Happy Birthday David Hume

David Hume, famous scolder of those who would derive “ought” from “is,” was born 300 years ago today. In point of fact Hume, while not enjoying the name recognition of Plato/Aristotle/Descartes/Kant, is certainly in the running for greatest philosopher of all time. He was a careful thinker, resistant to dogmatic answers, and a relatively sprightly writer as philosophers go. An empiricist who was as persuasive about the temptations of radical epistemological skepticism as anyone, but was still able to resist them. His tercentenary is well worth celebrating.

Dan Sperber, via Henry Farrell, suggests that we celebrate by posting quotes from Hume. When I first encountered him as a college freshman, it was in the context of a theology course where we were reading Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I was intrigued when our professor pointed out a passage that seemed to prefigure Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which wasn’t going to appear until 82 years later. My dog-eared copy seems to have gone missing, but I found the quote at The Rough Guide to Evolution.

“And this very consideration too, continued PHILO, which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms which it produces? There certainly is such an economy; for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this economy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity.

But wherever matter is so poised, arranged, and adjusted, as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole; and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element in which the form subsists; to the materials with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter of which it is composed is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form.”

To me now, it looks like something of a cross between Darwin — successful forms persevering among the chaos — and the Lucretius/Boltzmann scenario of the universe coming into existence through the random motion of atoms. (What makes Lucretius and Hume brilliant thinkers but Boltzmann and Darwin influential scientists is that the latter grappled closely with data, not just with ideas.)

The common thread among all these thinkers: trying to explain the origins of order in the absence of teleology. The fact that we can do that successfully in biology, and are hot on the trail in cosmology, is a milestone achievement in the history of human thought.

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25 Responses to Happy Birthday David Hume

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday David Hume | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine | Internet blog

  2. Peter Tibbles says:

    Radio National (a network of the ABC here in Australia) has been/is running a 5-part series on David Hume. The first three have already been broadcast, but you can read, listen or download a podcast at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/
    You’ll also be able to get the next two over the next couple of weeks at the same address.

  3. chemicalscum says:

    Erasmus Darwin, Charles grandfather, makes this comment on Hume’s Dialogues in his work Zoonomia:

    “The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions of organic life; he concludes that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fire.”.

    In Zoonomia Erasmus Darwin proposes that all warm blooded animals were descended from a common ancestor:

    “From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,”

    This points the way to Charles Darwin’s concept of the tree of life. By the way Hume was Charles Darwin’s favorite philosopher.

  4. Pingback: Birthday » Blog Archive » Happy Birthday David Hume | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  5. Rhys says:

    Sorry for being off-topic, but twice in as many visits, your blog has, after loading, been replaced by a fake virus-scan, and a prompt to download a ZIP file. This hasn’t happened on any other websites, so I’m guessing it’s a problem at your end.

  6. John Kerr says:

    Confirmed: it’s an XSS attack, HEUR:Trojan.Script.Iframer, via dchmarketing.com’s adstream. One of your advertisers is not what they seem, Discover Magazine!

  7. The 24 hour rule strikes again – Encounter something specific in a newspaper, or conversation etc, and there seems to be a disproportionate chance you’ll come across it again within 24 hours. (Some people deny this happens to them; but I’ve noticed it numerous times over the years.)

    Only this morning I was reading an article (or the first page of it, being a chargeable article!) on “Humean supervenience” [ http://www.jstor.org/pss/2254396 ], after seeing a reference to this phrase in “Gauging What’s Real – The Conceptual Foundations of Contenporary Gauge Theories” by R Healey.

    At first I thought he had misspelled “human”; but evidently it’s a reference to a concept put forward by Hume.

  8. chemicalscum says:

    @John R Ramsden

    Hume meets modal realism.

  9. David George says:

    “The common thread among all these thinkers: trying to explain the origins of order in the absence of teleology. The fact that we can do that successfully in biology, and are hot on the trail in cosmology, is a milestone achievement in the history of human thought.”

    Explaining the origins of order, randomly arrived at? If “absence of teleology” means “absence of perceived final cause, i.e. purpose”, then order would be found without any reference to any purpose — however, all systems (ordered processes) contain a purpose, without which they would not exist. That aside, order without purpose resembles randomly generated order, which depending on your point of view might be paradoxical subtlety or simply self-contradictory claptrap. Would not any order imply an intrinsic natural predilection toward order? “Pure” randomness, then, could not exist. Order is implied in the existence of mathematical truths. Is the order required for mathematics (“things”, i.e. units, and “laws” to manipulate the units, versus a physically real universe of non-mathematical processes) a random, purposeless “feature” of the nature that includes both physical and mathematical reality? To say that, one would have to deny the superiority of order over disorder! Maybe that is why “scientists” cannot tolerate any taint of morality in science: although scientists study natural physical systems whose continuing existence and growth is synonymous with the success of order in its struggle with chaos, they cannot allow that idea of “success” to be associated with “purpose”!

