D avid Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of radical philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism.
Hume's empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behaviour and argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in experience.
Hayagriva dasa: Abstract objects, relations, space, time, and matter are all considered by Hume to be mind-dependent perceptions. For him, perceptions or impressions are all there is. He rejected revealed religion, which he considered dogmatic, and accepted "natural religion" instead, a religion wherein the existence of God can be proved or even shown to be probable by argument and reason. According to Hume, we really know nothing of God; at the most we can know only of people's ideas of God, and these are but perceptions.
Srila Prabhupada: What is that natural religion?
Hayagriva dasa: Hume writes: "The whole course of nature raises one hymn to the praises of its creator. I have found a Deity, and here I stop my enquiry. Let those go further who are wiser or more enterprising."
Srila Prabhupada: He admits that the senses are imperfect, and at the same time that there is a God. Now, if our senses are imperfect, how can we imagine God to be like this or that? If God explains Himself, why should we not accept His version?
Hayagriva dasa: In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume opposes the search for God in the ideal world. He writes: "Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on ad infinitum?...If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other, and so on without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God, and the sooner we arrive at the divine being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humor which it is impossible ever to satisfy."
Srila Prabhupada: The material world by definition is full of misery, and those who are advanced therefore search for another world where there is no misery. Everyone is searching for a happy world that is permanent, and that search is not unnatural. There is such a world, and since it exists, why should we not hanker after it? If we look at the world objectively, we can see that no one is really happy—that is, unless he is an animal. Animals do not know what is happiness or distress. They remain satisfied in any condition. A man, however, feels pain more acutely.
Hayagriva dasa: Hume felt that the sooner we find God the better, and therefore he opposed going beyond the mundane system in search of Him.
Srila Prabhupada: You cannot find God in your present conditional state. You may glimpse the fact that there is God, but you cannot understand His forms and pastimes by speculation. Therefore revelation is there for those fortunate people who are seriously searching for God. God is living within, and when we are serious, He reveals Himself. It is also possible to learn about God directly from a person who knows God. Bhagavad-gita is God's direct revelation, and if we try to understand it, we can understand what God is.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume maintains that all that we are, all that we know, is merely a sequence of ideas.
Srila Prabhupada: But behind the ideas there must be a fact. Otherwise, how can we have the ideas?
Syamasundara dasa: He separates facts from ideas. For instance, I may think that this table is red, but I may be wrong; it could be brown.
Srila Prabhupada: Your idea may be incorrect, but actually the table has some color, be it red, yellow, or whatever. If you have some eye disease, you cannot determine the color, but one whose eyes are not diseased can tell you. Because our eyes are diseased and we cannot see things properly, we have to receive knowledge from one who is not diseased. Hume is wrong when he says that there is no possibility of attaining right knowledge.
Syamasundara dasa: He admits that the external world is full of concrete objects, but he thinks that we are also one of those objects because the self is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement." Our consciousness is composed of only our observations of material nature.
Srila Prabhupada: That is so far as direct perception is concerned, but indirect perception is different. It may be taken from authorities.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume distrusts all authority. For him, the only certainty is found in mathematical proofs and immediate sense perceptions. We can perceive that there is time and space, but this is the only knowledge that he will admit.
Srila Prabhupada: And beyond time and space?
Syamasundara dasa: We cannot know anything.
Srila Prabhupada: Perhaps you cannot, but there is a process whereby we can know. We cannot say that beyond the mind there is no time or perception. There are insects that are born in the evening and die in the morning, and during that time they experience a lifespan. For a man, this is only twelve hours of life, but the insect cannot live beyond that time. From Bhagavad- gita we understand that Brahma lives for many thousands of years, and that compared to him we are like insects. Everything is relative: our lifespan, knowledge, and perception. We are small human beings, and what is impossible for us is not necessarily impossible for others. Hume is talking from the relative platform.
Syamasundara dasa: He believes that objects are only relative, not that there is anything absolute.
Srila Prabhupada: But as soon as he speaks of relative, he posits the existence of the absolute. If there is no absolute, how can we have the conception of an object being relative?
Syamasundara dasa: He believes that things exist only in relation to one another.
Srila Prabhupada: Then what is the supreme relation?
Syamasundara dasa: He doesn't admit one.
Srila Prabhupada: According to logic, at the end of all relative truths there is Absolute Truth, the summum bonum. But if Hume denies substance, he has no idea of the summum bonum, the ultimate substance.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume says that an object like an apple consists only of certain sensory qualities, like sweetness or color, and that the individual consists of only a series of mental activities, not of a soul capable of creating experiences.
Srila Prabhupada: Inert objects have certain qualities, but the living entity possesses senses by which he can appreciate those qualities. He is therefore superior to inert matter. Because the living entity has senses, he can appreciate sense objects. We have eyes with which we can see color and perceive beauty.
