Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hume, you Foxy Hedgehog

The argument that I would insist on, replied Demea, is the common one: Whatever exists must have a cause or reason for its existence, as it is absolutely impossible for anything to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In working back, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either (1) go on tracing causes to infinity, without any ultimate cause at all, or (2) at last have recourse to some ultimate cause that is necessarily existent ·and therefore doesn’t need an external cause. Supposition (1) is absurd, as I now prove:
In the ·supposed· infinite chain or series of causes and effects, each single effect is made to exist by the power and efficacy of the cause that immediately preceded it; but the whole eternal chain or series, considered as a whole, is not caused by anything; and yet it obviously requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular thing that begins to exist in time. We are entitled to ask why this particular series of causes existed from eternity, and not some other series, or no series at all. If there is no necessarily existent being, all the suppositions we can make about this are equally possible; and there is no more absurdity in nothing’s having existed from eternity than there is in the series of causes that constitutes the universe. What was it, then, that made something exist rather than nothing, and gave existence to one particular possibility as against any of the others? External causes? We are supposing that there aren’t any. Chance? That’s a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce anything.

So we must adopt supposition (2), and have recourse to a necessarily existent being, who carries the reason of his existence in himself and cannot be supposed not to exist without an express contradiction. So there is such a being; that is, there is a God.

I know that Philo loves raising objections, said Cleanthes, but I shan’t leave it to him to point out the weakness of your metaphysical reasoning. Your argument seems to me so obviously ill-grounded, and ·even if it succeeded· to offer so little help to the cause of true piety and religion, that I shall myself venture to show what is wrong with it.

I start by remarking that there is an evident absurdity in claiming to demonstrate—or to prove by any a priori arguments—any matter of fact.
•Nothing is demonstrable unless its contrary implies a contradiction.
•Nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction.
•Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent.
•So there is no being whose non-existence implies a contradiction.
•So there is no being whose existence is demonstrable.

I offer this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy on it.

You claim that God is a necessarily existent being; and the friends of your line of argument try to explain this necessity of his existence by saying that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we would perceive it to be as impossible for •him not to exist as for •twice two not to be four. But obviously this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as they are now. It will always be possible for us at any time to conceive the non-existence of something we formerly conceived to exist; the mind can never have to suppose some object to remain always in existence, in the way in which we always have to conceive twice two to be four. So the words ‘necessary existence’ have no meaning—or (the same thing) no meaning that is consistent.

Furthermore, if we do go along with this claimed explanation of necessary existence, why shouldn’t the material universe be the necessarily existent being? We dare not claim to know all the qualities of matter; and for all we can tell, matter may have some qualities which, if we knew them, would make •matter’s non-existence appear as great a contradiction as •twice two’s being five.

I have found only one argument trying to prove that the material world is not the necessarily existent being; and this argument is derived from the contingency both of the matter and the form of the world. ‘Any particle of matter’, Dr Clarke has said, ‘can be conceived to be annihilated; and any form can be conceived to be altered. Such an annihilation or alteration, therefore, is not impossible.’ But it seems very biased not to see that the same argument applies just as well to God, so far as we have any conception of him; and that our mind can at least imagine God to be non-existent or his attributes to be altered. If something is to make his non-existence appear impossible, or his attributes unalterable, it must be some qualities of his that we don’t know and can’t conceive; but then no reason can be given why these qualities may not belong to matter. As they are altogether unknown and inconceivable, they can never be proved incompatible with ·the nature of matter as we know· it.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I have some doubts concerning the title of it and I would appreciate if you explain it to me. But your argument against the demonstration of a necessarily existing being is, as far as I see, flawless and impossible to reply to. I would like you to answer one question although: For the argument against the infinite chain to be valid, it would be necessary to assume that the cause-effect relation does apply to the chain itself as a whole as much as it does for each and aevery one of its links. What if the cause-effect relation is an explanatory scheme applicable only to facts in the world but not to the world itself? Congrats for the text.

Clayton said...

Hi Andre,

This is an extended passage lifted from Hume's Dialoges in honor of Hume's birthday.

The title is a reference to Isaiah Berlin who distinguishes between the foxes and hedgehogs. The fox has lots of clever ideas and the hedgehog has one big idea. Hume had both. He had synoptic vision, but was also able to come up with punchy and clever responses to particular arguments. So, one of the rare thinkers to display the virtues of the fox and the hedgehog.