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Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2015.

Humes Agnosticism

For the immanentistic phenomenalist David Hume (1711-1776) we are unable to have an
a posteriori effect to cause demonstration of the existence of God, since his sensist and
phenomenalist gnoseology attempts an elimination of metaphysics (the science of being as being
[ens qua ens]) and together with it the affirmations of the objective extra-mental existence of
substance and efficient causality,1 for in Hume, intellectual knowledge suffers a reduction to a

Studies on Humes views on efficient causality: H. W. JOHNSTONE, Humes Arguments Concerning Causal
Necessity, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 16.3 (1956), pp. 331-340 ; J. W. LENZ, Humes Defense
of Causal Inference, Journal of the History of Ideas, 19.4 (1958), pp. 559-567 ; J. A. ROBINSON, Humes Two
Definitions of Cause, The Philosophical Quarterly, 12 (1962) ; T. J. RICHARDS, Humes Two Definitions of
Cause, The Philosophical Quarterly, 15 no. 60 (1965), pp. 247-253 ; J. A. ROBINSON, Humes Two Definitions
of Cause Reconsidered, The Philosophical Quarterly, 15 (1965), reprinted in Hume: A Collection of Critical
Essays, edited by V. C. Chappell, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1966 ; C. J. DUCASSE,
Critique of Humes Conception of Causality, The Journal of Philosophy, 63.6 (1966), pp. 141-148 ; D. W.
LIVINGSTON, Hume on Ultimate Causation, American Philosophical Quarterly, 8.1 (1971), pp. 63-70 ; D.
GOTTERBARN, Humes Two Lights on Cause, The Philosophical Quarterly, 21 no. 83 (1971), pp. 168-171 ; J.
ARONSON, The Legacy of Humes Analysis of Causation, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 2.2
(1971), pp. 135-156 ; T. L. BEAUCHAMP, Humes Two Theories of Causation, Archiv fr Geschichte der
Philosophie, 55 (1973), pp. 281-800 ; G. E. M. ANSCOMBE, Whatever Has a Beginning of Existence Must Have
a Cause: Humes Argument Exposed, Analysis, 34.5 (1974), pp. 145-151 ; M. MANDELBAUM, The
Distinguishable and the Separable: A Note on Hume and Causation, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 12.2
(1974), pp. 242-247 ; P. GOMBERG, Coherence and Causal Inference in Humes Treatise, Canadian Journal of
Philosophy, 6.4 (1976), pp. 693-704 ; A. PARUSH, Is Hume a Sceptic About Causation?, Hume Studies, 3.1
(1977), pp. 3-16 ; B. STROUD, Hume on the Idea of Causal Necessity, Philosophical Studies, 33.1 (1978), pp. 39-
59 ; T. L. BEAUCHAMP and A. ROSENBERG, Hume and the Problem of Causation, Oxford University Press,
New York, 1981 ; J. BROUGHTON, Humes Scepticism about Causal Inferences, Pacific Philosophical
Quarterly, 64.1 (1983) pp. 3-18 ; A. J. JACOBSON, Does Hume Hold a Regularity Theory of Causality?, History
of Philosophy Quarterly, 1.1 (1984), pp. 75-91 ; P. RUSSELL, Humes Two Definitions of Cause and the
Ontology of Double Existence, Hume Studies, 10.1 (1984), pp. 1-25 ; B. EN, Hume on Causal Necessity: A
Study from the Perspective of Humes Theory of Passions, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 2.3 (1985), pp. 235-
256 ; A. D. KLINE, Humean Causation and the Necessity of Temporal Discontinuity, Mind, New Series 94 no.
376 (1985), pp. 550-556 ; H. O. MOUNCE, The Idea of a Necessary Connection, Philosophy, 60. no. 233 (1985),
pp. 381-388 ; D. R. SHANKS, Hume on the Perception of Causality, Hume Studies, 11.1 (1985), pp. 94-108 ; A.
J. JACOBSON, Causality and the Supposed Counterfactual Conditional in Humes Enquiry, Analysis, 46.3
(1986), pp. 131-133 ; T. F. LINDLEY, David Hume and Necessary Connections, Philosophy, 62 no. 239 (1987),
pp. 49-58 ; G. STRAWSON, The Secret Connexion-Causation, Realism, and David Hume, Oxford University Press,
Oxford and New York, 1989 ; A. SCHWERIN, The Reluctant Revolutionary: An Essay on David Humes Account
of Necessary Connection, Peter Lang, New York, 1989 ; M. J. COSTA, Hume and Causal Realism, Australasian
Journal of Philosophy, 67.2 (1989), pp. 472-490 ; J. BROACKES, Did Hume Hold a Regularity Theory of
Causation?, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 1 (1993), pp. 99-114 ; D. GARRETT, The
Representation of Causation and Humes Two Definitions of Cause, Nos, 27.2 (1993), pp. 167-190 ; M. BELL,
Hume and Causal Power: The Influences of Malebranche and Newton, British Journal for the History of
Philosophy, 5.1 (1997), pp. 67-86 ; M. BA, Is Causation In Here or Out There?: Humes Two Definitions of
Cause, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 16.1 (1999), pp. 19-35 ; K. LEVY, Hume, the New Hume, and Causal
Connections, Philosophy, Hume Studies, 26.1 (2000), pp. 41-75 ; P. K. STANFORD, The Manifest Connection:
Causation, Meaning, and David Hume, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 40.3 (2002), pp. 339-360 ; H.

purely nominalistic sense knowledge.2 Humes immanentist gnoseological starting point for
knowledge (wherein the principle of immanence is interpreted in an empiricist manner3)

