Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Locke and Hume

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things."--René Descartes

Alice C. Linsley

Francis Bacon insisted that methodical observation and experimentation (the scientific method) can progressively increase human knowledge and benefit all of humanity. Bacon also demonstrated through his experiments that the senses can be fooled and thus raised doubt about "common sense" ideas. Bacon insisted that true knowledge must begin with doubt. He wrote, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." --Francis Bacon (1605) The Advancement of Learning, Book 1, v.8

Descartes felt it necessary to one reject entirely all beliefs about which there is the slightest doubt. He wanted to build a system of belief based on certainty. Descartes' point of certainty was his own rational existence:  "I am thinking, therefore I am existing." He wrote in Discourse on Method, "But I soon noticed that while I thus wished to think everything false, it was necessarily true that I who thought so was something. Since this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so firm and assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were unable to shake it, I judged that II could safely accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking." (Part Four on "Proofs of the Existence of God and of the Human Soul)

Descartes develops this as a proof for the existence of God. He continues, "After that I reflected upon the fact that I doubted, and that in consequence, my spirit was not wholly perfect, for I saw clearly that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt. I decided to ascertain form what source I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself, and it appeared evident that it must have been from some nature which is in fact more perfect... I was not the only being in existence..., and it followed of necessity that there was someone else more perfect upon whom I depended and from whom I had acquired all that I possessed. For if I had been alone and independent of anything else, so that I had bestowed upon myself all that limited quantity of value which I shared with the perfect Being, I would have been able to get from myself, in the same way, all the surplus which I recognize as lacking in me, and so would have been myself infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and, in sum, I would possess all the perfections that I could discover in God."

Here Descartes articulates a form of the argument from design. The reasoning goes like this:  I find imperfection in myself and I recognize it, which means that I have consciousness of something or someone more perfect than myself. That being so, I must have been designed by that greater Perfection. Descartes wrote: "The very principle which I took as a rule to start with, namely, that all those things which we conceived very clearly and very distinctly are true, is known to be true only because God exists and because he is a perfect Being, and because everything in us comes from him. From this it follows that our ideas or notions, being real things which come from God insofar as they are clear and distinct, cannot to that extent fail to be true."

Descartes contributed to the development of new theories of mind and consciousness. He defined thought "to include everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware [conscii] of it. Thus all the operations of the will, the intellect, the imagination and the senses are thoughts."

John Locke (1632-1704)

The British empiricist John Locke believed that experience alone is the basis of all knowledge. He argued this against Descartes's position that the human mind holds innate ideas.

Locke contributed to the development of theories of consciousness. If a thought is something “within us" of which we are conscious, what is the nature of consciousness? Locke insists that the mind is empty at birth, a tabula rasa. All our ideas are shaped by experience; sensations, and reflections.

Locke wrote that "the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences." He argued that the "associations of ideas" that one makes as a child are very important because they are the foundation of the self. He warned against letting "a foolish maid" convince a child that "goblins and sprites" are associated with the dark of night for "darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other." Locke's theory of association influenced educational theory up to the nineteenth century. Educators warned parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations. 

David Hume (1711-1776)

The Scottish philosopher David Hume continues the empiricist trajectory, developing the consequences of Locke's thought. Hume held that in the search for truth, we cannot rely on the common-sense pronouncements, popular notions, or metaphysical speculation. Building on Locke's epistemology, Hume tried to describe how the mind works in acquiring what is called knowledge. He concluded that no theory of reality is possible; there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience. He wrote, "If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

In Hume's view, normal human reasoning is flawed and this raises radical doubt about all claims to know something. When we give the reasons for our beliefs about the world, we find that many of the offered explanations are contradictory. For example, one person asserts that something is true for them, but another denies that it is true in their experience. How can something be said to be true for one person and not for another? After exposing a series of contradictions within the human reasoning process, Hume reaches this conclusion: "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another." (Treatise of Human Nature)

To the epistemological conversation he adds an additional criterion: do not consent to any belief that is not found to be universally true. This is the ultimate test of truth: that it should be demonstrated mathematically as a universal truth or, following Sir Isaac Newton, as a universal physical law.

