Monday, 9 February 2015

David Hume

The January Meeting of Greater Manchester Humanists was a presentation about David Hume the Humanist Philosopher by Robin Grinter.

David Hume, a Scotsman, was born in 1711 and died in 1776, which coincidentally is the year the US wrote the Declaration of Independence.  He was one of a number of distinguished Scots involved in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was also among other original thinkers of that period in Western Europe whose aim was to shine the light of reason into the darkness of superstition. Other such renowned thinkers were Voltaire from France, Kant from Germany as well as Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham from England.  (Voltaire is said to have referred to the Scottish Enlightenment as a hotbed of genius.)

Hume was one of a number of influential thinkers of the enlightenment who were part of an intellectual discussion group that debated philosophical and secular ideas. Others of the group and their respective subjects, of which they were recognised as the founders, were:

Adam Smith – Economics
Adam Ferguson - Sociology
James Hutton – Geology
Joseph Black - Chemistry [this was challenged by members of the audience]
James Barnet - Linguistics 

The view of this group was that their thinking should be practical with a view to improve the world. Only one of the group however was a non believer – Hume.
Although today Hume is recognised as a great philosopher, in his day he was better known as historian. Hume went to university at the age of just 12 but was later unable to pursue an academic career as a professor because of his non-belief; this despite him being something of a monarchist and politically conservative. 
Among his publications were:

An Enquiry into Human Understanding - 1740 
An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals – 1751
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - 1779

The latter of these is notable because it examines the concept of intelligent design; it says that design and order in nature is not evidence for the existence of God. Hume was very much a scientific thinker who needed evidence for the belief in anything. He campaigned against speculative thinking, saying that miracles are subjective and violate the laws of nature. 

He believed that common sense could explain the ways of the world: understand why things happen through observation; recognise patterns based on constant connections; predict likely outcomes. But being a realist he accepted that you can never be 100% sure about your conclusions from observation. 

He also questioned the religious view of morality saying effectively that all religions are dogmatic and they can’t all be right. He believed you could be good without God, deriving your morals by looking to reason, to compassion and the benefit both for oneself and society; and to the ability to see right from wrong based on personal observation and experiences.

Another philosophical conundrum he dealt with was that which we might now call free will but which he referred to as freedom of action and the incumbent responsibility of it. He believed we relied on patterns and connections in life to allow us to understand how to act. And while this could result in us always taking the same action given the same patterns and connections (perhaps with negative consequences for ourselves and/or others) we have the ability to recognise the pattern and the freedom to act differently to improve the outcome. 

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