Selling Tickets to the Titanic: A Response to David Hume and Mel Murray

By Noel Weichbrodt

In her applaudable paper on Hume’s account of freedom and necessity in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Mel Murray advances three reasons for the Calvinist to embrace Hume. First, “a universe of chance cannot coexist with a sovereign God,” and Hume’s account of freedom and necessity nullifies the possibility of a universe of chance. Second, she asserts that “liberty is a necessary characteristic of the imago dei,” pointing to Hume’s accounts of both chance (and the lack thereof) and human will liberated by rewards and punishments. Third, Mel points to Hume’s account of necessity and the subsequent creation of personal responsibility for sin as a reason for Calvinists to embrace Hume.

I, in kind turn, assert that David Hume attacks the very foundations of the Reformed worldview and faith in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. His determinist stance undermines either God’s perfection or His morality, and along the way destroys any hope of a intellectually and philosophically significant Christian faith. Mel Murray attempts to make the best of his account, but is stuck with the unfortunate task of convincing Calvinists to buy a ticket aboard the sinking Titanic built of Hume’s naturalistic, borderline atheistic system of philosophy.

My argument will start where Hume ends, and work backward through his work, exposing Hume’s hostility to and incompatibility with Christianity.

Hume shows the inability of a secular system of philosophy to deal with matters of theology when he appeals to mystery in the very last paragraph to resolve the loose ends of the Enquiry. Although he frames this appeal in the pious language of the day, he gives philosophy the high ground of accounting for “common [one could say “real”] life.”1 In the last paragraph, Hume argues that truth should be segmented into two camps: the sublime/theological truth and the common life truth.2 Theology, naturally, is the ghetto that Christian faith relocates to, while philosophy gets everything else. Seeing this tact, one is reminded of the modern American pluralist stance of segregating faith to one’s personal, private life and letting no leakage of it through into the world at large.

Indeed, Hume’s appeal to mystery here, at the very end of his heretofore carefully reasoned essay, contains the characteristics of Academic Skepticism.3 This is significant because Academic Skepticism builds walls around theism, walls that force theism’s silence on all of life save personal faith. As keepers of the Augustinian-Calvin-Kuyperian tradition of faith making every part of creation its home, the Christian must disagree with Hume’s account of necessity for it’s undue binding of faith.

Moving back, let us take a look at the two objections Hume himself recognizes. The second—that God must not be perfect and thus the author of human sin—is where Hume cries “mystery!” The first objection is that since God, by necessity, caused criminal actions, then those actions are not criminal, for He is perfect and “can intend nothing but what is altogether good and laudable.”4 Hume answers this first objection with a weak account based on every man calling something bad if it it negatively affects his happiness and welfare.5 Not all things that negatively affect our welfare or happiness, though, are bad. To use Hume’s own analogy, look at the body. Though “the human body is a mighty complicated machine,”6 we still try to impose the best of health on it with medicine. And some medicine, as most of us know, can cause a downturn of happiness for a time. This downturn is for a greater good, though—greater health for longer time. Note that this instance and example is not the kind of Stoicism Hume criticizes in his reply to the first objection7 , but a common acceptance of reality. Thus, not everything we call bad is bad, and thus actions that God caused are criminal.

The second objection Hume raises to his account of necessity, that of God being perfect and thus the necessary cause of sin, is where Hume gives up this annoying interplay with theism and corrals it into a tidy box where it can play with itself quietly, not disturbing his important philosophical goings-on.

Finally, before turning to Mel Murray’s defense of Hume’s account of necessity, let us take a critical look at that very account. Hume begins with an examination of causality. Causality is an internal understanding imposed on nature when we experience objects in relation to each other.8 “It is therefore by experience only that we can infer the existence of one object from another.”9 Necessity, therefore, “arises entirely from the uniformity observable in the operations of nature, where similar objects are constantly conjoined together, and the mind is determined by custom to infer the one from the appearance of the other.”10 Necessity, as it applies to man, is the uniform conjunction in man’s actions through life. This uniformity is governed by internal principles/motives, which are created by God, the First Cause. Hume then goes on to say that liberty (“a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.”11) is the same as chance, and both have no place in a world of underlying uniform motives. God created those uniform motives, and then we find ourselves at the two objections Hume ends his account with.

For sake of brevity, I will only make one critical point on Hume’s doctrine of necessity before going into Mel’s paper. The world is not the simple place of underlying motives waiting to be sussed out by the philosopher. Even if every motive on earth could be hunted down and catalogued by the faithful philosopher, he would still have to make unaccountable choices: whom to love, whether to eat the chocolate, the vanilla, or the swirl ice cream cone. Emotions and heart play roles in decisions here, not just internal principle. Such decisions in Hume’s deterministic system are not accounted for.

Lastly, a critique of Mel Murray’s defense of the indefensible. Her first argument (“a universe of chance cannot coexist with a sovereign God,” and Hume’s system nullifies chance) is not so much an agreement with Hume as it is a disagreement with chance as a factor in the universe. Hume is merely a blunt tool for beating down evolutionary and atheistic critics of Christianity, and not a provider of Christian metaphysics (The Christian would be immodest clothed in the scanty metaphysics Hume favors anyway!).

Her second reason to accept Hume is that liberty is a necessary characteristic of the imago dei. I completely agree with her. However, Hume does not. Recalling earlier discussion, Hume lumped liberty with chance and threw both down the metaphysical wastebasket. All of our choices as humans are governed by necessity of the will according to Hume, not from liberty. Any sorts of rewards or punishments do not effect the will, for nothing save God can alter the internal principles within us.12

Mel’s last reason to believe in Hume is his account of necessity and the subsequent creation of personal responsibility for sin. To be sure, Hume’s system does make a person responsible for their actions, for the only cause of their actions is their own internal principles. But, as discussed earlier, this also means that God is the author of sin, since he is the author of the principles within us.

For those reasons, I find Mel’s defense of Hume doomed from the start. Beginning with Hume’s appeal to mystery in the last paragraph of his account of necessity, and then broadening into his entire account, I find Hume to be espousing a thoroughly secular philosophy that Christians should not embrace, nor defend, nor applaud.

1 Baird, Forrest and Kauffman, Walter. Modern Philosophy: Philosophical Classics, Vol. III. Hume, David, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” (Prentice Hall, NJ, 3rd ed. 2000.) p392.

2 Feiser, James. “Hume’s Solution to the Necessetarian Problem of Evil.” http://www.utm.edu/~jfieser/vita/research/necshort.htm. Visited 9/24/2001.

3 Ibid.

4 Baird p391

5 Ibid

6 Ibid, p384

7 Ibid, p391

8 Ibid, p382

9 Stumpf, Samuel. Socrates to Sarte. (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993). p284.

10 Baird, p382.

11 Ibid, p388

12 Baird, p389.