Hume conceived of philosophy as the inductive, experimental science of human nature. He sought to discover the causes of human belief. For Hume, this is the proper work of philosophy. Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature and all of the first Enquiry represent his attempts to do exactly this. He wrote, "my intention never was to penetrate into the nature of bodies, or explain the secret causes of their operations. For besides that this belongs not to my present purpose, I am afraid, that such an enterprize is beyond the reach of human understanding, and that we can never pretend to know body otherwise than by those external properties, which discover themselves to the senses." (Treatise of Human Nature, Sec. V)

Despite Hume's radical empiricism, he continued to value common sense, and apparently did not take his own skepticism, such as the problem of induction, to the extreme that others did after him. He recognized that the consequences of his radical skepticism clashed with common sense and his concern for enlightenment scholarship.  [Antony G Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, rev 2nd edn (New York: St Martin's Press, 1984), p 156].

Friday, November 28, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Bacon and Descartes

"Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate"-- Francis Bacon

"I think, therefore I am."--Rene Descartes

"Our only hope, then is in genuine Induction... There is the same degree of licentiousness and error in forming Axioms, as in abstracting Notions: and that in the first principles, which depend in common induction. Still more is this the case in Axioms and inferior propositions derived from Syllogisms."--Francis Bacon

"A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."--David Hume

Alice C. Linsley

Epistemology explores questions related to knowledge. It is concerned with how knowledge can be acquired and how to substantiate truth claims. Is it possible to know the true nature of something? What can be known? What are the limits of human understanding?  How can I verify that this claim is true? Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Does innate knowledge exist? Is it possible to understand natural phenomena solely on the basis of observation and the senses?

From the dawn of human existence, the need to know about things in nature has contributed to human survival.  It moved early humans to explore and discover new places.  It motivated them to sample berries, nuts and grains. Through trial and error they came to know which fruits were good and which would make them sick. Archaic human populations gained knowledge by interacting with their environments, by observation of patterns in nature,and by reasoning.

Plato would say that the earliest humans had some innate knowledge of Truth, assuming that they had souls. Ritual burial, symbolic markings, primitive counting devices, and stone works such as the 70,000 year old carving of a python in the side of a mountain in Botswana, indicate that archaic human populations were essentially "religious" and concerned about knowing what is beyond their day-to-day lives.

Some ideas we have about reality may have been found to be inadequate. If we are thoughtful people, we will re-evaluate these ideas. Throughout history, philosophers have shown that many ideas are not true, or at only partially true, and therefore not reliable. We are wise to exercise a certain amount of doubt, especially when it comes to following people who have shown themselves to be careless and/or pig-headed.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) showed that the senses can be fooled and that appearances can be deceptive. Yet more than any other thinker of his time, he urged that the senses be used in a methodical way to discover the nature of heat, light, wind, motion, the tides and the stars and even the human being. The future belongs to "Those who aspire not to guess and divine," wrote Bacon, "but to discover and to know... who propose to examine and dissect the nature of this very world itself, to go to facts themselves for everything."

Sir Francis Bacon
Bacon is regarded as the father of modern empiricism. His method of investigating natural phenomena involved inductive reasoning, in contrast to deductive reasoning, which had dominated science since Aristotle.  Bacon introduced an inductive method of testing and refining hypotheses by observing, measuring, and experimenting. An Aristotelian might deduce that water is necessary for life since it is evident that organisms cannot survive without water. A Baconian would test the hypothesis by experimenting. The results of those experiments would lead to more informed conclusions about the necessity of water for organic life.

After centuries of knowledge shaped by Roman Catholic beliefs, Bacon issued a summons to feast on knowledge acquired by the senses, through experimentation and logical principles. He organized his first book the Advancement of Learning in two parts. The first was called Experientian Literata. In this section he proceeds from one experiment to another. The second part, the Interpretation of Nature, moves from experiments to general principles or axioms, and then on to new experiments. Bacon loved to innovate!

In The Advancement of Learning and in New Organon, Bacon sets forth the idea of technological and scientific progress.  He is the first to articulate the popular notion that human advancements are progressive, rather than cyclical, static or in linear decline. He held a Utopian view of the gradual acquisition of knowledge, and he advocated this progressivism with the ardor of an evangelist.

