David Hume Against The New Atheism

David_Hume

When I did was invited to the Theologues podcast on the New Atheism, I was asked what was “new” about the New Atheism, and I answered: they are new in stupidity. This is obviously a polemical assertion that demands justifying, and I think one of the best ways to understand what is so lacking about the New Atheism is to compare them to their philosophical atheist forebears, and among them the figure of David Hume obviously towers.

David Hume is often lazily described as an “empiricist” philosopher, but it would be more accurate to call him a philosopher of radical doubt, of which his philosophical empiricism was merely an expression. And his radical doubt led him to have equal impatience with atheistic fideism as with theistic fideism. So here are merely a few points that would have Hume rolling his eyes at the New Atheism.

Hume and Classical Theism. In a word, Hume understood the difference between deism and classical theism, and the New Atheists do not. New Atheist polemics against a creator God usually take the form of “If God designed the Universe, then who created God?” or Dawkins’ famous argument that a God capable of designing the Universe would have to be a very complex being, but evolution teaches us that complex beings only come about by evolving from simpler beings, therefore a complex designer god who antedates the Universe is impossible. Of course, theists will readily acknowledge that there is no highly evolved superbeing who predates the Big Bang. But Dawkins’ argument only obtains if one presupposes that this demiurge is subject to the physical laws of the Universe itself rather than its transcendent source. This demiurge is the god of Deism, with whom Hume had very little patience, but he understood that this watchmaker god is different from the God of classical theism. Hume held that New Atheist-type arguments about causal regress worked against the God of deism but not the God of classical theism, and he held that the classical arguments for theism could not be disproven, and it was only because of his commitment to radical doubt that he did not embrace them. This point is sometimes ill-understood. Hume’s rejection of the cosmological argument was driven by his rejection of all a priori reasoning, a consequence of his empiricism (itself a consequence of his radical skepticism), not to any flaw within the cosmological argument itself once granted its premises (which Hume refuses to do). To Hume, even classical theism could only be embraced by a leap of faith, which he was unwilling to do, but he nonetheless recognized its consistency.

In this regard, the history of the cosmological argument thence is fascinating. As we know, within the cosmological argument, the idea of an infinite regress of finite causes is the alternative to the uncaused cause. Hume wrote that the infinite regress argument worked against the god of deism but not the God of theism. The next time we see this line of attack in English philosophy is in John Stuart Mill, where he, with an almost touching blithe unawareness of the difference, uses Hume’s arguments against both deism and theism. And then we get down to Bertrand Russell, who says that Aquinas rejected the possibility of an infinite regress of finite causes because his medieval mathematics couldn’t grasp the concept of infinity, which is ridiculous to anyone who has actually read Aquinas. (Russell also held that people shouldn’t read Aquinas since he merely parroted Aristotle, which really teaches you more about Russell than anyone else. And also that you shouldn’t drink your own kool-aid.) The cosmological argument was never disproven, it was merely forgotten.

(Note that it’s possible to offer an esoteric reading of Hume in this regard: maybe Hume held a lower opinion of classical theism. We certainly know that Hume enjoyed and practiced esoteric writing, and I am offering a somewhat esoteric reading of him. After all, Hume occasionally represented himself as some sort of believer, and the question of his true beliefs is a controversial one, but I side with his contemporaries in describing him as an atheist through and through.)

Hume and Scientism. One of the silliest features of the New Atheism is their scientism, usually defined as the belief that empirical science can satisfactorily answer all human questions, including questions usually thought of as outside its remit, such as questions having to do with meaning, the nature of existence, morality, and so on. Hume would have no time for that. Indeed, he is most famous for formulating the Problem of Induction, which shows that, strictly speaking, science is incapable of proving anything, let alone of decisively answering non-empirical questions. Here we see the consistency and even courage of Hume’s approach, and the striking contrast with the New Atheism. Hume’s radical skepticism led him to question both religious belief and the validity of empirical science, and to recognize that scientism is the most inane of all fideisms.

