David Hume and God

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently I have found myself reading 18th century Scottish David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which Hume sets down his ideas concerning how he believes man reasons, thinks, and understands. In this book, I came across a very interesting argument which I feel well worth examining and discussing–Hume’s argument concerning the nature of god.

Firstly, allow me to present Hume’s argument:

  1. The universe is governed by an amalgamation of physical laws and forces, some of which are known to us, many of which are not known or are only known partially (Hume is writing in the 18th century, so we are familiar with many more of these laws than Hume himself is–quantum theory, genetics, neuroscience, and so on down the line).
  2.  Assuming these laws were designed by a god, they are perfectly designed such that it is never necessary for the deity to interfere with them, as an interventionist god would imply an imperfectly structured universe.
  3. All things that happen, and all human behaviours, derive ultimately from the physical laws that govern the universe, and so consequently all things that happen and all human behaviours are ultimately caused by the will of god.

In Hume’s time, some of these claims were more controversial than they are now–it is now known to us that human behaviour is the product of chemical reactions and electrical impulses within the brain and body. These reactions and impulses follow the laws of physics; if god is the author of the laws of physics, then they are god’s work.

There are a couple things I find extremely interesting about this argument:

  1. It is entirely determinist.
  2. If it is true, and we assume the existence of a god, then everything bad that happens is either wrongly perceived by us or is caused by god despite its badness.

I would like to discuss each of these implications.

Determinism:

Hume is sceptical of the will, and interestingly so. He notices that when we talk about the will, we do not know really what we are referencing. Try lifting your hand right now. I am not coercing you into lifting your hand; you appear to have chosen to do so freely and to have so exercised a will. But this is merely appearance–if we delve more deeply, problems with this simple reduction to the will swiftly arise.

For instance, how do you decide to lift your hand? Hume supposes that there must be a series of causes and effects between the impulse to lift the hand in the brain and the actual lifting, many of which we are not conscious of. Today we know this to be true. The thought “I want to lift my hand” is generated in the brain, an electrical impulse is sent from the neurons through the nerves to the requisite muscles, and the arm lifts. Some studies suggest that the electrical impulse is sent out before the brain consciously has the thought of lifting the hand. It all seems to suppose that the natural physical laws, some of which we know, some of which we are ignorant, seem to be determining what thoughts we have and what actions we take, making an illusion of will where perhaps there is none.

After all, what precisely constitutes the will biologically? Are there any particles within our cells that we can actually directly influence or move? And what force are we initiating? The brain does not respond to our commands. We do not think of brilliant new ideas merely because we will that we do so; they simply come to us. We do not, as of yet, know precisely how (though neuroscience often knows where in the brain the work is being done). A series of chemical reactions of which we have no direct control cause us to have the thoughts we have, and our actions are driven by these thoughts. Ultimately, we are in a cycle of living that does not include within it any clear instance of outside will:

  1. The laws of physics result in chemical reactions that produce ideas, emotions, and impulses.
  2. Our brain inevitably responds in accordance with the laws of physics to those ideas, emotions, and impulses, translating them into actions and behaviours.
  3. The results of said actions and behaviours produce environmental change that feeds our neurons with new information, stimulating new ideas, emotions, and impulses, and so the cycle begins again.

Nowhere here is an outside force or actor necessary, and were one to exist, we would have no way of describing the work done. It makes sense to say that the neurons do this or that, and that that leads to other consequences. To say “I willed this, so it happened” does not seem a satisfactory description of what is going on. We appear to will; in fact we respond to what we cannot see or control.

One could counter and say that what we are really talking about is the inner workings of the will, not mechanisms that themselves replace it, but if that were so, why do we have so little knowledge of what it is in our minds we are “controlling” or “willing” when we exercise the will? Why is so much concealed from us, if we truly control it? A computer’s motherboard does not really “control” the rest of the computer; it merely responds to electrical impulses in accordance with the laws of physics and translates them into behaviours and actions. Computers are really controlled by human beings, their designers. If there is a god, surely the same logic applies; the one who created the laws of physics that determine how human beings behave in response to stimuli is their controller, not the individuals themselves. By the same token, of course, the computer is controlled not by the human beings, whose manufacture of them was determined by the natural laws under which human beings operate, but by the deity itself.

God and Immorality:

What is so interesting about the determinism in Hume’s thinking is that it inevitably places responsibility for what happens at the feet of the one who has created the system, which Hume supposes to be the deity. Given that we often witness things that strike us as terribly immoral (starving children, disease, the very existence of unhappiness and death, and so on), this leaves us with a very narrow range of potentially disconcerting outcomes:

  1. God is good, but our ability to properly calculate the goodness or badness of the world around us is extremely limited and fallible. What appears to us to be bad is in fact ultimately good; everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. If a child gets malaria and dies at age 2, that death somehow is a good thing even if we cannot see it. This position has been adopted by, among others, the Greek Stoics and some Christians.
  2. God is bad, or at best morally grey or indifferent. We correctly perceive that bad things happen and that these bad things are determined by the physical laws created by god. God either doesn’t care about creating a universe that seems good to us or has deliberately created a universe with misery and suffering in it for unknown bad reasons. God is capricious and possibly malevolent–more in line with what the Jews and many Greeks and Romans argue.
  3. If there were a god, he/she would be good, so the existence of bad things (which we have correctly perceived to be bad) is a reason to disbelieve in the existence of god. Modern secularists (whose cultural background is often Christian and who are consequentially very likely to presume a morally good deity) often embrace this view.

What I find very interesting here is the shared assumption among many modern Christians and secularists in western countries that god–whether existent or non-existent–would have to be a morally good entity. The belief does predate Christian theology (the Stoics–Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and so on–were the first to it). The first view makes very heavy assumptions about the fallibility of man’s reasoning, assumptions that seem to me to undermine the infallibility of the deity–a perfect god would not design beings completely incapable of correctly evaluating the moral goodness or badness of things. There is also no evidence that human thinking is so very poor as that first view suggests–human reasoning has produced numerous efficacious tools and scientific theorems that do succeed in altering the material world and explaining phenomena within it. The second or third view (morally questionable god and no god, respectively), seem far more plausible to me.

Note:

Regular readers may have noticed a recent decline in postage–I am on a brief trip at the moment. My access to the internet is intermittent and the trip itself also finds me busier than usual. Postage will very likely remain limited until next week (beginning around February 17th or 18th). Of course, should I find myself with some down time, I will not hesitate to write the occasional post or two in an attempt to fill the gap, but ultimately the blog exists to serve me (and, where possible, my readers), not me it.