What are unknown facts about the soul

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David Hume

About the immortality of the soul

(Of the Immortality of the Soul)

By the mere light of reason it seems difficult to prove the immortality of the soul; the arguments for this are usually taken from either metaphysical, or moral, or physical points of view. In reality, it is the gospel alone that "brought life and immortal beings to light."

I. It is a truism in metaphysics that the soul is immaterial and that it is impossible for thought to belong to any material substance.

But it is precisely metaphysics that teaches us that the concept of substance is quite confused and imperfect, and that we have no other idea of ​​substance than of an aggregate of individual properties which are attached to an unknown something. Matter and spirit are therefore basically unknown, and we cannot determine which properties are attached to one or the other.

Likewise, it teaches us that there is nothing about cause and effect a priori can be identified; and that, since experience is the only source of our judgments of this kind, we cannot know from anywhere else whether matter, by its structure or arrangement, cannot be the cause of thought. Abstract reasoning cannot resolve a question of fact or existence.

But, if we admit that a spiritual substance is scattered through the world, like the ethereal fire of the Stoics, and that this is the substrate which [157] only carries the thought, we have reason to conclude from the analogy, that nature makes use of it in the same way as of the other substance, matter. It uses it as a kind of dough or clay, forms it into manifold forms and existences, after a time dissolves all formation and assembles the substance in a new form. Just as the same material substance can gradually form the body of all animals, so the same spiritual substance can form their souls: their self-consciousness, or the system of thoughts which they formed during life, may be dissolved each time through death, and nothing is of interest the new design. The same men who most firmly asserted the mortality of the soul have never denied the immortality of its substance; and that an immaterial substance can lose its memory and self-consciousness as well as a material one is given in part in experience.

After drawing a conclusion from the common course of things and without assuming a new interference of the highest cause, which should never be allowed in philosophy, what is imperishable is also inevitable. Accordingly, if the soul is immortal, it also existed before birth; and if this earlier existence does not concern us, neither does the following one.

There is no doubt that animals feel, think, love, hate, want and even ponder, albeit in a less perfect way than humans: are their souls immaterial and immortal too?

II. Let us now consider the moral evidence, especially that derived from the righteousness of God, who is supposed to be interested in the future punishment of the vicious and the reward of the virtuous.

But this evidence is based on the premise that God has properties other than those manifested in the world with which only we are known. How do we infer the existence of these properties? [158]

We can say with great certainty that what we know God really did is best; but the assertion that he must always do what seems best to us is very uncertain. In how many cases would this conclusion, applied to the present world, mislead us?

But if any intention of nature is clear, we may assert that, as far as we can judge by natural reason, the whole intention and purpose in the creation of man is limited to present life. With how little concern does he see beyond this life because of the innate nature of the soul and feelings? Is there a comparison, whether of firmness or effectiveness, between that wavering idea and the most dubious conviction of anything actual that occurs in ordinary life?

Indeed, inexplicable horrors arise in some minds about the future; but these would quickly disappear if they were not artificially nurtured through teaching and education. And what is their motive for their carers? Just making a living and gaining power and wealth in this world. So their own zeal and efforts prove against them.

What cruelty, what injustice, what injustice of nature to limit our interest and our insight to this world when another scene of infinitely greater importance awaits us. May such a barbaric deception be ascribed to a benevolent and wise being?

One can see how precisely the intention to be carried out and the forces to be carried out are adapted to one another throughout the whole of nature. If man's reason gives him great superiority over other animals, his needs are correspondingly increased: all his time, all his ability, activity, bravery and passion find adequate use in warding off the misery of his present condition. And often, almost always [159] they are too weak for the business assigned to them.

A pair of shoes may never have been brought to the perfection that this garment can attain; and it is already necessary, or at least very useful, that there should be statesmen and moral teachers, even geometers, poets and philosophers among the people.

If we consider this life alone, the forces of man are no more superior to his needs than those of the foxes and hares in comparison to their needs and their lifespan. The conclusion from the equality of the ground is obvious.

In the theory of the mortality of the soul, it is easy to justify the inferiority of the feminine ability. Your domestic life does not require greater skill in either mind or body. This circumstance is no longer relevant and is completely irrelevant in the case of religious theory: one sex has to fulfill the same task as the other; their intellectual and willpower should also be equal, both infinitely greater than they are now.

Since every effect presupposes a cause, and this one in turn, until we come to the ultimate cause of all things, which is the deity, everything that occurs is ordered through him and nothing can be the object of his punishment and vengeance.

According to what rule should penalties and rewards be distributed? What is the divine measure of merit and debt? Are we to assume that human sensations take place in the Godhead? How bold assumption! We have no idea of ​​other sensations.

According to human feeling, understanding, courage, good morals, diligence, insight and genius are essential components of personal distinction. Should we build a heaven for poets and heroes, like ancient mythology? Why limit all rewards to one type of merit?

Punishment without purpose and intention is with ours Ideas [160] of goodness and justice incompatible; and no purpose can be promoted by them when the whole game is over.

Punishment must, after ours Understood to be appropriate to the offense. Why then, eternal punishments for temporal offenses of such a weak being as man? Can anyone approve of Alexander's anger who planned to exterminate an entire people for taking away his favorite horse, Bucephalus?

Heaven and Hell assume two different kinds of people: good and bad; but the greater part of men vacillates between vice and virtue.

If one wandered the world with a plan to give the righteous a good meal and the wicked a good beating, the choice would often be difficult and he would find that the virtue and guilt of most men and women are neither one nor the other the other is big enough to earn.