Hume and the Is-Ought Problem. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett makes the following argument, also often propounded by Richard Dawkins: religion is a natural phenomenon, and a product of evolution by natural selection; but while religion might have been adaptive once, it is now a spandrel, a left-over that has outlived its usefulness, and should now be discarded. Whoops! Did you see what was going on? Someone just derived from an “is” (religion is a product of natural evolution that is no longer adaptive) an “ought” (religion should be discarded), running into the Is-Ought Problem, also known as Hume’s Law. Hume points out that is-statements are categorically different from ought-statements, and that one cannot logically derive the latter from the former. This is a perennial problem for the New Atheists, since a key element in their system is to find some “grounding” for morality in naturalistic evolution: it is adaptive to cooperate and to display altruism, and therefore evolution provides a grounding for morality. But even if their “is” is correct, it still does not tell us why one ought to behave morally. One might even say that it is a structural problem, since by definition if you a priori believe that only the material world exists, then only is-statements are meaningful. If you believe in a creator God who is the source and end of all goodness who has thus rationally ordered the world, or if you merely believe like the ancient philosophers that the world is ordered according to reason, the Is-Ought Problem is a walk in the park. Now, maybe it is possible to square the circle, but what makes the New Atheists so galling is that they don’t even seem to be aware of the problem, even as they keep running into it.

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  • Jerry Ross

    Not sure I agree with all of your conclusions, but any in depth article about David Hume is a good thing in my book (even if it only gets people interested in reading more about him)!

    image from http://grok.amorphia-apparel.com

  • Tom

    The practice of putting down the Scholastics by saying that they either ripped off Aristotle or got him wrong is baffling. Being influenced by someone else’s philosophy is hardly unique to them, nor is coming to different conclusions from your main influence.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    It is refreshing to see the author admit he is making polemical assertions. However, a few other words and phrases are missing such as religious demagoguery and sophistry hidden in a reasonable analysis of Hume.

    Being logically consistent is not the same as being “right.” If your fundamental assumptions are statements of faith, then any arguments are built upon sand and logical consistency is irrelevant. It is also very misleading to say that the New Atheists like Dawkins have claimed they have “proven” god does not exist. Very clearly and repeatedly all of them argue that no evidence supports the existence of god. This is a disprovable empirical statement – not a proof. They then make the pragmatic statement that god does not exist in the same way most believers in god discount the existence of other mythical creatures or older gods. The author has attempted to make false equivalencies of pragmatic empirical claims and logically consistent arguments based on faith such as those by Aquinas in the Summa. The religious escape clause that god is outside of nature is baseless other than as a statement of faith with no justification for acceptance.

    An extreme example of the irrelevancy of logical consistency is the absurd argument of the young earth creationists. By starting with assertions like “The Bible is the Inerrant Word of God,” YEC proponents deduce the completely unsupportable position that Genesis is literally true, and the earth is less than 10k years old. Most reasonable believers know that Genesis is at best allegory given the obvious errors in the text and impossibility of stories like the flood or that we all descended from Adam and Eve.

    It might help if the author had read ahead philosophically and examined the Antinomes of Pure Reason by Kant. In this section of the Critique, Kant lays out contradictory statements with equal support and equal vulnerability, and so go the classical arguments for the existence of god, including the cosmological argument. The only valid claim with respect to the paired statements in the Antinomes is “we don’t know.” To say that the cosmological argument cannot be disproven is only a statement of logic. It does not go to the heart of the issue that the assumptions behind the argument are without knowledge or support. The author’s dismissal of the New Atheists’ position of “who created the creator” is very disheartening when the author says the work around is to assert that the creator is not subject to the laws of nature – a baseless and unsupportable claim like the paired statements in the Antinomes.

    While Kant argued for the existence of god, one of his central claims that our understanding of reality is limited by our perceptual filters is right on target. We see events with beginnings and ends. We tend to see the Big Bang as an act of creation, which is a statement without support. At best, the Big Bang is the point of expansion for our known universe. The key being “known universe.” As we have discovered with the extreme physics of quantum mechanics and relativity, the universe is far stranger than our limited imaginations are able to perceive. The only supportable answer on whether the Big Bang was an act of creation or some other event is “we don’t know.”

    I find it ironic that the author attacks the atheists as falling into an is/ought conflict when he freely conflates pragmatic empirical statements and logically consistent arguments with unproven assertions, clearly using an “ought” argument for how the atheists should be “judged.”

