David Hume “I was from the beginning scandalised, I must own, with this resemblance between the Deity and human creatures.” –Philo David Hume wrote much about the subject of religion, much of it negative. In this paper we shall attempt to follow Hume’s arguments against Deism as Someone knowable from the wake He allegedly makes as He passes. This kind of Deism he lays to rest. Then, digging deeper, we shall try our hand at a critique of his critique of religion, of resurrecting a natural belief in God. Finally, if there’s anything Hume would like to say as a final rejoinder, we shall let him have his last word and call the matter closed.
To allege the occurrence of order in creation, purpose in its constituent parts and in its constituted whole, regularity in the meter of its rhythm and syncopations, and mindful structure in the design and construction of Nature is by far the most widely used and generally accepted ground for launching from the world belief in an intelligent and omnipotent designer god. One does not have to read for very long to find some modern intellectual involved in the analysis of some part of Nature come to the “Aha!” that there’s a power at work imposing order, design, structure and purpose in creation. Modern religious piety salivates at the prospect of converting scientists and will take them any way it can. From Plato to Planck the problematic lion of religion must be rendered safe and tame. Religion must be reasonable, after all, we are reasonable “men.” Einstein writes that the scientist’s “religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” We have been struck dumb, however; we can no longer be incautious with such temptations to believe, with such sirens sounding for sensible, systematic sureness. The Design Argument has been mortally wounded by David Hume. The god arrived at by arguments on the one-way street of effect to the cause is dead; we should never have allowed him to live.
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In Section XI of the Enquiry, and throughout the Dialogues Hume subjects the Argument from Design to searching and searing philosophical analysis, to the point in his mind that it is forever dead, and to the point in our minds that we wonder why the world has not yet received the obituary. Why did it not die from the exposure to which Hume subjected it? Who resurrected this false phoenix? Has the Design Argument been forever altered by Hume? Can it render service in post-Hume discussions? These are the questions we should confront. David Hume’s philosophy of religion is fatal to the natural revelation of Deism. His arguments the camp of unbelief have appropriated. It is an argument against any inductive proof for God’s existence. What Hume seeks to show is the failure of this argument to establish the type of deity that belief in a particular providence or divine action must require one to assert.
This he sets out first and in preliminary fashion in Section XI of the Enquiry and with more plethoric attention in the Dialogues. In both books he employs the dialogue form to embody his attacks. The argument of the former is mistitled. Fourteen of the seventeen pages have nothing to do with immortality or “particular providence.” Hume’s argument here is from the particular effect to the existence of a cause sufficient for its production. Causes are to be known from effects alone; to ascribe to it any superfluous qualities goes beyond the bounds of strict logical reasoning. The imagination must be philosophically bridled.
When ten ounces are raised in a balance one can surely surmise a counterbalance exceeding ten ounces, but one can hardly offer any justification for the counterbalance to weigh 100 ounces. Transferred to philosophical theology, it is impossible to derive legitimately from a natural theology any relevancy in conclusions arrived at over and above what can be independently and directly supported by empirical study of the universe. Such innocuous-sounding, even camouflaged assertions by Hume were in actuality a D-Day invasion on the Normandy Beach of the Deists. The first salvo is a statement of the terms of reference: You then . .
. have acknowledged that the chief or sole argument for a divine existence (which I have never questioned) is derived from the order of nature, where there appear such marks of intelligence and design that you think it extravagant to assign for its cause either chance or the blind and unguided force of matter. You allow that this is an argument drawn from effects to causes. From the order of the work you infer that there must have been project and forethought in the workman. If you cannot make out this point you allow that your conclusion fails; and you pretend not to establish the conclusion in a greater latitude than the phenomena of nature will justify.
The cause must be proportioned to the effect. To Hume it is sinful to assume greater effects to an actually lesser cause. No sooner have we engodded the gods with power and intelligence and benevolence than we summon “exaggeration and flattery” to supply gaps and tease out the argument. We structure an entire edifice in our imaginations while standing on the porch. Hume countered this thinking because it constructed belief and certainty out of mere possibility.
It is an exercise in uselessness: “Because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from the course of nature, we can never, according to the rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause with any new inference, or making additions to the common and experienced course of nature, establish any new principles of conduct and behaviour.” Experience must be the true guide for philosopher and deist. The experiencing one can never be held hostage to those armed with theory or conjecture about the nature of Reality. Also, the experiencing one must be careful not to compromise her experience by inflating it with false conclusions which do not fit the close tolerances of experience. “Why torture your brain to justify the course of nature upon suppositions, which, for aught you know, may be entirely imaginary, and of which there are to be found no traces in the course of nature?” Then, Hume raises an objection. If experience is our only and final interlocutor and arbiter, why can one not use one’s experience and say that a half-finished building, surrounded by all the materials and tools necessary for its completion, will be one day complete? Or, cannot Robinson Crusoe, seeing one human footprint on the shore, conclude he is not alone? This objection he answers through his dialogue partner: There is an infinite difference between the human and the divine.
