Hume argues that there is lack of evidence to support claims of an afterlife or dreaded punishment. Such prediction is only based on imagination. Hume’s argument is based on past experiences and what nature provides as evidence.
He argues that priests and poets have no justification to forge the probability of future events without supporting it with what is practiced or observed. Hume recognizes that the role of religion is to regulate passions and ambitions. It creates order and tolerance as a result of the regulation.
Criticism based on observation and practice
Hume empiricism on the existence on a Supreme Intelligence is based on the fact that existing things are perfectly arranged. Hume discusses that Natural Religion is less likely to be corrupted. It cannot corrupt an individual. The more someone considers common sense the more he reveres the Supreme Being.
It is discovered that when one uses reasoning the more “one pays profound adoration to the Divine Being” (Hume “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 12”). He dismisses those philosophers of the new age who doubt the existence of a Supreme Intelligence.
They do not derive their doubt from nature. According to Hume, there is enough evidence found in many species that support existence of a Supreme Intelligence. They existed even before the changes that led to perfection had an effect. There was still a cause that could be traced back to a Supreme Intelligence.
When religion is joined by ambitious groups, suffering becomes inevitable. Hume discusses that misery experienced in religious times is the effect of religion departing from its objective. Religion is supposed to “infuse the spirit of temperance, order, and obedience” (Hume “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 12”).
Hume is against the philosophy which dismisses the importance of morality to mankind. Hume’s pragmatism is that morality should not be based on the fear of future punishment. There is no proof that there is an afterlife, reward or punishment. However, morality is good for human habitation.
Hume doubts the effectiveness of using oaths in courts and political occasions. The oaths are disregarded by many people as mere hypocrisy. These oaths are based on the fact that a Deity will enforce justice in the afterlife.
This cannot be proved from observation or practice. Those who are truthful or false can be observed with no distinction of divine justice taking place.
Hume considers projections of a state in which nature will be considered perfect as imaginative. The prediction of an afterlife where mankind is as moral as the gods is considered as an imagination of priests and poets. According to Hume, man has not travelled outside this world to find proof to support such claims. Man has no ability to contact the gods on such matters.
Hume discusses that the intelligence of a workman is derived from his production. According to Hume, philosophers should use a similar example such as that of the workman to derive qualities of the Supreme Being. Hume discusses that “from the order of the work, you infer that there must have been a project and forethought” (159).
The forethought should be based on what can be seen. Hume’s empiricism is that priests and poets cannot observe nature and proof that the gods have an intention of creating another world apart from the one that already exists.
Hume discusses that nature shows some degree of wisdom and goodness (169). As a result of this, we should only ascribe the same degree to the deity whom we seem to have known.
According to this discussion, the gods have no intention of creating a perfect state because nature only shows some degree of goodness. Thinking of the gods intending to create a paradise of perfect nature cannot be derived from the qualities nature portrays about them.
Hume argues that the gods should be described with qualities that can be derived from nature. According to Hume, the gods possess “the precise degree of power, intelligence and benevolence which appear in their workmanship” (160). Hume argues that nature lacks the perfection which religious groups use to describe gods.
Hume discusses that priest and poets use imagination to presume “a more perfect production than the present world” (162). Afterwards, they describe the gods with similar perfection of things forecast into the future. Hume’s empiricism considers that the gods lack the qualities to create a perfect state now or in the future.
Hume disagrees with the assumption that the world is only a passage to a better production set by gods. According to Hume, a rational human being would not think of “this life as merely a passage to something further” (165). This life should be the main theme of contemplation.
The empiricism of this argument is that we should be more concerned about what we are sure of than things based on imagination. This world is real for all of us while an afterlife has no proof of existence.
Hume criticizes priests and poets who seem to know what the gods intend to do. He argues that discourse should be based on what has actually occurred (162). According to Hume, it is impossible to have priests and poets sitting in the council of gods. It follows that they are not aware of their plans.
When priest and poets claim that the gods have an intention of creating perfection in another world and administering justice to past evil deeds, they have no proof of conversation with the gods.
Hume disagrees with justice that is ascribed to the action of the gods. Justice comes as a result of human action. In this case, mankind through law and enforcement administers justice. Hume discusses that from common understanding “there is no reason to ascribe justice to the gods” (166). Hume’s empiricism is that those that can hide from the constitutional and common law are able to go unpunished.
Hume criticizes the religious perception of a dreaded future punishment. According to Hume, nature does not provide any clues about “reward or punishment expected or dreaded beyond what is already known” (171). Hume’s empiricism is that neither practice nor observation supports the existence of such perfect or dreaded places in the universe.
Hume discusses that the immediate proof that can be obtained from common sense is stronger than the evidence based on religion (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”). He argues that miracles are not only found in Christianity but also in history.
Hume’s empiricism is based on the wonder of someone believing what goes against the laws of nature. The laws of nature always apply. On the other hand, a miracle is based on a single event which cannot be proved.
