Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Human understanding

This year marks the 300th anniversary of David Hume's birth.

I suppose I should have offered my appreciation back in April, on his actual birthday, but better late than never.

Cheers for David, a founding father of naturalism. Cheers for his skeptical empiricism, his respect for science. Cheers for keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground of experiential common sense.

Oh, he had to weave and dodge a bit to keep from running too far afoul of his Scots Protestant neighbors, who as it was accused him of impiety and atheism. But he had a roaring good time of it, and emerged as a hero of the Enlightenment.

At the heart of Hume -- my Hume -- is his essay on miracles, Chapter Ten of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. "A wise man proportions his belief to he evidence," he wrote, and he made it clear that there was little, if any, evidence for miracles.

My early life was about as un-Humean as it can get. As a 1940-50s Catholic, I was raised in a bubbling stew of miracles. They were all around us: In the daily miracles of transubstantiation, the forgiveness of sins, and answered prayers. The miracles of the saints were quoted incessantly, with the stories of Bernadette at Lourdes and the children at Fatima -- all those divine affirmations of the correctness of our One True Catholic faith. Which of course was itself irrefutably evidenced by the founding miracles: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption. Not to mention Cana, the loaves and fishes, Lazarus, the calming of the waters, and all the other Gospel miracles.

I wasn't exposed to much science in parochial school; if the laws of nature don't constrain the Creator; why should they matter to us? We were destined for our own ultimate miracles: life everlasting and the resurrection of the body.

Hume was inspired to his ideas on miracles while residing in France, in Anjou, in the same town as a famous Jesuit college. Some years later he described the circumstances of his inspiration in a letter to a congenial clergyman.

A Jesuit was describing to Hume a miracle that had occurred in the local convent. Hume expressed his skepticism, citing the lack of reliable evidence, the experienced consistency of natural law, and so on. The Jesuit responded by saying that Hume's argument could not possibly be persuasive, because it would apply equally against the Gospel miracles, which, of course, everyone, Catholics and Protestants, knew to be true. At which point, it dawned upon Hume, "Well, yes."

Admit one miracle, you might as well admit them all. The evidence for Mohammad's night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, or Joseph Smith's discovery of golden tablets on a hill in New York, is no more or less substantial than the evidence for Christ's resurrection. Hume writes:
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 marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind.
Well, yes. Happy birthday, Mr. Hume.