With humans one can infer from effect to cause and then infer anew concerning the effect because we have other corroborating experience about humans, from motives to operations. Our inferences about probabilities in human nature and works can be experienced. Not so with the divine, who is single, suigeneris, neither empirically obvious nor predictable. We have no experience to arbitrate here, there is no existing genus of thought. Conjecture must be arbitrary.
To insist the deity is known from design is to substitute ourselves and our experience for the deity, and then to assume this Agent will act as we would. This is speculation, and Hume allows it no authority. “We can never be allowed to mount up from the universe, the effect, to Jupiter, the cause, and then descend downward to infer any new effect from that cause . The knowledge of the cause being derived solely from the effect, they must be exactly adjusted to each other; and the one can never refer to anything further or be the foundation of any new inference and conclusion.” If Hume is right the implications are far-reaching. The first is embarrassing to those who wield natural proofs of God: we still have no idea or knowledge from these proofs what this God does, what the deity values, what It rewards and what It punishes. We cannot in any sense of logic speak of the deity’s possible or probable attributes or actions.
Such a class of topics Hume renders unwarranted. An invalid argument will not support a conclusion, not partially, not even weakly. It supports it not at all. Hume repeats and amplifies his voice in the Dialogues with the help of three protagonists, Cleanthes, Philo and Demea. Debate still rages on whether Cleanthes or Philo most faithfully represents Hume.
No one character fully presents the force of Hume’s arguments; his beliefs are on the tongues of all three. Hume’s purpose is to vitiate the Argument from Design more completely, and to this end he skillfully balances his words among the protagonists; to let the currency of his argument fall upon the shoulders of one person alone would not only destroy the Dialogue by definition, but would also diminish that dramatic interest in it which also constitutes its value. Philo begins the engagement of the problem of natural religion: [W]hen we look beyond human affairs and the properties of the surrounding bodies: When we carry our speculations into the two eternities, before and after the present state of things; into the creation and formation of the universe; the existence and properties of spirits; the powers and operations of one universal spirit, existing without beginning and without end; omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, infinite, and incomprehensible: We must be far removed from the smallest tendency to skepticism not to be apprehensive, that we have here got quite beyond the reach of our faculties. So long as we confine our speculations to trade, or morals, or politics, or criticism, we make appeals, every moment, to common sense and experience, which strengthen our philosophical conclusions, and remove (at least, in part) the suspicion, which we so justly entertain with regard to every reasoning that is very sub tile and refined. But in theological reasoning’s, we have not this advantage; while at the same time we are employed upon object .
. . too large for our grasp. . . .
We are like foreigners in a strange country, to whom every thing must seem suspicious, and who are in danger every moment of transgressing against the laws and customs of the people with whom they live and converse. We know not how far we ought to trust our vulgar methods of reasoning in such a subject; since, even in common life and in that province which is peculiarly appropriated to them, we cannot account for them, and are entirely guided by a kind of instinct or necessity in employing them. Philosophically, the argument is cast thus: is religion to be the extension of principles and ideas implicit in daily knowledge of the world? For Cleanthes early on, the purveyor of common sense, religious hypotheses, like scientific ones, are founded on the “simplest and most obvious arguments,” and unless it meets with artificial obstacles, has “easy access and admission into the mind of man.” Philo maintains his skeptic’s silence until later in the Dialogues, and speak only to facilitate honest inquiry. In Part II, Cleanthes is drawn out by Philo and by his own growing self-confidence to assert that what is true for religious hypotheses also rings true for claims about the nature of God. Cleanthes is led beyond the areas he was able to hold within practical reasoning into areas where he is vulnerable to the applications of his own reasoning.
Ordinary experience, he claims, can settle the question of God: Look around the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines… All these various machines .. are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which vanishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them… We are led to infer .. that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportional to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.
By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, we do prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence. Yet this inadequate analogy of Cleanthes falls short. Inferring from the world order to the nature of God, from humanity writ large, does not support the religious piety and philosophic rationales about the nature of God. Philo slices this argument with the sword of constant conjunction. Constant conjunction among events may explain those sequences that are often observed, but it cannot deliver the answer to the question of the world’s origin: we cannot observe or experience it. By the end of Part III Cleanthes has spent his common sense arguments and returns to the background; though he often speaks, his breaking of his silence breaks no new ground. Philo expounds his arguments further, culminating in t …