The philosopher in the trajectory of empiricism that embodies Bacon's method most fully is David Hume. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume wrote, "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines,with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement,the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances of experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably begets a pretty strong degree of assurance." (Chapter 10, Concerning Miracles) These words could have been written by Francis Bacon himself!

René Descartes (1596-1650)

Just as Bacon is considered the first modern empiricist, so René Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. He contributed to the philosophical project in many areas:  theories of consciousness, the argument from design, and moral philosophy. He is an important figure in epistemology because he developed a method of weighing evidence that allowed for innate ideas.

Descartes' method involved setting aside his previously held views in order to begin from a point of logical certainty. He believed that most of what he "knew" was not reliable. He wrote, "All that up to the present time I have accepted as true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely anything by which we have once been deceived." (Meditations on First Philosophy) Here Descartes sets out a principle that guided his epistemology: If there is any reason for doubt, then the entire category should be treated as doubtful and unreliable. His method was simple: don't accept anything as true if there is the slightest possibility that it is not true. This is known as the Method of Cartesian Doubt. Modern philosophy begins with doubt.

In attempting to toss out what he had believed and later doubted, in order to construct a system of belief based on certainly, Descartes began with this: "I think, therefore I am" or "I am thinking, therefore I exist." (Cogito ergo sum.)  His awareness of his own self constituted the point of certainty from which he intended to consider and verify knowledge.

Descartes is often considered the founder of modern philosophy with its bent toward empiricism. He conceived of all the branches of science as a whole and sought a methodology that worked toward a unified science. He wrote that “philosophy is like a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences..." The metaphor is strange in the context of what he attempts. Descartes attempts to show that what is not mental or mind-like is extension, that is, it takes up space. However it is not possible to speak of philosophy as taking up space as a tree does. Here we recognize an inconsistency in Descartes’ thought.

Descartes viewed mind and body as distinct entities or substances. He concluded that the basic features of material objects are geometrical. They have size, shape, volume, etc.  The mind can not be measured in the same way.  It is characterized by thinking, reasoning and imagination. For Descartes the essential property of the mind is that it thinks and the essential property of the body is that it is “extended.” Extension is the property of taking up space. In this view, action or movement is explained by the impact of one extended object upon another. How then can mental events, that are without extension, have an impact on objects that take up space? Descartes is a great nightmare for the paranormal cults!

Descartes has been criticized for separating mind and matter into two distinct substances and failing to explain how they may be said to be related and/or interactive. This Cartesian dualism gave rise to fascinating reflections on the Mind of God, which Descartes believed to be the Principle that unites the realms of Mind and Matter. George Berkeley (1685-1753) would take this to a logical extreme with his immaterialism and the idea that all things are an extension of the Mind of the Creator.

Cartesian doubt influenced many thinkers of the modern era. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is one of them. He began is operations with three theses that he came to appreciate in the conversations of many modern philosophers. They are: (1) philosophy begins with doubt; (2) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted; and (3) modern philosophy begins with doubt.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 1

"It is owing to their wonder that men now begin, and first began, to philosophize."-- Aristotle

"This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin."-- Plato

Alice C. Linsley

In archaic communities - between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago - knowledge was gathered from observation of fixed patterns in nature. The sun's rising and setting; the facts of human and animal reproduction; the signs of coming storms; the solidity of rock, the softness of moss and rich humus, etc.

Binary distinctions were observed such as male-female, night-day, and dry-wet. The observation of distinctions in the patterns of nature suggested a fixed order which archaic people attributed to the Creator. The moral law of archaic communities discouraged behaviors and practices that violate the fixed order in creation in order that the Creator might not be offended.

Blood and water were regarded as the fundamental substances of life because it was evident that all creatures needed these to survive. The shedding of blood was regarded as a serious matter and the blood guilt was mediated by priests and shamans, the two oldest religious offices. These offices served similar functions within their communities but represent distinct worldviews.

As early as 100,000 years ago, humans observed certain rituals surrounding the burial of their death. These practices included burial in red ochre and the inclusion of personal articles. An example is the double burial at Qafzeh in Israel, believed to be a double burial of a mother and child. The bones have been stained with red ochre.

From very early times, the soul has been viewed as a essential part of the human and one that has an eternal existence. There are different views as to how the soul continues to exist after the body dies: Sheol (a holding place until the Last Day); reincarnation, and transmigration of a limited number of souls. Plato held the latter view.

