Monday, January 11, 2010

Monkey in a People Suit: David Hume "Natural History of Religion"


Forgive me for writing what will most certainly be a really boring Blog posting, but I think I might write a paper on this, so I thought I'd try it out first. If you're interested enough, tell me what you think!

David Hume

Philosophy is not funny. I understand that. But, I'm pretty sure something funny's going on in David Hume's "Natural History of Religion."

Before I read Hume's "Natural History of Religion" I liked the guy a lot. He had some interesting ideas about the limits of human understanding that really piqued my interest. (Pretend you're holding a ball and you're about to drop it. You know it's going to fall down right? Wrong. What you really know is that every time you've ever dropped something, it fell down. You assume that it will do the same thing again, and in all likelihood you're correct, but you can't know what will happen, you can only predict that what has always happened before will happen again.)

He opened my eyes to recognizing that what we so often mistake for Reason are really just beliefs. He taught me that even though some of the things I believe are impossible to prove with logic, that's okay. Because no one can prove anything beyond the shadow of a doubt using nothing but logic. When I was introduced to Hume, suddenly the burden of being responsible for proving everything I thought melted away. I was allowed to believe things again. And it was good.

Then, I read his "Natural History of Religion" and I wanted to break up with him. The book explains what Hume believes is the historical development of religious ideas. While it might have been attractive to some of the people in his day, I thought he sounded a bit, well, priggish.

Consider the way in which he juxtaposes the philosopher against the non-philosopher. (i.e. you and me.)

[Concerning the philosopher:] "What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator? [Concerning you and me:] But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men's dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asservations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational."

Are you offended? Or are you okay with being called a monkey in a people-suit? You can see why I was so surprised by Hume. This is the same guy who let me off the hook on proving that God exists! Here he is claiming that nature proves that God exists! He and Kant almost single-handedly (ok, poor choice of words) taught me about the limits of human reason. It took a long time for me to come to grips with those limits, to accept that maybe I can't know things with as much certainty as I once thought I could. I finally found myself being comfortable with thinking that no one KNOWS that anything is true, that we just BELIEVE things to be true. I was finally starting to think like David Hume.

Then, he goes and calls me a monkey in a people-suit. Jerk.


But, then we discussed the book in class and my professor hinted that maybe we should read Hume as being ironic. Suddenly, lightbulbs starting going off in my brain. That's more like it. Suddenly "The Natural History of Religion" made sense again.

If he's being ironic, then when Hume talks about the vulgar, maybe he's really just parroting what the foundationalists (Enlightenment thinkers) would say about you and me. Maybe he's just letting them see how crazy it sounds when someone actually says what they think.

Consider when Hume said:
"Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts according to one regular plan or connected system."

Basically, he's saying if we look at nature, we must conclude that a singular God set about making it. Why would Hume say this? Surely Hume recognizes that if we look at nature, we don't necessarily come to the belief that there is one single God. Looking at nature may lead some people to conclude that there is one God, but it makes others conclude that there is no God, and still others to conclude that there are multiple gods. Why doesn't Hume see this?

That's when I realized, Hume isn't being serious in this book. Well, he's being serious, but he's being at least a little funny.

You know how when you're in line at the grocery store, and that there's that annoying seven year old in line in front of you whining for a candy bar. His mom gets sick of hearing it and whines back at him "but I want the candy mom!" She's parroting him to show him how stupid he sounds.

That's what I think Hume is doing in "The Natural History." He's parroting the Foundationalists hoping that they'll see how weak their proofs really are.

When you read "The Natural History" in this way, it suddenly starts to make sense. He's not saying that people who base beliefs on experiences are monkeys in people-suits. What he's really saying is that the Foundationalist who thinks that all his beliefs rest on verifiable facts, is no better than the monkey in a people-suit whose beliefs rely on superstition and experience alone. So, you see, when Hume is railing against you and me, he's really railing against Foundationalists.

Only when you realize that the "Rational proofs" of the Foundationalists are on just as shakey ground as the things you and I believe do you realize that Hume is poking fun at them. In short, only when you start to think like David Hume do you realize how freaking funny this book really is.


René Decartes


Tim and Deane said...

hmmmm. Very interesting thougths. But, what if Hume meant exactly what he said? What if he is saying that if one looks deeply at nature, logic would tell them that the creation and organization of the vast universe, down to the structure of the tinies quark, is not likely an accidental or random happenstance?

Then again, my thoughts probably fit me into the picture of a monkey in a suit.

Joshua said...

I say that Hume was being ironic, because the ironic reading of the text is in line with everything else he's written. A reading that is not ironic is opposed to everything he's ever said. (In the Dialogues, which goes along with the History, he dismantles some of the classic "proofs" of God's existence.) Regarding the design of the Universe demonstrating that it looks like it was designed by God: Of course, you're right. Looking at the Universe certainly seems to draw one to the conclusion that it has a designer. Yet other people looking at the same things conclude that there must be multiple designers. (Just like a watch has more than one designer. Even if it has one designer, that designer bases the design on hundreds of years of human watchmaking.) So, you're right. And that means you are a monkey in a people-suit. But that's Hume's point. We are all monkeys in people-suits. None of us has PROOF for our thoughts, we have reasons to believe things, and that's great. But those reasons don't amount to undeniable proof. He's not saying, "We can't prove God exists, therefore God is a lie." He's saying "We can't prove God exists, but then again, we can't prove much of anything, so who cares if we can't prove it."

At least, that's how I read Hume.

Rachel Elek said...

I did not read the post, I just scanned through the pictures...I am pretty sure that's what your expectation was going to be though...