What We Believe
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March 28 Book Reviews

David Hume

David Hume

James N. Anderson

Reviewed by: Alan D. Strange

David Hume, by James N. Anderson. Great Thinkers series, P&R, 2019. Paperback, 160 pages, $11.50. Reviewed by OP pastor and professor Alan D. Strange.

James Anderson argues that David Hume matters immensely. Hume, as chief exemplar of the Scottish Enlightenment, was a critic nonpareil of orthodox Christianity. At the same time, as the most consistent empiricist, he shows us where radical reliance on sense experience lands: in solipsism that produces utter skepticism. In this way, his works serve as an unintentional warning against unbelief.

Anderson begins with an overview of Hume’s life and works. Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, going to France when he was twenty-three. There he began writing his ambitious three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, seeking “to develop a rigorously naturalistic account of human thought and action, particularly our moral and aesthetic judgments, which would rely exclusively upon empirical investigation” (2). Hume’s work was seen by many as an infidel tract promoting doubt.

By the end of the 1740s, Hume had reworked this early material into An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. The former includes his infamous argument against miracles as empirically unverifiable and unwarranted in a naturalistic approach to knowledge. Hume retired to Edinburgh in 1769 and died in 1776 of intestinal cancer. In these later years, he wrote various skeptical treatises on religions, including his well-known Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, an attack on natural theology, revealed theology having earlier been dispatched. It was judged too incendiary for publication and did not see light until 1779, three years after his death, sealing his “reputation as one of the most formidable critics of religion in Christendom” (6).

Anderson notes that there are three distinctives of Hume’s philosophical project—empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism—carried out in two phases—critical and constructive. In the former phase, Hume seeks to show the limits of reason alone, and in the latter he proposes his new science of man from the standpoint of his three distinctives. Anderson discusses Hume’s theory of the mind, his radical account of causation, and his psychologized philosophy, all in which, “in the name of science, Hume banishes metaphysics and psychologizes epistemology” (21).

Anderson examines Hume’s naturalistic ethics, an attempt to establish justice and morals “by following the experimental method . . . without any reference to questionable metaphysical or theological theses” (35). However, Hume cannot account for the move from “is” to “ought,” reducing ethics to announced arbitrary views. Anderson then treats Hume’s religious skepticism that forms the basis of much subsequent anti-supernaturalism. Hume’s doubt roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and inspired utilitarianism, logical positivism, and scientism. David Hume’s commitment to believing nothing but what sense experience yields has promoted agnosticism and atheism.

Many Christian apologists are empiricists or evidentialists, affirm “brute facts,” and believe that the Christian faith ought to be defended by things like proving Jesus’s resurrection, as if that can be done from a neutral standpoint, assuming epistemological common ground between Christians and non-Christians. Hume serves as a proper corrective, showing, if you follow him through as Anderson does, that empiricism leads to skepticism, the destruction of all knowledge. One cannot start with contingent sensory observations and arrive at truth. Hume’s radical empiricism highlights the utter need for revelation as the necessary starting point for all knowledge.

 

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