Monday, April 13, 2009

Blackburn parses Hume's Dialogues

One of the things that I've intended to do (but haven't gotten around to doing) since I first started this blog back in '05 was to write a post about David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published 1779). The Dialogues is one of the seminal texts in the history of atheistic and skeptical thought, which is reason enough to write about them. But that leads into the even greater motivation I had to want to write about them: I get rather annoyed when I hear someone like Richard Dawkins (whose work I am a fan of) say that evolution made it possible for himself or persons in general to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

That annoys me because I consider atheism a philosophically justifiable position with or without the science of evolution; and you will hardly find a stronger case in point than the Dialogues, in which Hume ends up demolishing the design argument while turning other arguments for belief in God into mush, essentially leaving negative atheism and cautious skepticism as the only intelligible positions.

At least that's my amature reading of him.

For a professional parsing of Hume's work, you can see this article by Simon Blackburn, who offers Hume as an alternative to "dogmatic atheism." Blackburn also appears to by annoyed by the likes of Dawkins, but for a slightly different reason than me. Blackburn is annoyed:

because of the strong sense of deja vu. But it is not just that old tunes are being replayed, but that they are being replayed badly. The classic performance was given by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the middle of the 18th century. Hume himself said that nothing could be more artful than the Dialogues, and it is the failure to appreciate that art that is annoying.
I recommend reading Blackburn's whole article (as well as the brilliantly written Dialogues itself) but here are the key points

Since by the end neither Cleanthes nor Demea can defend any usable conception of a deity, it matters not in the least whether you are drawn to say that "it" exists or to deny it. There is no inference to be drawn about anything - moral, political, empirical or theoretical - from either the assertion that "it" does or "it" does not. Joining in on either side equally implies that we know what we are talking about, and the right philosophical attitude is just to laugh at persons who suppose that.

Hume elegantly sidesteps the common charge that dogmatic atheism is just as much a "matter of faith" as faith itself. You cannot make that claim against someone whose mocking irony is careful to issue no "ism" at all.

He also escapes the debating point that atheism is "parasitic" on religious belief. A contented absence of belief is no more parasitic on what is absent than the absence of crocodiles in England is parasitic on them being there, although it is also true that you could not laugh at faiths without them being there to laugh at.

But it is also wrong to call Hume an agnostic. That would imply a definite question about which we do not know the answer. But since there is no definite question at stake, that too lapses.

Hume knew that he was unlikely to be understood. He also knew that the interesting questions now shift to the study that he pioneered in The Natural History of Religion: the comparative study of religious practices and the psychological and social mechanisms that give rise to them, and that they articulate.
Hume did not have the benefit of evolutionary theory, yet he made short work of the argument from design and prefigured Daniel Dennet's plea in Breaking the Spell for an empirical study of religion as a social phenomenon.

For more on David Hume's views on religion across his major philosophical works, see this excellent 8 part series (10 if you count the response sections) by Julian Baggini. I would also note that in part 3, Baggini raises a point similar to mine about Hume being able to argue against religion just fine without knowledge of the theory of evolution.

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