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Artillery Row

For Hume the bell tolls

Civil debate? A miracle

I recently concluded a week of vacation in Edinburgh—not, as someone guessed from my name, on family business, but on a research pilgrimage to the church of Old St. Paul’s. (Readers can learn more here and here about my forthcoming project on the parish’s iconic Great War rector, Canon A. E. Laurie.)

However, as the daughter of two philosophers, I knew I also had to visit a rather less pious landmark: the grave of David Hume. 

Before seeing his grave, I saw his statue on the Royal Mile. In rather pretentious fashion, the 1990s sculpture reimagines the Scottish infidel as a Socratic figure. He is scantily clad in a Greek toga, resting a tablet of wisdom on his knee. The toes of his right foot are bright gold from over two decades of superstitious rubbing — an ironic touch, given his reputation as the godfather of Western rationalism. I posed next to the piece with an appropriately skeptical frown.

Not everyone’s attention to the statue has been so reverent, however, as evidenced by the graffiti scrawled over the plinth today. Canceling Hume is the “in” thing everywhere now, including the University of Edinburgh, which renamed its “Hume Tower” in 2020 after the cry went up that he had said some racist things in a letter once. (Amusingly, the move doesn’t seem to have paid, as unhappy ex-donors hit the college in the wallet.)

Hume deserves neither hagiography nor cancellation

It seems immensely stupid that this, of all things, should have occasioned Hume’s tumble from his pedestal. As a young student, I was trained to engage with him on his own terms. But that training now appears hopelessly passé. Studying an Enlightenment philosopher’s arguments, rather than scouring his letters for evidence of racism? How very noughties. Nevertheless, I persist with my unpopular thesis that David Hume deserves neither hagiography nor cancellation. If we are to demote him, let us do it the old-fashioned way — by testing his substantive ideas for substantive flaws.

Though he contributed to a variety of philosophical sub-fields, Hume is perhaps most (in)famous for his essay “Of Miracles.” Released in 1748 as the tenth chapter of his work Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, it laid the foundation for centuries of atheist argumentation, including the 19th-century higher criticism of David Strauss. By Hume’s own account, he first conceived this “everlasting check” against all miracle claims while arguing with a Jesuit priest. The priest said that Hume’s rationale for rejecting an alleged new Catholic miracle couldn’t carry any force, because it would apply equally to the gospel miracles. Clearly, he intended this as a reductio ad absurdum. In fact, Hume was prepared to bite the bullet. 

What is a “miracle,” exactly? Hume defines it as “a violation of the laws of nature.” In the golden age of Newton, this language of nature’s “laws” versus nature’s “usual course” was calculated to appeal. A “law” is inviolable by definition, after all. While he does allow the hypothetical of a well-attested extraordinary phenomenon (e.g., a global blackout), this wouldn’t violate any law. It would simply mean we need to expand our catalog of natural phenomena. Hume’s critical Christian contemporaries rightly homed in on this rhetorical sleight of hand as it pertained to Jesus’ resurrection. “Dead men tend to stay dead” may be a widely observable fact, but it hardly rises to the level of an axiom.

But the word “miracle,” or “miraculous,” can be a shape-shifter even within Hume’s own essay. Consider his famous statement that no testimony could establish a miracle unless its falsehood would be “more miraculous” than the alleged incident. Or that he will always “reject the greater miracle” when weighing the probability that a man should deceive or be deceived against the probability that a man might rise from the dead. Here, we can reasonably take it that “more or less miraculous” actually stands in for “more or less improbable.” Part one of the essay boldly concludes that such testimony not only doesn’t exist—it couldn’t exist.

And here lies the seed of Hume’s technical demise, for the sword of probability may cut both ways. Indeed, the foundations of modern probability calculus were being laid in Hume’s own time, by the Reverend Thomas Bayes. Today, it provides the mathematical machinery to vindicate the intuition of Hume’s critics, proving that his “everlasting check” was a literally quantifiable blunder. Agnostic philosopher John Earman minces no words in his provocatively titled Hume’s Abject Failure. He positively welcomes the inevitable cries of indignation from Hume scholars everywhere: “There has been too much genuflecting at Hume’s altar.”

Loyal acolytes like Robert Fogelin still insist that Hume has been misunderstood, that he never intended to make such a bold claim. And Hume himself did somewhat muddy these waters by softening select sentences in a 1768 revision of the essay, after meeting formidable criticism from the likes of William Adams and George Campbell. But the gist remained the same. Of course, the essay doesn’t end there, as part two goes on to “double-lock” the thesis with some empirical arguments that various specific miracle claims are weakly evidenced anyway. Yet, conveniently, these arguments keep the gritty details of the Christian gospels’ testimony in soft focus, never conceding that there might exist a rational mechanism whereby weak miracle claims could be filtered out while Christ’s ministry and resurrection passed muster. 

Hume welcomed the energetic assaults of his Christian peers

Still, despite his flaws, Hume welcomed the energetic assaults of his Christian peers, corresponding with them and even allegedly confessing to friends that Campbell, “the Scotch theologue,” had “beaten” him. And for their part, his critics took obvious pleasure in the clash of philosophical metal on metal. They regarded Hume as a worthy, if refutable foe. It is lamentable that as their work has faded in historical memory, this spirited dialogue has been rewritten as an unopposed monologue. But in 2022, even Hume’s fiercest defenders might look back on it with wistful hindsight.

Hume’s mausoleum was built to attract attention, its Roman design drawing the eye upward to its perch on Calton Hill. Yet Hume requested a minimalist inscription, including only his name and dates. But embellishments crept in later. It is speculated that these were added to honor the memories of his nephew, Baron Hume, and three great-nephews, all buried in the same mausoleum. A cross appeared around the middle of the 19th century, then disappeared some time in the 20th. A mixed Johannine and Pauline inscription still remains: “Behold, I come quickly. Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I climbed the hill to see it myself. Peering inside, I spotted a child’s pink baseball cap, flung away and abandoned.

A delightful story goes that when Hume was old and fat, a crotchety woman forced him to say the Creed in exchange for rescue from a swamp under Edinburgh Castle. Alas for hopeful Christians, we have no evidence of a deathbed conversion. James Boswell reports that he found Hume sanguine and cheerful as ever in his last days, wholly unperturbed by thoughts of the afterlife. When Boswell earnestly asked if Hume would grant that an afterlife was possible, Hume said yes, in the sense that it’s possible for a piece of coal not to burn on the fire. But is such a belief reasonable? For Hume, whatever hesitations might once have passed through his mind, the question still answered itself.

I took my leave of Hume’s statue on my last day in the city, taking an evening stroll down the Royal Mile. A bagpipe player stood in a nearby doorway. I put a fiver in his case and listened as he played a slow “Amazing Grace.” After the last notes faded, he began tapping his foot and segued into a jig. I caught a little video, switching from the piper to the statue and back again. Of course I knew nothing about the man’s own religious faith, or lack thereof. Perhaps he was as post-Christian as the country of his origin. Or perhaps not. Either way, in that golden-hour light, I could not think of an aesthetic contrast more striking, or more satisfying.


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