BEEBEE, Hume on Causation, Routledge, London, 2006 ; F. W. DAUER, Hume on the Relation of Cause and
Effect, in A Companion to Hume (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), edited by E. S. Radcliffe, Wiley-
Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ, 2008 ; P. MILLICAN, Hume, Causal Realism, and Causal Science, Mind, 118-Issue
471 (July 2009), pp. 647-712.
In contrast to the erroneous nominalist and sensist phenomenalism of Hume, which reduces our knowledge to a
mere sense knowledge, we affirm that we also have intellectual knowledge (with an intellect capable of abstraction
in the proper sense), and not just a nominalistic sense knowledge. Joseph Thomas Barron writes: Moderate
Realism. Distinction Between the Senses and the Reason. Introspection clearly evidences the distinction between our
higher and lower cognitional powers. Through the senses we become aware of particular things. For example,
through the sense of sight I see this or that particular object, possessing a certain size, shape, and color, existing in
this place at this time. If we touch an object, the resistance we encounter is this resistance, and if we strike it we hear
this sound. Whenever we sense a reality, it is always endowed with individuality it always has specific
individuating notes. But reflection tells us that we have another kind of knowledge which differs widely from sense
knowledge. It is not a knowledge of the particular and concrete, but of the general and abstract. I can, for example,
think of a book which is totally different from this book I now sense, and which has none of its individuating
characteristics. This new thought is no longer bound up with this particular book. It is applicable, as I can see by
reflection, to any number of individual books. Its object is not a particular object but a universal object. Furthermore
my senses do not tell me what things are; they do not apprehend the essence or whatness of things. But I seemingly
do know what things are; I know not only the qualities of things but I also know what things are in themselves; I
know their natures. Thus my senses alone do not tell me this is a book. They report color, size, shape, etc., but I
know it is a book, proving thereby that I have a kind of knowledge which is not sense knowledge.
Again, I know what is meant by such notions as justice, hope, causality, knowledge, none of which I can sense.
None of these can be perceived through a sense organ, yet I can and do know them. Moreoever, the senses have not
the power of reflection. They cannot make their data the objects of their own examination. But the power of
reflection is a fact, and this points also to a difference between sense knowledge and a higher kind of knowledge.
Then there are our judicial and ratiocinative powers. These cannot be allocated in the senses. From a comparison of
the conceptual, judicial, and ratiocinative aptitudes of the intellect with the functioning of the senses we see that
there is a radical difference between the senses and the intellect.
But while we differentiate the one from the other, and while we see they are irreducible to each other, we must
not think that though distinct they are separate. Intellect and sense do not function separately and apart from each
other. In actual concrete experience we cannot divorce the operation of the lower faculty from that of the higher. In
our adult experience the sensuous and intellectual elements are closely interwoven. A sensation is hardly, if ever,
given without an accompanying intellection. Continuity and solidarity are always present between them. So closely
are they interwoven that it is often difficult to discriminate between the purely sensory elements in our knowledge
and those which are the result of higher factors. We must not forget that the knowledge-process is complicated, and
that sensation, perception, retention and reproduction, conception, judgment, and reasoning, all intermingle with one
another, and that all have an integral part in the process of cognition.
The existence of rational concepts has been established. The formation of concepts depends on and begins with
sense knowledge, but it is completed by the intellect. The process whereby concepts emerge from precepts demands
an exposition.
The Origin of Concepts. Since our concepts are not a priori (or prior to sense experience) and since
introspection shows us that in our judgments we identify these concepts with the data of sense, the intellect must
apprehend them in some way in the data of sense (we are constantly making judgments in which we identify the data
of sense with our concepts, e.g., This is a book). There is no other explanation. The intellect gets all its data or
objects in and through sense perception and self-consciousness. This does not mean that the intellect can conceive
only what the senses perceive, i.e., only the physical or material. This is the sensistic interpretation of this principle.
The principle means that while the intellect gets its data from sense perception it nevertheless has the power of
apprehending modes of being which transcend sense perception. For example, it can form such concepts as being,
quality, change, thought, none of which objects can be the objects of the senses. Again, the intellect can reflect
on its own activities and form concepts such as intellect, cognition, which are concepts of realities unperceivable
by the senses. Our theory of moderate realism, therefore, which holds that the thought-objects of the intellect are
somehow apprehended in the data of sense is not sensistic.

