9
Aug
2011

The Pastors College and the Philosophy of Hume

We speak with Nathan Sasser, Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at the Pastors College for Sovereign Grace Ministries and PhD student in philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Nathan describes the format and goals of the Pastors College, as well as the subject of his doctoral work, the philosophy of David Hume.

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Philosophy for Theologians aims to look critically at the problems of philosophy by considering everything in light of God's revelation. The program not only wants to address philosophical questions but also to equip you with a way to think about these questions. Browse more episodes from this program and learn how to subscribe.

26 Responses

  1. defectivebit

    This was an insightful podcast, thanks! Does Nathan have any online work concerning Hume from a Van Tillian perspective?

  2. patrick

    Great episode! Various questions:
    Nathan mentioned particular views of Hume that Van Til sparred with–nominalism, Humean causation, and the like–but he moved on rather quickly. Was Nathan offering these as examples of philosophical commitments that are incompatible with Christian theism? Or just major motifs in Hume?

    I am curious what kind of skeptic Nathan thinks Hume is–he made it sound like Hume is a pyrrhonian, is that right?

    I’m sure Nathan knows how contentious virtually any interpretation of Hume is in the contemporary secondary literature, but I’m also very curious to hear Nathan’s views on Van Til’s interpretation of Hume. Van Til is good at getting the forest but, except for idealism and Barth for instance, he doesn’t venture into the trees too often. Would Nathan recommend Van Til’s interpretation of Hume?

    Finally, toward the end you contrasted laws of nature with providence as “governing history.” This puzzled me, as Reformed Christians do not advocate interpreting states of affairs in terms of providence (unless God reveals his purpose) much less putting natural descriptions (e.g., scientific) in conflict with providential. But even when God reveals, God’s purpose for x in history does not override the natural, nomological facts about x and why x occurred. E.g., there are N quarks in the universe at t2 as opposed to n+1, yes ultimately because God so determined it, but that does not override the fact that there are N quarks at t2 because there was N-1 quarks at t1 and given laws L this resulted in there being N quarks at t2. God accomplishes his purposes through natural means, yet still we cannot make any predictions about future states of affairs, be they numbers of quarks at t1 or what will happen to the stock market over the next week, based on providential, purposive inferences (unless revealed by God). I heard the RF crew as offering an “either-or” but it seems here we have a “both-and,” or am I missing something?

  3. Steve in Toronto

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion but I can’t help but think you guys missed a valuable opportunity to discuss the controversies surrounding the Sovereign Grace moment with a sympathetic and will informed insider.

    1. Jared O.

      Steve,

      We didn’t feel like that was an opportunity we wanted to take. More than enough has been said about that in the public sphere and I’ve talked to Nathan enough about it to realize anything said would be what you would expect anyway (in a good way – no surprises, no previously unrevealed info). So, respectfully, I think that conversation is better suited for a different context.

  4. nathan sasser

    -defectivebit: other online work concerning Hume from a Van Tillian perspective—I gave a talk on the New Atheists which incorporates some interaction with Hume’s problem of induction and with the issue of miracles. It’s available at http://sgm.edgeboss.net/download/sgm/next/2011/next2011.s2-sasser.mp3

    -Patrick:
    Hume’s skepticism: as you probably know, Hume self-describes as an Academic skeptic rather than Pyrrhonian (e.g. EHU sec. 12). Hume says that if we limit our beliefs to the deliverances of reason, we will hold no beliefs at all. But he does not think that the suspension of all belief (that’s what he calls “Pyrrhonian Skepticism”) is either advisable or possible. Very roughly speaking, he advises us to adopt those beliefs which are useful and agreeable to ourselves and others.

    CVT’s interpretation of Hume. I think CVT’s most extensive discussion of Hume is in Christian-Theistic Evidences; he also discusses him, as I recall, in Survey of Christian Epistemology. I’ve found Van Til’s remarks very helpful, although you’re right that he’s not doing close readings of Hume. In SCE he says that Hume is useful because he demonstrates how a non-Christian-theistic empiricism leads straight to skepticism, and that’s shaped my approach to Hume as well. Sometimes I don’t understand all that CVT is saying, but I don’t recall him saying anything that struck me as fundamentally ignorant or naïve.