Hayagriva dasa: Hume is famous for his skepticism. He rejected revealed scriptures and looked toward science instead.
Srila Prabhupada: If he preaches skepticism, why should we believe his words? If he does not believe the statements of others, why should others accept his statements?
Syamasundara dasa: Hume postulates three laws whereby perceptions are associated or connected with one another. First, according to his principle of resemblance, a picture, for instance, makes us think of the original. Secondly, according to the principle of contiguity, if I mention a room in this building, I think of other rooms also. Third, according to the principle of cause and effect, if I think of a wound, I automatically think of pain. Thus he suggests that our whole being consists of such a stream of ideas and associations, which follow one another perpetually.
Srila Prabhupada: This is the nature of the relative world. We cannot understand what a father is without understanding what a son is. We cannot conceive of a husband without a wife.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume denies the existence of an ultimate reality, asserting that only the phenomena of the senses exists.
Srila Prabhupada: But where do these phenomena come from? If there are phenomena, there must be noumena.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume suggests that it is possible that the world has existed since eternity and that therefore no first cause is required.
Srila Prabhupada: But what about the manifestation of past, present, and future? Why does death take place if there is no cause?
Syamasundara dasa: The body is like a machine which is born and dies.
Srila Prabhupada: When you say machine, you automatically presuppose the beginning of the machine. In other words, the machine must be made by someone.
Syamasundara dasa: The machines may be like the seasons. They may come and go.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, they may come and go, and then come again, but what is the meaning of this?
Syamasundara dasa: They may be eternally existing facts without cause or creator. Hume says that we may believe in a creator if we like, but this is based on mere probability, not knowledge. We may think as we like.
Srila Prabhupada: Well, he goes on talking as he likes. In other words, you can speak all kinds of nonsense, and I can too. You are right, and I am right, and everything is right.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume divided human understanding into two categories: relationships among ideas and relationships among facts. The first involves mathematics. Two plus two equals four is true whether it refers to something existing in nature or not. According to the relationships among facts, this is a knowledge to be assumed on the basis of sense experience. According to the information we have based on sense perceptions, we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. However, there is a possibility that the world will end, and the sun will not rise tomorrow.
Srila Prabhupada: Why is this so? Who makes this possible or impossible? The sun may rise, or the sun may not rise. Is this accidental, or is this according to someone's will?
Syamasundara dasa: Hume would say that it is accidental.
Srila Prabhupada: Nothing is accidental. Everything is symmetrical. According to Krsna in Bhagavad-gita, everything in nature is working under His direction. The sun rises because God has so ordained it. If God does not ordain it, the sun will not rise. It is not accidental at all.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume denies cause and effect relationships. We associate friction with heat, but he says that it is a mistake to assume that friction causes heat. For him, there is merely a repetition of two incidents. The effect may habitually attend the cause, but it is not necessarily its consequence. There is only association, not cause and effect.
Srila Prabhupada: But who made the laws of association? The association may be accidental, but as soon as there is friction, there is heat. This means that in nature there is a systematic law.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume would say that this law is not ultimate reality but mere probability.
Srila Prabhupada: Nonetheless, there are physical laws. The sequence of these laws may differ because they are created by someone who can change them. A legislature may assemble today and pass a certain law, but tomorrow it may assemble again and nullify that law. Similarly, a supreme will makes these laws, and He can also nullify or change them. As far as you are concerned, when there is friction, there is heat. It is not that we can rub our hands together without experiencing a sensation of heat. This means that we are subject to the supreme will. God gives us a chance to speak all kinds of nonsense, but He can stop us immediately. At any instant, our tongue may be in a dead body. The supreme will gives us the freedom to talk in this way or that, and concoct all kinds of philosophies, but at any moment He can put an end to all of this. Thus the supreme will is the ultimate cause of all causes.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume rejected the idea of absolute matter and the conception of the soul as a substance. He also rejected the utility of scientific laws and moral principles as objective realities. He claims that all religious ideas are relative, maintaining that there is no certainty in religious matters.
Srila Prabhupada: Religion means love of God, and there are different religious processes. If we ultimately develop love of God, we have realized the first and most important factor of religion. If love of God is absent, what passes for religion is not really religion. It is simply a show.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume states that even the idea of God is merely probable but not certain.
Srila Prabhupada: We do not agree to that. As soon as we speak of authority, we posit the existence of a supreme authority. We call that supreme authority God.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume would say that we would have to accept the authority of our senses.
Srila Prabhupada: The senses are imperfect, and God is beyond the senses. We cannot see God, touch Him, or hear Him because our senses are imperfect. A man with imperfect senses says that there is no God, but those who have cleansed their senses can see God, touch Him, and talk with Him.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume denies the existence of miracles.
Srila Prabhupada: One thing may be a miracle for one person and not for another. An electric fan may seem like a miracle for a child, but not for his father. So our conception of miracles is also relative.