The Theory of Abstraction. Since the thought-objects of the intellect are apprehended in sense data, the obvious
question arises: How is the concept derived from the percept or sense data? How can we bridge the gap between
sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge? The answer is: by the process of abstraction. An extramental object
produces an impression on one or more of the senses. Through this impression the mind becomes cognizant of a
concrete object. This impression evokes the activity of the intellect. In every object there are certain qualities or
attributes which may or may not belong to the object without any substantial or essential difference being made in
the nature of the object; e.g., the height, weight, and clothing of any individual may all be different from what they
are and he would still be a man. There are other attributes, however, the absence of which would destroy the
character of the object and cause it to be other than it is. If we did away with either the rationality or the animality of
a man he would no longer be a man. The functioning of the intellect at this juncture is abstractive. Abstraction is the
concentration of the intellect on these latter elements to the exclusion of the former. It is the withdrawal of the
attention of the mind from what is accidental and the fixing of it on the essential. It is the act whereby the intellect
abstracts or selects from an object that portion which is essential and neglects the rest. The result of this abstraction
is the concept which expresses in the abstract the essence of the object. The concept is not the representation of a
single, particular object; it is universal and abstract because, as we shall see, it is capable of being realized in an
indefinite number of objects. In a word, the intellect conceives what the senses perceive but in a different way.
The term abstraction as descriptive of the conception process has given rise to much misunderstanding. Some
have understood it as connoting the taking away of something from the concrete object. Such a view is a travesty on
the nature of abstraction. The essence or nature which is said to be abstracted is an attribute of the object and it never
ceases to be such. Abstraction is a purely mental process. It does not take away the physical essence of the object.
Just as the eye can see an object, so does the intellect represent to itself the object without changing in any way its
physical reality. Abstraction does not change the nature of the object but rather the nature of our awareness of the
object. In brief, abstraction simply means the representation of the essence of an object in the intellect.
The Universality of Concepts. The fact that concepts are devoid of the individuating characteristics which are
always found in sensed objects has two implications.
(1) The thought-object considered in itself is neither universal nor particular (cf. De Ente et Essentia, c. 4). The
concept considered in this abstract condition is said to be the direct or potential universal, and as such it is
fundamentally real, i.e., its basis is in the object independently of the work of the mind. We are warranted in
claiming objectivity for the direct or potential universal since the mind finds the content of the concept in the object.
The mind does not create the content of the universal by its own activity but it discovers the content objectively
(2) After the direct universal has been generated the intellect sees that the thought-object is not only in this
object and predicable of it, but that it is capable of indefinite repeated realizations in an indefinite number of other
similar objects. It thus formally universalizes the concept. When by reflection a concept is seen to be universally
predicable of all the objects of a class it is said to be a formal or reflex universal. Thus at first one forms the concept
of man as a rational animal. This is a direct universal. By an act of reflection the concept rational animal is seen to
be predicable of all men, past, present, and future it is formally universalized (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 39, a. 3
; De Anima, 2; Summa Theologiae, I, q. 85, a. 2, ad 2).
The universalizing is the work of the intellect. Hence universals, as universal, exist in the mind alone. The
concept of the nature or essence which is universalized has its basis in the object of sense, but the universality and
abstractness which characterize the concept are the work of, and are in, the intellect. There are universal thought-
objects but no universal objects. Whatever is real, i.e., in the real or objective order, is individual. But individual
things, while they do not constitute one reality, have similar natures. Because of this the intellect can apprehend this
similarity of nature and form a concept, which it may universalize, and which is predicable of the various different
but similar individuals. This predication of the same attribute to different individuals does not imply that they are the
same reality. They are distinct and separate individuals, but because of their similarity of nature the same essence
can be predicated of them. Similarity is not a real identity it is a mental identity.(J. T. BARRON, Elements of
Epistemology, Macmillan, New York, 1936, pp. 86-92).
Hume was a proponent of empiricism, which, like the opposing philosophy of rationalism, is also immanentistic.
Describing empiricism in his Introduzione alla gnoseologia (2003), Juan Jos Sanguineti writes: Al razionalismo si
contrappone lempirismo, anche se entrambe le posizioni hanno alcuni elementi in comune. Lindirizzo empirista
parte dal principio cartesiano di rappresentazione, scegliendo gli atti psichici della percezione sensibile, anzich la
ragione, come punto di risoluzione dellanalisi gnoseologica. Il compito fondamentale dellempirismo classico
inglese (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) lo studio dellorigine delle nostre idee a partire dalle sensazioni elementari
(associazionismo psicologico). Siamo di fronte ad un criticismo di stampo psicologista, quindi soggettivista (mentre

maintains that what we know as object in the first instance are our impressions (intense, forceful,
and vivid perceptions), and not objective extra-mental beings (entia) or things in the world
(which for Hume remains unknowable; for him, the extra-mental, real existence of things in the
world remains an hypothesis incapable of being verified). For the agnostic Hume what we know
are our perceptions and not external, extra-mental things or beings (entia) that are because of
their respective finite, participated acts of being. For the immanentist Hume what we know are
facts of consciousness and not beings (entia) existing outside that human consciousness. This is
an immanentistic theory of knowledge which locks one up within states of consciousness, unable
to transcend to a knowledge of an external reality of beings (entia), and in the end falls into
either agnosticism or atheism concerning the existence of God, the Supreme Being, since one, at
the outset, is already agnostic regarding knowledge of an external world of things having definite
natures, and the sensible things of this world are the starting point for our metaphysical a
posteriori quia effect to cause demonstration of the existence of God.

What is the principle of immanence? Alejandro Llano states that the principle of
immanence consists in the denial that being transcends consciousnessbeing is constituted from
within the immanence of the thinking subjectA great part of post-Cartesian philosophy
basically holds to the principle of immanence.4 In positions as apparently opposed to idealism as
empiricism, dialectical materialism and existentialism, one can discover in effect that the
starting point is the immanence of human consciousness and that these positions never attain
genuine transcendence.5 Carlos Cardona notes the eventual agnostic (and atheistic) outcome of
the immanentist option which endeavors di definire lessere a partire dalla mia conoscenza.
Quando questo atteggiamento diviene esclusivo e dichiara la non validit dellapprensione
immediata dellessere e pretende di costituire quello che stato chiamato inizio assoluto, vera
origine dellessere, posizione radicale di tutta la realt, siamo di fronte a uninterpretazione del
cogito, storicamente data, che porta alla negazione di Dio.6

