On Hume’s “Dialogues” and Argument from Design

In an unprecedented treatise on the fallacies of conventional religious belief and the limitations of certain types of logic in understanding the nature of God, 18th Century philosopher David Hume introduced an innovative, skeptical view on religious thought. By casting three characters in the roles of the Epicurean, the Stoic and the Academic, Hume contributed to philosophy a convincing and creative way of thinking about religion in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Hume’s discourse centers largely on the then-popular deist belief of Argument from Design, in which proof for the existence and nature of God is sought through the empiricists’ method of observation and logic.

  1. Hume’s Argument from Design

A main premise for the Argument from Design is the characteristic order of things found in nature. Cleanthes champions this hypothesis, suggesting that nature seems orderly and purposeful, like a machine. More importantly, it contains intelligent life. Together, these two observations lead Cleanthes to the preliminary conclusion that nature is the design and creation of an intelligent being. He draws this empirical argument from observation of human artefacts, which are evidence of our own intelligence. He further justifies this belief in the empirical assumption that similar effects are the result of similar causes. If the constructs of man are made possible through his own intelligence, Cleanthes finally concludes, it then follows that the greater intelligent design evidenced in the cosmos and the intelligent life it contains must then be a product of an even greater, more intelligent being. By this logic, Cleanthes also assumes that this conclusion is the best explanation for such a phenomenon as intelligent life. The deeper meaning behind this hypothesis grounded in empirical theism is that religious faith is based in deductive reasoning and is therefore a rational supposition (Notes week 14, 15)(Hume76-81).

In summary, the steps that comprise Cleanthes’s process of logic would be:

  1. The universe resembles a finely tuned machine.
  2. All finely tuned machines we know of are created by intelligent beings.
  3. Like things have like causes.
  4. 1st conclusion: The universe was created by an intelligent being.
  5. The universe is much more complex and vast than any machine we know of.
  6. 2nd conclusion: The universe was created by a superior and intelligent being.
  1. Major Criticisms for the Argument from Design

Philo’s first objection to Cleanthes’s Argument from Design is its distinct lack of supporting empirical evidence. We make assumptions and found our notions of the truth based on observations which occur consistently: If we observe that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west each day, without fail, then we can safely assume that it will always continue to do so. He argues that we cannot reasonably assert that God exists and has created the universe, as we have not observed this. In fact, there is no precedent of observed occurrences for this assumption, at all (Hume 85). Philo challenges Cleanthes, saying, “How this argument can have place where the objects, as in the present case, are single, individual, without parallel or specific resemblance, may be difficult to explain (Hume 85).” When Cleanthes objects to this rationale, saying that truth need not be defined by exactness, as similitude will suffice, Philo’s rebuttal argues that the practice of making assumptions about cause and effect based in similarity is risky, and that this dissimilitude between the topics in questions makes it impossible to call your findings anything more than a guess (Hume 81-86)(Notes week 15).

The next objection shared by both Demea and Philo, which is based on the fallacy of paradoxical logic, argues that the idea of God is a product of man’s anthropomorphizing. If we assume that what seems like intelligent design exists in nature as the result of an intelligent creator, then it would logically follow that there must be some origin of intelligent design for the creator himself. Hume expresses the core of this sentiment, in saying, “How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature…? (Hume 103).” Demea’s objection lies in the false claim of devotion through this anthropomorphizing, and believes, like Philo, that the nature of God cannot be known (Hume 35-36, 101-103)(Notes week 15).

Philo concludes that it makes no sense to argue for an intelligent cause for the physical world without also claiming the same for the immaterial aspects of the universe, and that each smaller cause (by this flawed logic) must also have a larger cause. The problem, according to Hume, lies in the paradox that this reasoning implies, for “How can we satisfy ourselves without going on ad infinitum (Hume 101)(Notes week 15)?”

