On the Immortality of the Human Soul (David Hume)

David Hume explores the immortality of the human soul. The cosmos, Hume believes, is comprised of two primary substances: one primary material substance and one primary ethereal substance. The two are intertwined in their purpose and behavior. Birth in the material and ethereal worlds occur together, and death in the material and ethereal worlds occur together. The laws of nature are similar for both, so the substances of which they are comprised are immortal while the forms themselves are not. Hume sees the human soul, then, as little more than the comprehensive personality and collection of experiences that is not material but that is encoded in the material brain. The dissolution of the material brain, therefore, is also the degeneration for the canvas on which the thought forms are constructed, so the individual is wholly reconstructed and the continuity broken after dissolution.

The piece challenges the nature of God himself in a significant way in that it undermines the moral attributes traditionally assigned to God. Traditionally perceived as an ultimate judge of human endeavors for which the result is eternal salvation or damnation in the afterlife, the nature of God as the primary cause of all effects eliminates the possibility of any act being inherently immoral since all acts must be ordained by God. If human endeavors are stripped of their qualitative moral judgments as a result of a deterministic perspective, the justice equation is significantly skewed.

One element of Hume’s approach I like is his application of the empirical process to the spiritual world. He opens up with a discussion about the limits of a priori knowledge, and he takes precautions to avoid any kind of assumptions that lack foundation in the empirical world. In fact, many of his arguments actually use the lack of empirical evidence available to support many traditionally accepted beliefs as grounds on which they should be rejected. The entire process of evolution and cause-and-effect relationship revolves around the concept of purpose, for example. If this universal property were to hold for the ethereal world, what is the purpose of eternal salvation or damnation, of punishing after any reason for reward or punishment has passed?

The validity of Hume’s propositions certainly sets the stage for many other philosophical dilemmas. One implication of these claims is the absence of a pervasive Truth that characterizes the moral quality of any person or action in the favor of a more utilitarian approach. The focus is shifted away from efforts characterized by desire for rewards in an afterlife and toward self-fulfillment in the here and now, which is the only state of existence that we have reason to believe exists at all.


  1. Metaphysical topics are founded on the supposition that the soul is immaterial, and that it is impossible for thought to belong to a material substance.

Hume first examines dualism in acknowledging that it is impossible for matter to give rise to thought, which is not physical in nature. Senses strictly have the capacity to perceive the physical world, and therefore the substance of which thought is composed is beyond physical perception. Hume mentions a priori knowledge and the limitations that prevent decisions about causal relationships from being made in this manner. Since our perceptions are based entirely on the senses, which are incapable of perceiving the world of thought forms, decisions must be made a posteriori.

After Hume establishes the nature of reality as consisting of two primary substances, he uses analogy to conclude that nature acts on both substances in a similar manner. He compares the immaterial substance to the ethereal fire of the Stoics and argues that it, like the material world, acts as a collection of clay at nature’s disposal for creating, destroying, and recreating ad infinitum. Although these are distinct substances, they are parallel to one another. Whereas the flesh would constitute the body, the ethereal substance would occupy the corresponding ethereal “space” and entail the mind, which is Hume’s equivalent of the soul.

  1. Hume establishes the parallel existence of these two substances. In doing so, he establishes his proposition about the immortality of the soul. The two substances are dependent on one another only in the form in which they are manifest; birth in the material world requires a corresponding birth in the ethereal world. Death in the material world has a corresponding ethereal death, but this is only an interruption in the continuity of the individual form. Both the physical and ethereal substances are then recycled into new forms.
  2. Can the analogy of nature’s behavior in the material world really be applied so extensively in the ethereal world? It seems if each property of both of these substances were to be completely identical, the two substances would not, in fact, be distinct. Hume’s concept of the soul seems to be a temporary manifestation in the ethereal world that corresponds to a living temporary manifestation in the material world.
    1. Let us now consider the moral arguments, chiefly those arguments derived from the justice of God, which is supposed to be further interested in the further punishment of the vicious and reward of the virtuous.

After the discussion so of the dualistic nature of reality, Hume begins to explore the moral implications of the soul’s mortality or immortality. He is only willing to go so far, arguing that attributing any kind of moral characteristic to God requires that we rest on knowledge not available in the material universe. While we may safely affirm that the characteristics and nature of God have always been in our best interest, Hume warns against assuming too much based on this, as application of this reasoning exemplifies how often our perceptions about our own best interests are actually wrong.

The reason so many misconceptions have developed in regard to the concept of punishments or rewards in an afterlife is because such ideas serve to benefit the existing power structures, so such concepts have naturally been perpetuated and embellished. People have a natural tendency toward happiness and self-preservation, so a shift in this paradigm is an act of deception that robs the individual of the inclination toward self-fulfillment now during the totality of our certain existence, instead falsely leading the individual to aspire toward rewards attainable after the dissolution of the material body.

