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Hume’s Big Toe

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.

See 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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