2011 marks 300 years since the birth of the great David Hume. He was perhaps the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language and on these grounds the ABC recently devoted four programs of The Philosopher’s Zone to his life and work. You will find several references to him if you search for his name on this website.
A pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment David Hume was, and continues to be, enormously influential. Even those who were less sceptical of received beliefs than he was were persuaded by his moral philosophy.
In many ways his ideas were formative in the development of Australia; as I have described elsewhere.
I still have A Treatise on Human Nature; An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding; The Natural History of Religion; and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; from my time reading Philosophy at University; complete with my youthful underlining and marginal notes.
These stand alongside Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published 100 years later, as among the most important books ever written in English. These seminal works joined Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, by the young Isaac Newton, first published in Latin in 1687; a century before Hume’s publications.
There were great intellectual and cultural strides during those intervening years. Despite his differences with traditional theologians, Newton, like his slightly older contemporary French scientist and mathematician Pascal, still had one foot in theology. Hume swept this mysticism away and set the scene for Darwin and the other great intellects of the 18th Century.
Thanks to Hume Darwin was able to become a true modern scientist and rationalist. But Hume’s influence did not stop there. His method of sceptical thought led on through Russell and Einstein to contemporary mathematics and science; including our understanding of subatomic physics and the wider Universe; and the computer and biological revolutions of our day. I have described this process elsewhere on this website.
As I mentioned in the article on Malaysia I purchased Karen Armstrong’s: A history of God from an Airport Bookshop there. In the first two chapters Armstrong takes the reader on a trip through the Old Testament through the eyes of its several identifiable authors and editors. In opening my Bible from my late teens I was surprised to see that I had also annotated or underlined a number of the same passages to which Armstrong refers.
The Bible is in stark contrast to modern scientific or philosophical analysis. It is not an accurate historical record or literal description. In Hebrew it is poetic like the Koran; it is written to be recited or sung and a great deal of refinement has been expended on the poetry. Like the parables of the New Testament factual accuracy is not as important as the message they are intended to convey, the events on which it is based are a metaphor for deeper spiritual meaning.
Thus as children we were taught Dorothea Mackellar's poem My Country
|The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
I love a sunburnt country,
She goes on to extol Australia as a land of stark beauty that, implicitly, builds character through adversity: per ardua ad alta.
|An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.
This stands in contrast to that other strand of Australian cultural memory of the mother country; Shakespeare's:
|This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Each poetic account has a strong element of myth; and even mystery. Emotion overwhelms reality; everyday experience; truth.
A rational scientific description of both countries can be found in any encyclopaedia but if one is seeking to inspire nationalism or foster a religious experience, the poetic and metaphorical is the description of choice.
Yet as Armstrong demonstrates the Bible does provide a very compelling history of the development of religious thought from polytheism to monotheism and on into Christianity; the Trinity and the Communion of Saints. Out of Byzantine Christianity and Judaism Islam was born.
We learn of the raiding warlike Hebrew Tribes which, led by Abraham, settled in Canaan (modern Israel) in about 1850 BCE. But due to a famine a significant number soon left for Egypt where they became second class citizens (or slaves). At this time their God, El, was still a tribal deity.
Other tribes had their own deities that protected their specific interests and in addition there were specialist deities that managed such things as fertility. In the earliest books Abraham’s God, El, appears in human form and ‘drops in’ one day as a visitor. El was initially a mountain or high god of war and destruction.
About 650 years later in around 1200 BCE a group of decedents of the enslaved Hebrews left Egypt led by Moses, allegedly perused by Pharaoh’s armies. Egyptian records confirm that there were indeed roaming bands of warlike Hebrew but there is absolutely no record of the other details in the Biblical story relating to Egypt. This is discussed further in the article on Egypt on this website.
With the support of the Hebrews that had remained there the new arrivals gained control over Canaan. By now Abraham’s God had become a jealous God who could not be looked upon; and his name was revealed to be Yahweh. He was no longer happy to coexist with the other gods of the region: Baal, Marduk and Dagon and the Yahweh supporters who had become Israelites set about destroying the temples and idols of these other gods.
In due course this lack of multiculturalism led to a new misfortune to befall the Israelites.
In 627 BCE the Assyrian Empire fell into disarray with the death of King Ashurbanipal. Canaan was already in political and religious turmoil and ripe for taking by the Babylonians.