il razionalismo era oggettivista). Pare che tutto il compito della filosofia si esaurisca nella gnoseologia. Il risultato
sar una svalutazione delle pretese conoscitive del razionalismo, cio della stessa ragione. Le idee psichiche
sensazioni, impressioni qualitative, apprezzamenti quantitativi, formazione delle idee astratte relative ai corpi
risultano dalla progressiva associazione delle impressioni sensitive, secondo leggi psicologiche (contiguit,
successione temporale, somiglianza). In definitiva, nellempirismo il pensiero astratto ridotto ad unelaborazione
raffinata della percezione sensibile
Hume compie la critica empirista pi radicale: le idee di sostanza, soggetto pensante, causa, e legge
fisica perdono validit razionale. Dalla ripetizione delle sensazioni non si pu ricavare alcuna legge generale
necessaria (critica dellinduzione). Ci aspettiamo che il futuro rassomigli il passato solo per abitudine psichica.
Siamo convinti, per, della realt perseverante delle cose per fede naturale, istintiva, non per gli argomenti razionali.
Lo scetticismo non si vince con le teorie filosofiche, ma con la fede, lattivit, il lavoro. Nella critica humiana la
fede istintiva finisce per predominare sulla ragione. Le scienze perdono il loro fondamento teoretico. La matematica
conserva una sua validit, ma solo come scienza dei rapporti tra idee oggettive, senza alcun valore conoscitivo
rispetto al mondo(J. J. SANGUINETI, Introduzione alla gnoseologia, Le Monnier, Florence, 2003, pp. 10-11).
See: C. FABRO, Introduzione allateismo moderno, 2nd edition, Studium, Rome, 1969 (English translation of 1st
edition: C. FABRO, God in Exile: An Introduction to Modern Atheism, Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1968) ;
C. CARDONA, Metafsica del la opcin intelectual, Rialp, Madrid, 1973 (Italian translation: C. CARDONA,
Metafisica dellopzione intellettuale, EDUSC, Rome, 2003).
A. LLANO, Gnoseology, Sinag-Tala, Manila, 2001, p. 88, 92. Italian translation: A. LLANO, Filosofia della
conoscenza, Le Monnier, Florence, 1987, p. 92, 96 ; Spanish original: A. LLANO, Gnoseologia, EUNSA,
Pamplona, 1984, p. 96, 100.
C. CARDONA, Metafisica dellopzione intellettuale, EDUSC, Rome, 2003, p. 15.

For the immanentist Hume, we are unable to affirm that objective efficient causality truly
operates in extra-mental reality.7 When we observe, for example, a lighted torch and then feel

Benignus Gerritys Critique of Humes Rejection of the Affirmation that Objective Efficient Causality Truly
Operates in Extra-Mental Reality: 1. Sensism. Humes original error, which led to his rejection of substance and
causality as valid philosophical concepts, was sensism. He considered experience as the sole ultimate source of valid
human knowledge, which it is, but by experience he meant pure sensation, or at very best perception, and nothing
more. Impressions of sense and their less vivid relics in the mind, namely, ideas, are the only data of knowledge for
which experience vouches, according to Hume. We have no impression of causality or substance; therefore, he
argues, these are not given in experience.
Hume mistakes an analysis of the factors in perception for an account of the perceptive act. The data of pure
sensation are, as he says, fragmentary and intermittent sense impressions. But the act which he is analyzing is not an
act of pure sensation. What I perceive is not these fragmentary impressions, but the things of which they are
accidents. It is doubtful that even animals perceive merely sensory qualities. Substances (i.e., particular, concrete)
are the data of perception. They are incidental sensibles immediately perceived by means of internal sense co-
operating within external sense. In his analysis Hume takes as the immediate datum of perception something which
is actually known only as a result of a difficult abstraction, namely, the pure sensation. Then his problem is to
discover how, starting from pure sensations, we come to believe in objective substances which exist unperceived
and permanently. It is a false problem.
2. Human Experience Includes Understanding. Hume is right in saying that we never have a sensory impression
of causality or substance. But he is wrong in saying that we never experience causes or substances. Efficient causes
are immediately experienced every time we observe anything physically influencing anything else, every time, for
example, we see a hammer driving a nail. But the cause qua cause is never sensed directly; cause, like substance, is
only sensed per accidens. The cause as a sensible object, its movement, and the subsequent movement of the object
acted upon are the immediate data of sense. But to limit experience to the sensible data perceived is to imply that
man perceives without ever at the same time understanding what he perceives. When I perceive a hammer
descending upon a nail and the nail moving further into the wood, I also understand that the hammer is something
and is driving the nail into the wood. Both perception and understanding are equally parts of the experience. To
exclude the understanding is to reduce all human experience to uncomprehending sense awareness. Not only is this
not the only kind of human experience, but, at least in the case of adults, it never normally occurs at all. We simply
do not perceive without some understanding of what we are perceiving; we do not perceive phenomena without
perceiving them as the phenomena of something; nor do we perceive one thing acting upon another without at the
same time understanding the former as a cause of the effect produced in the latter.
3. Understanding in Perception. There is surely a crystal-clear distinction between mere perceiving and
understanding. The domestic animals of the battlelands of Europe are no more spared the bombing and the fire, the
hunger and the cold, the noise and the stench, than are their human owners. But they have no understanding of what
is going on; no reason for what is happening is known to them, and none is sought. Their minds do not grope for
reasons the way their parched tongues crave for water. The darkness that their eyes suffer when they are driven in
the midst of the night through strange lands is matched by no darkness of intellect seeking a reason which it cannot
find that awful darkness which is so often the lot of man. Failure to understand could no more be a privation and a
suffering in man if his intellect were not made for grasping the reasons and causes of things, than blindness would
be a suffering if sight never grasped the visible. A man who does not understand feels frustrated, because his mind is
made for understanding; he suffers when he cannot grasp the reason, because he knows that there is a reason.
Perception is not understanding; but normally some understanding occurs together with perception: we could not
possibly have the experience of failing to understand what we perceive, if we did not have the prior experience of
understanding what we perceive.
4. Cause is Given to the Intellect. Cause is something that we grasp intellectually in the very act of
experiencing action whether our own action or anothers. We understand the cause as producing the effect: the
hammer as driving the nail, the saw as cutting the wood, the flood as devastating the land, the drill as piercing the
rock, the hand as molding the putty, ourselves as producing our own thoughts, words, and movements, our shoes as
pinching our feet, a pin as piercing our finger, our fellow subway travelers as pressing our ribs together. We do not
think that the nail will ever plunge into the wood without the hammer, the marble shape up as a statue without a
sculptor, the baby begin to exist without a father, the acorn grow with no sunlight; if something ever seems to occur
in this way, we do not believe it, or we call it a miracle (i.e., we attribute it to a higher, unseen cause). In a similar