Hume argues that a rational man would incline his belief in the side that provides more proof (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”). Hume insists that we must “balance the opposite experiments, where there is an opposite” (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
From balancing, we should choose the side with a greater weight. Hume’s empiricism is that we should believe something that occurs a hundred times than one which happens only once. Compared to the miracles that occur once, one should choose occurrences that follow the laws of nature. The laws of nature are applied many times, have more weight, and are more credible.
Hume argues that miracles are based on human testimony. He raises doubt on the degree that human memory is accurate, and mankind is inclined to tell the truth (Hume “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
It is more practical that human memory is not accurate. Hume’s empiricism is that mankind is never inclined to tell the truth unless there is a method to expose the lie. In that case, the liar is afraid of shame. When there is no technique to disclose a lie, mankind may tell a lie without hesitation.
Hume discusses that there are a number of factors that may make a testimony to be doubted. Those that challenge religious believes include the number of witnesses, witnesses having interest in their claims, testimony delivered with hesitation or violent utterances (Hume “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
Religious beliefs in some practices fall under these categories. It raises doubt on testimonies based on the followers of the particular religion. Hume’s empiricism is that the testimonies would bear more weight if they were delivered by people who are not followers of the particular religion.
Testimonies do not provide enough evidence to support the occurrence of miracles. Hume discusses that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle” (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
He argues that proof should be established through repetition of similar events. Through practice, it follows that miracles are rarely repetitive in the sight of those seeking proof. They cannot be counted as credible.
Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) discusses that miracles are based on testimonies of people whose “good sense, education and learning is questionable”. It is possible that they have been deceived. He also argues that most testimonies are not strongly disputed. Most religious beliefs are too violent to be disputed.
Those who try to come up with new ideas are persecuted or considered to lack faith. It would be more convincing if the contests about the credibility of these testimonies were conducted in public. Hume’s empiricism on this matter is that testimonies need to be verified through questioning.
Hume discusses the event in which a false prophet, Alexander, forms his popularity among the least educated. He then uses this mass to convince even the most learned. Hume argues that “the advantages are so great, of starting an imposture among an ignorant people” (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
There is much to lose in case the proponents of miracles are discovered as liars. This makes it difficult to convince the witnesses otherwise about a possible delusion of facts. Hume empiricism considers the possibility of one person creating an illusion that influences a large group.
There is an excitement that accompanies the testimonies of miracles. Moreover, those who disbelief are enticed to spread the news. Miracles and fairy tales gain popularity through “the love of wonder” (Hume “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”).
Hume argues that when a witness is eloquent, the audience rarely uses their reasoning capacity fully. When the person addressing the crowd wants to achieve much through speech then he/she is most likely to use events based on imagination.
It is noted that “the gazing populace receives greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition and promotes wonder” (Hume “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”). Hume considers the impractical nature of imaginative descriptions. They are known to drive human passion and curiosity beyond what common discourse can achieve.
Events that were considered mysterious are demystified when human understanding of the laws of nature improves. Omens and oracles that were once considered mysterious are proved to follow a certain trend of natural laws.
Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) discusses that the origin of miracle testimonies is mostly found in uncivilized groups. The testimonies usually are conveyed without disputation. Hume’s empiricism proves that civilization and learning eliminates most of what was once considered miracles.
Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) dismisses those who claim that miracles do not conform to the world of today as additional lies. According to Hume, if miracles ever existed, they should exist through all ages.
Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) discusses the testimony of a priest who claimed that miracles no longer happen in this age. From this argument, it follows that miracles have never happened.
The testimony of one deluded individual can influence a large group. Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) discusses the difficulty that exists to disapprove testimony from its place of origin. It is because there is usually a large group of followers who will testify about the same thing whose origin may as well be the delusion of one individual.
Hume considers prophecy to be practical because they can be connected to occurrence of events. According to Hume (“An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II”) prophecies are the only miracles that may be believed if they are to be followed by actual occurrences. This may not stand out today, where prediction can be made by studying the laws of nature such as meteorology.
Hume concludes that if miracles are only based on testimony, then they are not credible. If miracles existed in the past, they should happen today. Following the perception of a priest that modern physical environments do not allow the performance of miracles, Hume concludes that miracles have never existed.
Hume is aware of the role religion plays to create order and tolerance among communities. He points out misery that accompanies the dominance of religion is not as a result of natural religion but as a result of factions and ambition. Afterlife is based on imagination because it cannot be proved through observable features.
Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Part I & II.” Bartleyby.com, The Harvard Classics, 1909-14. Web. <https://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html>.
Hume, David. “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 12.” [email protected].The University of Adelaide Library, 5 Nov 2012. Web. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92d/part12.html>.
Hume, David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume, London: Adam Black, William Tait and Charles Tait, 1826. Print.