David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Christianity and Psychical Research by James H. Hyslop 1917
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Philosophers know well the relation of Hume to Kant and both of them to Scepticism, Positivism or Phenomenalism. Theologians know well the relation of Hume to the doctrine of miracles and the hot controversies that were waged against him for his destructiveness of faith in the claims of religion in regard to miracles. Hume was the bete noir of all believers in religion, and Kant, tho his position in regard to all such questions was essentially like that of Hume, enjoyed a better reputation because he favored religion in his Practical Reason and his Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der reinen Vernunft. But the main influence of Kant was nevertheless destructive of the tendencies of naive orthodoxy and his "religion" was in fact mere ethics, a view not in itself objectionable to those who understand ethics rightly, but still it eliminated many things that theologians regarded as essential to their religious structure.
But I wish to show here that Hume's philosophy may afford a better basis for the acceptance of miracles than the systems which philosophers have defended for the purpose. This will seem very paradoxical to most people who are familiar with the controversies of his times. Nevertheless I think an interesting point can be made out of this contention, and in spite of the fact that Hume denied the credibility of miracles. I shall show that he, like Kant, did not understand the criterion of truth to which he appealed.
Hume applied scepticism to the metaphysics of Locke and Berkeley. He showed that the logic of Locke resulted in the denial of the existence of matter, or the reduction of knowledge about it to sensation. On the same principles he resolved Berkeley's mind into mental states and thus anticipated the phenomenalistic or positive philosophy. Sensation or experience with him, as with Locke, was the basis of knowledge. Anything which could not be reduced to experience was without assured credentials for belief, and tho his argument was largely ad hominem, it was serious enough, or at least strong enough, to make heavy inroads upon the theological beliefs of the time. He had only to apply it to the doctrine of miracles to disturb the real or alleged foundations of Christianity. This he did. He asserted that experience was the criterion of truth, holding that this experience was the union of sensation and interpretation. Hence as we had no experience with miracles, we had no ground to believe in them. He showed that we disbelieved all assertions in our own time, in whatever connection, that did not find their verification in present experience, and hence as miracles had no present testimony in their favor they were incredible.
Now his position was purely destructive. He made no attempt to extend the constructive import of experience. He was content to use it as a destructive weapon against miracles. His antagonists might have effectively replied to him by producing the "miracles" in his time, but for the fact that they too conceded their non-existence in that age. They had limited their possibility to antiquity and to a special person or set of persons. They agreed that they were not credible in this age and so forfeited the chance to reply to him, and Hume had no special interest in repeating the phenomena on which the doctrine of ancient miracles was based. If Hume had been interested in the constructive side of science and experience, he might have gone to work to prove that "miracles" were possible today. But it was reserved for psychic research, from the time of Mesmer down, to do this. All that we required was experience to show that there was some credibility in the stories in which Christianity originated. We should no doubt alter the definition of "miracles" which both Hume and his opponents accepted, but we should find that the same facts existed today that were reported in ancient times and which were certainly unusual in ordinary experience, but quite verifiable. This simply means that an appeal to experience which Hume admitted to be the criterion of truth would prove the existence of miracles. His opponents, like Hume himself, were too indolent and too little sympathetic with scientific method to seek evidence where it was discoverable. They preferred barren logic and discussion about tradition. But we have only to take Hume seriously to find a means for setting aside his verdict in regard to the past, at least in so far as the facts are concerned, tho we should admit that the so-called miracles were consistent with the natural order of things. Experience may be as constructive in its meaning as it was destructive with Hume.