Plato believed that Truth is immutable and eternal and therefore considered knowledge of Truth to reside in the eternal Soul. He held that the trained mind could 'recollect' or 're-cognize' the true Forms and thereby "know' what is true and real. Aristotle built upon Plato's thought, but took it in a different direction. According to Aristotle, animate beings can move only because they have a soul. He thought that knowledge came through interaction with the external world. The soul takes on the imprint of sensations. When I press the soft tissue of my finger tip against a hard object, for example, an impression is made on my finger tip. Likewise, impressions are made on the soul and this results in knowledge. (On the Soul II 5)

For Aristotle all knowledge, even the imagination, must begin with information acquired through the senses. However, to grasp the relationships among abstract forms the soul reasons logically. (On the Soul III 4) Although experience is a key to all demonstrative knowledge for Aristotle, he also understood that the metaphysical study of "being qua being" must attempt to understand why things happen the way they do. For Plato, the soul is the reservoir of what exists truly. For Aristotle, the soul's what can only be understood by the mind's why.

Related reading: Overview of Afterlife Beliefs Through History; Theories of Knowledge - Part 2; Ethical Concerns of Archaic Communities; Early Metaphysics: Primal Substance, Theories of Knowledge - Part 3; Theories of Knowledge - Part 4; Lloyd Gerson, Goodness, Unity and Creation in the Platonic Tradition

Friday, November 14, 2014

Leibniz Critiques Descartes

Descartes' project lead him to a problem that he could not overcome: the problem of the interaction between mind and matter. How it is that the mind can influence events? How does the spirit push around material objects? He brought us to the brink of the problem, but then failed to explain the interaction of mind and body or spirit and matter. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)  said, "Monsieur Descartes seems to have given up the game so far as we can see." Descartes dropped the ball, but the ball kept rolling and was picked up by other great thinkers. One of those thinkers was the German rationalist Leibniz who put forward an "impressive interlocking metaphysical system."

Leibniz conceived of reality as consisting of God and non-composite, immaterial, soul-like entities called "monads." Leibniz believed that things seem to cause other things because God pre-ordained harmony between all things in the universe.

He was scornful of Descartes' failure to argue his mind-body dualism to its logical end, but he proposed his own version of the mind-body dualism. In his writings, Leibniz talks a good deal about machines such as watches and clocks. In Section 17 of the Monadology he presents an argument about the relationship between mentality and machines. Leibniz’s “mill argument” is as follows:

Moreover, we must confess that perception, and what depends upon it, is inexplicable in terms of mechanical reasons, that is through shapes, size and motions. If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will find only parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception. And so, one should seek perception in the simple substance and not in the composite or in the machine. (GP VI, 609/AG 215)

Imagine walking around inside a large mill or factory. You are able to see the mechanics and observe the processes, but you do not find a "brain" in the factory to explain how the factory thinks and acquires knowledge. Things operate according to their inventor's design. They run and produce, as is true also of the human, so why do we assume that the human brain involves thinking? Mechanical processes do not explain thinking, therefore, external operations and mental operations are two distinct things. This is Leibniz's version of dualism.

Leibniz’s Critique of Descartes

Leibniz observed that if life is a dream (as Nietzsche asserted), it must still have structure. He applied this idea to the relationship of objects. According to Leibniz, every entity whether mental or physical is independent and constitutes a “monad.” Each monad is fixed or determined in its properties according to its essence or nature. Whatever form an entity takes or whatever happens to an entity is entirely determined by its essential characteristics and not from the influence of any other entity (a version of essentialism).

Leibniz overcame Descartes’ dualism by claiming that there is no connection between mind and body, but a harmonization of all (Monism) on the level of kinetic energy. Leibniz believed that the world is not as Descartes claims. It has structure, but what we see is merely the visible outcome of infinitely numerous spiritual things that are not complex and therefore not divisible. Today we might speak of “monads” as the most fundamental units of energy.

