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Wednesday 14 September 2011

David Hume: a skeptic in the 18th century

If he didn't invent skepticism, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776) certainly perfected it. He was a proponent of empiricism -- the view that direct experimental observation is the only valid basis for knowledge. He had no time for religious experience, a-priori reasoning (à la Descartes and the Buddha) or anyone else's anecdotal evidence. As Hume's comic-book persona says in van Lente and Dunlavey's brilliant Action Philosophers - "If it's not empirical, it's crap".

Hume's best known work was An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1748. The section of greatest interest to Forteans is the one entitled "Of Miracles", which sets out Hume's approach to claims of the supernatural. Translated into modern terms, this displays all the logical fallacies so beloved of today's skeptics:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. [= "Science says it's impossible, therefore it couldn't have happened."]

There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle. [= "Reports of anomalous events are false, by definition."]

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived. [= "Anyone who makes a claim I don't believe is either a liar or a fool."]

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others. [= "Supernatural events are only reported by fools and liars."]

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others. [= "People invent claims of the supernatural simply for the fun of it."]

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. [= "Many supernatural events have been proven to be hoaxes, therefore they all are."]


Véro said...

you may have noticed that when some poeple do not understand something they can deny it.

One can accept only what can be understood. Many phenomenon as simple a meteorite where at first "thought complete crakpot".(seek history of meteorite).Them overwhelming evidence and testimony changed the perception, them the concept of meteorite was accepted.this is just an example among many...and not the last.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - that's a very good point. I'm sure that David Hume, back in the 18th century, would have dismissed the idea of "meteorites falling from the sky" as ignorant superstition!

Véro said...

Yes, unfortunately.
To advance in science, one must have an open mind, stick to the facts, and be logical.These 3 simple guidelines would help to do better science, and blind skepticism is completely anti-scientific ! Blind skepticism is make-up for ignorance, camouflage for stupidity ... When confronted to a new phenomenon, it is a chance to advance, but skeptics fears novelty they do not understand. I wish economists would follow such guidelines... but this is an other topics LOL