    One of the more odious and unsupported statement in the essay is the one that morality has no basis without god. Again, another claim that is not supported. If there were some sort of absolute morality coming from god, why have religious values changed so much over time? The old testament clearly supported slavery and many Christians continued to support slavery well into the 19th century. With the exception of groups like the KKK, very few Christians today would support slavery. Moving toward more modern issues like marriage equality and birth control, the only consistencies between the many denominations of Christianity are the differences. Positions on marriage equality and gay rights vary from extremes like the Westboro hate cult and the liberal churches now ordaining gay clergy to the Catholic church landing somewhere in the middle with the current pope. One could then make an argument that humans are too limited to understand all of god’s moral absolutes. However, that begs the question regarding absolute moral judgments since how can we ever call many things right or wrong since our understanding is so imperfect?? I would recommend that the author read the God Delusion by Dawkins, looking in particular at Dawkins’ “consequentialist” moral position, which is simply a modified utilitarian position. This is his basis for calling many religious positions morally wrong. Clearly, some religious moral judgments such as restrictions on birth control and abstinence only sex education are harmful – the data doesn’t lie. Of course, birth control is a new phenomenon in general, and something that requires a great deal of contorted logic to judge from a religious “moral” perspective. In the US, 90% of Catholics use birth control, making the church’s teachings virtually irrelevant. It is easy to build logically consistent moral arguments based on religious assumptions, but that doesn’t mean these judgments are good or right.

    My reason for bringing up the statements about morality is to identify a real world example of “logically consistent” arguments that are based on weak or unsupportable assumptions. The claim of the religious that the only supportable basis for morality is the belief in god is sophistry at its finest given how often religiously based moral judgments have splintered, changed, and diverged over time.

    The only people who will take this article as a valid argument for the stupidity of the new atheists will be other believers. This is not the way to win an argument.

    • DKeane123

      I was going to respond to this essay, but thought that someone would do a much better job than I could. To say that you hit it out of the park isn’t an exaggeration.

      • Christopher R Weiss

        Thank you! I did a second pass for grammar errors. I was upset by this biased attack cloaked in false philosophical analysis.

    • Apostaste

      I didn’t think this guy merited much of my time for a response so I took the easy route but my hats off to you. A very well considered, informed and articulated response.

      • Christopher R Weiss

        Thank you!

    • Scott Gaff

      The method of logic is “proof,” empiricism is “verification” and should not be conflated. You bring up Kant, but seem ignorant of Kantians differentiating between “rational” belief, or faith, and irrational sensories, or the aesthetic sense. Scientific knowledge is a synthesis between the irrational, or empirical, our aesthetic intuitions, and rational belief, or concepts.

      Nowhere in this article did he say atheists could not make judgments, just that values are independent of scientific knowledge, his accusation of scientism, a term popularized by an atheist, Karl Popper. The New atheists this writer brought up conclude an ought out of an is, that religions evolved leads them to the conclusion that Christianity is wrong. Logic can’t prove anything, only illustrate our thoughts, but these vulgar atheists truly are Logicists. Your only response is to say “i know you are, but what am I?” Great display of infantile argumentation.

      “The only people who will take this article as a valid argument for the stupidity of the new atheists will be other believers.”

      I’m not a believer, so I see how this statement is merely a puffed-up feel good statement. This article wasn’t a book, and not a justification for their stupidity, the meme theory is the one, but still on point for the couple specific points he was refuting; mainly to point out that vulgar atheists, in all their Hume pumping, don’t understand Hume at all. But you failed to understand any of the points he raised.

      • Christopher R Weiss

        Thanks for ignoring my point of bringing up Kant (attacking the cosmological argument), among others.

        Apparently, my arguments were too subtle for you.

        Not a believer… ummm…. right.

        Was the article and my post too long? Please read both carefully and try again.

        • Scott Gaff

          “Thanks for ignoring my point of bringing up Kant (attacking the cosmological argument), among others.”

          You’re welcome, buddy. And thank you for saying i ignored the point instead of missed the point, which are different. Apparently you’re sad I only responded to two of your points, so I guess I should bore you with a point by point breakdown of your tiresome, tribalistic arguments (i must believe in God or i wouldn’t feel the need to regulate the shallow ideas of other atheists)

          “It is refreshing to see the author admit he is making polemical assertions.”

          i didn’t see you do the same in your response, so i already have way more respect for Gobry (the author, in case you didn’t look for a name, like i didn’t the first time).