    Providence and the laws of nature. Patrick I may be misunderstanding you here but let me give it a shot:
    -First, Calvin (Institutes 1.16) is at pains to say that each and every state of affairs is specially ordained by God, and that ‘laws’ or ‘regularities’ are just generalizations about the events which he’s individually decreed and brought about. It doesn’t work the opposite way—it’s not as if God fundamentally ordained natural laws, or as if his control of specific events is derivative from his having ordained the general laws.
    -Second, as I read Calvin and Van Til, they do advocate interpreting every single state of affairs in terms of providence. This is possible just because God, in his word, has spoken (prophetically and covenantally) about all of history. It’s not a matter of whether we interpret states of affairs in terms of special revelation; it’s more a question of how much detail God has specially revealed about each state of affairs.
    -Third, I wouldn’t contrast nomological explanation with providential explanation as if they were mutually exclusive, but I would argue that providential explanation is more fundamental, and that nomological explanations without the providential will be incoherent. I might argue this in a couple different ways depending on what you think a law of nature is. Do you think it’s a generalization over actual events—a description of regularities—or do you analyze it in terms of counterfactual conditionals, or in some other way?

    Thanks for raising these great issues

    1. Patrick

      Thanks for the reply Nathan. I wasn’t as clear as I should have been, as I do agree that every state of affairs is ordained and that the ultimate explanation for its occurrence and properties owes to God’s providence and purposes. By “interpret” I meant something much more robust, not just as in acknowledging that every event has been ordained by God, but also how we make new predictions. As I said toward the end of my post and in my example of making new predictions about the stock market or the number of particles in a region at a time, we rarely are in an (epistemic) position to make inferences based solely on God’s providence.
      So it remains a fact that most of our knowledge of God’s providential purpose for any given state of affairs is very thin–we know that God ordained it, we know that he has purposes in ordaining it, but that’s it–and as a result most of our knowledge of why things happen and what will happen next is naturalistic, nomological, etc., not purposive. You can see this at work in Reformed historians like Trueman, Clark, Hart, et al., who critique attempts to interpret historical events in terms of God’s providential working in those people and times, such as God’s purposes in the Reformation or founding of America or later events in the country’s history.

  5. nathan sasser

    Patrick,
    With Hume, I would challenge one’s basis for thinking that there are laws of nature (regularities) at all. I think that nature is generally uniform because God promised Noah that it would be (Genesis 9). I think that there are exceptions to these regularities (miracles) because he said that there were/would be.
    Hume points out that if we identify “possibility” with “conceivability,” then there are no necessary connections between events, since we can always conceive of things going otherwise. On the other hand, it seems to Hume and I that (without recourse to revelation), if conceivability is not coextensive with possibility, we are lost in modal skepticism. I deny that conceivability is either necessary or sufficient for possibility, and affirm that there are necessary connections between the events of history—relationships which are hypothetically necessary, i.e., necessary on the hypothesis of the decree. I can make inferences from one event to another just to the extent that I know what (hypothetically necessary) relationships God has ordained between events.
    I don’t think that there is any other justified way of making causal inferences about historical events. It’s easy to critique fallacious providential explanations (as I’m sure Trueman, Clark, and Hart do), but generally speaking, providential explanations are the only ones available. Otherwise you’re left with brute facts, events with no necessary connections to one another at all.

    1. Patrick

      Nathan,

      If you don’t like laws, read it as empirical generalizations. And I don’t like the dichotomy between either conceivability being coextensive with possibility or modal skepticism (unless you have a worked-out view on all the work that has been done in metaphysics of modality–and our knowledge of it–since Hume, in which case, you are ahead of the game!).

      I really am at a loss likewise in understanding how you imagine history should be done, e.g. If you are only specifying the necessary preconditions for causation, and a fortiori historical causes and events (which would include, for instance, the providential workings of an omniscient, personal God, etc.–as opposed to “brute” facts and relations; but, again, that’s ignoring all the actual substantive theories offered in philosophy that would claim to reduce to neither of these poles), fine. But to me it sounds like you are describing not just the preconditions but the content of historical (or scientific, etc.) explanations. E.g., “Providential explanations are the only ones available.” Does this mean our history (and our science, etc.), has to be written solely about God’s purposes for n1…n?
      For instance, I’m currently reading Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall—overall a fine work of history. What I don’t find in it is explanations of the history of the Dutch Republic in terms of what God desired in bringing out each notable event in the region’s history. Why did the Dutch grow so prosperous in the 18th century? Israel thinks it is due to many causes, from the technological innovations springing up in the provinces, to the relative tolerance of its laws. In your view, should Israel rewrite his book, instead, in terms of providential explanations, such as that the provinces grew prosperous because they were populated with God’s special people and he wanted to show his blessings upon obedience, or perhaps instead because they had turned against God and he wanted to raise them up only to send them crashing down as an example of the consequences of disobedience to other nations? Unfortunately, all we know is that God is on the side of the gospel. But that won’t help us explain the Dutch golden age or why the stock market has been so volatile, etc.

