David Hume, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the most important philosopher to ever write in the English language. He was also deeply influenced by thinkers from Emmanuel Kant to Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. (1) Hume was one of the big three of British empiricism, the other two being John Locke and George Berkeley. Hume was much better known and better paid as a historian than as a philosopher in his own time.(2) But it is his philosophical writings that continue to influence thinkers even today. Recently, Hume’s “Of Miracles” was quoted and cited on a skeptical podcast.(3)
Without a doubt, Hume followed Locke’s thoughts as to the nature of human knowledge. In short, humans are born as “white paper,” and that paper is written on by experience. (4) For Hume, there are only two kinds of ideas: ontological ones, such as one plus one equal two, or “matters of fact,” such as the sun will rise. For Hume, the ontological ideas are self-evident since we can’t conceive of them any other way, but “matters of fact” are less sure since they may be falsified either through misperception of our senses or simply not be true. However, he still believed that our sensory experience was much more valuable than the second-hand experiences of reading or hearing about a phenomenon. In short, seeing the sun rise is a more important and truer experience than just hearing a description of it.
For the Enlightenment, perhaps Hume’s most important work is the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he asserted: “Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.”(5) What that means is that man is subject to the same laws of nature as any other part of the world and also that the laws of nature are only manifested through human understanding.
Further, a chapter in the essay “On Miracles” supports the general skepticism of religion and atheism of his fellow philosophers. In its most telling phrase: “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”(6) Hume, at one swipe, destroyed the basis for all Western Religious belief. In conclusion, Hume took to their logical conclusion skepticism and empiricism, resulting in atheism.
1William Edward Morris, “David Hume”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Fall 2010 Edition) at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/ (accessed 13 September 2010)
2 John A. Taylor, British Monarchy, English Church Establishment and Civil Liberty, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 48.
3 The Skeptics’ Guide 5X5 Oct 8 2008 at http://www.theskepticsguide.org/archive/ podcast.aspx?mid=2 (accessed 14 September 2010).
4 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II Chapter 2 (1690) at http://www.gutenberg. org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#2H_INTR (accessed 14 September 2010)
6David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section 10 http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/8echu10h.htm#section10 (accessed 14 September 2010)