Hayagriva dasa: On this subject, Hume writes: "All the new discoveries in astronomy, which prove the immense grandeur and magnificence of the works of nature, are so many additional arguments for a Deity, according to the true system of theism." In this way, Hume rejects the necessity or desirability of miracles as well as the conception of a God transcendental to His creation. He states that it is not the being of God that is in question, but God's nature, which cannot be ascertained through study of the universe itself. However, if the universe can only be studied by imperfect senses, what is the value of our conclusion? How can we ever come to know the nature of God?
Srila Prabhupada: According to our Vedic philosophy, the nature of God can be explained by God Himself. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna tells Arjuna:
mattah parataram nanyat
kincid asti dhananjaya
mayi sarvam idam protam
sutre mani-gana iva
"O conqueror of wealth, there is no Truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread." (Bg. 7.7) We accept this as a fact, because it is not possible for anyone to be greater than God. It is God's nature to be the greatest in everything: wealth, fame, power, beauty, knowledge, and renunciation. If we can find one who is garnished with such greatness, we have found God. These qualities are found in Krsna, and therefore we accept Krsna as the Supreme Lord.
Hayagriva dasa: In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume writes: "All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn, while he carries on an offensive war and exposes the absurdities, barbarities and pernicious tenets of his antagonists. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the skeptic, who tells them that no system ought ever be embraced....A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable recourse."
Srila Prab hupada: We do not accept this. We believe that we can know God from God Himself. Religion refers to the principles given by God. If there are no directions given by God, there is no religion. Religion is not a kind of blind faith; it is factual because it is given by God Himself. If you know God and follow His instructions, you are religious.
Hayagriva dasa: Hume did believe that religion is necessary. He says that religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all.
Srila Prabhupada: We agree to that, but religion without philosophy and logic is simply sentiment. That will not help us. Real religion is given by Sri Krsna.
man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaisyasi yuktvaivam
"Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me." ( Bg. 9.34) If we always think of God, we will become purified. Religion means meditating upon God and thinking of Him. Therefore temple worship is necessary to facilitate our constantly thinking of God. But if we do not know of God's form, how can we offer Him worship? How can we think of Him? We then have to construct a pseudo religion, and this kind of religion will not help us.
Hayagriva dasa: Hume's conception of religion is utilitarian and social. He writes: "The proper office of religion is to regulate the heart of man, humanize their conduct, infuse the spirit of temperance, order, and obedience...."
Srila Prabhupada: We also say that religion is the greatest welfare work for all humanity. For instance, religion forbids illicit sex, and if people indulge in illicit sex, society will become chaotic. If we continue eating meat, we revolt against God's will because God is the father of all living entities. When other foods are available, why should we kill animals to eat meat? When there is a wife, why should we have illicit sex? A religious man is necessarily a man of good character. If we are God conscious, all good qualities are automatically manifest. A devotee can sacrifice his own interests because he is a devotee. Others cannot do this.
Hayagriva dasa: Hume felt that one must first be a philosophical skeptic before accepting the revealed truths of religion. Ultimately, he insists that these truths can be accepted only on faith, not experience or reason.
Srila Prabhupada: Why not on reason? We can use our reason to consider that everything has some proprietor and that it is quite reasonable that this vast universe also has a proprietor. Is there a fault in this logic? Of course, now astronomers are saying that in the beginning there was a chunk, but where did that chunk come from? Where did gas come from? Where did fire come from? There is a proprietor, and He is described in Bhagavad- gita. Mayadhyaksena prakrtih (Bg. 9.10 ). It is completely illogical to think that there is no universal proprietor.
Hayagriva dasa: As far as we can ascertain, Hume personally had no religion, no faith in the Christian or any other God. He also rejected the contention that argument or reason could justify a faith. He is a skeptic who denies the possibility of attaining certainty outside of a mere sequence of perceptions or ideas.
Srila Prabhupada: In other words, all statements are to be rejected except his.
Hayagriva dasa: Well, he claims that man cannot know ultimate reality or possess knowledge of anything beyond a mere awareness of phenomenal, sensory images.
Srila Prabhupada: If man cannot possess knowledge, why should we accept Hume's knowledge? It is better to stop the search for knowledge altogether, is it not? Why does Hume bother to write so many books? He is simply trying to set up his own system as supreme. But a skeptic has no foundation for anything.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume says that if we like, we can attribute the order and design of the world to an architect, but as far as he is concerned, there is no proof that a superior architect exists.
Srila Prabhupada: If something is artistic and systematic, we must admit that there is some intelligence behind it. We have no other experience. According to our experience, things do not work well without some brain behind them. When we see that the cosmic manifestation is systematic, we must admit that there is a guiding intelligence.
