David Hume on Motivation and Religion

David Hume (1711 -1776)

David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher who was best known for his skepticism and empiricism — using experience and observation to inform philosophy. Over the past week 2 ideas have stuck out to me in his body of work : his thoughts on motivation and response to the Watchmaker's Analogy.

Hume argues that motivation is not due to rationality but the feelings that underpin rationality. For example, if you are overweight you can clearly rationalize that doing exercise will reduce your weight. However, if you do not have the desire to have a better body — which is a feeling — you will not take the action to actually work out. Hume said “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” and reason is not enough to oppose a feeling that someone is already acting on.

What I realized is even when you are thinking you are fulfilling your rational mind there is often a feeling underlying it. It is objectively rational to do your homework so you can get better grades. But what are the underlying desires behind you actually wanting those better grades? In the absence of desire there is no reason to want the grade so the action would not take place.

For me, this especially hit when it came to projects following your curiosity. From my prior beliefs I always thought following your curiosity was just an objectively rational thing to do because that was a value instilled in me. In deciding between different projects to do curiosity would always be a top metric because I thought that was a logical process. What I realized is that curiosity itself is a feeling/desire. When I was motivated by curiosity I was motivated by a feeling. Fulfilling your curiosity brings you happiness so that is the feeling you are chasing when you do a project.

But then this got me thinking, isn't everything just emotion based? No matter what your surface level motivation is there is a emotion attached to it. If your motivation is to earn money there is the emotion of fulfillment when you have earned the money and the happiness you get when you spend it. If it is seeking validation from a your peers that again is associated with happiness — an emotion. So if all motivations at the basal level are emotional what is the point of classifying them as emotional.

That is why I think it is still important to classify some motivations as rational and others as emotion — and value the rational motivations higher in making a decision. Even though learning about a new topic to fulfill your curiosity and playing 12 hours of Fortnite both ultimately contribute to emotions it is safe to say one is more rational then the other because one creates value while the other is hedonistic.

That is the trouble for me with Hume's point of view because if one were to go all in on his perspective they may conflate the two and be only motivated by what is near-term giving them the most gratification. I don't however think that understanding both perspectives gives a more thorough understanding of motivation which is very practical in everyday life.

To preface the watchmaker's analogy was an argument used to support the existence of a God by comparing the creation of the universe to the creation of a pocket watch. The analogy goes, you are walking along the beach admiring the waves and the sunset when you suddenly find a pristine watch in the sand. It has been intricately crafted and is nothing like the surrounding beach with it's mechanical parts.

The watch is an analogy for humans and the planet Earth. It would seem that the complex structure of our human body and our consciousness would have to have intelligently designed and crafted much like a watch. From picking up the watch you could tell it was made by someone and not by the natural forces around. The same could be true of humans of having a creator.

While it may be easier to poke holes in this argument now, Hume was one of the first to refute this argument — even before Darwin and natural selection as a mechanism for creating these complexities in organisms.

Hume argued that unlike watchmaking us as humans have no experience with world-creating. We know each step and each process of how to create a watch, while for creating a world there could be factors involved beyond just design — it is simply an unknown. Therefore there is nothing one could empirically prove with the watchmaker analogy.

Second, he mentioned even if the analogy gave evidence for a designer it did not give evidence for omnipotent (unlimited power) and benevolent God that Christians believed in. Instead their line of reasoning of "like effects have like causes" that the Earth and humans are one of many pieces of trial in error in designing a universe because like watches multipe watches are created and iterated on. This did not sit well the deists of the time.

I thought this example was interesting because it was my first exposure to the watchmaker argument which I thought was an interesting argument in its own right. But what was more impressive to me was Hume's logical consistency with his skeptical and empirical points of view. Many people at the time believed in the watchmaker analogy and I think it is even an argument that would resonate with a lot of people today but Hume was able to stay steadfast to his beliefs.

  • Feelings underly all of our emotions however I still think it is useful to distinguish between rational emotions like curiosity vs purely hedonistic emotions.
  • Hume stayed steadfast to his beliefs of skepticism and empiricism even when facing popular arguments such as the Watchmaker's analogy.

Hey! 👋 I’m Aaron, a 16-year-old who’s super passionate about human longevity, philosophy, and the world’s biggest problems. Feel free to connect with me on Linkedin or check out my full portfolio!

17 year-old AI and human longevity enthusiast