Friday, March 12, 2010

David Hume on Religion (Part 5): Natural Belief

This post is part of my series on David Hume's critique of religion. For an index, see here. The series works off an article by J.C.A. Gaskin in the Cambridge Companion to Hume.

In previous entries, I have covered Hume's attack on the intellectual foundations of religious belief. In Part 2, we saw how Hume seriously challenged the cornerstone of natural theology, namely: the argument from design. In Part 3, we saw how he damaged the credibility of revelation. And in Part 4, we examined his argument concerning the religious perversion of morality.

After all this, the obvious question arises: why, if it rests on such shaky grounds, does religious belief exist in the first place? And why does it persist in the face of rational criticism? Hume was interested in both questions.

Gaskin limits himself to the second of these questions and discusses how Hume's attack on religion may have given succor to modern-day "Basic Belief" epistemology.

Hume the Fideist
Hume ends his discussion of miracles with the following enigmatic comment:
Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of [the veracity of Christianity]: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.
This comment could easily be interpreted as a form of "prudential irony". Hume frequently employed this device: he would mount an attack of religious belief only to follow it up with a profession of piety. So perhaps we should not read into it too much.

But there are those who disagree; who say that, if we look at Hume's sceptical philosophy as a whole, this statement is an endorsement of fideism. That is, the idea that belief in God is unassailable by reason; that it is somehow natural or basic ("natural" is the phrase used by Hume scholars; "basic" is associated with the Plantinga school).

What is a Natural Belief?
Hume did not use the term "natural belief" himself. It is something that has been read back into his work by Humean scholars. The reason is that, despite his relentless assault on all aspects of philosophy, Hume seemed to concede that certain beliefs were unavoidable, such as belief in an external world or belief in other minds.

To be more precise, Humean scholars identify three criteria shared by all natural beliefs:

  1. They are prior to any process of reasoning and are not long dislodged by critical argument.
  2. They are indispensable presuppositions of knowledge and conduct. That is, we cannot proceed in any inquiry or activity without supposing them.
  3. These beliefs are universal, shared by all cultures.
Take the example of belief in an external world. Does this match all three criteria? Would it be really impossible to live without belief in an external world?

An anecdote might make the point. Bertrand Russell once recounted a story concerning a letter he received from a solipsist. She wrote that her position was rationally unassailable and that she couldn't understand why there weren't more solipsists!

Well, I am sure we can agree that in this instance there is something radically inconsistent in this person's system of beliefs. Clearly she does believe in the external world, although she is trying to deny it.

God Belief as Natural Belief
Many religious believers have tried to apply this idea to belief in God. They often proceed by using the analogy with belief in an external world or belief in other minds. Perhaps the most famous attempt to do this was by Alvin Plantinga, whose work I have discussed before.

But does belief in God really satisfy the three criteria outlined above? Well, it is certainly possible to dislodge belief in god with sceptical argument, many atheists are testament to this fact. This applies mutatis mutandis to the idea that belief in God is universal. So the argument must be that belief in God is indispensable.

There are certainly those who would argue this. They might say that God-belief is essential in order for morality to have any motivational power; or in order to make sense of the world; or in order for life to have ultimate purpose. The problem with this is that it falls back on arguments that Hume has already dismissed.

Gaskin thinks it pretty obvious that Hume would not endorse this idea of natural belief in God. The analogy with belief in an external world or belief in other minds simply does not hold up.

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