By 605 BCE the entire territory from the Tigris to the Red Sea had been taken by Babylon; and the Egyptian army had been pushed back to a new defensible border at the battle of Carchemish. A period of great Babylonian wealth and legendary cultural flowering followed; evidence of which can still be found.
Their second great king, Nebuchadnezzar II, was supported in these achievements by his God, Nabu; after whom he was named. Nabu is the son of the god Marduk and the Babylonian deity of wisdom.
In a contemporary inscription, Nebuchadnezzar styles himself as Nabu's “beloved” and “favourite”. Needless to say he was less than impressed by argumentative Israelites claiming that there was but one true god who favoured them. He expelled them from Canaan and re-settled them outside Babylon in 587 BCE.
But instead of relenting the Israelite prophets interpreted this to be evidence of God’s anger against those whose faith had lapsed and had led them to false worship and idolatry. Yahweh had become truly distant and transcendental; now using the success of unwitting Babylonians as a tool for the instruction of his people. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
As Jews were subsequently dispersed across the ancient world their one God belief blended with the increasingly transcendental view of all deities evident in Plato and the blossoming of Greek thought and culture. This transcendentness matured through the Romans to Byzantine Christianity and then to Islam.
The renaissance and the protestant reformation opened the way to a reinterpretation of what Christians meant by God and a return to many pre-Roman, fundamentally Jewish values of early Christianity. By the time of Sir Isaac Newton, God is more firmly, or once again, revealed to be a divine architect or engineer who has designed His Universe mathematically, governed by the Laws of physics. Using mathematics Newton reveals that bodies are somehow attracted to each other at a distance by invisible forces that are proportional to their mass and decrease by the square of the distance separating them.
This is contrary to ‘common’ experience and understanding, where things need to be in physical contact to be pushed or pulled. Newton was criticised for hypothesising such an 'occult' invisible force but famously replied that on the contrary it was 'inferred from the phenomena (empirically derived), and afterwards rendered general by induction'... 'hypotheses non fingo' (I contrive no hypotheses). This gravitational force is be made apparent by the power of mathematics using data derived from direct observation; it is; it needs no further explanation.
Newton was an experimental physicist in the area of optics, but he derived his Laws of Motion, and demonstrated the existence of gravity, mathematically using pure reason, from Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion; in turn derived from the direct observations of Tyco Brahe.
A century passed in which Newton’s contribution was built upon and he was confirmed to be the most important figure in the history of Science to that time. Newton's concept that what appears to be so (when thoroughly analysed) must be so; even when contrary to conventional wisdom; became a central pillar in the philosophy of science.
By the application of these methods navigation and mechanics was revolutionised, astronomy became a true and important science, many natural events became predictable and new machines became possible. The World was opened to accelerated European exploration and discovery. Natural Philosophers were inspired to discover many additional Laws of nature and it became increasingly obvious that much that had been inexplicable and mystical had a natural explanation.
The age of empires brought with it another profound social change. Old laws were no longer adequate to deal with the governance of far flung empires or rapid technological and social change. A judiciary alone, traditionally administered by the upper classes or the Church, was incompetent to manage new social structures. An active legislature became more necessary and increasingly involved in law making. Old laws were re-examined codified and revised. The law was no longer handed down from God, or even administered in the name of God, but was secular and obviously man-made.
So by the time David Hume sat down to write he could show that there was neither any need to hypothesise a God to explain natural phenomena nor any sound argument for the existence of a God. But he did not assert that this proves that there is not a God.
He destroyed each conventional argument for God’s existence in turn. I will not reiterate these here - you can read Hume for yourself or if you would like a more contemporary version of the same arguments, read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
More devastatingly Hume questioned the evidence the Bible itself presents for belief: miracles and their sub-group, apparitions.
Hume uses two methods to dismiss miracles. First using logic: by defining a miracle as an event that is contrary to the Laws of nature; then by defining such a Law as something derived from consistent observation. Thus, a priori, a miracle is something contrary to observation.
But this purely logical dismissal is unsatisfying to those who believe in miracles. Moving to the a posteriori (evidential) Hume then points out that people are easily deceived and may exaggerate or be untruthful. People may mistakenly think that unusual but perfectly natural events; such as remissions from cancer or Alzheimer’s are miraculous.
