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Why David Hume is Important

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Within 100 years, the Cartesians used impeccable logic derived from Descartes' I think there I am to reach two conclusions: there is no earthly agent of movement and there is no matter. There is only God and mind. Hume yanked God and mind out of these conclusions and the Cartesian Jenga tower came tumbling down.
“He exhibited that preoccupied stare of the thoughtful scholar that so commonly impresses the undiscerning as imbecile.”

The twelve-year-old boy went to college.

The skeptic was jovial and kind.

When he published his History of England, he went backward, starting with recent events.

He was a staunch atheist.

Well, I’m not sure he was “staunch” about anything, except maybe his food intake, which made him hugely fat. But he was at least unapologetically atheist, in an age when such a thing took guts, when it cost a person job opportunities (as it did when he applied for a position at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh).

Such was David Hume, a man so novel in his thinking and powerful in his prose that a free-speech proponent like Thomas Jefferson suppressed his work by making sure only an abridged copy of Hume’s History made it into the University of Virginia library.

He Blasted Potholes in Both Lanes of the Bacon-Descartes Modern Freeway

The Bacon Lane

Hume was unapologetically skeptical about science. Europeans discovered the first black swan shortly before Hume was born, thereby destroying a thousand years of European empirical evidence that said the black swan was a myth.

Hume pointed out that it was hardly the first time empirical evidence (science) was wrong and wouldn’t be the last.

He pointed out the “problem of induction” and said no amount of evidence can produce certainty about anything, no matter what Francis Bacon may have thought.

The Descartes Lane


If Hume put big potholes in the Bacon lane of the Modern Freeway, he tore up the Descartes lane entirely. Immanuel Kant would have to repave it, though unsuccessfully (the subject of later essays).

You might recall that Cartesian dualism had an incredible problem: it couldn’t explain how mind and body interact and, indeed, given its premises, concluded that they don’t interact.

My mind tells my left hand to go up and it goes up.

But not in Descartes’ world. Descartes’ world consisted solely of “extension”: bodies taking up space. Movement doesn’t exist, at least not as a product of human agency. “Pure extension is pure passivity.”[1]

Some power or energy other than the mind was causing movement.

Descartes’ disciples and followers struggled to explain it. Eventually, a semi-mystical and deeply religious Cartesian, Malebranche, explained it: God causes all movement.

We must, said Malebranche, judge things by the ideas that represent them, but we can have no physical idea of energy, power, and causation. He then proceeded, through a lucid and logical explanation that isn’t relevant here, to show that the only way to explain movement is to attribute it to God. Movement, concluded Malebranche, occurs because God wills it. When we see the cue ball hit the eight ball and the eight ball roll into the pocket, that’s God causing it. In philosophy, it’s called “Occasionalism.”

He died in 1715.

Hume was born in 1711.

Toddler Hume took the baton from dead Malebranche and ran with it. Malebranche’s conclusion about movement and causation became Hume’s starting point.

Hume observed that Malebranche was right: we can’t see “cause.” We can see bodies, but we can’t see “power.” Matter takes up space but “energy” doesn’t.

I put those three things—cause, power, energy—in quotes because Malebranche and Hume effectively did. Malebranche said the existence of such things is unknown to us, so they must be the agents of God. Hume said the existence of such things is unknown to us, so . . . they are unknown to us. And that’s that. If we don’t even know what cause, power, and energy are, how do we apply such operations to God?

Malebranche: Johnny is flimfloxing the ball. We don’t know what flimfloxing is. Therefore, it must be God who is doing the flimfloxing.
Hume: That’s stupid as shit.

Hume wins.

Hume removed God from the Cartesian Jenga tower and it came crashing down.


Just as he demolished any knowability of movement (cause, power, energy), he also helped demolish the knowability of matter at all.

A little history:

John Locke disagreed with Descartes’ assertion that the mind is the beginning of reality. The mind, Locke said, is merely a blank slate that, upon birth, starts to receive sense impressions from which it builds its understanding of reality. Matter, therefore, is the material of the mind.

That’s why people refer to Locke as a “materialist” (as opposed to Descartes, who founded “idealism”).

George Berkeley, however, defended Descartes by pointing out that we don’t perceive things. We only perceive things’ characteristics: that green thing has four legs, a flat surface, and a horizontal surface. Our mind combines those things to declare “chair.” We don’t, in other words, perceive “chair.” We only perceive the things that comprise the chair and, therefore, the chair itself does not really exist. And since all things are mere combinations of other components that we perceive in relation to such other things, nothing really exists. Everything is just our ideas: our mind (soul) is the only reality.

Berkeley’s logic was unassailable.[2]

Hume knew it. He said Berkeley’s arguments “admit of no answer and produce no conviction.”

Hume then did the same thing that he did with movement. He accepted Berkeley’s conclusion about the non-existence of matter just like he accepted Malebranche’s conclusion about the unknowability of movement. But he pointed out that, if matter doesn’t exist because it is merely a concept of our mind, then mind doesn’t exist because it’s merely a concept of mind.

In the words of one contemporary wit who suggested that everyone just drop the increasingly-ridiculous controversy, “No matter, never mind.”[3]

Hume’s Bottom Line

Modernity is built on the need for certainty. Descartes sought the certainty of mathematics. Bacon sought the certainty produced by empirical studies.

Hume didn’t need certainty. He certainly didn’t think he needed the certainty of faith, and he didn’t need the certainty of the new philosophy.

He was a laid-back guy. He was ugly as sin and it didn’t seem to bother him. When his famous philosophical work that arguably became the most important work of modern philosophy came out, “it fell dead-born from the press,” admitted Hume, not even inciting “a murmur among the zealots.”

Hume’s self-assessment of his personality:

I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments.

The testimony of his friends (the core of the Scottish Enlightenment) supports his self-assessment.

Hume is Important

He’s important because he’s proof that a person can reject modernity on its own grounds. He is, like Pascal, an anti-modernity champion. But unlike Pascal, he wasn’t religious.

Far from it.

And that’s important.

The battle against modernity is a religious war. Make no doubt about it. But it can’t be fought on religion’s grounds. Hume might have been the first to show how the battle can be fought.

[1]Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Ignatius), p. 171.

[2]In 1763, Samuel Johnson and his companion, James Boswell, were talking about George Berkeley’s startling philosophical conclusion that matter doesn’t exist. Boswell observed that, though it can’t be true, it’s impossible to refute.

“Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone . . . ‘I refute it thus.’”

That ended the discussion, but Boswell concluded the story by noting that he would’ve loved to have seen a genius like Johnson contend with Berkeley since Berkeley’s ideas could not be “answered by pure reasoning.”

[3]Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (Pocket Books), p. 257