Hume’s elaboration seems to provide more justification for the extent to which he applies nature’s behavior on material and ethereal substances. It is evident throughout nature the exact proportion of cause-and-effect relationships. Like the correspondence of the ethereal birth and death to the material birth and death, the consequences of each are proportional. Just as the form of the material substance has little effect on the fate of the material once it has been reconfigured, the form of the ethereal substance will likewise have little effect on its new form after reconstitution.

Further elaboration on cause and effect relationship reveals that the existence of any effect requires an original cause, and this pattern extends to the original cause, the Deity. As the original cause of all effects, all things that occur are ordained. As the primary cause of all things, nothing can logically be the object of the Deity’s punishment.

  1. This seems to indicate a deterministic or morally neutral universe. Whether or not the argument is actually successful, it is difficult to debate the point that anything Infinite, as a primary cause, can justly bring vengeance upon an effect.

All the virtues that exist from the human perspective are virtues that arose as circumstance-specific characteristics. If there is a system of rewards and punishments allotted by a higher power, human-specific virtues like courage and propriety would cease to be relevant, and we have no other means by which we can measure this system of merits and demerits.

At the heart of the relationship between cause and the effect is the concept of purpose. Hume doesn’t make any conclusions about assigning this purpose. That is, the effect isn’t necessarily the purpose of the cause of vice versa, but any event that is a cause is also the effect of a separate event, and this linked nature is the purpose. A final resting place of reward or punishment becomes limited in that it cannot possibly serve a purpose in giving rise to other effects.

  1. This is a unique position dissuading against the concept of eternal salvation or damnation. In the same kind of way that an existentialist might question anything outside of immediate perception, this argument presents a certain challenge to attaching arbitrary ideas of purpose to the cause-and-effect continuum that is detached from human sentiments.

Hume further examines the senselessness of the good-and-evil dichotomy. Few people are bad enough to warrant absolute and eternal punishment, and few people are good enough to warrant similar rewards, so there is no basis for these disproportional properties of an afterlife. The chief source of all moral rules is the operation of an optimal human society. Hume makes that argument that “the damnation of one man is an infinitely greater evil in the universe, than the subversion of a thousand millions of kingdoms.”

  1. The physical arguments from the analogy of nature are strong for the mortality of the soul: and these are really the only philosophical arguments, which ought to be admitted with regard to this question, or indeed any question of fact.

The analogy is further explored involving nature’s influence on the two substances that comprise the cosmos. In infancy, the capacity of the mind is limited in its ability to a degree that is proportional to the limited physical development. Degeneration in mental capabilities accompanies the corresponding degeneration of the body and physical brain; therefore, the complete dissolution of one must entail the complete dissolution of the other.

  1. This is probably about as far as Hume could take this kind of proposition without introducing some assumptions or requirements that would undermine his emphasis on empiricism. This argument leaves out the possibility that other relationships are possible between the material and ethereal worlds, particularly a relationship in which the material world functions as a sort of vessel through which the ethereal becomes manifest, etc. In such a reality, the degeneration of the material vessel could appear to accompany a corresponding degeneration of the mind (Hume’s soul) if a tarnished “lens” decreased the perceived function of the ethereal and not the continuity of the form itself.

The fact that species cannot survive when circumstances are drastically altered reinforces the analogy. When a fish is taken out of water and placed in air, it perishes. When an animal is removed from the land and placed in the water, it perishes. Likewise, when the accompanying ethereal form is forced to drastically change forms, this consciousness involved in this continuity must perish.

The capacity to reason among animals is not completely nonexistent but just present to a lesser degree than in humans. While humans are at the pinnacle of organic capacity, no human can be said to possess certain reason. If animals have mortal souls that possess the capacities of the mind that are more developed but still imperfect in humans, human souls must also be mortal.

  1. This justification seems either to stray a little from the general tone of Hume’s proposition or to be a response to traditional beliefs at the time. If the traditional belief in the immortality of the human soul stands in logical contrast to the mortal nature of animal souls, Hume’s argument can only be strengthened by describing this as an inconsistency.

A new universe would have to be created every generation to account for an infinite influx of new beings. There is no empirical reason to believe that any individual who has existed throughout history should still be present today. If such were true, any individual should be able to prove this immortality for himself. If the soul is immortal, its existence precedes the individual’s birth just as it survives the individual’s death, and he should be able to recall the state of existence prior to his birth in a manner similar to the state of existence after death.

Our aversion to death is itself a testament to the mortality of the soul. While we can have certain apprehensions to help postpone such events as death, we would not have such an aversion to an impossible event. If death were impossible, there would be no purpose in fearing it, but nothing in nature is done in vain.


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