Saturday, May 14, 2016

A favor from Hume

A week ago I wrote a post about why I admire and revere David Hume, which can be read here. Among the things mentioned were how I came to know about Hume, what I read of his, and a brief sketch of his life. There was one thing about him that I had planned to mention but failed to. Thought I would mention it here.

From about the age of 5 through about age 13 I had terrible necrophobia; fear of death. I am not sure why this was the case, it may have had something to do with my best friend dying at around age 7. I remember when my mother told me that my friend had passed away that I laughed and said this is not a sad thing; now she can walk and talk again and be in the presence of Jesus. I still believe that today, but perhaps after the funeral I was awakened to the idea that eventually I too would die and someone would have to break the news to someone else. I didn't want anyone to have to go through that, and more importantly I didn't want to die.

Eventually, like my hydrophobia and acrophobia, I came to the conclusion that there was no sense fearing death because fearing it or not would make no difference; I would go the way of all the Earth (all includes "me" so it turns out). So my extreme fear of death was abated, but every time I heard of a person dying or had to attend funeral it would come back, although only briefly. However, after reading a certain letter, it left me for good.

Here is where Hume comes in. After returning home from my mission I went through a period of questioning the existence of God through the influence of the so-called New Atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins) and bought an anthology called The Portable Atheist which had been compiled by Hitchens. In it are writings of atheists thinkers of the past (who are far superior to the New Atheists, proving new is not always better), such as Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, and so forth. Hume's essay Of Miracles and selections from his Natural History of Religion are included, but the piece relevant to this situation was not written by him but rather about him.

In the selection called An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, author James Boswell, who was a good friend of Hume's, recalls the last time he saw Hume who was at that time in what we would now call stage four of stomach cancer. After sitting down and greeting Hume, Boswell commented that he had heard it rumored that Hume was not a believer in Christianity at all; Hume confirmed this, saying he had lost belief in religion after reading John Locke and Samuel Clarke (which undoubtedly shocked Boswell since Locke and Clarke were both religious men). Bringing himself together, Boswell asked Hume if the thought of annihilation (not existing in any form) frightened him. Hume replied "Of course not Mr. Boswell; it is a most unreasonable fancy that we should live forever." Despite his being in pain and realizing that death would soon come, Boswell described Hume as "cheerful". This struck me as odd, since when most people I have known have heard they are dying their first inclination is to panic.

I thought for a long while how Hume could possibly have been joyful when he knew his end was immanent. Then one day it came to me that Hume had no reason to panic or worry because he had accomplished in life what he had wanted to and realized that death was nothing to fear. I then thought about my own life, and realized that even I had died right then, for the most part my life had been a happy one. I had enjoyed good health, had been blessed with a strong mind, had good friends and family, and had had many good life experiences up until that point. What was there to be afraid of? From that moment on, I never feared death again, and as the Prophet Joseph Smith said after his first vision "I could rejoice with great joy."

I owe alot to Hume, but this one crosses the bounds of philosophy. I plan to thank him in a future state for helping me get over this fear (yes, Humeans can believe in an afterlife, Hume does now:)


  1. Good post. But there is something to fear from death if it is mere annihilation. I will not have exhausted my ability to love or be loved and that represents infinite loss. That is why a life after this life is so valuable.

    1. I agree with that. Although if I am annihilated, I won't know it, so I will be fine either way.