      Maybe you would say the explanations Israel gives are providential explanations, but then I would say that doesn’t seem right at all and it seems like you are confusing the preconditions of explanation with the content. What I find in Vos’s Biblical Theology, now that’s providential explanation!–what I find in Israel’s The Dutch Republic, now that’s non-providential, even (rightly understood) naturalistic explanation (and even if God does have purposes behind them and His ordering of the events is the necessary precondition for their meaningful relationships and occurrence).

    2. Patrick

      Sorry, getting sloppy in my wording. In my last reply by providential explanations I meant (and have meant) something more specific, i.e., purposive explanations, the kind at play in a work like Vos’s Biblical Theology, and not Israel’s The Dutch Republic.

    3. Tim Black

      Nathan,

      Years ago Covenant College chemistry professor Dr. Larry Mehne told me he didn’t believe natural or scientific laws existed, but rather we should believe in the patterns of God’s ordinary providence. I appreciate much of his sentiment, but as I’ve pondered his statement, it seems to me it denies Biblical ontology, by absolutizing God’s acts of providence and failing to affirm the continuing ontological results of God’s acts of creation, which are often affirmed in scripture. So, I was a little surprised that you referenced the patterns of God’s providence in Gen. 9, at its relatively late point in biblical history, rather than Gen. 1. Gen. 9:11 says “I establish (qum, which implies the covenant, including some of its patterns of God’s providence, had a prior existence, not barah, which indicate the creation of a new entity, or carat, which tends to indicate the establishment of a new relationship) my covenant…that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood….” But Gen. 1:3 gives a necessary, if not sufficient, precondition to the regularity found in God’s Gen. 9 promise that He will order His providence in a regular way: “Let there be (an explicit verb of being)….” It appears to me the ontological nature of the entities God created includes a regular, and continuing, order.

      I care to point this out because you are studying Hume, and as I understand him, Hume denies not only causation as a pattern of God’s ordinary providence (which you most excellently affirm!), but also the existence of ontological entities, so it appears to me that a fully biblical response to Hume should include not only an affirmation of God’s providence, but also of a principle of ordered, regular continuity over time within the entities God has created.

      Do you think something like this biblical ontology provides a necessary precondition to the patterns of God’s ordinary providence? If so, can you describe it? While I would love a good explanation, there is no need to give one in detail here since that may belong better in an article, but perhaps at least this question can spur on your research. Particularly, with you I’m concerned NOT to say that in God’s providence, God depends on His creation, though, along with my concern to fully affirm the doctrine of creation, I am concerned to say that God uses His creation as a means in His providence. There is a nexus of concern that would prove fruitful to explain.

      1. Tim Black

        I imagine the way that nexus should be explained is that created entities’ ontology provides a necessary precondition of created/intra-creation secondary causality, but not of God’s primary causality. In other words, because God providentially sustains His creatures, they are what they are, and continue to be so. More specifically, because God created me to be alive, I am in fact alive–that is a pattern in my being. When God providentially sustains my life from moment to moment, He causes that created pattern to continue, so that created pattern is a necessary, though not sufficient, precondition of its own continued existence. So also with causality. God created, and providentially sustains, cause-and-effect relations and processes within creation.

        It would appear to me that this explanation effectively denies Edwards’ continuous creationism, and because it provides a basis (in the continuation of created ontological patterns) for distinguishing ordinary and extraordinary providences, it opposes the implication some Calvinistic Charismatics draw from the premise that all events are supernatural acts of God’s providence: that all events are basically miraculous, and so to a greater or lesser extent, convey a form of special revelation.

      2. Tim Black

        Nathan, the discussion of Edwards’ continuous creation in relation to Hume and occasionalism in chapter VII, “Edwards’s Occasionalism” in Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian may be of some interest to you:

        http://books.google.com/books?id=DDb5lGnf39MC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=continuous+creation+edwards&source=bl&ots=uL3Iuvl2wz&sig=YsPtC7eGAhRayoIhYwJ9OahQt3Y&hl=en&ei=7PhiTr2JNsrKsQLxtPScCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&sqi=2&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=continuous%20creation%20edwards&f=false

      3. nathan sasser

        See Tim, this is why I miss living with you. These are all very helpful points for further consideration–thank you so much for taking the time to make them. And thanks for the article reference. I’ll get back to you when I feel smart enough to answer all these.

      4. Tim Black

        Nathan,

        Van Til wrote, “But this identification of the act of creatio and conservatio takes away the element of continued permanence from creation. Yes in another sense also the permanence of creation is dependent upon God, but it must be sought through the realization of second causes, not by their denial.” From “The Will in Its Theological Relations,” notebook 2, in Van Til, Cornelius, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, (New York: Labels Army Co.) 1997. The rest of that section on “Providence” may be of interest to you, because it deals in detail with the issue of how God interacts with secondary causes.