manner, substance is given directly to the intellect in the very act of perception; the substance is grasped as the
reason for the sensible phenomena.
5. The Subjectivistic Postulate. The arguments of Hume are based on the subjectivistic postulate, namely, that
we know nothing directly except our own ideas. From this starting point, certitude about real causality can never be
reached. The only causality that could ever possibly be discovered if the primary objects of our knowledge were our
own ideas would be the causal relations among the ideas themselves. No such relations are as a matter of fact found,
since none exist and since the subjectivistic postulate is false to begin with. Causal relations exist between objects
and the mind, and between the mind and its ideas, but not between ideas and ideas. Hume places causality in our
mind, as a bond between ideas, when he accounts for our idea of causality by attributing it to mental custom.
Whatever his intention, he actually presents similar successions of ideas as the cause of our ideas of causality and
the principle of causality. As a matter of fact, such causality would not account for our belief in causality, because it
would never be an idea, but only an unknown bond connecting ideas. It is only because Hume is already in
possession of the concept of causality gained through external experience that he is able to formulate the theory that
invariable succession of ideas produces mental custom, which in turn gives rise to the idea of cause.
6. Imagination and Causality. It is, perhaps, this locating of causality among our ideas that leads Hume to a very
peculiar argument against the principle of causality: We can never demonstrate the necessity of a cause to every
new existence, or new modification of existence, without showing at the same time the impossibility there is that
anything can ever begin to exist without some productive principleNow that the latter is utterly incapable of a
demonstrative proof, we may satisfy ourselves by considering, that as all distinct ideas are separable from each
other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, it will be easy for us to conceive any object to be
non-existent at this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive
principle. The separation, therefore, of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence, is plainly possible
fot the imagination; and consequently the actual separation of these objects is so far possible, that it implies no
contradiction nor absurdity; and it is therefore incapable of being refuted by any reasoning from mere ideas; without
which it is impossible to demonstrate the necessity of a cause(D. HUME, Treatise of Human Nature, I, 3, 3).
This argument, even if we overlook the flagrant petitio principii in the statement that all distinct ideas are
separable from each other, is no argument at all. What Hume says is nothing more than that he can imagine a thing
beginning to exist without a cause, and that consequently no argument from mere ideas can ever prove the necessity
of a cause. We can agree with him that no argument from mere ideas can ever prove real causality; but we will add
that that is why Hume could never prove it he started with mere ideas, or rather images. Aside from this, the
argument is utterly unrelated to the subject of causality. Imagination has nothing to do with causes or with
beginnings of existence. I never imagine anything as beginning to exist, or even as existing; I simply imagine the
thing, and in my image there is no reference to existence. The thing which I imagine may as easily be a fire-
breathing dragon as my own brother. The reference to existence lies in thought, not in imagination. The words of
Hume, The separation, therefore, of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence, is plainly possible for
the imagination, have no real meaning, because the imagination never possesses the idea of a beginning of
existence. Thought judges whether a thing conceived exists or not, and thought (even Humes natural belief)
judges that nothing begins to exist without a cause. Surely, I can imagine a situation in which a certain thing is not
an element and then a situation in which it is. To do this is not to conceive the thing as beginning to exist; it is
merely to imagine it after not imagining it. Such imaginative play has no connection with causality, except in the
obvious sense that I could not imagine anything, to say nothing of making imagination experiments, if I had not the
power of producing, that is, causing images in my mind; and presumably that is not the sense in which Hume
intended his illustration to the interpreted.
7. Loaded Dice. The subjectivistic postulate prejudices the whole issue as to the reality of causes before
examination of the question even begins. If knowledge cannot attain to anything real and extramental, it cannot
attain to real, extramental causes. The only causality it could possibly discover would be causal relation among
images in the mind. If the object is read out of court by the postulate that we know only our ideas, objective
causality is read out with it. It is not surprising that sensism and subjectivism should lead to the explicit denial of the
principles of causality, sufficient reason, and substance, since they begin with their implicit denial. Sensations,
impressions, images, separated from any being arousing them must be viewed by any intelligent mind as so many
phenomena without any sufficient reason for existing. Normal men cannot abide sensory experiences without
objective reasons. They regard a person who has such experiences as a psychopathic case; they say, He imagines
things, and suggests a psychiarist(B. GERRITY, Nature, Knowledge, and God, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1947, pp. 337-

heat we are accustomed to conclude a causal bond. But in fact, Hume points out, it is the
imagination, working by habit, that conjures up this causal bond from what is in fact a mere
succession of phenomena: We have no other notion of cause and effect but that of certain
objects, which have been always conjoined togetherWe cannot penetrate into the reason of the
conjunction. We only observe the thing and always find that from the constant conjunction the
objects acquire a union in the imagination.8 Attacking the objective validity of efficient
causality in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he states: When we look towards
external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to
discover any power or necessary connection; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and
renders the one an infallible consequent of the other. We only find, that the one does actually, in
fact, follow the other. The impulse of one billiard-ball is attended with motion in the second.
This is the whole that appears to the outward senses. The mind feels no sentiment or inward
impression from this succession of objects: consequently, there is not, in any single, particular
instance of cause and effect, any thing which can suggest the idea of power or necessary

