40 George Square is the name chosen by the authorities at Edinburgh University in place of what was the David Hume Tower. I used the word authorities because I was unsure how to spell sycophants and I didn’t have a dictionary to hand. I suppose I might have used toadies, creeps, grovellers, spaniels, lickspittles or brown-nosers.
The tower is being renamed because it “causes distress” through its association with the great philosopher’s allegedly racist attitudes back in the 18th century. The Rampaging Black Lives Matter (BLM) group to whom the Edinburgh lickspittles are in thrall don’t like people with David Hume’s views. So David Hume has to be cancelled before he causes any further distress. All I can say is that some people are very easily distressed. For my own part, I am not terribly distressed when I hear that David Hume shared some of the views of most of his contemporaries. But I am very distressed by the rampaging, looting, burning and violence of the marauding thugs and vandals of BLM.
On the university’s decision, the philosopher Damon Linker commented: “So you don’t love David Hume? No worries. He thinks you’re idiots, and he’s right.” Idiots – is that all they are? I commend Dr Linker for his most moderate use of language. That iconoclastic decision is the intellectual equivalent of the thuggery perpetrated by BLM. Whatever Hume’s crimes, he never went around “causing distress” by acts of arson and robbery which deprive people of their livelihood and threaten to deprive them of their lives. By contrast, David Hume was renowned among his contemporaries in the Scottish Enlightenment as one of the most genial, affable and generous men around. His London talking pals Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Joshua Reynolds thought the world of him.
Moreover, Hume wrote clear, pleasing and euphonious English – which is more than his detractors, the sanctimonious educational bureaucrats in Edinburgh. I have been reading their Philosophy syllabus. Don’t try it is you retain any affection for the English language
But when it comes to Philosophy, Hume had such weird notions that I am surprised to see that they have carried so much influence for these last 250 years. Boswell said, “Mr Hume has written some books which are very unfavourable to religion.” He did. For example, on the subject of miracles he said, “For there to be grounds for believing in a miracle, its non-occurrence would have to be ore improbable than its occurrence.” Of course! That’s what miracles are: exceptionally rare events and thus highly improbable. And to claim that an event is highly improbable is not at all the same thing as to say it is impossible. For example, it is very highly improbable that anyone should win the National Lottery’s jackpot: but someone does win it every week. Perhaps there occur only about as many miracles as hat tricks in Test Match cricket. Rare but clearly not impossible. I suggest, David, that God saves his miracles for special occasions. Certainly, that’s what it looks like.
Secondly, what do we make of Hume’s epistemology, his theory of knowledge? In his famous – and wonderfully readable Enquiry, he writes:
“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
Elegantly put. You see what I mean when I praise him as a master of English prose? But it is a very poor argument: in fact it’s a piece of nonsense, because contradictory. Why? Because Hume’s statement contravenes his own strictures: for it itself contains neither experimental reasoning nor abstract reasoning. Thus Hume’s statement is an example of one of those things which, he says, we should commit to the flames as a piece of sophistry and illusion.
Hume also claimed that we have “no reason” to expect the sun to rise tomorrow unless we invoke what he called “the principle of induction.” Why do we need to drag in some remote artificial such as an abstract principle? The view is absurd. If the sun has risen every single day in the history of the solar system, what else should we expect it to do tomorrow? This is an instance of Hume’s argument against miracles, this time turned against himself: for, given that the sun has alwaysrisen in the mornings, it is more improbable to claim that it will not rise tomorrow than that it will. Indeed, for the sun not to rise would be a miracle!
For fancy’s sake, let us suppose that the sun had risen on 90% of all the days that had ever been, we should still have overwhelming reason to believe that it will rise again tomorrow. There is even a precise technical explanation in formal logic for Hume’s mistake: it is called ignoratio elenchi by high redefinition of the word reason. Or, as they say in the PhD seminar, missing the bloody point.
And then Hume he also believed that we accept the truth of the proposition Every event has a cause on the basis of our constant experiences: if we drop our slice of toast, it falls to the ground, water heated for long enough in a kettle will boil, if you prick me, do I not bleed and so on. But Hume is quite wrong. We don’t in fact snoop on every event that occurs to check that they all have causes. Every event has a cause is a presupposition, something we all take for granted, a part of our mental furniture. It is what Immanuel Kant meant when he said, “There are no percepts without concepts.”
It is what R.G. Collingwood termed an absolute presupposition – something we couldn’t get along without.
Generous-hearted Hume said, Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy, be a man.
God bless David Hume! And God curse the Edinburgh lickspittles and the thugs in BLM