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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Was skeptical Scot David Hume the world's greatest philosopher?

So saysJulian Baggini, in response to a Radio 4 In Our Time poll on greatest philosophers that saw Marx in the lead in late June. Baggini urges Scots to support their compatriot, saying,

Hume’s strategy for resolving today’s moral dilemmas would be to start by showing how we cannot accept any absolute principles dictated by religious leaders. Then he would show how any moral principles held to be self-evident or proven are no such thing. Purged of all bogus absolutes, we would then begin the process of identifying the common humane impulses that morally motivate us and using our reason to negotiate our way through the contradictions and complexities that emerge. This is pretty much how modern ethics committees proceed. They cannot make their starting points absolutes, since not everyone will agree with them. Rather, they need to build from what unites us.

At first I thought Baggini was joking, but he is apparently serious in believing that ethics committees without moral absolutes are anything more than over-designed and expensive rubber stamps. However, that's another issue.

Hume's connection with the intelligent design controversy is that he is widely thought to have disproved Paley's contention that there is design in the universe. Apart from the minor point that Hume wrote years before Paley, his main point was that design does not demonstrate the Judeo-Christian God. The intelligent design theorists themselves make that point. I am sure that Hume would have loved to disprove design altogether, but I don't think he saw a clear way of doing it.

For a different view of Hume, listen to Bertrand Russell,

Hume's philosophy, whether true or false, represents the bankruptcy of eighteenth-century reasonableness. He starts out, like Locke, with the intention of being sensible and empirical, taking nothing on trust, but seeking whatever instruction is to be obtained from experience and observation. But having a better intellect than Locke's, a greater acuteness in analysis, and a smaller capacity for accepting comfortable inconsistencies, he arrives at the disastrous conclusion that from experience and observation nothing is to be learnt. There is no such thing as a rational belief: 'If we believe that fire warms, or water refreshes, 'tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.' We cannot help believing, but no belief can be grounded in reason. Nor can one line of action be more rational than another, since all alike are based upon irrational convictions. This last conclusion, however, Hume seems not to have drawn. Even in his most sceptical chapter, in which he sums up the conclusions of Book I, he says: 'Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous: those in philosophy only ridiculous.' He has no right to say this. 'Dangerous' is a causal word, and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is 'dangerous'. In fact, in the later portions of the Treatise, Hume forgets all about his fundamental doubts, and writes much as any other enlightened moralist of his time might have written; he
applies to his doubts the remedy that he recommends, namely 'carelessness and inattention'. In a sense, his scepticism is insincere, since he cannot maintain it in practice. It has, however, this awkward consequence, that it paralyses every effort to prove one line of action better than another. (Russell B., History of Western Philosophy [1946], George Allen & Unwin: London, Second Edition, 1991, reprint, 1993, pp.645-646) (Hat tip to Australian biologist Stephen E. Jones, who is writing a book on the problems of Darwinian evolution.)

Note: Nominations for philosophers have now closed, with the winner announced next week. If this document is the shortlist I can't find Hume on it, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confucius, Averroes, and Simone de Beauvoir are all there.

Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.

- the California Academy of Sciences agreeing to correct potentially libellous statements about attorney Larry Caldwell, who thinks that students should know about weaknesses as well as strengths of Darwinian evolution theory, click on the posted link.

- Bill Dembski threatening to sue the Thomas More Law Center in the Dover, Pennsylvania ID case, click on the posted link and check the current daily post for updates. (Note: In breaking news, this dispute has apparently been settled. See the story for details. )
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If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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