Leibniz disagreed with Descartes that God is the mechanism that makes connection of mind-body possible. That would be to cast God as an extension of the mind and would suggest that God can be reduced to constituent parts or analyzed into simpler elements. For Leibniz, the ultimate constituents of the world must be non-material and therefore not divisible. These cannot occupy space and cannot be said to have extension. In this view, God is not a mechanism that connects things, but instead the mind that harmonizes all things. Here Leibniz approaches Baruch Spinoza’s thought. In fact, the two rationalists had spoken face to face. Spinoza conceived of God as “a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” Leibniz would have agreed with Spinoza’s statement that “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.”

Leibniz believed that material and non-material entities do not influence one another, but there is a pre-established harmony between all entities. Consider the example of two clocks that keep perfect time and are exactly synchronized. One has a bell that rings when the hour is struck. The other has no bell; when the one clock points to the hour, the other clock rings precisely at the moment. Descartes would argue that the clocks have some connection and the mechanism that connects is God. Leibniz would argue that although the clocks have no relation to each other, they keep perfect time because from the outset they were synchronized by God.

Just as Descartes begins with skepticism to overthrow skepticism so Leibniz begins with Cartesian dualism to overthrown it with his Monism.

Related Reading: Theories of Knowledge (Part 1); Leibniz on Descartes' Principles

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

George Berkeley: A Matter of Mind

Esse est percipi
To be is to be perceived.

Alice C. Linsley

George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an Irish philosopher who became the Bishop of Cloyne. He lived for a time in the American colonies where he promoted higher education. He deeded his library and his farm in Rhode Island to Yale University. One of the colleges at Yale is named after him, as is the city of Berkeley in California.

Berkeley saw a flaw in the thought of Rene Descartes who believed that objects have existence independent of our perception because they take up space, that is, they are "extended." Berkeley argued that there is no "outside" world, only the world of the Mind. Speaking of mind, many people believed that poor George had lost his! The importance of his thought was appreciated only after his death.

In his writings, Berkeley shows himself to be an consistent thinker. He argues that we cannot logically insist that objects have existence independent of human perception, that they take up space in the material sense.  This leads to the conclusion that all that exist is Mind and the content of Mind: thoughts, ideas, and perceptions. Berkeley is sometimes called an "idealist" because he believed that all things that exist are ideas.  He is also called an "immaterialist" because he denied that material objects exist. Berkeley applied this reasoning to God, saying that everything has existence in the Mind of God (panentheism).

One of Berkeley's contemporaries was Samuel Johnson, who hearing about Berkeley's theory, kicked a stone and declared, "I refute it thus."  For Johnson feeling that hard stone against his toe was sufficient evidence that the stone had material substance. However, Johnson missed Berkeley's point. Feeling the stone against your foot did not prove that the stone had extension. It only proved that the mind has an idea of a hard stone.

Berkeley develops his immaterialism in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). The word hylas comes from the Greek word for matter, and philonous means love of Mind. In these dialogues, Berkeley shows that sensible qualities are not inherent in matter. Rather, they are ascribed and understood by the mind. Color, sound, temperature and shape are relative qualities entirely dependent on a mind. Without a mind, there is no perception of matter at all.

Berkeley sought to refute the claims of his contemporary John Locke about the nature of human perception. According to Locke, a thing's primary qualities, such as its extension, shape, motion, solidity, and number, exist apart from being perceived. Berkeley, on the other hand, insisted that primary qualities are ideas that exist in a perceiver's mind. These ideas cannot exist in an unperceiving substance.

Berkeley's method in his own words from A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)

Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater calm and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men. Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high-road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend. They complain not of any want of evidence in their senses, and are out of all danger of becoming Sceptics. But no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and, endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation, till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn Scepticism...

My purpose therefore is, to try if I can discover what those principles are, which have introduced all that doubtfulness and uncertainty, those absurdities and contradictions into the several sects of philosophy; insomuch that the wisest men have thought our ignorance incurable, conceiving it to arise from the natural dullness and limitation of our faculties. ...

Nothing seems of more importance, towards erecting a firm system of sound and real knowledge, which may be proof against the assaults of scepticism, than to lay the beginning in a distinct explication of what is meant by thing, reality, existence: for in vain shall we dispute concerning the real existence of things, or pretend to any knowledge thereof, so long as we have not fixed the meaning of those words...

.. we are under an invincible blindness as to the true and real nature of things... Hence a great number of dark and ambiguous terms presumed to stand for abstract notions, have been introduced into metaphysics and morality, and from these have grown infinite distractions and disputes amongst the learned. 

