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Hume Studies Volume 29, Number 2, November 2003, pp. 267-282 Skepticism and Philo's Atheistic Preference DAVID O'CONNOR [H]owever consistent the world may be. .. with the idea of... a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity ... it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence. The consistence is not absolutely denied, only the inference.1 The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children . (DNR, 211) The true conclusion is, that the original source of all things is entirely indifferent to all these principles, and has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold, or to drought above moisture , or to light above heavy. (DNR, 212) There may four hypotheses be framed concerning the first causes of the universe: that they are endowed with perfect goodness, that they have perfect malice, that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice, that they have neither goodness nor malice. . . . The fourth ... seems by far the most probable. (DNR, 212) David O'Connor is Professor of Philosophy, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey 07079. e-mail: oconnoda@shu.edu 268 David O'Connor What I have said concerning natural evil will apply to moral, with little or no variation; and we have no more reason to infer, that the rectitude of the supreme Being resembles human rectitude than that his benevolence resembles the human. Nay, it will be thought, that we have still greater cause to exclude from him moral sentiments, such as we feel them; since moral evil, in the opinion of many, is much more predominant above moral good than natural evil above natural good. (DNR, 212) Thus Philo in part 11 of Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. I In the first of these passages, Philo is denying that the existence of "a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity" can justifiably be inferred from the facts of good and evil present to our experience. But power, wisdom, and benevolence are essential qualities of the God of traditional theism, thus Philo is here denying that the existence of such a being can justifiably be inferred from the empirical evidence of good and evil. The other passages show us Philo going further than this, indeed all the way to what seems to be a preference for moral atheism. The term is J. C. A. Gaskin's, and he defines it thus: "[moral atheism] will be [the position of] anyone who denies the existence of any god having moral attributes."2 In the second and third passages specifically , this prima facie preference is absolute ("[t]he whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature . . . without discernment" and "the original source of all things is entirely indifferent," respectively), while it is relative and more cautiously expressed in the fourth passage. And the fifth passage says at least as much as the first and perhaps as much as the second and third. Yet Philo very early in the book declares himself a skeptic on such metaphysical topics as "the origin of worlds" (DNR, 132), "the existence and properties of spirits" (DNR, 135), "the powers and operations of one universal spirit, existing without beginning and without end; omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, infinite" (DNR, 135). The principal reason he gives is the "weakness, blindness, and narrow limits of human reason . . . even in subjects of common life and practice" (DNR, 131). Considering these limits, surely it is very likely that "we have . . . got quite beyond the reach of our faculties" (DNR, 135) if and when we turn to such metaphysical topics as those he just listed. On these matters, which "run wide of common life . . . [t]he mind must remain in suspense . . . and it is that very suspense or balance, which is the triumph of skepticism" (DNR, 135-6). Hume Studies Philo's Atheistic Preference 269 While the first of the passages I quoted in the beginning clearly squares with this skeptical outlook, and so does at least part of the fifth, it would seem that the rest of the quoted material does not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 267-282
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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