Syamasundara dasa: He feels that if such an architect exists, he must be responsible for evil in nature. He therefore concludes that God is either finite or imperfect. If He were perfect, there would be no evil, and if He were infinite in power, He could eliminate it.
Srila Prabhupada: God is absolute, and for Him there is no evil. For Him, there is only good, otherwise He could not be called absolute. What we think is evil, is good to God. A father may slap his child, and that child may cry. For the child, this is evil, but for the father, this is good, because he thinks, "I have done right. Although he is crying, he will not commit this same mistake again." Chastisement may sometimes appear evil, but that is relative to our position. Whose opinion are we to take?
Syamasundara dasa: Hume would say that this means that God is limited.
Srila Prabhupada: That is nonsense. If God is limited, He cannot be God.
Syamasundara dasa: The logic is that God must be limited in His goodness to allow evil to exist.
Srila Prabhupada: God is unlimitedly good.
Syamasundara dasa: Then God must be limited in His power because He cannot eliminate evil.
Srila Prabhupada: No. Evil works under His guidance. God controls both good and evil; therefore He is called the supreme controller. He is not limited in any way. The exact word used in Sanskrit is ananta, unlimited. God isadvaitam acyutam anantam: nondual, infallible, and unlimited. [ Bs. 5.33]
Syamasundara dasa: Concerning world morality, Hume maintains that morality consists of values formulated by the individual for himself as a matter of personal opinion. Each man may do as his conscience dictates.
Srila Prabhupada: One man may say that his conscience dictates this, and another that his conscience dictates something else. Therefore there is no agreement.
Syamasundara dasa: However, in society, Hume would say that moral values are relative to public opinion.
Srila Prabhupada: Then we have to accept the opinion of the majority. This is democracy.
Syamasundara dasa: Yet Hume admits that it is up to the individual whether to accept public opinion or reject it. Although the law is there, and society agrees to it, it is still up to the individual to follow it or not.
Srila Prabhupada: If you do not follow the law, you will be punished by the state. So we can conclude that independent thinking is not absolute. It is also relative.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume would say that it is not logic or reason that determines morality, but sentiment.
Srila Prabhupada: We cannot decide what is moral or immoral. Only the supreme will can decide that.
Syamasundara dasa: It is the sentiment of the individual that decides. A person should act according to the way he feels at the moment, according to his personal opinion.
Srila Prabhupada: You may be satisfied with your personal opinion, but if it is not approved by others in society, you are living in a fool's paradise.
Syamasundara dasa: The remedy for this is social. We should try to change the laws or opinions of the state so that they will comply with a certain type of morality. If I think that something is right, but the state says that it is wrong, I should act politically to change it.
Srila Prabhupada: But public opinion and individual opinion are not final. Above them is the supreme will of Krsna, and that ultimately determines what is moral or immoral.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume believed that moral sentiments enhance the social good, whereas immoral attitudes are egotistic and anti-social.
Srila Prabhupada: In any case, for him the social body is the authority. Ultimately, we have to depend on some authority for all sanction. We propose that the supreme authority is Krsna, and that whatever He sanctions is moral, and whatever He does not sanction is immoral. Arjuna was thinking that it was moral to be nonviolent on the battlefield of Kuruksetra, but Krsna told him otherwise. Instead of depending on the social, political, or communal body to determine morality, we should depend on the supreme will of the supreme authority. We maintain that all morality is relative to Krsna's sanction. Killing is considered immoral, but because Krsna ordered Arjuna to fight, Arjuna's killing was not immoral. When our actions are approved by the supreme authority, we are moral. If our acts are not approved by the supreme authority, we are immoral. Morality and immorality have no fixed position. When something is approved by Krsna, it is moral. Thus what is considered immoral may actually be moral, and vice versa, depending on the orders or desires of Krsna. In a war, a soldier may kill many human beings and be awarded many medals for this, but if he kills one person when he returns home, he is considered immoral, and he is hanged. Even on the mundane platform, morality and immorality depend on the sanction of the state. The state says, "It is moral that you kill this man because he is an enemy." And the state also says, "If you kill, you will be hanged." In this way, people accept authority. Everything in the universe depends on Krsna's will, on His authority. In the beginning of Bhagavad-gita , Krsna says that He comes to reestablish religious principles ( Bg. 4.8), but at the conclusion He states that one should reject all religious principles and simply surrender unto Him and accept His order (18.66). This is the confidential teaching of Bhagavad- gita. In any case, He is the ultimate authority, and surrender unto Him is the ultimate religious principle.
Syamasundara dasa: Hume lays the groundwork for permissiveness in modern society because he leaves it up to the individual to choose a specific ethical attitude. In other words, to do as he pleases.
Srila Prabhupada: But this is not possible because no one can do as he pleases. In life, there are many stumbling blocks. A person may propose a certain action, but his proposal may not be practical. We cannot act independently. Otherwise, there will be chaos. There must be some authority.