Andrew Baxter,  Apologetics,  Atheism,  David Hume,  Paul Russell

Baxter vs Hume

As I read Paul Russell’s, The Riddle of Hume’s Treatise, I continue to find excellent summaries of arguments for theism and Hume’s responses. Russell, it should be noted, is an avid atheist from Scottish Calvinist stock. Consequently, his analysis of Hume’s irreligious intentions reflect his own intentions. Nevertheless, anyone interested in the history of Apologetics would find Russell’s book to be an excellent survey of Hume’s contribution to the history of the discipline. The following is a summary of Hume’s engagement with apologist, Andrew Baxter.

Andrew Baxter, in a defense of theism and in response to the atheism of Hobbes and Spinoza, argues that all powers found in nature must, of necessity, be caused by the power of an immaterial being. Baxter assumes “the vis inertiae of matter,” the idea that matter, in and of itself, has no power of motion. Matter, in other words, is “incapable of activity” when left to its own devices.

Baxter argues that the universe can neither be entirely material (Hobbes) nor material and simultaneously divine (Spinoza). If matter is incapable of any activity then, since we observe change in matter, the universe cannot be reduced to the material. If matter is also divine and matter is incapable of activity then a contradiction is produced – it is “absolutely impossible that the same being should be both material and immaterial; or void of all power, as matter is, and at once the origin of all power, as an immaterial Being must be.”

Baxter’s second assumption, Russell contends, is an occasionalist account of cause and effect. Occasionalism is the view, first suggested by French philosopher, Nicolas Malebranche, that holds that all “activity” of matter is caused by the the immediate activity of an immaterial being. Baxter concludes that the being in question must have necessary existence. Thus, he suggests, are atheists of all stripes, refuted.

Hume’s response is to say that while there must be some unknowable power involved in matter that makes change possible, it is not possible to observe such a power in anything. Consider, Hume says, the collision of two billiard balls. While we can be sure that, when the balls collide, motion is produced, we cannot observe any actual force or agency in the objects or in their relation to one another. This observation,  while suggesting that there are such powers, nonetheless cannot provide the basis of anything like knowledge of such powers. The source of such an idea cannot be derived from experience.

Nor can such an idea be an innate knowledge. For, says Hume, if every idea of such power is found in experience, as Baxter suggests, then the idea of such a power residing in God derives from the same impression. But if we cannot derive such an idea from our experience of matter there is no reason to believe we can conceive of such an idea in deity.

The outcome of what Hume is suggesting is that if an apologist wishes to argue for theism from experience he cannot then, when shown the folly of his observations, resort to arguing from innate ideas. This is a very clever move and, to my mind, suggests a flaw in Baxter’s argument. Since Baxter is attempting to argue from what is observed in nature he must justify his assumptions from observation. Since, as Hume suggests, Baxter cannot justify his assumption that the power of motion is observable at all there is no reason to accept his conclusion that such a power necessarily resides in divinity.

Hume’s conclusion is that the playing field is level. Rather than attempting to refute the argument in total he merely suggests that it is equally possible that powers of motion reside in matter as they reside in divinity since it is not possible to observe directly such powers in anything.

A lot has happened since the days of Hume, not least Kant’s revolution. Nonetheless, the debate between Hume and Baxter highlights a number of issues pertinent to a Christian defense of the faith.

First, the notion of possibility. If we begin with human experience, then what is possible is determined by human experiences;  its interpretation is open to whatever is made possible by the human mind, using observation, logic and intuition. For Baxter, the possibility of matter having any inherent power to change is inconceivable since, he says, everyone can see that matter only moves if it is acted upon. For Hume, the reverse is true. Since there is no such observable power (even if such power exists), it is perfectly possible that it resides in matter.

Both Hume and Baxter begin with the same assumption – that possibility is determined, in the first place, by human thought. However, the Christian position is the reverse – possibility is, in the first place, assumed to originate in the mind of God. If one was to press Baxter, it is possible that he might concur, even while his apologetic is inconsistent. The point is that the Christian begins with the assumption that all possibility is what it is because of who God is and what he thinks. In order to refute Hume’s skepticism one must demonstrate that if he continues to assume that it is equally possible that God causes material to move as material obtain its own power to move he will have to concede that, not only is it impossible to prove this one point, it is equally impossible to prove any point.

Second, is the issue of attempting to prove God via the same method as one attempts to prove the existence of atoms. If we are attempting to prove the existence of atoms we do not for one minute fear that whether or not atoms exist has a dramatic effect on whether or not the universe is intelligible  However, as we can see from Hume’s response to Baxter, the existence or non existence of God determines whether or not human knowledge of anything is possible.

Third, if God’s existence has a dramatic effect on the very tools Hume and Baxter use for debate, then the burden of proof lies not with the one attempting to prove God, but the one denying him. As Greg Bahnsen points out:

God’s existence would have tremendous bearing on the possibility of man knowing anything at all, having self-conscious intelligence, properly interpreting his experiences, or making his reasoning intelligible–even making sense out of what we call “imagination.” In this special case, the burden of proof in the argument between a theist and an anti-theist would shift to the person denying God’s existence, since the possibility and intelligibility of that very debate is directly affected by the position taken.

The upshot of these criticisms is that Baxter’s argument assumes the very thing Hume is able to deny – the human intelligibility of matter without the necessary existence of God. God’s necessary existence is for the motion of matter not for the possibility of human knowledge of the universe. Hume merely has to refute that assumption. The cost to Hume, however, is that it is possible to suggest that, on his assumptions, it is not possible to prove anything at all. This, on one reading of Hume, is exactly Hume’s conclusion.

Hume’s response to Baxter is helpful in Apologetics precisely in his ability to defeat Baxter by pointing to the importance of accounting for human knowledge of anything. Hume shifts his interlocutor from a metaphysical assumption (that matter has no power of activity in and of itself, for example) to an epistemological assumption (that it is possible to derive an idea of such a power of activity from experience, which, according to Hume, it is not). Hume’s shift of attention from metaphysics to epistemology shows us that, in order to defend Christian theism, one must provide a metaphysic that accounts for human knowledge. One must also show that the Christian view not only supplies the metaphysic that accounts for human knowledge, but suggest that, given such a metaphysic, what we believe has moral ramifications, that we are accountable for what and how we know. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.