Saturday, July 09, 2005

The man who refuted absolutism.

Too bad no one seems to be paying attention. Do we judge someone based on the merits of their ideas, or by that which they wrought through those who blindly followed them?

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THE GREATEST THINKER IN THE WORLD ... EVER

Although he lacked the soundbites of Marx and the attitude of Sartre, David Hume should be recognised as the finest philosopher of all time

By Julian Baggini

PEOPLE of Scotland, it is more than your patriotic duty to help crown your 18th century countryman, David Hume, as the greatest philosopher of all time. For once, naked nationalism and good rational sense both lead us to same conclusion: among all great thinkers, Hume reigns supreme. And, lest misplaced patriotisim is suspected, I say this as someone who is no more Scottish than the Duke of Edinburgh.

Radio 4’s In Our Time programme is currently conducting a poll to determine the world’s greatest philosopher, and although its presenter, Melvyn Bragg, has let it slip that Marx is the early leader, inside sources tell me Hume is hot on his heels. So there is still time to win the day for Scotland’s finest mind.

That Hume is even a contender is testimony to the strength of his philosophy and the intelligence of the voters, since he lacks all the necessary requisites of a popular hero. Marx has the advantage of some seriously memorable soundbites: “Religion is the opiate of the masses”; “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, and “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”(Admittedly, that last one is by Groucho, not Karl.) Hume’s most famous quotes, in contrast, are completely baffling to the uninitiated. There is wisdom in his saying: “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” But you’d be forgiven for not spotting it.

Jean-Paul Sartre reaps the benefits of his cool image. Whether historically accurate or not, there is a definite romance to the Left Bank cafés, the Gauloise cigarettes, the black polonecks and all that intense talk of despair and freedom. Hume, on the other hand, played billiards in drawing rooms and loved his mum.

The mystique of Kierkegaard and Camus is heightened by their young and tragic deaths. Hume passed away aged 65 of intestinal cancer, cheerful and in good humour. That’s really no way to start a posthumous personality cult.

Indeed, the average person in the street knows little more about the man – except, perhaps, that “David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel”, as the Monty Python song insisted.

And yet Hume has endured, hailed by many as the greatest British philosopher. Can we go further and say he is the greatest philosopher, full stop? I think we can, not least because Hume’s whole approach to philosophy is needed even more now than it was in his time.

Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, in the infancy of both the Enlightenment and the union of Scotland and England into Great Britain. Scottish philosophy was being transformed by the success of science, which was based not on abstract theory, but empirical observation of how the world actually works. Suddenly, the theoretical speculations of Continental thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza seemed hopelessly detached from the real world they sought to explain. Philosophy had to be made natural, its reasoning rooted in experience.

Hume was just one of many who helped take philosophy along this new path. However, it was also a deeply uncertain one in which the threat of scepticism was ever present. Gone were the dreams of Plato and Descartes of a philosophy beyond doubt. In its place came the need to learn how to live with doubt without being consumed by it. Hume’s unique genius was to show how this could be done.

Hume practised what he preached. Although when in the midst of his philosophical deliberations he was often perturbed by their sceptical implications, these worries soon dissolved when he rejoined human company and had a game of billiards. This may seem shallow, but it is in fact a mature recognition that those who claim to be nihilists are just posturing: nobody really believes in nothing.

The lessons he taught are desperately relevant today, when certainty is only found in religious fundamentalism, yet uncertainty risks a descent into postmodern relativism and intellectual anarchy. In this climate, how do we resolve ethical disputes such as those that rage over stem-cell research, euthanasia and civil liberties versus civic security? How can we trust science when it gets so many things wrong? How do we resolve the great ideological clashes of East and West when there are no unquestionable fundamentals upon which to build agreement? What we need is a Humean approach to provide the intellectual ballast necessary to stay afloat in a sea of uncertainty.

Consider the question of ethical values. Hume agreed with moral sceptics on several key points. He did not believe it was possible to establish absolute moral values . Religion could certainly not provide these, for there is simply no way we can trust the authority of religious texts or leaders. Nothing can be true or false because a religion says it is, but only because we have good reasons to believe it is true or false.

In a world in which there are so many different religions and denominations, all claiming different things, Hume’s scepticism seems wiser than ever. If we are to accept the guidance of one religion over an other, we need reasons. “Trust me, I’m a cleric” is not a good one, not least because for every bishop saying that homosexuality is perfectly acceptable, there is another claiming that sodomites will burn in hell for their sins.

Nor can moral values be established by pure reason. Hume referred to the kinds of truths which could be proven by rationality alone as “matters concerning the relation of ideas”, once again demonstrating his uncanny knack of failing to coin a catchy phrase. One example is mathematics. It is because of what the numbers and symbols mean that two plus two must equal four. Similarly, you don’t need to conduct a survey of bachelors to know that they are all unmarried men.

Hume thought it obvious that moral matters do not fall into this category. You cannot know that Asbos are an unacceptable limit on civil liberties just by attending to what those words mean. Nor can you resolve a dispute between those who think a war is justified and those who do not, simply by determining the meanings of the terms “justified” and “war”. Moral debate is not like mathematics, and so disagreements cannot be resolved by pure theory.

So neither religion nor reason can establish moral certainties. Does that mean we are then condemned to a kind of moral free-for-all, in which what is right for you may not be right for me, and nobody is entitled to criticise anyone else’s ethics? Some find this view surprisingly attractive, since it is supremely tolerant. But when push comes to shove we know that absolute toleration is abhorrent. The killings in Darfur are not alright for the Sudanese victims. Anti-war protesters do not think the invasion of Iraq was right for Bush and Blair and wrong for them – they think the war was just wrong.

Fortunately, Hume’s view does not lead us to moral anarchy. Besides religion and pure reason, there is another route to knowledge. Questions concerning matters of fact are settled by looking at how the world actually works. So, if you want to know at what temperature water boils, you have to conduct experiments to find out. Sitting in your armchair contemplating the meaning of “water” and “boil” will not help.

Crucially, however, matters of fact are never proven beyond all possible doubt. You have to accept that science is less than certain, but that, nonetheless, it is more reliable than, say, superstition. Whereas previous philosophers demanded certainty, Hume tried to grade degrees of uncertainty.

Clearly, however, moral principles are much less certain than the laws of physics. Right and wrong cannot be observed and measured like energy or mass. Rather, the facts of morality are to be observed in human feeling and compassion. When we say that torture is wrong, for example, we are not identifying a feature of torture itself, but expressing something of our reaction to it. What is more, these feelings are somehow natural for human beings. Empathy is a human universal, and this is what enables people to agree about what is good and bad. Feelings may be affected by upbringing, society and reasoning, but are not simply products of any one of these. Hence the curious phrase: “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” In other words, it is not rational argument that makes us recoil from the idea of destroying the whole world, but human fellow feeling.

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.

Hume’s genius was his ability to combine a ruthless intellect that revealed the limitations of our understanding with the wisdom to see we can move forward with the meagre intellectual resources available to us. That’s why Hume is above fashion and doesn’t need a dramatic life, a romantic death or clever slogans in order to endure. A vote for Hume is a vote for the only philosopher who is able to defeat the scepticism of our time without dogmatism.

Vote for the greatest philosopher at bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten And 99 Other Thought Experiments, is published next month by Granta. He appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 23

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