More than two hundred years after they were written, David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion are as fresh and relevant as ever. Hume's characters present ingenious arguments and objections about the scientific evidence for the existence and nature of God, all the while remaining very respectful of religious belief. In the twenty-first century, versions of this same argument are hotly debated between proponents of "intelligent design" and supporters of the writings of...
More than two hundred years after they were written, David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion are as fresh and relevant as ever. Hume's characters present ingenious arguments and objections about the scientific evidence for the existence and nature of God, all the while remaining very respectful of religious belief. In the twenty-first century, versions of this same argument are hotly debated between proponents of "intelligent design" and supporters of the writings of Darwin and Huxley.
David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, and grew up in Ninewells and Edinburgh, Scotland. His widowed mother educated her "uncommonly wake-minded" son until he enrolled at age eleven at the University of Edinburgh, where he initially considered a career in law. At fifteen years old, he left the university to answer inner questions of theology and metaphysics. Among his friends were notables Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), Adam Smith (1723-90), and James Boswell (1740-95). After his death, others including Auguste Comte (1798-1857), Charles Darwin (1809-82), and Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) admitted admiration for his writings.
More than two hundred years after they were written, David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion are as fresh and relevant as ever. Natural religion is the study of the scientific evidence for the existence and nature of God. The core of natural religion is the design argument, according to which the wonderfully complex organization of the world proves the existence of an intelligent being (God) who must have designed it. In the twenty-first century, versions of this same argument are hotly debated under the name "intelligent design." The characters in Hume's Dialogues discuss the design argument rigorously, eloquently, and inventively. They present ingenious arguments and objections, all the while remaining quite respectful of religious belief. This book contains all of the key ideas in the debate over design and offers an impressive model of intellectual discussion and engagement.
David Hume (1711-1776) was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and continues to wield a significant influence on Western philosophy. Hume is known as an empiricist (one who holds that we should base our beliefs on experience) and as a skeptic (one who doubts accepted doctrine and theories). Drawing wisely on influences that included the ancient skeptics and early modern British and French writers, he left a body of work that continues to attract the interest and admiration of students and scholars around the world.
Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711. His family was socially rather well connected (Hume claims to be related on his father's side to the Earl of Home). But his father died when Hume was very young, and the family was not particularly well situated financially. His mother took charge of his early education, and he spent two years at the University of Edinburgh. Returning to the family home at Ninewells, outside of Edinburgh, he spent a lot of time reading in his room. His family thought he was spending this time preparing to practice law, but he was more interested in philosophy. Intensive studying took a toll on the young David's health and he became concerned about money, so he tried his hand at a job working for a businessman in Bristol. This did not last long. Living frugally, Hume spent the following three years in France working on philosophy, mostly around La Fleche, near the famous school where Descartes had studied. He crossed back over the channel in 1737 and shortly thereafter published his great work A Treatise of Human Nature.
The Treatise was singularly unsuccessful in Hume's own time, but his later works, including The History of England, provided Hume with some income and notoriety. In Britain and on the Continent, Hume's gracious and engaging manner widened his circle of social and intellectual connections and won him several military and political appointments. He served as secretary to General St. Clair on ambassadorial appointments to Vienna and Turin, and later as secretary to the embassy in Paris, where, like his acquaintance Benjamin Franklin, Hume was enormously popular. Along the way Hume attempted to obtain professorships at Edinburgh and at Glasgow. He failed both times. Opponents of Hume's bid for the chair of Ethics and Pneumatic Philosophy at Edinburgh published several pamphlets attacking him for skepticism and atheism. Despite these disappointments, Hume continued his philosophical work throughout his life. Near the end of his life, he suffered increasingly from a digestive disorder. Hume died in Edinburgh on August 26, 1776.