          “If your fundamental assumptions are statements of faith, then any
          arguments are built upon sand and logical consistency is irrelevant. ”

          you mean, like if somebody states “every event needs a cause,” then i ought to outright attack such an assertion based on it being a matter of faith? Causality has been effectively demonstrated, but the justification itself is still built upon sand. So science is irrelevant, huh? David Hume never even believed that.

          “Very clearly and repeatedly all of them argue that no evidence supports
          the existence of god. This is a disprovable empirical statement – not a
          proof.”

          Are you claiming that experience has disproved God, other than logic? I’d like to see it. The logical proof is the logical reasoning that justifies the atheists lack of faith in God. They seem pretty certain there isn’t a God. Your statement is a cop out, otherwise they would be stronger about their uncertainty, to the point of asking why Christianity is morally superior to other religions, and why religions exist without any moral schematism. That is the point of the ought/is, that Gobry either ignored or failed to consider.

          “They then make the pragmatic statement that god does not exist
          in the same way most believers in god discount the existence of other
          mythical creatures or older gods.”

          That’s equivication, and is, once again, logical proof. it certainly isn’t an empirical claim. Since there is no practical reason not to believe in the God of Christianity because you don’t believe in Zeus, that argument is completely irrelevant, asserting its own conclusion as proof.

          “The author has attempted to make false equivalencies of pragmatic
          empirical claims and logically consistent arguments based on faith such
          as those by Aquinas in the Summa. ”

          You failed to read his section on scientism, or you filtered it through a youtube video that has no idea what scientism means. Scientism is wrong when practiced by atheists and theists. Values are not Empirical facts. The author is keeping them separate, when it’s you who believes the physical sciences can answer all the most difficult questions of religion, value, and purpose.

          Also, stop conjoining pragmatic with empirical, as if science doesn’t make claims of knowledge. Are you unaware about the circular argument for pragmatism, that contradicts it?

          “By starting with assertions like “The Bible is the Inerrant Word of God,” ”

          See my argument against pragmatism, hypocrite.

          “To say that the cosmological argument cannot be disproven is only a
          statement of logic. It does not go to the heart of the issue that the
          assumptions behind the argument are without knowledge or support. The
          author’s dismissal of the New Atheists’ position of “who created the
          creator” is very disheartening when the author says the work around is
          to assert that the creator is not subject to the laws of nature – a
          baseless and unsupportable claim like the paired statements in the
          Antinomes.”

          Now i’ll address your main argument for Kant. You ignored it as soon as you brought it up. Also the antinomies are about “perspective” or “points of view.” In the antinomies, Kant gives just as much allowance for belief as in unbelief. The heart of the issue for unbelief is full of just as much assumptions and lack of knowledge or support. “Who created the creator” is only a statement of logic, a baseless and unsupportable claim like the paired statements in the Antinomies.

          “At best, the Big Bang is the point of expansion for our known universe.
          The key being “known universe.” As we have discovered with the extreme
          physics of quantum mechanics and relativity, the universe is far
          stranger than our limited imaginations are able to perceive. The only
          supportable answer on whether the Big Bang was an act of creation or
          some other event is “we don’t know.” ”

          Well, you certainly don’t know, yet enjoy speaking with authority on issues beyond your comprehension. If we can’t imagine 4 dimensions, then there is no non-euclidean geometry. As it is, we can imagine it, but we can’t “visualize” it. Special Relativity (you know the theory of relativity existed way before Einstein, right?) was a theoretical idea that Einstein “imagined” before it was demonstrated. You must be subscribed to the messianic manic, whom made this similar misreading of Kant.

          “I find it ironic that the author attacks the atheists as falling into an
          is/ought conflict when he freely conflates pragmatic empirical
          statements and logically consistent arguments with unproven assertions,
          clearly using an “ought” argument for how the atheists should be
          “judged.” ”

          not really, since he believes in purpose.

          “If there were some sort of absolute morality coming from god, why have religious values changed so much over time?”

          Now that’s something atheists need to ask about, instead of concluding all religions are destructive.