  6. A Hume-loving Van Tilian?! What a foretaste of heaven! Perhaps I will be in touch, though in another sense I am concerned about how similar some of this sounds to my own dissertation topic.

  7. nathan sasser

    Patrick, I’m not sure how far apart we really are; probably I’m just being too loose. Here’s my last attempt at the providence issue. On what basis can a historian (or scientist) make causal inferences–e.g., if event x then event y? My Humean point is just that there is no basis for the inference unless you know a law (e.g., All x events are followed/preceded by y events). But then we have trouble arriving at the knowledge of laws because of the problem of induction–why think the observed will resemble the unobserved? I believe that because God has revealed that, generally speaking, he runs the world in terms of regularities (thus my appeal to Genesis 9). That is a revealed fact about providence which all my historical inferences presuppose. Other historians and scientists will have to produce their own solution to the problem of induction. My solution invokes revelation about God’s plans for history.
    I’m still on the front end of familiarizing myself with contemporary discussions of modality, so I admit that what I’m proposing is mainly a hunch. How do you think we know modal facts? Whose theory do you think is strongest? Any recommended references?
    My theological reasons for thinking that revelation is necessary for knowledge of modal facts is just the observation that possibility is determined by the nature of God, and God must reveal himself in order to be known.

  8. Paul

    Two questions (with some sub-questions 🙂 if I may:

    1. Why is it mainly Kant who is always set against Hume, as if the failure of the former to answer Hume means Hume’s arguments still stand? I hardly ever see (in discussions like this) Reid placed against Hume. I’m wondering if Nathan addresses (or plans to address) Reid’s responses to Hume? If so, may I get a very brief primer on the tact you (Nathan) take? Or if not Nathan, how do the hosts of the show criticize Reidian responses?

    2. Is there any (planned) interaction with Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles by John Earman. If so, what is the direction you (Nathan) take in responding? Also, do the hosts of the show find Earman’s rebuttals strong? Given recent arguments for a strong connection between probability maths and logics and the problem of induction, doesn’t the argument need to shift away from Hume and into another kind of argument against the atheist, or is Hume affirmed against the probability theorists? If so, what’s the favored response to the probability handling of the matter?

    3. An assertion, if I may: it seems as if there are some solid ways around Hume’s arguments (say, recourse to proper-basicality/function, or probability theory) which require a shift in the dialectic, e.g., a move toward Plantingan arguments against naturalistic accounts of proper-function, etc.

    Thoughts, if anyone’s still reading?

    1. Jonathan Brack

      Paul,

      Thanks for your suggestions. We try to keep it somewhat simple “college level” in responding to these philosophers. So it i difficult to run down the rabbit hole in a lot of these philosophers in such short time (I wish we could). What we are trying to accomplish is a basic reformed Vos/Vantil response to projected worldviews/metaphysics/epistemologies that are Biblically suspect. So that the average listener can get started. But thanks again for some insight in to where other modern day objections are being presented, and we would appreciate it in the future as well!

  9. nathan sasser

    Paul,
    Thanks for your great questions.
    1) I’ve never read Reid but definitely want to, so I can’t comment.
    2) I haven’t read the Earman book but I definitely want to. I have only minimal familiarity with probability theory but would be grateful if you referred me to some of the relevant literature you have in mind. Are you talking about Bayesianism?
    3) As far as a required shift in dialectic, you may be right. That hinges on whether the contemporary responses to the problem of induction actually work. I personally have a lot of confidence in the fruitfulness of entering contemporary philosophical discussions by way of history, so that’s my approach.
    nathan

  10. Paul

    Nathan, thanks.

    On (2), yes, primarily Bayesianism, though it’s broader than that. In terms of probability literature, I’d recommend Ian Hacking’s An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic (Cambridge, 2001) as a great intro. Also, probability specialist Tim McGrew has a great bibliography here

    http://homepages.wmich.edu/~mcgrew/bayes.htm

    You may also be interested in his paper, “Direct Inference and the Problem of Induction.” The Monist 84 (2001): 153-74.

  11. G. Kyle Essary

    Nathan,
    I don’t know if you’re reading this thread still, but I wanted to thank you for the response to the New Atheists audio that you mentioned in this podcast. I tire of the typical evidential responses. Not that I don’t think they succeed, but it was much more entertaining to hear a Reformed response and to move the question back behind their questions to questions of epistemology. Thanks!

  12. Mark G

    This was a fascinating discussion. I feel something of an affinity to the secular skeptics. I’m confident of the gospel but skeptical of “this present evil age.” If God is dead and we have killed him, so to speak, it seems to me that it is very difficult to refute the skeptics on knowledge, and life, if there is such a thing, is meaningless. It seems Van Til is concluding something similar. The God of the Bible is the only basis for rationality and meaning. Everything else functions based only on borrowed capital.

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