This week in Torrey, we have been reading Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and having some excellent discussions. Our tutor opened our first session by holding an open bottle of water above my friend Jonathan’s head, and asking whether we could know what would happen if she rotated her wrist down.

According to Hume, we couldn’t. Hume maintains that all of our natural laws, including gravity, are not necessary properties of the universe, but simply another way of saying “the way things have always been.” Furthermore, he says that only reason we think the events of the past should determine the events of the future is because of custom, or repeated universal experience.

Hume says that hamburgers could fall from the sky tomorrow, but the only reason we are inclined to think they won’t is that everything in the universal human experience has told us they won’t—we have only ever seen water falling from the sky.*

I’m inclined to agree. This view of the universe has been rattling around in my head for years, undoubtedly put there by numerous authors who got their ideas from Hume. The funny thing is, I always thought of this as a primarily “Christian” idea. My acceptance of the universe’s unpredictability was always based on my belief in God’s unpredictability, but Hume has me pretty convinced that even if I didn’t believe in God, I would still not believe that hamburgers cannot fall from the sky tomorrow.

And I kind of love that. Sure, it takes some getting used to, and it’s a little bit terrifying (granted, my example of hamburgers falling from the sky isn’t very scary, but how about the world spontaneously exploding?), but more terrifying for Hume then for me. Hume believes the cause(s) behind the universe is/are completely unknowable; I believe that, though His ways are often incomprehensible, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is good. And if I let it, my fear of unpredictability can turn into humility and wonder.

I had always heard that Hume is a kind of “enemy of religion,” but I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because he denies the miraculous, but his argument on that point is only intimidating if you believe empiricism is the only way to discover truth.** His view of the universe does not necessitate a denial of miracles; in fact, his universe allows more room for miracles than almost any philosopher I have read. And  though I haven’t muscled through Hume’s complete writings, there is an obvious fork in his philosophy’s road when it comes to miracles, and many after him have chosen to take the other way.***

And even if we choose not to believe that hamburgers could fall from the sky tomorrow—if we choose instead to believe that the rules of nature will be unbending and unchanging forever—we still have to live with the realization that we are not forever, that we could die tomorrow. I know, I know, “chill out Anna,” but really, you just can’t get away from unpredictability in one form or another.

P.S. Forgive me for going star-crazy.

P.P.S. Do “P.S.”s go before asterisks, or after?

*To clarify, the scientific details of how water falls from the sky are irrelevant to Hume. He recognizes that we see events that correspond to one another [i.e. dark clouds and rain], but maintains that no matter how much we go into explaining the minute details of these processes, we are still only describing corresponding events—the sources of these events are incomprehensible to humans. Also, the hamburger example is mine. I thought of it in class off the top of my head (brilliant, right), but later realized it was most certainly inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

**His argument against miracles is based mostly on his distrust of human testimony passed down through the ages, and not on miracles’ incongruence with the universe. Interestingly enough, he does not address what one should think upon viewing a miracle first-hand. Should you assume you are mad, or should you believe? (This is happens to be one of the central questions to a strange little book I read over Christmas break, Philip Roth’s The Breast. And no, the title is not misleading: it is about a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a breast.)

***I hear that in his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton holds to nearly all Hume’s foundational principles of the universe, but offers alternative conclusions…Can’t wait to read it.

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