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Never underestimate David Hume. Ever.

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
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• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
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• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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Here’s a passage from the memoirs of Robert Paul Wolff:

For the first time in my life, I had assigned a casebook, which is to say a collection of snippets from the great philosophers, instead of assigning entire works, such as Plato Dialogues. I soldiered on, “covering” the material, until I got to a selection by Hume containing his classic critique of causal inference. This was relatively late in the semester, and I was bored out of my mind. I can say with absolute confidence that I was not doing a good job of teaching. At the end of the next class after we had done Hume, a young man came up to talk to me. He said he had been troubled by Hume. I was astonished. I had done everything in my power to drain the last vestige of power from Hume’s words. I asked him how he had handled this distress. “I spoke to my priest,” he said, “but he could not help me, so he told me to call the office of the Archdiocese.” “What did they say?” I asked, expecting to be given some version of the party line. “A Monsignor answered. When I told him what Hume said, He answered, ‘Well, some people say that, but we don’t,’ and he hung up the phone.”

I was genuinely humbled. Despite my best efforts to guarantee that no student would walk away from my class with an original thought, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, grabbed that student by the scruff of the neck, and had given him a shaking that bid fair to shake him loose from a lifetime of unthinking obedience to received truth. It was the greatest testimony I have ever personally witnessed to the power of a liberal education .

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1 Comment

  1. Jon says:

    Beautiful. I loved this line: “David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, grabbed that student by the scruff of the neck, and had given him a shaking that bid fair to shake him loose from a lifetime of unthinking obedience to received truth.”

    Like

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