    Neither biology nor cosmology comes close to explaining anything of any value to humanity other than the practitioners of “biology” or “cosmology”. Could science tolerate a discovery of universal purpose in universal processes? The universe appears to be a system for growth (as well as an imagination system), since all its systems participate in the creation of new systems, and growth is the creation of new systems by existing systems. And allied to this purpose is the resonant signal provided by harmony, a clear sign that Mother Nature favors the creation of new systems since She lends Her energy to a harmonic union.

    Hume, Shmume.

  10. Ian says:

    And yet Hume did not state anywhere either anecdotally or in his writings that he was an atheist. Many philosophers who have studied his works believe that Hume accepted the design argument for God’s existence (Capaldi), or that Hume was a qualified deist (O’Higgins and Gaskin), or that Hume is an agnostic (Noxon), or that Hume advanced his own humanistic religion (Mossner and Livingston), or that Hume’s religion consisted of merely holding open the possibility of an intelligent creator (Kemp Smith and Williams ). Most of this debate traces back to passages in the Natural History of Religion, and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in which Hume seems to endorse the design argument.

    Odd that.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @ David George:

    “all systems (ordered processes) contain a purpose, without which they would not exist.”

    Claims without evidence can be rejected without evidence.

    “That aside, order without purpose resembles randomly generated order,”

    So you reject the laws we observe, which as Carroll notes follows from purpose-less processes.

    It makes you look like having a conversation about something else, because it is not engaging the text.

  12. David George says:

    #11 Torbjorn Larsson OM — I reject the prohibition of purpose from discussion of purposelessness. Of course, once you let purpose in on the discussion of purposelessness, it loses its purpose. Maybe this is why the “scientists” try so hard to keep purpose out of the discussion.

  13. Dan M. says:


    It is certainly a minority of experts who claim Hume accepted the design argument. The consensus is that Hume’s position in the Dialogues is most similar to Philo (who demolishes the design argument). Yes the narrator at the end of the Dialogues says that his master, who postulated the design argument, won the debate, but that was tongue in cheek and Hume’s real allegiance lies with Philo. If you read Hume’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding you’ll see him use the same tactic; he takes an extremely critical look at some religious proposition and just tears it apart, but then follows with an ironic statement about religion being about faith, even though it was irrational, so his argument shouldn’t shake people’s faith. You have to realize that people were still persecuted for not believing in God then, so skeptical philosophers had to get around that by pretending to be at least vaguely religious.

    The vast majority of scholars I have read argue over whether Hume was an atheist or agnostic, not if he was a pantheist, theist, deist, etc. By the labels of the time I think Hume was clearly an atheist (the term agnostic was invented by Huxley decades after Hume died); Hume was labeled an atheist for much of his career and he didn’t deny it.

  14. Simon says:

    Re #10 and #13.
    I think Dan’s on the right path here. But as Simon Blackburn, J. Mackie and others have pointed out, to Hume it doesn’t really matter. Once you realise that the argument (to design, for example) may be sound but still lead you to nothing interesting or useful about the diety it matters much less whether you subscribe to it.

    “Hume’s transformation of the problem is the discovery that humanity can only check out of Hotel Supernatural with whichever baggage it brings with it. …Here as well we see the economy of Hume’s aim. A lesser thinker would do as most people do, which is to go bull-headed at the issue of the existence of a deity, and parade more or less unconvincing proofs and disproofs. Scientists who fancy themselves as philosophers usually end up doing just that. Hume can dissect the arguments better than anyone. But he knows the results will be forever contested, and of course he is completely sceptical about anyone’s ability to prove a positive or negative result in these cloudy regions. So what he does instead is to show that the outcome simply does not matter. He discards what he does not need. He can afford to, for he has enough cards left to win the trick. What matters are the alleged implications people wish to draw from their deity. But by directing his scepticism at those implications, Hume simply eviscerates the issue.” from Blackburns’ How to Read Hume.

  15. Dan M. says:


    You’re right that the real value of Hume’s argument is in showing how weak the argument from design is even if correct, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hume showed it leads to nothing interesting or useful even if it were true.

    I first read Hume’s Dialogues before my deconversion from evangelical Christianity, and not only did Hume convince me that the argument from deign was incorrect, I actually saw that even if the design argument were true it would actually lead more credence to the existence of the kind of god/gods I didn’t believe in (polytheism, gods who weren’t good, weren’t omniscient/omnipotent, etc), rather than the Christian God I did believed in. To me that’s the true genius of Hume’s book; he shows that even if the most intuitive proof for a god’s existence were true it would actually be evidence against the kind of God Christians believe in.

