Monday, 17 March 2008

Hume's death bed confession

The Portable Atheist's next chapter contains an interview between David Hume and James Boswell 49 days before Hume died. The account was written 238 days after the event (I recently found a date difference calculator) so James said his account may well be "partly enlarged from my memory." By no means did Hume ever recant his belief (or non-belief) about God, religion or eternal life and he still considered some religious people rascals.

James seems concerned for Hume and asks him a few times about the afterlife (or a "future state") and immorality.

I [James] asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever. That immorality, if it were at all, must be general; that a great proportion of the human race has hardly any intellectual qualities; that a great proportion dies in infancy before being possessed of reason; yet all these must be immortal; that a porter who gets drunk by ten o'clock with gin must be immortal; that the trash of every age must be preserved, and that new universes must be created to contain such infinite numbers. This appeared to me an unphilosophical objection... (page 47)

I [James] asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. (page 47)

[Hume] had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state; and he would rather not be more than be worse. (page 48)

I like how Hume wished immorality to not be true. There are many things that I would wish not be true, but the fact of the matter is that they are. I also wonder where Hume's fear of the afterlife being worst than it was here was coming from...

James latter adds to what he had written and concludes his account with this quote from Hume:

"If there were a future state, Mr Boswell, I think I could give as good an account of my life as most people" (page 49)
I know very little of Hume's personal life and if his life's moral account would be as good as most people. I am even willing to concede that he may have been more moral than most. But besides the implicit question of who Hume thinks he will be giving an account to, it baffles me that people think they can stand before God and tell Him how good they were (by their own estimation) and why they should be let into heaven. How arrogant are people to think that they are allowed to choose their own destination in front of God because they choose to see some of their own good actions and over look all the bad.

It is interesting that Hume did consider the eternal. It seems that everyone at one stage for some reason has a feeling that death is not right and a yearning for the eternal. Perhaps we have a sense of the eternal in our hearts...

You can read Boswell's account here (without the last three paragraphs that were added on 22 January 1778).


  1. There is no evidence for god and David Hume understood that better then most. Even it was true, it would be a happy truth. God of the bible is one of the worst characters in literature. Also, immortality is a thing that is unnecessary for humans and unnatural. I cannot imagine what immortality would be like and what if you didn’t want to continue your existence. I have can conceive of any reason why you think heaven is true, there is no evidence. It is more likely that there is no heaven then there is one. Some people say the flying spaghetti monster exist, but its likely that it does not. I would prefer the FSM exist as opposed a god of the wicked bible.

    How arrogant it is of you to think people should believe in a thing that has no evidence and then if they don’t should be punished for the rest of eternity in a pit of fire. Even if it was true I would deny god because that vile character is not worthy for worship.

  2. Hi brandon,

    Thanks for posting on this blog article that I wrote a year ago. I did use the word "arrogant" didn't it? I must have had more angst a year ago... Sorry if that grated on you, it did a little on me.

    There is no scientific evidence for God, but there is also no scientific evidence against God. There are lots of reasons and explanations and personal testimony about God, that do seem to match up with reality. Admittedly these reasons and explanations do not match up with the God of the bible, they just point to a deity. It seems that Anthony Flew would agree with that (along with the majority of the world).

    Its the personal testimony of people two thousand years ago (and before) that people disagree with, but if their reason is "I don't like it" or "I don't want it to be true" then it is hardly a good test of truth. Something like a billion people in this world live in really bad poverty, I don't like that, but it hardly negates the truth of the statement.

    Since Hume's stance was that there was no God, what I didn't understand was why or by what measurement he thought he could give an account of his life. You see it all the time when someone famous dies. People say things like "they were a good person, they are in a better place now". How do they know that? By what standard are they saying they were "good" or that they are in a "better" place. At death, people seem to want something to be true; which is just as bad as not wanting something to be true because you disagree with it.

    What I think what I was trying to say a year ago is that wanting or not wanting things to be true doesn't negate what is true. And that it is interesting to see how Hume considered the eternal.

  3. I don't think Hume "wished" there was not such thing as immortality, rather there is no rational basis for it. The foundations are in folklore and mythology. It's an interesting idea, but so is solipsism, yet I don't like my life like that, because I think it is irrational.
    I think you fail to understand that you operate in a Christian paradigm that quantifies what one does based on mythical brownie points with god. Christians aren't the only people, but there are plenty of other cultures that don't feel the need to compare themselves not only with what the bible says, but with each other. That is the truth, as a recovering Christian, I know how the rat race works and it is utter non-sense.
    As an Atheist, I think one can clearly discern what action will more likely than not help another rather than hurt. For instance if I walked to you and have you a sandwich because you were starving, I'd say that would be helpful. If I punched you in the face, I'd say that hurt you. In the end it comes down to your actions. If you believe you have control over your actions, then you decide to do what makes you happy. If you can die and say that you lived a good life, and you made the world a better place, what does it matter if you are going to heaven or not. One need no be a Christian to be a good person.

  4. Hi Mike P, sorry this post is like 20 days after you had posted, I had some essays and Greek to do.

    I think you fail to understand that you operate in a Christian paradigm that quantifies what one does based on mythical brownie points with god

    I do operate in a Christian paradigm, but since I'm coming from a Reformed Christian paradigm it's not based on brownie points at all. You know the whole "Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Jesus Alone" thing... I don't know why me operating out of a Christian paradigm is such a bad thing compared to you working out of an Atheist paradigm when you seem to reduce actions to their immediate effects on others, which Christians also like.

    One need no be a Christian to be a good person.

    Oh I agree with this, if you define "good" to mean something that benefits society (which I think you do). But if we were to define "good" to mean something that pleases God, then you might reject that idea out of hand, and I would confess that I am not "good".

    But what has this to do with Hume? All I was trying to do was jump on the quote from The Portable Atheist on page 49 and wonder by what standard Hume would weigh himself up by.

    Yesterday on it was posted:

    ...However carelessly men may go on while they live, they secretly cling to the hope that they will be found among the saints when they die. They seem to embrace the idea that there is some cleansing, purifying effect produced by death, and that, whatever they may be in this life, they will be found “suitable for the inheritance of the saints” in the life to come. But it is all a delusion.

    I think this touches on what I was saying. Why could Hume give a good of his actions to God? Because he was "good" (benefited society) or because he was "good" (pleased God)?

    Oh and I don't think pleasing God is opposite to benefiting society... not at all.

  5. I am amused by the lack of knowledge of the Bible and the Christian lifestyle by the people making comments on here. First of all, there is plenty of scientific evidence for "intelligent design." Even Einstein believed the universe was created, and he believed so based solely on scientific evidence. Secondly, Christians don't earn "brownie points" (as Mike suggests) with God based on our deeds. No one is worthy of Heaven, but eternal life is a gift from God through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ on the cross. So Brandon thinks that a deity who dies in the place of His creation is vile and not worthy of worship? If the ultimate sacrifice of death and the gift of eternal life makes a deity vile and not worthy of worship, then I would love to hear Brandon's views as to what is worthy, because I personally can't think of anything more honorable or loving than dying for someone else.

  6. Talking about God is equal in usefulness as talking about leprechauns or ghosts. Fun as an occasional diversion, but otherwise pointless.