Kreyche explains that it is primarily by Hume that the major attack is launched upon
efficient causality. According to Hume, man knows only his ideas and images directly, and not
the world of reality. Mind is, for him, simply a state of successive phenomenal impressions, and
judgment is replaced by association. In asking whether causality can be justified, Hume requests
that one show how its most important characteristic, necessary nexus, is grounded in experience.
Not finding it rooted there, he concludes that the necessary connection between cause and effect
is psychological, having its ground in custom and the association of ideas. Cause thereupon
becomes a relationship among ideas, and no longer an influence of one thing upon the other in
the real worldThe principal shortcoming of Humes view stems from his empiricism and
nominalism. He attemped to have the senses detect, in a formal way, causality and necessity per
se something that those powers are incapable of doing. Aquinas had himself observed that not
even substance is sensible per se, but only per accidens. Since he did not admit abstraction of an
intellectual nature, Hume was consistent within his own system in rejecting causality and
substance. And, unable to justify causality ontologically, he did the next best thing in justifying it

This erroneous sensist and phenomenalist position on efficient causality leads Hume to
the likewise erroneous conclusion that we are unable to have an a posteriori quia effect to cause
demonstration of the existence of God with its starting point in the extra-mental sensible things
of this world. Collins plainly states that, for Hume, there can be no demonstrative knowledge of
God.11 Copleston writes that Hume refused to recognize the validity of metaphysical
arguments for Gods existence; that is to say, he refused to allow that the existence of God is
demonstrable.12 given Humes philosophical principles, especially his analysis of causality,
he could not admit any cogent proofs of theism in a recognizable sense.13 Chervin and Kevane

D. HUME, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, 3, 6.
D. HUME, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, VII, 1, 50.
G. F. KREYCHE, Causality, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967, p. 346.
J. D. COLLINS, God in Modern Philosophy, Regnery, Chicago, 1967, pp. 117-120.
F. COPLESTON, A History of Philosophy, Book II, vol. 5, Image Doubleday, New York, p. 310.
F. COPLESTON, op. cit., p. 311.

write that Humes sensist phenomenalism asserted the inability of human understanding to
ascend from the level of sense experience to establish the existence of a cause that exists and
operates in an order of reality above the sensory level. Thus all metaphysics is condemned and
removed at one stroke, with its ontology, the principles of existence, and its natural
theologyPlainly, for Hume human reason cannot prove the existence of God: the ascent of the
mind is blocked. And why? The reason is clear: for Hume, there is no power of insight and
understanding in a human being that differs in kind from the bodily senses.

The negation of God is intrinsically linked with this Empiricist reduction of man from
the power of intellectual understanding, which had been recognized as his specific qualitative
differenceHume makes visible in explicitly stated teaching, therefore, the philosophical
apostasy from Godhe will apply this doctrine of his An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding to the realm of revealed religion. This he does in his Natural History of Religion
and in Dialogues on Natural Religion, his personal favorite14

Collinss Critique of Humes Views on the A Posteriori Demonstration of the

Existence of God

James D. Collins describes and critiques Humes immanentistic phenomenalist and

sensist views on the a posteriori demonstration of the existence of God as follows: He applied
to this instance his two general theses that all demonstrative reasoning is nonexistential and
that causal reasoning about existents is never more than probable.15 Since he limited
demonstration to the mathematical analysis of quantitative relations, he could find no place for
any sort of existential demonstration, especially when it seeks to transcend the quantitative
sphere in the direction of God. The proof of Gods existence is doubly handicapped, since it is
not only existential but also causal reasoning.

Having eliminated an objective origin for the idea of active power and the causal bond,
Hume had to trace them to purely subjective conditions within the perceiver. The objects of
perception are atomic, unconnected units which may, nevertheless, follow one another in a
temporal sequence and pattern. Through repeated experience of such sequences, the imagination
is gradually habituated to connect antecedent and consequent objects in a necessary way. The
necessity does not arise from any productive force or dependence on the side of the objects so
related but comes solely from the subjective laws of association operating upon the imagination
to compel it to recall one member of the sequence when the other is presented. The causal bond
consists entirely in our feeling of necessity in making the transition, in thought, from one object
to the other. The philosophical inference from effect to cause is abstract and empty until it is
strengthened by the natural relation set up by the workings of habit and association upon the

R. CHERVIN and E. KEVANE, Love of Wisdom, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988, p. 244.
For these doctrines, cf. A Treatise of Human Nature, I, iii, 1-8 (Selby-Bigge), 69-106); An Enquiry Concerning
Human Understanding, IV-VII (Selby-Bigge, 25-79). The application to proofs of Gods existence is made in
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, IX, edited by N. K. Smith, 189-190. The direct object of Humes attack
was the set of proofs offered in Samuel Clarkes Boylean Lectures and the theistic interpretation of Newtons system
by Colin Maclaurin. The historical background of Humes Dialogues is treated by A. Leroy, La critique et la
religion chez David Hume, 113-115, 248-265, and R. Hurlbutt, David Hume and Scientific Theism, Journal of the
History of Ideas, 17 (1956), pp. 486-497.

