Friday, July 04, 2008

The Self-defeat of David Hume

Historian and philosopher David Hume’s impact upon modern philosophy and theology is undeniable. Hume, a devote skeptic, believed that all meaningful ideas were either true by definition or must be based on sense experience. He believed that propositions could only be meaningful if they met one of the following two criteria:

1) the truth claim is abstract reasoning such as a mathematical equation or a definition (Examples: “3 + 3 = 6” or “all triangles have 3 sides.”)

2) the truth claim can be verified empirically through one or more of the five senses.

Logically then, if Hume is correct, claims about anything beyond the physical (including God) should not be believed- because they are meaningless. It is not hard for one to imagine why
Hume himself said:

“If we take in our hand any volume - of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance- let us ask, ‘Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?’ No. ‘Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?’ No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing by sophistry and illusion.”

It is not uncommon to run across an atheist or skeptic who still attempts to invoke Hume’s principles in an effort to render any discussion of God and His existence meaningless.

Nearly two hundred years later, philosopher A.J. Ayer converted Hume’s two conditions into the principle of empirical verifiability (POEV). The POEV claims that a proposition can be meaningful only if it’s true by definition or if it’s empirically verifiable. [1]

Apologist Dr. Norman Geisler provides a story from his college years that demonstrates why the POEV sinks it’s own ship:

“On the first day of that class (Logical Positivism), this professor gave the class the task of giving presentations based on chapters in Ayer’s book Logic, Truth, and Language. I volunteered to do the chapter titled, “The Principle of Empirical Verifiability.” Now keep in mind, this principle was the very foundation of Logical Positivism and thus of the entire course.

At the beginning of the next class, the professor said, “Mr. Geisler, we’ll hear from you first. Keep it to no more than twenty minutes so we can have ample time for discussion…”

I stood up and simply said, “The principle of empirical verifiability states that there are only two kinds of meaningful propositions: 1) those that are true by definition and 2) those that are empirically verifiable. Since the principle of empirical verifiability itself is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, it cannot be meaningful. That was it, and I sat down.” [2]

In one sweeping statement, Geisler demonstrated the obvious flaw in the principle; it is self-defeating! The POEV excludes itself because it is neither empirically verifiable nor true by definition.

Obviously, claims that are empirically verifiable or true by definition are meaningful, but they do not encompass all meaningful assertions. The skeptic who continues to invoke the POEV in an effort to explain away the evidence for the existence of God is merely attempting to present a tired objection to avoid critically examining the available data.


One can investigate the existence of God by studying His effects, much like we study the human mind by observing it’s effects. We cannot observe the human mind directly, but we can observe it’s effects. From those effects we make a rational inference to the existence of a cause. [3]

The existence of the universe itself, it’s fine-tuning, and the complexity of information within living things alone point to, and even seem to require, the existence of a pre-existing cause outside of nature i.e. God.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad A. Gross

1) Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, p. 57-58.
2) Ibid., p. 58-59.
3) Ibid., p. 65.


jim said...

I don't follow the logic of your conclusion. Cause and effect is a description of how existence seems to operate, but I don't see why existence itself must proceed from some cause. Obviously something has to 'just be', whether it be some deity, or simply nature (in the larger sense). But nature is self evident, no matter how we wind up defining it. God, on the other hand, is something extra...supposedly a supernatural entity who must be gleaned by deductive reasoning, or felt in what appears to be a completely subjective manner, akin to personal emotions, or something like that.

Of course, you're saying that God can be identified by what you assume to be his handiwork. Well, that's one interpretation, I guess...either way, we're back to empiricism, aren't we, making the rest of your assault on Hume moot?

One more thing: assume for a moment that existence exists for no reason at other words, no creator behind it. It seems to me that such an existence might have any degree of complexity you can name. I mean, if we assume there's something, then immediately we have to assume it has SOME characteristics, if only to distinguish it from nothing. Why not the characteristics of what we see all around us? And if it seems ridiculous to believe that nature can exist for no reason at all, how much more so for an omnipotent, omniscient SuperBeing much greater than nature?