To presuppose a different standard of approval and censure than the human one confuses all things. How do we learn that there is such a thing as moral discrimination other than from our own feelings?

If he has received no personal offense (and what kind of good person could even then?), Who could impose only the ordinary, light penalties on his own out of a feeling of disapproval alone? Does anything steel the chests of our judges and juries against the sentiments of humanity other than concern for necessity and the public interest?

According to Roman law, those guilty of parricide were put in a sack with a monkey, a dog and a snake and thrown into the river. Death alone was the punishment of those who denied their guilt, however proven it was. A criminal was interrogated in front of Augustus and sentenced after being fully convicted; the last question he asked was so twisted by the human emperor that it led the wretched to deny his guilt. "Certainly (said the prince) [161] you did not kill your father"?1 This leniency, even to the greatest criminal and even to prevent such negligible suffering, corresponds to our natural ideas of right. Yes, even the most bigoted priest, if he followed his natural feeling without reflection, would approve of it, provided that the crime was not heresy or unbelief, for he would not have any indulgence at all against these crimes, as they would have him in his temporal interests and affect his advantage.

The main source of moral ideas is the consideration of the interests of human society. Do these interests so brief, so insignificant, deserve to be protected by eternal and infinite punishments? The damnation of one human being is an infinitely greater evil in the world than the overthrow of a thousand million kingdoms.

Nature has made human childhood especially weak and mortal, as if to refute the notion of a test stand; half of human beings die before they are sensible creatures.

III. The physical arguments from the analogy of nature speak clearly in favor of the mortality of the soul; and they are in truth the only philosophical arguments which should be admitted with reference to this question, or with reference to questions of fact at all.

Wherever two objects are so closely connected that all changes that we perceive in one are accompanied by corresponding changes in the other, then we must conclude, according to the rules of analogy, that if even greater changes occur in the former, and then it is completely dissolved, a complete dissolution of the other follows.

Sleep, a very small change in the body, is accompanied by a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. [162]

The weakness of the body and mind in childhood correspond exactly, their strength in manhood, their sympathetic disturbance in illness, their common gradual decline in old age. The next step seems inevitable: their mutual dissolution in death.

The final symptoms in which the mind expresses itself are disorder, weakness, numbness, and dullness, the precursors of its annihilation. The progress of the same causes extinguishes it completely, increasing the same effects.

If we judge by the ordinary analogy of nature, no form can survive transplantation from its original conditions of life into very different ones. Trees perish in the water, fish in the air, animals in the earth. Even a difference as small as that of the climate is often fatal. What is the reason for the imagination that such a tremendous change as the soul undergoes through the dissolution of the body and all its organs of thought and feeling can be overcome without the dissolution of the whole?

Everything is common between body and soul. The organs of one are all at the same time organs of the other; hence the existence of one must also depend on that of the other.

The souls of animals are admittedly mortal; and these are so similar to the souls of men that the analogy makes a very strong argument. Their bodies are no more like ours, yet no one rejects an argument from comparative anatomy. Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind to which philosophy can give a hearing.

Nothing in this world is permanent, every thing, no matter how solid it appears, is in constant flux or change, the world itself shows signs of weakness and dissolution. How, then, contrary to all analogy, is it to imagine that a single form, apparently the weakest of all and subject to the greatest disturbances, is immortal and indissoluble? What a theory that is! How lightly, if not to say recklessly, set up!

The disposal of the infinite number of posthumous existences must also cause difficulties for religious theory. We have the freedom to imagine every planet in every solar system as populated with intelligent mortal beings, at least a contrary assumption cannot be proven. For them a new world would have to be built beyond the limits of the present one with each new generation, or a wonderfully wide world would have to be created at the beginning that it can contain these constantly flowing beings. Can a philosophy assume such bold assumptions, and only on the mere pretext of possibility?

When asked whether Agamemnon, Thersites, Hannibal, Nero, and every stupid fellow who has ever lived in Italy, Scythia, Bactria, or Guinea is still alive, someone can tell himself that an exploration of nature is evidence at hand give an affirmative answer to such a strange question? The lack of arguments apart from revelation adequately justifies the negative. Quanto facilius certiusquesays Pliny, sibi quemque credere ac specimen securitatis antegenitali sumere experimento.2 Our insensitivity to the composition of the body seems to indicate to natural reason an equal state after dissolution.

If our fear of annihilation were an original sensation and not the effect of our general desire for happiness, it would rather prove the mortality of the soul; for since nature does nothing in vain, it would not have implanted fear of an impossible event in us. It can instill fear in us of an inevitable event, provided that our efforts, as is the case here, can postpone it for some distance. Death is inevitable in the end; but the human race could not survive if nature had not implanted an aversion to it in us. - All the doctrines which are favored by our inclinations are suspect, and the hopes and fears which gave rise to this theory are obvious.

There is an infinite advantage to being on the negative side of any dispute. When the question lies outside the usual empirical course of nature, this circumstance is mostly, if not always, decisive. By what arguments or analogies can we prove a state of existence that no one has ever seen and which in no way resembles any one that has ever been seen? Who wants to put so much trust in any alleged philosophy in order to base the reality of such a wonderful world on its testimony? A new kind of logic is required for this purpose, and new powers of mind to enable us to understand that logic.

Nothing can put the infinite obligation which mankind has against divine revelation in a brighter light than the fact that we can find no other means by which to establish this great and important truth. [165]


1 suetone. August. cap. 33.

2 How much easier and more surely everyone would like to believe themselves and take proof of their safety from prenatal experience. Lib. 7. cap. 56.