Given this all-embracing psychological basis, however, causal inference can have
nothing stronger than a probable import. Absolute certainty cannot be achieved, since the mind is
not dealing with dependencies in being, on the side of the real things, but is confined
phenomenalistically to its own perceptions and their relations. It is very likely that our habitual
connection among ideas corresponds to some causal link among real things, but this can never be
verified. Hence causal inference can yield only probability and belief, not certainty and strict
knowledge. Hume rigidly applied this conclusion to the a posteriori argument for Gods
existence, maintaining that it is, at the very most, a probable inference and nowise a

Critique of Humes Views. Humes dialectical use of a restricted historical situation to

establish his own position is clearly illustrated by his method of disqualifying all the objective
sources of the idea of active, causal power. Only within the context of the Cartesian definition of
matter as inert extension and the occasionalist analysis of finite consciousness as noncausal
thought does it seem that the causal relation has no other knowable source than our own mental
habits. Hume also relies upon his limitation of the understanding to its own perceptions. Since,
by definition, the latter are noninformative about any distinct existent thing, a sheer analysis of
them can never reveal the real composition of existential act and nature which supplies the
metaphysical groundwork for the causal inference to God. But Hume does not criticize his own
phenomenalist limitation of the human understanding to its own impressions and ideas. The only
warranted result of his dialectic is the statement that real causation and a real basis for the causal
inference to God cannot be obtained either within the framework of the rationalist conception of
bodies and minds or within the empiricist conception of the direct object of the understanding.

Hume performed a definite service in stressing the unique significance of the existential
judgment and the need to have a basis in sense experience for all our existential knowledge. The
a priori proofs of Gods existence and the use of essential principles to predetermine the nature
of the actual world were procedures resting on a confusion between mathematical reasoning and
the human way of approaching existence. Nevertheless, the Humean critique of rationalism on
this score was not as radical as the problem required. It stopped short with the observation that
existential meaning is achieved when our ideas are referred to sense impressions or at least to the
systematic connections rendered stable by association and habit. Hume refused to press the
empirical analysis beyond the ultimates of the laws of association and mental impressions, but
the meaning intended in our existential judgments does not respect these artificial boundaries.
These judgments express an act of being that is more than just the condition of being perceived.
Hence the meaning of existence is not confined to the percept-object of Humes philosophy but
breaks through to the thing exercising its act of being as distinct from our perception of it.
Existential knowledge is the precise point where a man discovers that to know a being is to grasp
it in its otherness or its own act of existing. Humes phenomenalist premise blinded him to the
ultimate basis for the irreducibility of existential knowledge: the irreducibility of the act of
existing either to essence (as rationalism hoped) or to the conditions of perception (as empiricism

Given Humes commitments on cause and existence, his appraisal of the a posteriori
demonstration of Gods existence was inevitable. He had to restrict demonstrative reasoning to
the abstract, mathematical realm because his theory of experience embraced only the percept-

object and not the existing being of material things. This led him to adopt a highly rationalistic
conception of demonstration: Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a
contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we
conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, therefore, whose
non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no Being, whose existence is

This theory of demonstration is proportioned to the essentialist view of the object of

knowledge and is not applicable to the existential order, whose distinctive character Hume
sought to defend. Counterfactual propositions which are conceivable but not experientially
warranted do not render existential demonstration impossible. For the latter is not based upon the
minds ability to conceive of a percept-object as existent or nonexistent. It rests on the minds
discovery of the implications in a given finite existent which compel recognition of the present
existence and causal action of some other being. Just as the given existent does not dissolve
under the mental experiment of distinctly conceiving it as nonexistent, so does the causal
inference to an existing agent not dissolve in the face of a mental experiment about this agents
nonexistence. The a posteriori inference of God is not wiped out by application of the rationalist
test of conceiving the opposite, since it rests upon the actual composition of a finite existent and
not upon an abstract conception of opposing relations among concepts and essential possibilities.

Finally, Hume himself falls back upon the a priori form of reasoning when he tries to
rule out beforehand any causal demonstration of Gods existence. He permits his position to
solidify too rapidly and too simply by way of partial contrast with contemporary rationalists. His
instances of supposed proofs are taken exclusively from the Cartesian writers and Samuel
Clarke. He has no difficulty in showing that their claim to have mathematical demonstration of
Gods existence is contradictory in view of the nonexistential nature of mathematical thinking.
But he is not equally critical of the rationalist assumption that the only kind of necessary
inference is based on essential relations and that causal reasoning belongs to this class if it has a
real foundation apart from our mind. Since he can find no experiential source containing the type
of essential necessity claimed by the rationalists for the causal relation, Hume concludes that its
only accessible basis is in our psychological associations.

What the empirical orientation of this thought called for, however, was a thorough
revision of the meaning of causal necessity and a new rooting of it in sensible beings. Humes
phenomenalism blocked this revision, leaving him with only mental propensities which
obviously could not be applied with certainty in the inference to God. Since his account of
experience did not extend to a grasp of the participated act of being on the part of a finite
sensible thing, he missed the experiential source of a necessary causal relation leading
demonstratively to God. Humes philosophy remained too closely specified by the rationalist
doctrine on existence and cause instead of transcending the split between reason and experience,
essence and existence, and doing so in the sphere of speculative knowledge of experienced

D. HUME, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, IX (Smith, 189).
J. D. COLLINS, op. cit., pp. 117-120.

Gonzalezs Critique of Humes Rejection of the A Posteriori Demonstrability of the
Existence of God

ngel Luis Gonzlez critiques Humes rejection of the a posteriori quia effect to cause
demonstrability of the existence of God in his Filosofia di Dio as follows: Le tesi fondamentale
dellagnosticismo positivista quella dellimpossibilit di trascendere i fenomeni. Per vie diverse
si ricollega alla stessa tesi kantiana. Il positivismo erede del nominalismo e quindi afferma che
i sensi sono lunica fonte di conoscenza, e non ci offrono alcun dato circa lesistenza di Dio.

