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February 24, 2006

Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume

Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of david_hume.jpg
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.

This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 24, 2006 5:39 PM


"What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments? What truth so important as this, which is the ground of all our hopes, the surest foundation of morality, the firmest support ofsociety, and the only principle which ought never to be a moment absent from our thoughts and meditations?"
So says Hume, in the person of "Pamphilus," and goes on to remark that it is the character of this god that is problematic. The upshot seems to be that, in Wieseltier's phrase, the "wan god" of natural theology is too probable not to believe in, the G-d of revelation too improbable to believe in.
That Hume did indeed believe in a wan god may be problematic only to those atheist admirers of Hume who need to read their own convictions into the master's texts. Why can't they take Hume at his word: he believed in a god, they don't. He certainly had nothing to fear when he was dying, neither "clamour," nor being "pressed"; Boswell, IIRC, recounts how he denied any survival of bodily death, and quipped that religious believers were, with exceptions, less moral than infidels (though this struck Boswell as a parody of a pious cliche.) If he was the "unbending" atheist some present-day Humeans are, why wouldn't he have told Boswell?

Posted by: Dabodius at February 26, 2006 3:05 PM

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