Hume, Atheism, Spontaneous Generation, and the French Enlightenment


Right after Philo’s about-face in Part 12 of the Dialogues, he gives an argument that the dispute between the theist and the atheist is merely verbal. Since everything is at least a little like everything else, the atheist must concede that the source of order is at least remotely like a human intellect, even if this source is something like a rotting turnip. This passage provides a major argument for dismissing Hume’s apparent avowals of theism in the Dialogues and elsewhere, since Philo’s assertions are so loose as to let in a rotting turnip. The right reading of the passage is more interesting. The paragraph was written in 1776, right before Hume’s death. It’s thus one of the few philosophical texts written late enough to reflect his encounter with the French philosophes in the 1760s. We have good biographical evidence that Hume was criticized for being too much of a theist in France. The turnip is rotting not in order to make fun of the argument from design, but in order to make fun of d’Holbach's and Diderot's account of the origin of life, accounts that generalized dramatically from John Needham’s observations of nematodes in rotting wheat. In the rotting turnip paragraph, Hume is attempting to establish that the dispute between the theist and the atheist isn’t empirically tractable, that atheists will never outflank the apophatic theologian on the question of whether human minds are unlike God, and that if atheists are consistent with their analogical methods, they ought to be more open to the argument from design.

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Michael Jacovides
Purdue University


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