Grand miracles like raising the dead; parting the seas; defying gravity; and so on; that deny natural laws would, if proven, destroy the validity of the relevant natural Law, which would then become nothing more than a generalisation. But these laws stand because there has been no convincing or substantiated evidence that this has ever happened. When laws held to be valid by natural philosophers (scientists) appear to have been broken this has always led, upon investigation, to reveal some additional natural law or principle at work. Scientific Laws are not absolute. Like a mirage, the closer you get to refuting them the less of a law they become.
This became a foundation of ‘scientific method’ and has later been refined by various empirical philosophers. I discuss this in more detail elsewhere.
Today it seems obvious that we each can have no knowledge of the world around us that we have not obtained through the direct application of our senses; or indirectly through the reported application of someone else's.
For each of us the world is as it seems. But to reach an understanding of the actual world behind the appearances, illusion needs to be recognised and accounted for. And when dealing with indirect experience we need to guard against deliberate untruth and artistic flights of imagination and intuition of others that may have intervened in the process. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere on this website. What grounds do we have for believing that we move things through actual physical contact?
Thanks to Hume and his successors by 1901 Einstein could demonstrate that Newton’s laws are inconsistent with Maxwell’s equations (relating to electro-magnetic radiation, such as light and radio waves). While accurately describing the universe at slow speeds Newton’s laws provide an increasingly poor approximation of reality as objects move towards the speed of light relative to each other.
Suddenly we understood that matter and energy are manifestations of the same thing and that far from being contrary to common experience, all material interactions are at a distance; mediated by invisible forces. Today we would say that when we push, pull, lift or hold we never actually touch an atom in the object of our action, because at the sub atomic level everything is separated by invisible forces; at a distance.
A century after Darwin, to the present time, and this scientific method has yielded insights to vastly more of the mysteries of the universe. Many of these discoveries have been made and insights developed within my lifetime.
When I was at school an atom was an infinitesimal, unimaginably small, object that was only known about very indirectly through the results of experiments. Today we have computer chips with features a few atoms across and commercial fabrication equipment capable of placing a single atom into such a structure. The structure of DNA was unknown when I was a child. Today we have documented the information sequence that is responsible for determining the underlying properties of each of the cellular colonies that is each of us; the Human Genome.
In addition to humans we have done this for many other animals and plants and are well on the way to determining the role of each code segment in determining the characteristics expressed in each colony (animal or plant).
This has often involved a complete change of thinking. No longer can we believe in absolute authority; that those who came before are inevitably wiser than we. For example in 1949 Fred Hoyle derided the concept that the universe had a finite beginning with the derogatory term ‘The Big Bang’ and when I was in high school the ‘steady state universe’ was still the preferred but somewhat controversial model. This was resolved while I was at University with the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson; for which they won the Nobel Prize1978. The Big Bang was suddenly vindicated. There are many other examples in which real evidence has falsified an earlier misunderstanding.
Largely because of Hume, there are few educated people today, including some theologians, who can any longer believe in miracles; or that consequently, believe the miracles reported in the Bible were not simply natural events given supernatural explanations. Indeed some fundamentalists seem not to realise that discovering natural evidence for a Biblical event, like the flood, is to deny its miraculous nature. For some theologians reported miracles are like the images prayed to by some Christians; an essentially worthless, earthly, thing that provides a focus for their prayers to the otherwise inconceivably transcendent; or a simple badge of faith.
As Sportin' Life sings in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess on the subject of miracles:
|The t'ings dat yo' li'ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain't necessarily so.
Yet elsewhere people are still being killed and moved off their lands on the basis of revelations and claimed reality drawn from the Bible.
The Bible is undoubtedly a finely crafted poetic expression of great emotional power. Following Armstrong’s convincing analysis the later books of the Old Testament certainly inspired that great Jewish project: the welfare state. In Christian and Muslim times it has provided many with a motivation for personal sacrifice and charity in the interests of our fellow man. But it has for over three millennia also provided the justification for uncountable wars, atrocities and deaths in the name of God.
Now US President Obama has told Israel that returning to the 1967 borders key to any future peace. Predictably Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected any withdrawal to what he called ‘indefensible’1967 borders that would ‘jeopardize Israel's security and leave major West Bank settlements outside Israeli borders’.
These are the same settlements that are the principal cause of Middle East conflict; having been continually and illegally expanded by zealots who believe that they have a, Biblically sanctioned, God given, right to the land. How can they possibly believe this?
It’s a pity that more people do not have access to the inspiration and rationality that was the Scottish enlightenment, and David Hume.