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Hume's Critique of God & the Supernatural

Hume's Critique of God & the Supernatural
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  • 0:08 David Hume
  • 1:00 Impressions & Ideas
  • 2:11 Demea & Cleanthes
  • 3:33 Philo
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore David Hume and his theory that man can't prove the existence of God. It will define empiricism and skepticism while also highlighting Hume's work, 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.'

David Hume

The question, 'Is there a god and can humans really know him?' is one of the oldest in the books. It's probably been whispered throughout the halls of academia for even longer than, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' In today's lesson, we'll take a look at this question as we discuss a guy who answered, 'Probably not' to this age-old question. Our guy is David Hume, and one of his most famous works is Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Let's start with a brief bio of David Hume. Hume is famous for being an 18th-century Scottish empiricist. An empiricist is someone who holds to empiricism, the theory that all knowledge is derived from human senses. Stated simply, the only way we can know something is through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Making him even more of a tough nut to crack, Hume also held to skepticism, the belief that true knowledge is unattainable.

Impressions & Ideas

With this belief, Hume made a distinction between impressions and ideas. To him, impressions are everything we derive from our senses. For instance, our sense of touch tells us fire is hot. This is an impression. However, ideas are just faint images of thinking and reasoning. Going back to our fire, our impressions tell us it's hot. From this impression, we form the idea that it's dangerous. However, since the concept of dangerous can't really be defined or actually seen, touched, tasted, etc., it's an idea, which can't be rationally proven. Using this sort of argument, Hume argues that ideas are always inferior to impressions.

This of course, brings us to Hume's assertions on the ideas of God and religion. To put it as simply as possible, Hume felt the concept of God is unattainable through the senses, and therefore believing in God is pretty much nonsensical. God is not an impression; he is an idea.

Of course, this sounds a whole lot like atheism, or the lack of belief in the existence of God. However, since this would have been a pretty dangerous thing to espouse in the 18th century, Hume never went as far publicly claiming this.

Demea & Cleanthes

He did, however, write his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In this work, he investigated whether or not religious beliefs can be rational. In short, he explores whether humans can really draw any valid conclusions about the existence of God.

In order to do this, Hume used three characters. They are Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo. Throughout the piece, these three give their arguments for or against man's ability to really know anything about God.

First there is Demea. Demea is an Orthodox religious man who believes in God. However, he says God is so huge that he is beyond our capacity to understand him. Reason will never get us there. God simply just is. To remember him, we can remember Demea dogmatically says, 'Darn tooting, there's a god!'

Cleanthes agreed with Demea: There is a god. However, he says man can prove the existence of God through empirical reason. In other words, our senses can lead us to believe in God. All we have to do is open our eyes and look at nature. Its complexity leads us to the conclusion there must be an intelligent creator. Things like the intricate human eye or a rainbow didn't just 'poof!' into being. They were created by a very ingenious, supernatural being. To put it simply, Cleanthes says, 'Humans certainly can reason out the existence of God.'

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