of Christianity per Paul’s claim in 1 Cor. 15:13-14: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
But let’s go to the slo-mo reading of the Enquiry and see if we missed a few frames.
What Hume does not conclude is the impossibility of mircales. Instead, his point is quite specific: there could be no “proof” for a miracle, and therefore one could not prove the truth of a religion based on a miracle.
Does that mean such a religion is untrue? No, and this is where Hume himself is more careful and intriguing. Indeed, immediately following the passage above, he pleads with his readers to slow down and read it again: “I beg the limitations here made may be remarked” [i.e., please note what I said and didn’t say!], “when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion.” Then a very important qualifier that hasty readers too often miss: “For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles.”
Hume’s brief is not against miracles per se, or even against Christianity. In fact, he takes himself to be something of a defender of the faith against its supposed friends who misconstrue it as a rationalist enterprise. Speaking of his exercise, he says “I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian Religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason.” Far from being a skeptic or atheist, Hume is rather something of a fideist, as he continues: “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason.” He concludes that the faith to believe is itself a miracle:
[U]pon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity; And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.
Now, I should note that some commentators have read Hume as being ironic here. But it seems to me that reading is the product of another kind of rationalism that Hume would also reject. Working from the confidence that their naturalism is “proven,” and assuming that Hume is on their side, these later readers can’t make sense of Hume’s appeal to faith, and hence they “solve” the tension by dismissing Hume’s concluding point as “ironic.” I find the argument says more about the commentators than Hume’s text.
Whereas, if we follow Hume’s argument and attend to the text, there is a coherent proposal that reflects a perennial stream in Christianity. Indeed, Hume is closer to Pascal than Nietzsche. One of the reasons we have the bundles of Pascal’s Pensées rather than a completed book, it has been suggested, is precisely because Pascal abandoned the apologetic endeavor he had envisioned that would have appealed to miracles as “proof” for the truth of Christianity.
What’s in question here–in Hume, but also in Pascal–is not whether Christianity is true but how it could be true, or rather how it could be believed as true. For Hume, those who imagine Christianity as rationally demonstrable are the ones undercutting the miracle.
In the next installment, we’ll see how this inclines Hume to entertain a certain “mysticism” in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.