Hume’s Big Toe

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One of the highlights of our trip to Edinburgh, Scotland was the bus tour, led by a friend of a friend, a pastor named James (who supposedly was written about in Erwin McManus’s The Barbarian Way). The family and I sat on the open upper story of one of those red tour buses, rolling through the streets of the old city while James told us fascinating bits of Edinburgh’s history. Being a typical American, I of course asked him his opinion of Braveheart. I’ll save his answer for another, more testosterone-charged post.

After the bus tour, James asked if we wanted to “have a bit of a wander” so he could tell us more of the Christian history of the great city. The stories he told were enlightening and also terribly sad. At the end we stood on the main drag, the Royal Mile, next to a heart-shaped patch on the pavement called the Heart of Midlothian. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it.

Visitors to Edinburgh will often notice people spitting on the Heart. A tolbooth (prison) stood on the site, where executions used to take place. The heart marks its doorway: the point of public execution. Some people spit on the Heart. Although it is now said to be done for good luck, it was originally done as a sign of disdain for the former prison. The spot lay directly outside the prison entrance, so the custom may have been begun by debtors on their release.

That may be true, but according to James it isn’t the whole truth. The Heart of Midlothian is now the emblem for a Scottish football (soccer) team, and much of the spitting comes from people loyal to their rival. Either way, in the space of about ten minutes we saw about fifteen people pass and spit on the heart without a thought. There wasn’t a pause in either their conversation or their stride. They spat without a glance, as mechanically as if they were genuflecting in church. For luck? Spite? Habit? Who knows.

Just a few yards away an equally (but less icky) ritual took place, and that’s what James wanted to show us. Across the street stands a magnificent statue of David Hume, known as the father of modern skepticism. Also from the irrefutable Wikipedia (which I happen to love):

A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience.

IMG_2003See that tablet on his knee? It’s meant to evoke Moses, who delivered God’s law to the people. Only Hume’s tablet is blank–suggesting perhaps that he delivered the world from God. Edinburgh, among other things, was the home to some of the best minds in Western Civilization. Philosophers, theologians, and authors who influenced modern thought converged there a few hundred years ago and were more or less responsible for parts of Western culture as we know it. Hume in particular is a hero to modern atheists like Richard Dawkins and countless students of philosophy who argue that we can know nothing that we can’t experience through our senses. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there. Therefore God and any anything else religious, spiritual, or superstitious is a delusion. The fact that the statue is so close to the Heart of Midlothian, covered in spit because of superstition, is ironic enough. But here’s the real kicker.

Our tour guide James said, “Look at Hume’s toe.” The statue is made of bronze, now tarnished and green like the Statue of Liberty, but Hume’s big toe shone like gold. Why? Because Hume’s admirers, proud of their skepticism, come from around the world to pay tribute and—get this—rub his toe for luck. Luck which, according to their own philosophy, doesn’t exist. Hume’s shiny toe glimmers with irony the way the Heart of Midlothian glimmers with saliva. Try as we might, we humans can’t seem to escape the fact that this world is brimming with mystery, or at least that a part of us wants to believe, whatever we may profess, that there is something happening behind the curtain of our senses. I don’t think Hume’s ghost hovers around that statue, but if it did I bet he would prefer they left his toe alone.

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Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


12 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities. Took the family in 2007, at the end of an AKUS tour, to London, Belfast, and Edinburgh. In 2005 there I bought a signed copy of George MacDonald’s Miracles of Our Lord in a little shop down in the shadow of the hill of the castle, also a first edition Mind of the Maker, a first edition Chesterton (for my sister-in-law, whose thesis was on Chesterton), and several other works. My soundtrack for that 2005 trip was The Far Country.

  2. Evan May

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    “Only Hume’s tablet is blank–suggesting perhaps that he delivered the world from God.”

    Perhaps this is intended to represent the “tabula rasa” of empiricism?

  3. Paula Shaw

    I love “Ed-in-burrr-uh”. Quite the bonnie city, and I never think we are able to spend enough time there. Thanks for sharing, Andrew.

  4. Esther O'Reilly

    Hume had two things on the modern atheists: He was intelligent, and he could write like a man. True, he was a poor philosopher, and when you get past the shiny rhetoric there’s not much in the way of epistemic value left to his arguments. (The argument against miracles is particularly bad.) But in these days of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris I’m almost pining for a little David Hume, even though I know in my heart that he’s the foundation on which so many laughably bad arguments against God are resting today.

  5. PaulH

    What a blessing, Andrew, to go to places and see things like this with the whole family. This is extremely cool.

  6. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    Perfect timing. My husband and #4 son will be there in early Sept.
    Thanks for posting and singing Tuesday night.
    Enjoyed very much.

  7. James Petticrew

    “…who supposedly was written about in Erwin McManus’s The Barbarian Way.” No, supposedly I am in the first chapter. 🙂

    Braveheart? The basic story of Wallace is okay but it’s embellished and so maybe diminished. And just for the record us Scots never painted our faces fighting the English. That was the Picts fighting the Romans about a 1000 years before.

    Hume’s toe is the best definition of postmodernism I know. And yes, he was definitely an exponent of the Tabula Rasa.

  8. whipple

    I find myself often arguing with invisible existentialists and post-moderns – you know, the ones who propagate their nonsense throughout the nigh inexhumable foundations of Western thought. Every time I read something off of NPR’s Cosmos & Culture column or flip through a cosmological debate in our local alt-weekly, I get steamed and poke all kinds of holes in the facades of bad ideas and illogical paganism.

    It feels akin to arguing with an episode of Jeopardy.

    The few decent conversations I’ve had with pagan friends, though, have looked a little less like a philosophical water balloon fight. Mostly, this is because we’re so deeply entrenched in the enemy’s deceptions (Or are they entrenched in us?) that it takes much more than logic to see the shadows on the cave wall and realize there’s a light behind them. I still think those conversations should be had, but they’re never as victorious as I imagine beforehand, what with Braveheart music playing in my head and all. I expect the C. S. Lewises and G. K. Chestertons who unfurl into the truth of faith on a sea of logic are few and far between in this day and age.

    Nonetheless, it’s always exciting to bash the big toe of a metal dead guy. I smell an Andy Gullahorn song coming on.

    Ron,
    Definitely had Clear to Venus playing in the iPod on the train from Glasgow to Dundee a few years back. Ah, to weep for joy.

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