Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A bit of Hume: Thoughts on Skepticism

"David Hume" by Allan Ramsay
Scottish  National Gallery


First of all, I want to say that Hume’s style of writings is an utter delight to read, and it is a shame that there aren’t more writers with his grace of prose.

To set the stage for you, this quote is from David Hume's book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and this is the character Philo speaking. The debate in these dialogues is to argue whether or not it is possible to know that God exists from a posteriori reasoning, or in other words, to reason from the natural world we see “backwards” to prove God’s existence. At the end of dialog VIII Philo concludes with great flourish:

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn, while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumphant for the skeptic, who tells them that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgment is here our only reasonable recourse. And if every attack, as is commonly observed, and no defense among theologians is successful, how complete must be his victory who remains always, with all mankind, on the offensive, and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which is ever, on any occasion obliged to defend?(p 53)

If one is to never have, in Hume’s words “…fixed station or abiding city…” of one's own beliefs to defend and instead to live a life of a philosophical wanderer, with no solid ground under their feet, how then to build one's life? What does a perennial skeptic cling to when the storms of life come? Is there a city anywhere that the wandering skeptic can come back to and be welcome?

This analogy seems to point to a certain nobility of the calling of a philosophical skeptic; weary of the defense of any theological theory for the existence of God due to the inconsistencies and errors in reasoning that can be shown in many arguments. So in the final analysis, why not be the ultimate winner, show the holes in any belief system, and hold to none of them.

Since this dialog seems to need a winner and a loser, and since Hume wrote most of his discourses against the tenants of the Christian faith, I suppose I should find his arguments a threat. Many philosophy students question how it is I can even consider being a philosopher and a Christian.

Is my defending Christianity a joyful stupidity, or is it blind faith?  Do I now hold my Christian faith separate from my college classes?  Should I wander, like Hume, far from the city called religion? (Or more properly Christianity.)  

Did Hume wander from Christianity, or was he driven out? When he asked hard questions, was he told that he was silly, or that his questions were against “faith”, or even heretical?  What if men and women of similar mind as David Hume were put in our midst to help us strengthen and clarify our beliefs? Can we rejoice in the fact that we need the skeptics to rework and refine our faith, to be the fire in the refining furnace. 

Yes we need you skeptic, to dwell with us inside our fortress of beliefs to keep us examining our presuppositions and axiom we believe are so secure. Please show us the cracks in our foundational hypotheses that need repair or even rebuilding, and help us to open the gates and allow new learning to come inside.

 Do not roam as a vagrant over this Earth, come and make your home with us in our city of beliefs and help us to examine our truth and delve deeper for the aquifer that contains the pure knowledge from the source of living water. Let us give you a place of honor, as one who teaches us to keep learning, reading, searching and examining. That is where the truest faith can be found.

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