  16. Sesh says:


    This is not a post related to Hume – sorry to interrupt the discussion – but just to point out that on several recent occasions when I have visited the Cosmic Variance website I have ended up being automatically redirected to some other site which tries to tell me about various “viruses” detected on my system and causes my computer to automatically start downloading a file called anti-malware.zip. This has happened from two different computers using two different browsers, and only happens on the Cosmic Variance site.

    Could you please investigate this and sort it out? I enjoy reading the blog but this problem will make me and others stay away from the site, which would be a shame.


  17. Paul Nelson says:

    To reinforce comments 5, 6, and 16: the problem with the fake virus scan loading also occurs at Carl Zimmer’s Discover blog, The Loom. The mischief is not restricted to this blog, but seems to have affected other blogs in the Discover stable.

  18. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) says:

    Looking into the ad/malware problem. Will fix it ASAP.

  19. JimV says:

    RE: David George at #12 –

    Scientists, or most of them, try (not always successfully) to avoid fooling themselves by not assuming things ahead of time and only looking for data that supports their assumptions. It’s not a personal attack on your assumptions; it’s the methodology they have been trained in and which has produced all the technology you see around you. If you have reproducible data for some kind of purpose, say for the fact that this pebble I just picked up happens to exist at the same time and rough spacial location as myself over all the billions of years of time and billions of light-years of space, present it in a coherent fashion and if it survives peer-review you’ll probably win a Nobel Prize. That’s probably not the example you had in mind, but seriously, scientists will not or should not refuse to look at valid data – although, what you seem to be proposing has been proposed over many centuries and so far the evidence has never seemed to support it past the anecdotal level, so it will be a difficult challenge for you, true. Probably you have better things to do with your time, and I don’t blame you for that, but until you do take up the challenge to present data, you don’t have much justification for slanging scientists who do spend their lives looking at hard data, and providing the basis for the technological advances which I am sure you use.

    Back on topic, I think Hume would be a tough read for me, but I like what I’ve heard about his writings from others. Thanks for this post.

  20. FmsRse12 says:

    @ 9 , 11

    how about transient order or purpose …..it’s like some sort of fluctuation that gives order or purpose to the system and then after some time the system relaxes back to orderless purposeless state ……..we just need to study modes of relaxation …..

  21. David George says:

    #19 Jim V — I am not sure exactly what interpretation of “purpose” you are making in the pebble example. I think at a certain level it is difficult to argue or justify by use of data that may or may not be relevant to the insight, discovery, or observation. And a search for useful data is necessarily a search for clues to the new perception (say, in explaining how a system works in a way that shows a hitherto hidden operation). However in this case the trail of discovery is the trail of evolution — not only of already living systems but of the universal system which inexorably creates new systems — a system of growth, of which life is only an extension. (In other words, growth precedes life.) Now if we can visualize a growth of systems universally from simpler to more complex, there is no “end” to the complexity that is possible in the universe, but it displays a singular purpose: to grow (as defined by me). So “growth” is not some concrete “end”, but a never ending process. And it is in that process, thoroughly physical, that infinitely expanding purpose hides in plain view, perhaps waiting only for a creation scenario to replace the “big bang”/particle physics/”pointless universe” paradigmatic disaster. There is plenty of brain power to make that switch, but it is as wasted as McMansions in the Desert.

    What data would you suggest to make such a proposition more “scientific”?

    #20 FmsRse12 — I think I see that backwards from you — systems relax into a growth state — chaos (not purposelessness) produces anti-growth in some cases (systems revert to their ancestral systems), but relaxation is when everything is working in synch, isn’t it? Somewhere in there is an energy addition from harmony (constructive interference?), but I’m not sure where.

  22. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) says:

    OK, looks like that problem’s fixed now. Sorry for the trouble. If you still see anything wrong, email webmaster@discovermagazine.com.

  23. cephalopod30 says:

    … The mischief is not restricted to this blog, but seems to have affected other blogs in the Discover stable.

    Preposterous. The odds of this happening can’t be better than a 747 being farted into existence during a tornado in a junkyard.

  24. David Hume is a scientific philosopher, whose revolutionary thinking, rocked the world of the great Immanuel Kant out of “intellectual slumber.” His historic philosophic merit, is best captured in his own most fitting tribute, to the one and only ISAAC NEWTON:
    The greatest and rarest ginius,
    that ever arose for the ornament
    and instruction of the Species.
    – David Hume

  25. Rich says:

    I loved his 6 volume History of England. He wrote very middle of the road, not trying to take sides, but to present the facts and document them.