Hume’s Skeptical Syllogism
Philosophy of Religion, Diablo Valley College , Dr. Peter Krey July 20, 2004
David Hume lays some heavy skepticism on people who believe in God. He writes in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:
Our ideas reach no farther than our experience:
We have no experience of divine attributes and operations:
I need not conclude my syllogism: you can draw
the inference yourself.
Now after the first shock of reading such an argument, the question arises whether it is valid. First, it came as a relief to notice that there were two negative premises, and Hume may have been counting on the fact that few people know the rules that determine the validity of syllogisms. None are valid with two negative premises.
But that proves too easy a solution, because the first premise really needs to be translated into a positive universal.
No ideas are thoughts that reach farther than experience.
All ideas about divine attributes and operations are thoughts that reach farther than experience.
Therefore no ideas are ideas about divine attributes and operations.
Symbolized it becomes
No I are E. ———-EAE Figure II
All D are E ———-Valid Syllogism: Cesare.
———-No I are D.
Thus the only way to disagree with Humes‘ skepticism is to challenge his premises. The fact that there are a priori ideas show that they can come before experience and be independent of experience. Thus his first premise is untrue, and therefore the conclusion does not follow.
In another translation:
All ideas are representations of experience.
No divine attributes and operations are representations of experience.
Therefore no ideas are about divine attributes and operations.
The conclusion flies in the face of so many ideas about divine attributes and operations. Just think of the many ideas about the economic and immanent Trinity. Because the syllogism is valid, a premise has to be untrue. It is the second premise: many religious people experience a healing or renewal of their lives brought about by the grace of God.