Friday, January 02, 2009

David Hume and the Secular Right

A couple of years ago, Heather MacDonald of The City Journal provoked a controversy among conservatives when she identified herself as a "skeptical conservative" who was frustrated with the assumption of religious conservatives that conservatism was impossible without religious belief. In my post on this controversy, I expressed my agreement with her claim that a conservative view of morality and social order does not require religious belief, although religion can reinforce natural morality.

Now, MacDonald and some others have started a new blog called "Secular Right." They identify themselves as belonging to the conservative tradition of David Hume. They have posted a good statement from Jerry Muller that separates the evolutionary conservatism of people like Hume from the metaphysical orthodoxy of people like Russell Kirk. This corresponds to my distinction between Darwinian conservatism and metaphysical conservatism.

Hume's conservatism is certainly "secular" in the sense that it bases moral and social order on human nature and common life rather than some supernatural standard of metaphysical order. But the common assumption that Hume was an atheist is, I think, mistaken. While criticizing "false religion," Hume defended the "true religion" of "philosophical theism." Although he criticized many of the extravagant claims made for the argument from design--the same argument that is today made for "intelligent design theory"--Hume did accept a qualified version of the design argument.

Near the end of his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote: "The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we should form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being."

At the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume sketches his philosophical theism in the language of his character Philo: "If the whole of Natural Theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined proposition, That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence: If this proposition be not capable of extension, variation, or more particular explication: If it affords no inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance: And if the analogy, imperfect as it is, can be carried no farther than to the human intelligence; and cannot be transferred, with any appearance of probability, to the qualities of the mind: If this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive, contemplative, and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition, as often as it occurs; and believe that the arguments, on which it is established, exceed the objections, which lie against it?"

Hume's philosophical theist believes in God as the supreme Mind or ultimate principle of intelligibility behind the lawful order of the universe as studied by science or philosophy. Darwinian science can affirm such theism as supporting the intelligible order of the universe as the fundamental presupposition of modern science.

Some of my other posts on Humean themes can be found here, here, and here.

1 comment:

J said...

Does Philo (taken as Hume) really assent?? Philo's not the theist, but the skeptic; Cleanthes is the theist. In the earlier section of DONR he says (contra Cleanthes) that inferring like causes from like effects (ie machine-like nature to mechanic-like Deity) does not prove anything specifically religious. It could be one Deity, or 1000.

Philo-- if I recall Hume's chestnut correctly-- does change his tune slightly at the end, and does approve of "philosophical" theists only, not really orthodox judeo-christians (but still approves of philosophical skeptics, doesn't he)---so the text is inconsistent. Dennett uses it as ammo against the Design argument.