Philo’s final objection for the Argument from Design is based in its inherent contradictions. Its primary limitation, according to Philo, is a bit convoluted, in that it uses an argument based on the premise for belief in an intelligent creator against itself. Philo asserts that “the immense grandeur and magnificence of the works of nature (Hume 105)” give credibility to the existence of a deific creator. He goes on to say that this presents a problem to a design argument, since the constructs of such a creator, namely the vast and complex nature of the cosmos is far different “from … the effects of human art and contrivance (Hume 106).” This conveniently ties into to Philo’s rationale for his first objection to the Argument from Design based in lack of evidential basis. Like many of the arguments included in this piece regarding the contrivance of belief systems, Hume exposes the weakness of such a posteriori thinking. In this way, Hume does not deny the existence of any god or creator, but instead asserts that is such a deity did exist, they would not resemble the popular ideation of such a being (Hume 105-107)(Notes week 13, 14).

Another error suggested by Philo found in the Argument is an omission in considering the existence of things found in nature whose orderly composition has been known to be a product of “generation and vegetation (Hume 102).” Interestingly, this alternative explanation for the source of nature’s design and mechanics is held by Philo as being more plausible than Cleanthes’s explanation because “the world bears a greater likeness to animal bodies and vegetables” than to “human art (Hume 121)” and would be more likely to share similar a similar method of generation (Hume 82, 92, 102, 122-127).

  1. Hume’s Conclusion

Philo’s systematic and comprehensive invalidation of Cleanthes’ logic leads to the conclusion that religious faith – particularly as it concerns the creation of the cosmos and its mechanics – cannot be the product of an intelligent deity. I believe that the most significant inference in Philo’s refutation of the Argument from Design is that religious belief is an irrational practice. As the title of Hume’s work suggests, dialectical debate on the topic of natural religion causes the Argument from Design to effectively refute its own premise. By this way of thinking, the term “natural religion” is something of an oxymoron, being that the evidence found in nature negates the possibility of there being any rational basis for religious belief.

Both Philo’s and Cleanthes’s opinions on the nature and origin of the universe reflect certain tenets of Deism, which holds that a supreme deity made the universe, set it into motion, and then allowed things to run their natural course with little or no intervention from that creator. One might even argue that Cleanthes’s accounting for first cause and Philo’s stance on the mechanisms of nature both stem from Deism, but cannot be reconciled to coexist in Hume’s mind.

  1. Hume’s Religious Views

Hume mentions deism in Dialogues by name only once, categorizing it, along with atheism, as heresy. He also asserts, in the voice of Philo, that such reasoning is faulty, being based in “the presumptuous questioning of common opinions (Hume 71),” and the false assumption “that human reason is equal to every task (Hume 71).” These strong sentiments are somewhat refined by a subsequent statement made in the voice of Demea, who maintains that there is no question as to whether God exists, but that there are many questions regarding the specifics of His nature. This passage is an interesting twist on Hume’s personal beliefs, for as Hume believed that the reasoning of deists was indeed faulty, his negation of deist philosophy was not rooted in defense of religion or faith (Hume 49, 70-71)(Notes week 14).

The deists among Hume’s contemporaries held the belief that all understanding about “God, his purposes, and man’s religious duty (Hume 17)” could be accomplished through reason alone. Prophecies and miracles were cited as evidence and Bible passages were referenced as precedent in support of religious belief through reason. These deists also borrowed the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton in proving the existence of God by witnessing his “general providence” as “displayed in the order of nature (Hume 17-19).”

In contrast to these deists, Hume professed that religion was generally a false pretense based in fear and hypocrisy. He also maintained that there was no substantiating evidence for a belief in the immortality of the soul, and although his ideas were unpopular at the time, he persisted in these beliefs until his death (Hume 8-11).

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion bring to light many inconsistencies and insufficiencies in some of the most fundamental tenets of religious belief. With the thought-process of an empiricist, the creative capacity of a philosopher and the daring of a skeptic, Hume exposes the blindly traditional dogmas of theistic belief systems. Hume’s assertions on the topic of religion have been credited as being among the most influential forces behind much of the change that was effected as a result of the influence of the Enlightenment.


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