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No. 2173:
Hume and Humility

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky, goes beyond the reach of reason. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In his best-selling book The God Delusion, scientist Richard Dawkins makes the case for atheism. Prominent in his pantheon of intellectual heroes is David Hume. Yet this 18th century Scot, who pushed skeptical thought to its limits, would view such an honor, well, with some skepticism. For Hume, philosophy taught modesty -- a critical lesson to recall when non-believers, no less than believers, exchange absolute claims to truth.

In 1762, Hume moved to Paris. This was a happy change for the Scot, long plagued by conservative Presbyterians in his native Edinburgh. Why? Because he had argued that habit and custom, not reason or logic, are the bases for our most cherished assumptions. Our beliefs in the existence of the self, the external world or, for that matter, God, are all without rational foundation. 

Little wonder Hume was considered "demented" by philosophical and religious foes alike. But in Paris, enlightened capital of the 18th century, what better home for a man notorious for his rational analysis of our irrational worldview?

An uncomfortable question, it turned out. Soon after his arrival, Hume was a dinner guest at the home of the libertine thinker Baron d'Holbach. Hume announced that he did not believe atheists existed for the simple reason that he had never met one. Holbach laughed. Look around you at your fellow dinner guests, "I can show you fifteen atheists right off. The other three haven't yet made up their minds."

Though Hume smiled at Holbach's remark, he was also saddened. Rational proofs against god's existence, after all, were as nonsensical and intolerant as were rational proofs for His existence. Indeed, in Hume's eyes, the three undecided guests at Holbach's table were the only reasonable men in the room. Reason and our sense faculties are simply too flawed to allow for what philosophers call absolute knowledge claims about the world.

Indeed, reason cannot even guarantee our most basic assumptions, like the belief that tomorrow will follow today. Such claims, Hume observed, are based uniquely on experience, which provides absolutely no proof for future events. As a result, how could we ever offer a rational proof for the existence (or non-existence) of a being whose reality falls, in a sense, outside the pale of our senses or reason?

With all due respect to Professor Dawkins, this is why Hume is my hero. Standing to one side of the shouting match between non-believers and believers, he reminds us of the limitations of human reason. This ought to entail humility, not hubris. Rather than making assertions about matters too great for our comprehension-the first step to zealotry and intolerance-we do better to confine our reason to "common life." Humean skepticism looks askance at both scientific and religious enthusiasts, and cultivates the virtues of conversation, not polemics. 

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

R. Zaretsky and J, Scott, So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

R. Dawkins, The God Delusion. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). 

Humility and Hume