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Hume’s “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State

Updated on October 24, 2009


In Section 11 of A Particular Providence and of a Future State, Hume advances several objections against what can be inferred about the cause of the universe. There are two important theses put forth, one by Hume, and the other by Hume’s friend, who has taken on the role of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. ‘Epicurus’ argues we cannot reasonably infer that the creator of the universe is a perfect being that is wise, just, benevolent, and so on. Hume responds to Epicurus’ argument, and in conclusion, ends with his own thoughts on what can be known about the cause of the universe. I will argue against the conclusion drawn by Hume on what we can know about the cause of the universe.

‘Epicurus’ argues that it is not reasonable to infer more qualities in the cause than we have evidence for in the effect (Hume, p. 190-191). Therefore, those who conclude God (the cause) to be omniscient and omnipotent are merely speculating or exaggerating the qualities of God. Hume, however, is not so generous in granting God qualities. Hume argues we can only know the causal relation between a cause and its effect by a constant conjunction between the two events. From here, he goes on to say we cannot infer anything about the cause of an effect unless we have experience of these events being constantly conjoined (p. 198). To ensure this point is perfectly clear, Hume adds, “…were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause (p. 198).” Therefore, based on the above reasoning, Hume would conclude that because the universe is an effect of a type that we have only one single experience of, we could not infer anything about its cause. 

However, if the universe is, in fact, an effect, we must be reasonable to infer at least some things about its cause, at least those things we have evidence of in the effect. One attempt at explaining the cause of the universe is an argument from analogy. For example, some argue that because the universe is similar to a well-tuned machine, and that a well-tuned machine has a designer, the universe, too, must be the result of a designer. But I think it has yet to be proven whether this analogy is sufficient. That is, it is not clear whether this analogy relies on a similarity between types of events that are similar enough in order to draw reasonable inferences about the cause of the universe.

However, one approach that I believe does allow us to make reasonable inferences about the cause of the universe can be demonstrated in the following example. Consider a balance scale with a 10-pound stone on one side, and a stone of an unknown weight on the other side. If the 10-pound stone is raised in the air (thereby indicating it is lighter than the stone that is lifting it in the air) and the stone of the unknown weight drops to the bottom of the scale (thereby indicating it is heavier than the stone it is lifting), we are justified in concluding that the stone of the unknown weight is heavier than the 10-pound stone. We are justified in this conclusion because we have evidence in the effect. The effect is the rising on the scale of the 10-lb stone. The cause of this is the placing of a heavier stone on the opposing side of the scale. Therefore, we reason the stone of the unknown weight must be heavier than the 10-lb stone. If the stone of the unknown weight did not lift the 10-lb stone into the air, we could conclude the stone of the unknown weight is lighter than the 10-lb stone. It is important to note we are not justified in concluding that the heavier stone weighs 30 or 40 pounds, say; we can only justifiably conclude that the weight of the unknown stone is heavier than the 10-pound stone; this is all that has been indicated by the rising in the air of the 10lb stone. We need not assume, nor are we justified in assuming the stone weighs any more than it needs to in order to produce the effect it has produced.

Similarly, with respect to the cause of the universe we cannot conclude that the creator of this universe is a God that is supremely good, supremely just, or supremely benevolent. We cannot conclude the cause of the universe to be supremely good, just and benevolent because we have no evidence of this in the effect. The universe is not all good. The universe is not all just. The universe is not all benevolent. We cannot reasonably assign any more power, or ability to the cause than we have evidence for in the effect. The reason for this conclusion has been demonstrated in the example given above. 

  In light of the above example, I would begin by stating that all effects have causes. And if the world is, indeed, an effect, it too must have a cause. However, we can only infer as much about the cause as we have evidence for in the effect. Hence, I would argue that we have evidence of at least some things in the effect (i.e., the universe) that would lead us to reasonably infer some things about its cause. For example, one thing we can justifiably conclude is that we are provided for in this world. That is, we have everything we need to survive. Therefore the cause of the universe in which we exist must contain the power to provide us with the necessities of life. Furthermore, we can infer the cause of the universe is capable of producing some good, some justice, and some degree of benevolence, because we have evidence of these things in the effect. But, it is important to note that we are not admitting this cause to be good, or be just, or have some degree of benevolence. Nor can we conclude that the creator intended this good, or justice or benevolence to occur. We simply have no evidence of this. For all we know, the resulting goodness, justice and benevolence found in the world is the result of a mere accident on the part of the cause. All we can justifiably say is that the cause has the potential to create these things because this is all we have evidence for in the universe (the effect).

Hume would likely respond to this argument by saying that the example of “stone weighing” cannot rightfully be compared to what can be known about the cause of the universe. That is, we cannot compare something we have experience of (the relationship between objects of different weight, placed on a scale), to something we have no experience of (the creation of a universe), and expect to reach reasonable inferences. This is because we have no reason to think that like and unlike types of events operate in similar ways. For example, we know the causal relationship between a heavier stone being weighed against a lighter stone because we have a great deal of experience between these types of events. However, we have no reason to think that the creation of the universe is anything like the weighing of stones against one another. The creation of the universe is something we have never experienced, and is unlike any other type of event we have witnessed. Therefore, as a singular occurrence of a particular type of event, we can infer nothing about its cause, because it is only through experience of causal types of events that we reasonably make inferences.

In response to this objection, I would argue that it is reasonable to compare the “weighing of the stones” to the creation of the universe in order to draw inferences from the former to the latter. This is so, because the two examples are connected through a common relationship: the cause-effect relationship. In other words, the “weighing of the stones” and the creation of the universe are similar in that they both partake in the relationship that exists between cause and effect. And all events that take part in this cause-effect relationship are subject to the rules of this relationship. At least two of the rules of cause and effect are as follows: first, all effects have causes; and second, no effect can have a power in it that the cause did not have the ability to produce. Furthermore, the relationship between cause and effect is such that the rules appear to remain constant. That is, we have no experience of the qualities or characteristics of the cause-effect relationship ever changing. Therefore, if the universe is an effect, it too must behave like every other effect in the cause-effect relationship. Therefore, we are reasonable to make inferences about the cause of the universe based on the example of the weighing of stones because both examples partake in the cause and effect relationship.

Admittedly we may not be justified in inferring much about the cause of the universe from what I have argued here, but at least we can reject Hume’s strong claim that we cannot know anything about a type of cause that is singular in nature. Furthermore, by employing such an argument we are still able to defend ourselves from those who wish to subscribe the highest attributes to the creator of our universe.









David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999)



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