So, it seems we have two choices. The first is believing in one order of existence which is palpably evident for every moment we are conscious. The other is believing in a SuperBeing much greater than the existence we generally perceive, based on stories from the distant past, written by men living in an era when gods were a dime a dozen, none of which you believe one. Doesn't seem like much of a choice, to me.

chad said...

Hello again jim,

First off, I don’t believe I “assaulted” Hume, but merely his philosophy regarding what makes something meaningful or meaningless.

Second, you wrote: "but I don't see why existence itself must proceed from some cause." I have good scientific and philosophical reasons to believe the universe DID have a cause. Consider the following: "The Kalam Argument"

1) The universe had a beginning.
2) The beginning of the universe was caused.
3) The cause of the beginning of the universe was personal.

Let’s take a look at each of these points.

A philosophical argument for number 1 acknowledges the impossibility of creating an actual infinite number of events.

For example, if you start counting 1,2,3...then you could count forever and never reach a time when an actual infinite amount of numbers had been counted. Since one cannot have an actual infinite, then the present moment could never have arrived if the universe had no beginning. Since the present is real, it had to have been preceded by a finite past; therefore, there was a beginning or first event.

Number 1 is also supported by science when one considers the 2nd law of thermodynamics which says, in one form, that the amount of useful energy in the universe is being used up. If the universe were infinitely old, it would already have used up all its useful energy, therefore, the universe must be finite in duration. Therefore, there was a beginning when the universe’s useful energy was put into it from outside of nature.

Obviously, number 2 is sustained by collective experience with no clear examples to disprove it. Something always comes into existence from something else.

Number 3 is confirmed when one considers that all time, space, and matter did not exist earlier than the beginning of the universe. The universe’s cause had to be timeless, space less, and immaterial. This cause cannot be physical or subject to scientific law since all such causes presuppose time, space, and matter to exist. (1) Meaning, the cause of the universe cannot be found within time, space, and matter (nature) because time, space, and matter didn't exist prior to the big bang.

So if there is something and science tells us that EVERYTHING must have a cause, then there had to have been one uncaused cause for there to be anything at all. In other words, something can’t come from nothing, but something can come from someone. We are left with two options: 1) nothing + nothing = everything, or 2) Someone + nothing = everything. Clearly, only one makes sense. Such a cause must have free will (decided to create), and since only persons have free will, it is a personal Creator. As you can see, although you may not agree jim with my conclusion, I indeed have solid evidence to sustain it. Evidence like this is why Hume himself said: "I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause."

For more on the Kalam Argument, please see here:

Fairly, the inquirer may ask: Who made God? See my treatment of that question here:

It’s imperative that when one is considering two choices that both choices be presented accurately and fairly. 1) I have good reason to believe the universe has a Creator because of scientific and philosophical evidence. 2) I have good reason to believe the resurrection actually happened.

Whether the Bible is old or not is a groundless objection. I don’t care if it’s old, I want to know if it’s true.

Further, the existence of counterfeit gods does not negate the possibility of a genuine Creator God. The better question to ask, I believe, is, “Do any of these belief systems (religions/worldviews) have sufficient evidence to sustain rational belief?”

In Christianity, Christ meets this challenge and stands distinctly unique from every other so-called god or religions leader. Keep an eye out for a future article on this site called: "Is Jesus the Only Way?"

Jim, I leave you with a question: Have you ever seriously studied the arguments for Christianity? I would like to offer you a wonderful book, free of charge, that I believe would challenge your thinking regarding the Bible, Jesus, and the existence of God. If you are comfortable, please send your address to and I will have it in the mail. If anything you get a free book!


chad said...

I forgot to include the resource I used for the above comment.


1) J.P. Moreland, Does the Cosmological Argument Show there is a God?, The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 806-807.