Related reading: George Berkeley: Idealist and Consistent Empiricist

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Hume Was Wrong

There is in Dr. Tillotson's writings, an argument against the real presence which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says the learned prelate, that the authority, either of scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission." Opening lines of David Hume's chapter entitled "Concerning Miracles" from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Alice C. Linsley

Many are unaware of the role this "learned" Anglican clergyman played in David Hume's dismissal of miracles. Tragically, Dr. Tillotson misrepresented the sources of authority for the Christian Faith.

David Hume (1711-1776) wrote, "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines,with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement,the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances of experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably begets a pretty strong degree of assurance." (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter 10, Concerning Miracles)

Hume points out that the learned clergy of the Church of England affirmed that the authority of Christianity is founded "merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples."

Hume is not to be blamed for being wrong about Jesus' miracles. He assumed that the "learned" clergy were accurately representing the basis for Christianity's authority: namely, that the Church teaches what it received from the Apostles. Let us examine this more closely. 

The Apostolic witness comes to the Church through the writings of the early Church Fathers and through the writings of the New Testament. The early Church Fathers had to interpret much of what was delivered to them and it took acute reason to sort through all that. It also required employment of Greek philosophy by those who participated in the Council of Nicaea, a number of gatherings that formulated the two natures of Jesus Christ as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. It is clear that Hume has the wrong idea when he asserts that the authority of Christianity rested "merely in the testimony of the apostles."

For the Church, the most authoritative accounts of Jesus' miracles are found in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is not certain that the writers to whom these accounts are attributed were all apostles. Mark and Luke certainly were not. Nor was Paul, the source of about two-thirds of the New Testament writings. Further, John's account differs from the Synoptic Gospels in that it reflects on the meaning of Jesus' miracles. Reflection was something that Hume, following Bacon and Descartes, regarded as essential to discovery.

Further, John's account points to a much older tradition of Messianic expectation among Abraham's Horim (Horite ancestors). The miracles of Jesus align with this very ancient pattern of expectation concerning the "seed" or "son" of God. The learned clergy failed to see this. 

Using anthropology, a discipline that owes much to Hume, this Messianic expectation has been traced back to Jesus' Horite ancestors. It first appears in Scripture in Genesis 3:15, the promise that a Woman of the Horite lines would bring forth the "Seed" who would crush the serpent's head. Jesus identified himself as that Seed in John 12:24. He tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die and when they object, he explains: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." The purpose of a seed is to die and be buried in the ground. Unless this happens, it cannot bring forth life. This is a universal observation of the ordinary by which the extraordinary is explained to men who appear to be in denial.

The pattern includes such details as being born in a stable to a Horite woman who was "overshadowed" by the Divine Presence, being adored by kings, healing the blind, calming wind and waves, transforming substances, multiplying substances, rising from the dead, subduing enemies, taking a wife (the Church), and being appointed to rule forever over a kingdom. This Messiah was believed to preexist with his Father and was regarded as the fixer of cosmic boundaries and the direction and patterns of winds and currents, stars and constellations. Many ancient rulers drew on this expectation to bolster their claims to the throne, but none of those pretenders rose from the grave.

After years of studying and classifying myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell concluded that the psychic unity of all mankind is expressed in a monomyth, that is, a universal belief in the hero who overcomes this world and leads his people to a greater reality. The evidence from anthropological studies of archaic communities seems to confirm Campbell's research. The expectation of a righteous ruler who overcomes death was universal. C.S. Lewis points this out in Mere Christianity. He writes that God "sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean ... about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men."

Hume added an additional criterion to his empirical method: do not consent to any belief that is not found to be universally true. He is speaking in terms of experience, observation, experimentation, and sense verification. However, applying this same criterion to the evidence concerning universal Messianic expectation, we logically must admit that the authority of Christianity rests not "merely in the testimony of the apostles." It is rooted in a very ancient expectation and involves specific details that Christians have been struggling to understand using reason, philosophy and the senses.

Related reading: The Question of ImmortalityRighteous Rulers and Resurrection; Christianity and Messianic Expectation; Fundamentalism and Syncretism in Hebrew History; INDEX of Topics at Philosophers' Corner