The same contention can be made about Kant. It was his theory of Practical Reason that is supposed to protect religion. But the fact is that this afforded a very precarious foundation for its dogmas about revelation and miracles on which the minds of that time based it. However, there is a resource of which neither Kant nor his followers bethought themselves. Kant had a more constructive mind than Hume. After being influenced by the latter's scepticism, he went about an inquiry for a constructive theory of knowledge, and he combined his doctrine of "categories" and experience to determine it. Hume made nothing of the laws of thought or "categories". He was content with "experience" more or less analyzed. But Kant sought in the "categories" or fundamental laws of thought the basis of all knowledge and experience furnished the concrete contents of that knowledge. These "categories" were the forms of knowledge and experience the matter of it. But we shall not require to go into the details of this question. The distinction means that the mind acts on the contents of sensation and experience to interpret them and to construct the ideas of the "understanding". All this is true enough and less mysterious than the formidable terminology of Kant would seem to imply. But it is the characterization of these forms or "categories" that determines the real crux of the question. Kant spoke of them as determining the limits of knowledge and these he regarded as fixed and that all beyond them was unknown. Experience gave us all the knowledge that we could possibly have and anything asserted as beyond this was unknown, and therefore not verifiable or to be asserted with any assurance. God and immortality were beyond experience and so unprovable. Knowledge was limited to experience, and this, as in Hume, was composed of sensation and the application of the "categories", or functions of the understanding, in the interpretation of perception.
But in limiting his knowledge, Kant forgot the complex nature of his experience. It was the form or type of experience, sensation and perception, that was fixed and defined the limits of knowledge. The content of it was not fixed. The form of experience might be as fixed as you please, but the facts or contents of it were not fixed or limited, and it was in this direction in which he should have sought for the solution of his problem.
Now Kant in his earlier work had undertaken to study Swedenborg and as a consequence wrote his Traume eines Geistessehers in which he balanced the arguments for the immortality of the soul as between Swedenborg's experiences and the results of physiology and psychology, without coming to any definite conclusion. But he did say that some day the case would be scientifically, proved. Instead, however, of going in the scientific direction for his proof he reverted to philosophic speculation and tested the claims of "Pure Reason" (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) to decide the case and came to the conclusion that nothing could be proved, because the limits of human knowledge would not admit of proof for a transcendental world. That is, sense experience did not include evidence for a spiritual world. The limits of knowledge were fixed at sense perception. But he forgot that the data of sensation were not fixed or limited. The functions of reason were fixed, but the possibilities of experience might be illimitable tho the forms of it were limited. Now if he had ventured to go into science and study this experience he might have found a way out of the wilderness. He had predicted that immortality would be scientifically proved, but he did not try to find light in that direction. Experience was the field of science and after suggesting that there the solution of his problem was to be found he ought to have turned his vision in that direction. But he remained within the limits of speculation and neglected science. It was the same with Hume. Both suggested the field of inquiry, Hume in a destructive and Kant in a constructive way. But neither of them sought a solution of the problem in the direction of the method which they approved.
It is apparent that the "miracles" which Hume repudiated might be proved to be facts today, and if they were so proved those of the past would become entirely credible. True, this becomes true only on the condition that we conceive them as more in harmony with the order of the cosmos than both defenders and antagonists assumed. Both believer and sceptic had refused to admit them to be consistent with the cosmic order as known and defined, and hence the irreconcilable conflict. But the investigation of experience might show just what the facts were and so define them in a perfectly credible sense, showing that both schools were wrong in their conception of the facts, and one of them wrong and the other right about the method of solving the problem. But the sceptical school was unwilling to investigate in the direction that its views suggested and the other had too little confidence in science and too much in philosophy to find a credible solution.
The whole crux of the matter is this. Philosophy plays about the fixed laws of experience and science about the variations of its contents and the conditions which determine its significance. The first always remains within the limits of any given experience and the latter is always progressing beyond those limits, in so far as actual content is concerned, and hence is the field in which solutions are to be found. That is why Kant should have pursued science, after saying that it was the direction in which knowledge was to be found. He should not have emphasized so much the limits of knowledge as its unlimited nature in the field of experience. He had too much faith in the scholastic tendency to respect a priori methods and too little in the methods of science, the interrogation of the present moment and its data of experience.
It is thus a curious fate to find the basis of a religious philosophy, and of Christian views, in the field which both philosophers neglected, but hinted at, and in a direction opposed by the antagonists of both men. Philosophers sought a solution in the denial of both scepticism and transcendentalism, when they should have turned to the very field in which both these schools found their weapons against "miracles" and religious doctrine. Both avoid it, one from fear and the other from indifference. One had faith in philosophy and the other did not, but neither had the courage to pursue the method which actually offered a way out of their difficulties. It was psychic research that took up the challenge and bids fair to find a clue out of the labyrinth. Ariadne is finding her way to the light.
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