David 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 called Cesare.
No I are D. ******Conclusion
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, nor does it need to be accepted.
Another translation of his syllogism:
All ideas are representations of experience.
No divine attributes and operations are rep. of experience.
Therefore no ideas are about divine attributes and operations.