We have explored one aspect of David Hume, the skeptical Scottish philosopher from the eighteenth century, that not everyone knows about. Hume was a historian. He wrote an eight-volume series titled The History of England (which mentions the Westminster Standards).
Now we want to talk about an aspect that people do know about: David Hume, the philosopher. He is known as the father of philosophical skepticism. This is the idea that we really can’t know what we know. We can’t have certainty in what we know, and in one sense we’re plagued with doubt.
Hume arrived at this conclusion because of his understanding of how we understand experience and what we can make of experience. We’re talking about the law of causality, and how we know that every effect has an equal or greater-than cause. This goes back, in the history of philosophy, to Aristotle. David Hume questioned, “How can we know?” We can observe what he called customary relationships, but how can we know every time and in every place that the law of cause and effect works? He concluded that we can’t. All we can speak of is customary relationships.
David Hume used that to defeat many of the classical arguments for the existence of God, namely the cosmological argument. He also took on the design argument for the existence of God. This comes from one of his books later in his life, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This book is set up as a dialogue with various characters, and Hume uses it to walk through the arguments and, from his perspective, dismantle them. When he gets to the design argument, Hume says that the design that we think we see in the world is not really a design. Hume says instead what we see are “the chance permutations of particles falling into a temporary or permanent self-sustaining order, which thus has the appearance of design.”
Let’s unpack that. The human self—you as a person—are ultimately a result of particles falling by chance in what happens to be a perfect order to allow you to function. That’s what Hume’s argument would demand. It would be like saying, “Let’s take a five-thousand piece puzzle and let’s throw all of those five thousand pieces into the air, and by chance all five thousand of those pieces will fall into a perfect place in relationship with each other and form a completed puzzle just like the picture on the box.”
I’m skeptical of what David Hume is trying to say about this world in which we live. The important thing about Hume is where he falls in the history of ideas. He comes right in the eighteenth century as the sciences are maturing and coming into their own in the university. At the same time, theology and religion are getting marginalized. Much of culture is shifting its eyes off of God at the center and putting their eyes on man at the center, and along comes David Hume with his epistemology and his philosophy. It had a huge influence in his day, but it had an even greater influence in the centuries to come.