Hume on the immortality of the soul

PHIL 20208
Jeff Speaks

November 30, 2006

In this short essay, Hume considers and rejects, in three successive sections, three types of arguments for life after death.

1 Against dualist arguments for immortality

Section I is concerned with Platonic arguments for life after death, which presuppose dualism about persons. Hume is, as we’ve already seen, skeptical about the view that persons are substances at all, let alone that they are immaterial substances. He reiterates this skepticism about arguments which attempt to show that the fact that human beings think or feel implies that they have immaterial and immortal souls:

“Animals undoubtedly feel, think, love, hate, will, and even reason, though in a more imperfect manner than man. Are their souls also immaterial and immortal?”

However, his main argument in section I is of a different sort. He argues, first, that even if persons are immaterial substances, this should give us no reason to believe in immortality; and, second, that the kind of immortality which would be guaranteed us, if this argument succeeded, would not be worth wanting.

Against the view that dualism leads naturally to immortality, Hume writes that if we do accept the existence of immaterial substance,

“we have reason to conclude from analogy, that nature uses it after the manner she does the other substance, matter. She employs it as a kind of paste or clay; modifies it into a variety of forms and existences; dissolves after a time each modification, and from its substance erects a new form.”

What is Hume’s argument here? How would a dualist like Plato respond?

Hume presents a further argument against the view that immortality of persons is guaranteed by the incorruptibility of the soul:

“...what is incorruptible must also be ingenerable. The soul, therefore, if immortal, existed before our birth: And if the former existence nowise concerned us, neither will the latter.”

The connection between this argument and Locke’s argument against immaterial souls. One way to view Hume’s argument here is that, even if we think that the soul is incorruptible, there’s no reason to assume that we are.

2 Against religious arguments for immortality

2.1 Human justice and divine justice

Hume next considers arguments derived from ‘the justice of God’ — arguments which take as given God’s existence, and argue on that basis that God would provide us with life after death. Against this, Hume argues that we don’t know very much about what the justice of God is like:

“It is very safe for us to affirm, that, whatever we know the deity to have actually done, is best; but it is very dangerous to affirm, that he must always do what to us seems best. In how many instances would this reasoning fail us with regard to the present world.”

Hume further argues that we can hardly argue from the justice of God to immortality when our ideas of justice are seemingly in conflict with Christian ideas of what the afterlife is like:

“Punishment, without any proper end or purpose, is inconsistent with our ideas of goodness and justice; and no end can be served by it after the whole scene is closed.

Punishment, according to out conception, should bear some proportion to the offence. Why then eternal punishment for the temporary offenses of so frail a creature as man?”

A natural reply to this is that our idea of justice is not God’s. But then Hume’s natural reply is that, if this is so, we can hardly argue for life after death on the basis of the belief that a just God would make it so. For how would we know what God’s justice would demand in this case?

2.2 Justice, immortality, and the nature of people

Indeed, Hume thinks, there is good reason to believe that, given what we know of people, a just God would not have designed us like this if there was the possibility of life after death. He gives four arguments of this form, which argue that some feature or other of human life does not fit well with the view that we were designed by a just God for life after death:

1. People are for the most part concerned only with this life:

“With how weak a concern ...does he ever look further? ...


What cruelty, what iniquity, what injustice in nature, to confine thus all our concern, as well as all our knowledge, to the present life, if there be another scene still waiting us, of infinitely greater consequence? Ought this barbarous deceit to be ascribed to a beneficent and wise being?”

2. Too many people die young for this life to be a preparation for another:

“Nature has rendered human infancy particularly frail and mortal; as it were on purpose to refute the notion of a probationary state. The half of mankind die before they are rational creatures.”

3. This makes our fear of death inexplicable:

“as nature does nothing in vain, she would not give us a horror against an impossible event. She may give us a horror against an unavoidable event, provided our endeavors, as in the present case, may often remove it to some distance.”

This argument is a good example of one which seems to work only against a Platonic, rather than a Christian, view of life after death. Christians who think of life after death as a decision of God are in this respect different from Platonists who regard the immortality of the soul as guaranteed by its nature.

4. Hume’s last argument of this sort is perhaps the worst argument that he ever gave:

“On the theory of the soul’s mortality, the inferiority of women’s capacity is easily accounted for: Their domestic life requires no higher faculties either of mind or body. This circumstance vanishes, and becomes absolutely insignificant on the religious theory: The one sex has an equal task to perform with the other: Their powers of reason and resolution ought to have been equal ...”

3 Empirical evidence against immortality

In the final section of his essay, Hume gives two related arguments, based on our experience of the world, against the view that there is life after death.

The first is based on a kind of argument from analogy:

“Where any two objects are so closely connected, that all alterations, which we have ever seen in the one, are attended with proportionate alterations in the other: we ought to conclude, by all rules of analogy, that, when there are still greater alterations produced in the former, and it is totally dissolved, there follows a total dissolution of the latter.

...The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned; their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness, their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death.”

The second argument is as follows:

“Judging by the usual analogy of nature, no form can continue, when transferred to a condition of life very different from the original one, in which it was placed. Trees perish in the water, fishes in the air, animals in the earth. ...What reason then to imagine, that an immense alteration, such as is made on the soul by the dissolution of its body, and all its organs of thought and sensation, can be effected without the dissolution of the whole?”

How would a believer in immortality who thinks of the afterlife in the way that van Inwagen does respond to these arguments?