Il precursore delle tesi positiviste dei secoli XIX e XX Humeoccorre ricordare che il
filosofo inglese, date le premesse gnoseologiche, considera impossibile superare lambito dei
fenomeni. Non possiamo cogliere la sostanza poich un puro nome; n valida la causalit
come via per trascendere i fenomeni. Allorch si parla di causalit si fa riferimento a una
relazione spazio-temporale di contiguit o di successione. Hume non si pone per il problema del
fondamento della causalit, bens soltanto della nostra credenza in essa. Lidea di causa non
deriva da una dimostrazione, n da unintuizione: essa nasce nello spirito: il soggetto umano
che d ragione della causalit. Infatti, a seguito di un esperienza ripetuta, sorge labito della
connessione necessaria fra causa ed effetto: labito, per, qualcosa che appartiene al soggetto e
non si trova nella realt. In questultima la causalit non viene mai sperimentata: n lesperienza
interna, n lesterna ci presentano la realt della causa. Criticando le teorie della sostanza e della
causalit, Hume si preclude ogni possibile via che porti al trascendimento dei fenomeni e
allapertura a una possibile prova dellesistenza di Dio

La possibilit di dimostrare lesistenza di Dio. Critica allagnosticismo. Una efficace

confutazione dellagnosticismo deve mettere in evidenza limportanza della metafisica
dellessere, e sopratutto delle nozioni di essere e di causalit. Tutte le forme di agnosticismo
concordano nella negazione della metafisica. Anche se vero che la conoscenza umana parte
dalla apprensione della realt sensibile, tuttavia, possibile conoscere Dio come causa prima
della stessa realt sensibile. Occorre ricordare che non si perviene alla conoscenza dellesistenza
di Dio domandandosi cosa o come il mondo. Non potremo mai trovare Dio al termine di una
risoluzione essenziale delle cose, ma soltanto al vertice di una reductio ad fundamentum del loro
essere. Considerando tutte e ciascuna le cose presenti nelluniverso, interrogandosi sul perch
sono, e vedendo che la loro essenza non soddisfa alla nostra domanda, fa irruzione il problema
metafisico per eccellenza, poich, come afferma Chesterton, se ci che pi incredibile dei
miracoli il loro accadere, ci che pi sorprendente delle cose, di questa realt che ci data
immediatamente come esistente, non che siano questa o quella, ma che siano. Queste realt che
nascono e muoiono, che iniziano ed hanno una fine, che sono soltanto questo con esclusione di
tutto il resto, che agiscono nel tal modo e non in un altro, che si manifestano dipendenti nella
loro causalit e dirette ad un fine che le trascende, queste realt che sono buone o vere o belle
solo fino a un certo punto [], tutte queste realt sono. Lesistenza delluniverso non si spiega
da se stessa: che esiste evidente, ma perch esiste? Una tale esistenza non altro che un
risultato, ma un risultato di che cosa? Dire che questa esistenza si giustifica per se stessa, e che
non c da meravigliarsi, significa pensare che lesistenza delluniverso ontologicamente
autosufficiente: che luniverso esiste per se stesso.18 E ci non un dato di esperienza.
Questultima ci presenta lesistenza delluniverso come un fatto: ci dice senza dar adito a dubbi,
C. TRESMONTANT, Comme se pose aujourdhui le problme de lexistence de Dieu, Paris, 1966, p. 55.

che le cose sono. Ma in seguito, vedendo che esse non sono in alcun senso in modo assoluto, che
ci che esse sono non il motivo per cui esse sono, e che pertanto sono e non sono, siamo spinta
a ricercare al di fuori di esse la ragione per la quale effettivamente sono e, di conseguenza, sono
ci che sono e cos, infine, esistono.19

questa la via metafisica per dimostrare lesistenza di Dio: dagli effetti conosciuti
attraverso lesperienza risalire a Dio come alla loro causa. Lagnosticismo tronca a radice il
percorso, in quanto non ne ammette la validit, aggrappandosi alla scienza (sperimentale) come
allunico sapere scientifico. Se effettivamente non vi fosse altre scienza che quella sperimentale,
non potremmo dimostrare lesistenza di Dio; ma linsieme delle scienze sperimentali non
esaurisce lambito scientifico: al di sopra di esse si trova la scienza metafisica, lunica a
permettere laccesso alla dimostrazione razionale dellesistenza di Dio. Occorre ricordare il
vecchio adagio aristotelico, per il quale una conoscenza scientifica quando d ragione del
perch, cio quando presenta la ragione dellessere di ci intorno a cui parla: per questo la
metafisica la scienza pi alta.

Lagnosticismo ha alle proprie radici la critica alla metafisica, e in concreto la negazione

del valore metafisico delle nozioni di essere e di causalit, in conseguenza della negazione della
capacit astrattiva dellintelletto umano; lunica fonte di conoscenza sarebbe allora lintuizione.
Ma unadeguata fenomenologia della conoscenza pu mostrare lesistenza (e anche
linevitabilit) dellastrazione come modo proprio della conoscenza umana, e il valore dellessere
e delle pi importanti nozioni metafisiche, come la causalit. Tutte le prove razionali
dellesistenza di Dio si fondano sullammissione del valore dellessere e della causalit.2021

C. CARDONA, Metafsica de la opcin intelectual, Madrid, 1972, pp. 50-51.
Oltre alla critica che abbiamo svolto allagnosticismo presentandolo, cfr. A. GONZLEZ ALVAREZ, Tratado de
metafsica, t. II: Teologa natural, Madrid, 1968, pp. 104-106, e R. GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Dieu, son existence
et sa nature, Paris, 1933.
. L. GONZLEZ, Filosofia di Dio, Le Monnier, Florence, 1988, pp. 29-30, 37-39.