The characters in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion are fictional. No one character represents Hume; each one states doctrines found in Hume's other works. Although they defend established philosophical positions and have classical-sounding names (Cleanthes, Demea, Philo), none of them corresponds to any particular known thinker from history. However, the dialogue form itself draws our attention to connections with other writers who used this form. For instance, we are reminded of Bishop Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, which, like Hume's Dialogues, deal with theological topics. We are also reminded of the famous philosophical dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Although no one character in Hume's Dialogues has the authority of Plato's Socrates, it is worth exploring some of the implications of Hume's choice of the dialogue form.
Philosophers sometimes use the term 'dialectic' when discussing Plato's dialogues. Dialectic refers to the practice of engaging in the point-counterpoint exchange of philosophical discussion. It also refers to the kind of progress that can be made when this type of dialogue goes well. Dialectic can move our understanding forward even if we do not end the dialogue certain of a particular conclusion. We are often wiser simply for having gone through the process of following the dialogue even if the result is inconclusive. This is consistent with Socrates' famous dictum that he is wise because he knows that he does not know. As with Plato's early works, the reader should not feel cheated if, on reaching the end of the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, they are left without a tidy theological view, without a take-home message.
In our own time, science, theology, and ethics have established themselves as independent areas of inquiry. This was not so in Hume's time. For instance, Berkeley's Treatise concerning the Principles Human Knowledge bears the subtitle Wherein the chief Causes of Error and Difficulty in the Sciences, with the Grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion, are inquir'd into. Religious belief was particularly important to ethics. It was commonly supposed that without a belief in the certainty that God will reward an ethically good life and punish sin, an individual might not be motivated to do good and avoid evil. Thus someone suspected of atheism or of mere skepticism about religion could easily find herself in trouble socially and politically.
Sensitive to these issues, Hume did not publish the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion while he was alive. (He left copies with his nephew, his publisher, and with his friend Adam Smith to ensure that the Dialogues would appear, but only posthumously.) Despite delaying publication of this work, his treatment of religion and ethics in other writings kept him from attaining the university posts he desired. In one famous story, Hume fell into a bog and couldn't get himself out. He had difficulty convincing a fishwife passing by that it would be proper to lend any help to "Hume the atheist."
Cleanthes is the champion of the design argument in the Dialogues. The central reasoning of this argument involves drawing an analogy between nature and artificial things that show a great deal of organization and design. Experience shows that statues, houses, and clocks do not form randomly of their own accord. Their organization is the result of a mindful intention or goal. They are put together in a particular way to serve a particular end, or purpose. Judging from this, the design theorist rejects the notion that the intricacies in nature simply fell into place in such a fortuitous arrangement as we find them in. As Cleanthes states in part 1, "The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence." Cleanthes' position is teleological; it explains natural phenomena by citing purposes. According to Cleanthes, we can conclude that the world must have been designed by a being with intelligence, skill, and goodness sufficient to create such a richly complicated system in which so many parts serve so many purposes so well.
For a religious person in a time of science, such as the eighteenth century and our very own time, the argument for design is very attractive. It starts with observable, scientific facts. The more nature's mysteries are revealed, the more evidence seems available to support the design hypothesis. Indeed, defenders of the design argument hold that, given the observable evidence, the existence of God is a more scientifically defensible position than the alternatives. Because this argument is based on experience of what the world is like, it is called the argument a posteriori, the argument from experience.
Both Philo and Demea find the argument a posteriori to be too weak for the job of establishing the existence of God. They also raise concerns about the type of God that can be proven by an argument of this kind. Demea is specifically concerned to show that God is a necessary being, that God's existence can be known with the level of certainty offered by a mathematics-style proof, what was called at the time a "demonstration." The argument a posteriori offers only a lesser degree of certainty, proportioned to the strength of the evidence. Demea supports a different approach-the argument a priori, from reason (independent of experience). Such arguments hold the promise of demonstrative certainty, and purport to prove necessary truths.
Philo's objections to Cleanthes are quite different from Demea's. To appreciate Philo's contributions, it can be helpful to review some of Hume's epistemology, his views on knowledge.
