David Hume
David Hume

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David Hume

4 Hume on life after death

4.1 Why was our immortality an issue?

When reading about Hume's death you may have been puzzled as to why people became so worked up about Hume's attitude. The question of what, if anything, happens after death is something most of us are at least curious about, just as most of us are curious to know what we will be doing in a few years’ time. But curiosity cannot explain the venom evident in the condemnations of Hume.

The reason for the hostility can be approached by considering the opera Don Giovanni. The opera is, on the surface at least, a morality tale. The bulk of the opera consists of Don Giovanni refusing to acknowledge an unwelcome implication of his actions: eternal damnation. The narrative of the opera would be meaningless without the scene in which he is made to recognise his lifelong selfishness through confrontation with its consequences. The statue of Donna Anna's father is chosen as the symbol of his entrance into hell precisely because it is also symbolic of his reckless existence. This aspect of the story brings out what was so important about the assumption of an afterlife in a Christian context: the afterlife plays an important moral role. It is where accounts are settled and justice is done. Don Giovanni is made to pay for his sinful existence. If there were no afterlife, justice could not be done.

The mortality of the soul – the failure of the individual to survive beyond the demise of her or his body – would have been an intolerable supposition for many at the time because it would remove this scope for justice's execution. No longer could those who behaved wickedly in this life be made to suffer in the next; no longer could those who behaved well or who suffered in this life be rewarded or compensated in the next.

The disappearance of justice would be bad enough, but the perceived consequences of such a disappearance are likely to have compounded the anxiety and animosity of Hume's critics. For example, belief in the soul's mortality, were it to become widespread, would lead to a breakdown in the moral order as people lost the incentive to behave morally. Few would be willing to put up with suffering on earth without the prospect of reward in heaven. Another feature of Hume's position is that a less than perfectly just universe reflects poorly on God the creator. Hume's claim that when his body dies he would die with it was taken to suggest that God himself was incapable of acting justly.

Hume did not take himself to be insulting God's design, for the simple reason that he saw no reason to suppose God exists in the first place. This agnostic stance was argued for elsewhere by Hume, notably in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1750) and ‘Of miracles’ (in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748). The first of these has become the classic statement of the case against the argument from design and the cosmological argument. We will not be considering Hume's broader agnosticism here, since it is not presupposed in ‘Of the immortality of the soul’. In this essay Hume takes the unusual approach of granting that God exists, and then arguing that even so there are no grounds for the assumption that we survive bodily death.

Click to view Of the Immortality of the Soul [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Exercise 2

Read the short opening paragraph of this essay. The essay has three subsections. Try to predict from this paragraph what the structure and conclusion of the essay will be.

Discussion

Hume distinguishes and names three potential reasons for assuming that individuals survive the death of their bodies: a ‘metaphysical’ reason, a ‘moral’ reason and a ‘physical’ reason. He will present and refute these three reasons in turn, one per section. A fourth reason for assuming the existence of an afterlife is that this is what it says in the Bible. Hume's explicit conclusion, then, is that we should be grateful to the Gospels for revealing to us something that otherwise we would be ignorant of. You can confirm this by looking at the final paragraph.

Hume's explicit conclusion and what he really wants to claim – his implicit conclusion – are not the same thing. To understand what the implicit conclusion is, recall again how the Enlightenment was characterised by a shift away from revealed religion and towards either natural religion (especially deism) or outright agnosticism/atheism. It is against this background that Hume's essay should be read. Hume argues explicitly that there are no reasons save those given to us by revelation for believing in the immortality of the soul. To Hume's readership, many of whom would have shared his assumption that the only real competition is between natural religion and no religion, this is tantamount to saying that there are in fact no reasons at all for believing in life after death.

Hume pays no more than lip service to the possibility that we should take it on trust from the Bible that the soul is immortal, once in the opening paragraph and again in the final one. Readers of the final paragraph would have detected the ironic tone in Hume's claim that we are infinitely indebted to divine revelation (i.e. religion as revealed in the Bible) for letting us in on the ‘great and important truth’ of our immortality, which ‘no other medium could ascertain’.

With this subtlety recognised, Hume's essay can be read as an attempt to demonstrate our lack of evidence for the soul's immortality, or at least our lack of natural evidence, the only kind of evidence worth bothering with. Hume shows this, he thinks, by dividing the potential evidence into three kinds and refuting each in turn, one per section. We will be looking at sections II and III only.

Exercise 3

Begin reading section II. (Do not read section I, which is on ‘metaphysical reasons’ and concerns arguments based on the supposed independence of the mind from the body.) You will almost certainly find it difficult and obscure at this stage. The sole point of this exercise is for you to take note of this difficulty and obscurity. After five minutes, stop reading and go to the discussion below.

Discussion

Hume was both a philosopher and a historian. In this essay he is being a philosopher. Philosophy is not written to be read as a novel is read. It can take the same time to work effectively through five pages of philosophy as it takes to read fifty or more pages of a novel. Hume's essay cannot be described as a poem, but it is similar in respect of its density and the level of concentration it calls for from its readership. This is one reason why these readings are short. We will be working through them with considerable attention to detail, paragraph by paragraph. Afterwards you will be asked to reread the essay from the beginning (again skipping section I) so as to get a sense of the whole.

It is common for those who are relatively new to philosophy to think that finding it difficult reflects somehow on them. Philosophy never gets easy, even for those who have spent an entire life at it. It is important not to let the difficulty everyone experiences stand in the way of your progress and enjoyment. Remember that you are at the very beginning of a process in which Hume's essay will appear to transform itself from an unstructured and barely comprehensible string of words into an articulate, well-organised and lucid discussion! That, at least, is the hope.

A final tip: you are advised when working through these two courses to take detailed notes, and to have a pen and a jotting pad for the exercises.

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