          “I would recommend that the author read the God Delusion by Dawkins,
          looking in particular at Dawkins’ “consequentialist” moral position,
          which is simply a modified utilitarian position.”

          Which begs the question. If utilitarianism is a method for discovering the most good, how do you know utilitarianism can solve that problem? You must already determine none utilitarian values in order to even consider utilitarianism, making the entire experiment worthless. Plus it must start with a judgment of morals, making the entire practice ironic. Look elsewhere to solve the problem of morality.

      • abb3w

        More recently (post-Popper), empiricism seems considered not rooted in “verification”, but “falsification” — which more precisely appears a special case of “parsimony”.

  • lacourt

    I subscribe to the KISS model. Keep It Simple Stupid.
    Whether or not there is a god in the sense of first cause is irrelvant.
    Men, yes, men have created religions that have complicated the whole issue.
    Okay, scientism cannot answer the whole question of a possible first cause, but men have constructed a whole bunch of bull shit about knowing yes I said KNOWING the “mind” of their constructed god or gods.
    The potential of first cause is not the problem. Religions based on the illusions of men to create the “meanings” their delusional gods have created is the problem.
    Today, we are fighting religious wars – again. Go figure.
    The world nations have once again ignited religious wars. Oh yeah, I know, it’s about oil and controlling the earth’s natural resources…… It’s about the haves and the have nots, but it’s being fought between religions and their “rights” to be respected. God or no god. It’s about human constructs of their gods.
    It’s people who construct meanings based on their perceptions, or their illusions.
    I’m tired, I’m going to bed now. Just KISS, keep it simple stupit, that’s my motto.

  • lacourt

    After thought. All the “new” atheists really want is to separate church and state.

    • Christopher R Weiss

      Having read across the “new” atheists, I disagree. Hitchens was clearly and openly an anti-theist. Dawkins and Harris waffle between acceptance of liberal theological positions to outright anti-theism. Their positions are typically much stronger than simple separation.

  • Apostaste

    Either you are too stupid to understand Atheist arguments or too dishonest to represent them. Either way what a loser.

    • Christopher R Weiss

      I vote for dishonesty and using a straw man interpretation of atheists’ arguments.

    • Hey, how about some specifics? What arguments are you thinking of specifically?

      • Apostaste

        Go look up the arguments and don’t waste my time. The errors here are not trivial.

        If you can get the answers yourself then you should. everyone is better off for it.

        • I read the post. And I don’t know what you’re on about. So I asked you to elaborate. If you don’t feel up for specifying what you’re talking about, that’s up to you. But you’re not going to convince anyone by refusing to tell people what you’re talking about.

  • abb3w

    Indeed, he is most famous for formulating the Problem of Induction, which shows that, strictly speaking, science is incapable of proving anything, let alone of decisively answering non-empirical questions.

    Err… not quite. More precisely, it raises the question of whether or not it can, which is slightly different from showing it can’t. (Compare the long lack of proof of the Euclidean angle trisection problem, versus a final proof via the cubic equation of actual impossibility; or the question in topology for a few years of whether or not sphere inversion was possible — which eventually was proven possible, and then an explicit method given.) Mathematics allows some answer to that, as far as empirical matters are concerned — though leaving science depending on mathematics, in turn (and on more basic points, such mathematics’ dependency on being able to have questions for answering).

    But even if their “is” is correct, it still does not tell us why one ought to behave morally.

    Close, but not quite. More precisely, the is-ought problem (for those who pay close attention during the arguments) means that even if the existence of altruism can be shown, the morality of altruism can’t be shown.

    (Contrariwise, some parts of set theory also allow something that might technically encompass “derivation” of “ought”-relations from “is” relation. The emphasis must be placed on technically, as such derivation merely refines the framing of where the is-ought problem lies. Nohow, such derivation suffices to leave the assertion that

    by definition if you a priori believe that only the material world exists, then only is-statements are meaningful

    likely turns out inaccurate, one way or another.)

  • Steven Bollinger

    I’m glad to see the atheist reaction against New Atheism becoming more widespread. Although it’s coming late enough that New Atheist knee-jerk reactions to criticism are well-entrenched. http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/2015/05/atheists-need-to-stand-up-to-new.html