To start with, consider Hume's claim that "ALL the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact." A relation of ideas is a logical truth, such as that all bachelors are unmarried men. The negation of a relation of ideas is impossible because it is a contradiction. For this reason, we do not need to seek out any particular experience to investigate whether a claim about a relation of ideas is true. We need only examine the ideas themselves. In the Dialogues, Demea holds that the claim that God exists is this sort of claim.
Matters of fact are different. Matters of fact are not logically true, true because of the contents of ideas or the meanings of words. They are facts about the way the world is, the type of facts that we expect scientists to investigate. All causal claims, including the claim that God caused the world, are claims about matters of fact. The negation of a matter of fact is not contradictory. If fire causes heat, it is not a logical contradiction to say that fire does not cause heat. Thus we need experience to determine whether a claim about a matter of fact is true.
In the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes:
When it is asked, What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact? the proper answer seems to be, that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect. When again it is asked, What is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning that relation? it may be replied in one word, EXPERIENCE.
Hume does not mean that we must experience each instance of causation in order to make a conclusion about it. He allows that we may draw conclusions by analogy. Where we have experienced that one type of thing, e.g., flame, has been accompanied by a certain other type of thing, e.g., heat, we use this experience to conclude that the next flame we encounter will also be accompanied by heat. In the Dialogues, both Philo and Cleanthes accept this general framework. An important aspect of this framework is that the degree of certainty with which we accept a causal claim must be proportioned to the degree of evidence in our experience.
Philo's primary objection can now be stated. He doubts that we can fit God and the world into an experienced pattern like the one we have experienced with flame and heat. Philo brings a posteriori objections to the argument a posteriori.
A significant feature of the Dialogues is that, independent of the analysis of the arguments a priori and a posteriori, atheism is never presented as a viable option outside of intellectual discussion on the matter. For instance, in part 12 Philo remarks:
I must confess... that I am less cautious on the subject of natural religion than on any other; both because I know that I can never, on that head, corrupt the principles of any man of common sense, and because no one, I am confident, in whose eyes I appear a man of common sense, will ever mistake my intentions.
Philo is not worried about causing people to become atheists or about being mistaken for an atheist himself. Who in his right mind, he asks, would be an atheist? This may seem an odd thing to hear after Philo's strong words against his interlocutors Cleanthes and Demea. Having rejected the arguments provided in the Dialogues for the existence of God, we might indeed mistake Philo's intentions.
Here, again, it can be useful to consider connections to Hume's other works. In the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and in book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume examines several types of everyday belief. These include our beliefs in the existence of material objects and our beliefs about the reliability of cause-effect relationships. He analyzes these beliefs to see whether they are well grounded in our experience. Hume finds that we really do not, strictly speaking, have good evidence for these everyday beliefs. The beliefs that we depend on every day are simply ill founded. They fail to meet philosophy's standards for knowledge. On the other hand, these same beliefs are natural to us. We cannot do without them. They form the basis of what Philo refers to as common sense. Even the causal reasoning described above gets this treatment.
Hume scholars disagree about whether Hume held a belief in God to be one of these unavoidable, instinctive beliefs, what commentators now call a "natural belief." That said, Philo seems to treat a belief in God to be a natural belief (even if Hume himself may not). This helps to explain how Cleanthes and Philo can engage in philosophical battle over the arguments without supposing that it will make any difference in how they live their lives. As Hume describes in the Treatise, even the best arguments against natural beliefs fail to affect our thoughts and actions once we relax our concentration, play a game of backgammon, and enter into the everyday pursuits of the "vulgar," common person. But, notwithstanding the psychological robustness of natural belief, the scientific grounding of the belief in God remains an important issue to anyone wanting to look beyond, to investigate whether we can really know that God exists.
These early years of the new millennium have seen a remarkable rise in discussion of the design argument. If anything, the debate over design theory in our own times is even more politically charged than ever. How exciting it is to see so many elements of the current debate already so thoroughly explored in Hume's enduring work.