The Happy Heretic-David Hume

It was kind of an unofficial Heretics Day in CoPhi, with Spinoza and reports on Galileo, and Luther. The theme continues this morning with more Luther, and St. Paul (another equestrian accidentalist like Montaigne, not usually described as a heretic… but what else should we call the inventor of such major tenets of the incipient upstart Christian faith as Jesus’ divinity, holy spirit, atonement etc.? ); and in Happiness we’re spending just a bit of time with the happy heretic David Hume,  “Le Bon David,” “the Great Infidel.” He said:

  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”
  • “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Heaven and Hell suppose two distinct species of men, the Good and the Bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue.” 
  • “To be a philosophical Sceptic is the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.” 
  • “If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.”
One of Hume’s heresies, increasingly mainstream with time and the ubiquity of Buddhist thinking, is the illusion of selfhood. “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…” This is a subtraction that many, like Alison Gopnik, have found additive. Lost baggage can lighten a journey and gladden the heart.

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. Descartes at least had said you always know that you yourself exist (“I think, therefore I am”), but Hume rejected even that premise…

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game. 

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)

Another Humean heresy, especially where I live, is his skepticism regarding miracles.

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

It’s not a position most students are initially happy with, but in the long run the habit of “rejecting the greater miracle” removes motes from the eyes and restores clear vision. For some, that’s the greatest miracle of all.

5:30/6:55, 49/79

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