Stanley Tweyman on “Comparative Philosophy of Religion: Descartes and Hume”

Stanley Tweyman is University Professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has published extensively on the Philosophies of René Descartes, David Hume, William Wollaston, and George Berkeley. His most recent book is, Method, Intuition, and Meditation in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Cambridge Scholars Press, UK, 2023. Professor Tweyman sits on various scholarly editorial boards, his most recent editorial appointments include: Appointed member of the Editorial Board of Humanities Bulletin, January 2021; Appointed to the International Editorial Board of the Journals in Social Sciences, Revistia Press, in collaboration with De Gruyter Press, Poland, August 2022; Appointed Editor-in-Chief of EJIS, “European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies”, August 2022. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For my study of the comparative philosophy of religion, I have chosen to compare the approach to knowing God developed by René Descartes (1595-1650) with the approach to knowing God developed by David Hume (1711-1776).1 In this study, I propose to accomplish two things. First, in the space permitted, I will show how each philosopher approaches the topic of God. And, once I have completed that, I will show why there is no possibility of obtaining any commonality, which would allow for an agreement between them on the topic of God.

I begin with Descartes’ approach to knowing God. Toward the end of the third meditation, Descartes realizes that his knowledge of God will not be obtained through arguments, but through ‘reflection’ or ‘meditation’ on the innate idea he has of himself as a thinking thing. In the penultimate paragraph in the third meditation, he writes:

And one certainly ought not to find it strange that God, in creating me, placed this idea within me to be like the mark of the workman imprinted on his work; and it is likewise not essential that the mark shall be something different from the work itself. For from the sole fact that God created me it is most probable that in some way he has placed his image and similitude upon me, and that I perceive this similitude (in which the idea of God is contained) by means of the same faculty by which I perceive myself … (M 71).

In the final paragraph of the third meditation, Descartes expands on the reflective/ contemplative/ meditative manner by which he will attempt to know God through the idea of God, which is contained within the idea he has of himself as a thinking thing:

…[I]t seems to me right to pause for a while in order to contemplate God Himself, to ponder at leisure His marvelous attributes, to consider, and admire, and adore, the beauty of this light so resplendent, at least as far as the strength of my mind, which is in some measure dazzled by the sight, will allow me to do so. For just as faith teaches us that the supreme felicity of the other life consists only in this contemplation of the Divine Majesty, so we continue to learn by experience that a similar meditation, though incomparably less perfect, causes us to enjoy the greatest satisfaction of which we are capable in this life (M 72).

In the Replies to the Fifth Set of Objections (M 21-22), Descartes explains that the idea of God stands to the idea of the self in a manner analogous to the relation between a painter’s technique and works of art which result from this technique. Therefore, just as observing a painting aids in apprehending the technique through which the painting has come to be, so by meditating on himself, through the innate idea he has of himself as a thinking thing, he can come to understand his creator.

I turn now to Hume’s approach to God. It is clear right at the outset of his Treatise of Human Nature (and other writings), that Hume rejects the theory of innate ideas, i.e. ideas which are in the mind from birth, and, therefore, which have no empirical content. He goes to great lengths early in the Treatise to argue that “ideas are preceded by other more lively perceptions [impressions], from which they are derived, and which they represent” (T 7). In this spirit, Philo, in the Dialogues, argues the following:

Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: We have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism: You can draw the inference yourself. And it is a pleasure to me … that just reasoning and sound piety here concur in the same conclusion, and both of them establish the adorably mysterious and incomprehensible nature of the Supreme Being (D 108).

Despite Hume’s scepticism that we can know anything about God, given that we lack an impression of God, in two books—the Natural History of Religion and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—he does speak of acknowledging ‘a first intelligent author of the world.’ In the Natural History of Religion, he writes:

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion (NHR 134).

Again, in Part 12 of the Dialogues, Philo asserts:

A purpose, an intention, a design strikes every where the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it … all the sciences almost lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent author … (D. 172).

When he expands on this (D 172-173), Hume emphasizes that our belief in an intelligent Designer is not based on any insight regarding the divine nature; rather, it is based solely on instinct, just as our belief in causal connections is not based on any insight regarding necessary connections between causes and effects, but is based solely on instinct. The instinctive belief in causality is essential to our survival; the instinctive belief in an intelligent Designer guides scientists to seek explanations in terms of purposiveness in design in nature.

My conclusion from this discussion is that there can be no way to reach any agreement between Descartes and Hume on the topic of knowing the nature of God, mainly because Descartes will not give up, and Hume will not accept, that we possess an innate idea of God.

1. All references to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy are to the In Focus edition, Edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1993 by Routledge, London and New York. References to the Meditations are cited by M, followed by the page number. All references to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are to the In Focus edition, edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1991 by Routledge, London and New York. References to the Dialogues are cited by D, followed by the page number. References to David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature are to the Selby-Bigge, Second Edition, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1978. References to the Treatise are cited by T followed by the page number. References to the Natural History of Religion are to the J.C.A. Gaskin edition, Oxford University Press, 1993. References are cited by NHR, followed by the page number.

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