David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume identifies what we can know about the nature of God. In this video, we will explore Hume’s thoughts on whether God is intelligent and whether God is morally good.

There are three interlocutors in Hume’s Dialogues – Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes. Demea represents the orthodox Christian. Philo represents the philosophical skeptic. And Cleanthes represents the modern Theist. Both Demea and Philo believe that we cannot understand the nature of God because it is beyond our capacity to do so. Cleanthes, on the other hand, claims that the nature of God is discoverable by examining the order and design of the Universe. This argument is now known as the “Argument from Design.”

The “Argument from Design” can be presented in the following syllogism:
Premise 1: The Universe resembles a finely tuned machine.
Premise 2: All finely tuned machines are created by an intelligent designer.
Conclusion: The Universe is created by an intelligent designer.
“Throw several pieces of steel together, without shape or form; they will never arrange themselves so as to compose a watch. Stone, and mortar, and wood, without an architect, never erect a house. But the ideas in a human mind, we see, by an unknown, inexplicable economy, arrange themselves so as to form the plan of a watch or house. Experience, therefore, proves, that there is an original principle of order in mind, not in matter.”

Philo immediately raises an objection to this argument. He classifies the argument as an argument by analogy. In other words, the argument presumes the universe to be analogous to a finely tuned machine. The strength of the argument therefore rests upon the strength of the similarity between the universe and finely tuned machines. In this case, Philo argues that such a comparison is weak. He sarcastically exclaims, “Admirable conclusion! Stone, wood, brick, iron, brass, have not, at this time, in this minute globe of earth, an order or arrangement without human art and contrivance; therefore the universe could not originally attain its order and arrangement, without something similar to human art. But is a very small part of nature a rule for the universe? The objects, as in the present case, are single, individual, without parallel, or specific resemblance. It were requisite that we had experience of the origin of worlds; and it is not sufficient, surely, that we have seen ships and cities arise from human art and contrivance.”

But Cleanthes is unconvinced. He responds to Philo in the following manner: “Suppose that you enter into your library, thus peopled by natural volumes, containing the most refined reason and most exquisite beauty; could you possibly open one of them, and doubt that its original cause bore the strongest analogy to mind and intelligence? But if there be any difference, Philo, between this supposed case and the real one of the universe, it is all to the advantage of the latter. The anatomy of an animal affords many stronger instances of design than the perusal of Livy or Tacitus.”

Realizing that they have reached an impasse regarding the strength of the analogy, Philo attacks the Argument from Design another way. He asserts that it is highly presumptuous to believe that we can understand the nature of God, and also absurd to ascribe human qualities to God. “By representing the Deity as so intelligible and comprehensible, and so similar to a human mind, we are guilty of the grossest and most narrow partiality, and make ourselves the model of the whole universe. All the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy, have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems, therefore, unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them.”

The dialogue next turns to the question of God’s morality. In contrast to Cleanthes’ description of the Universe as a finely tuned machine, Demea asserts that it is just the opposite. “The whole earth is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, want, stimulate the strong and courageous: fear, anxiety, terror, agitate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the new-born infant and to its wretched parent: weakness, impotence, distress, attend each stage of that life: and it is at last finished in agony and horror.”

Philo supports Demea’s bleak portrait of the universe, citing numerous diseases, pains, and other atrocities that afflict mankind. “And is it possible that after all these reflections you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: whatever he wills is executed: but neither man nor any other animal is happy: therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: he is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: but the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men? Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Cleanthes justifies the existence of evil by moderating the superlative terms that humanity ascribes to God. God is not infinitely powerful, good, and intelligent, but rather only vastly superior to mankind in these attributes. “Any purposes of reasoning, and even of religion, would be better served, were we to rest contented with more accurate and more moderate expressions. If we preserve human analogy, we must for ever find it impossible to reconcile any mixture of evil in the universe with infinite attributes; much less can we ever prove the latter from the former. But supposing the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind, a satisfactory account may then be given of natural and moral evil, and every untoward phenomenon be explained and adjusted. A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater; inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end; and in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present.”

In my opinion, David Hume’s justification of evil is one of the most convincing explanations of evil in a world created by a benevolent God that has ever been given. It is interesting that David Hume, who is an ardent skeptic, provides one of the most compelling arguments for the benevolence of God, while Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is a devout Christian, provides one of the most compelling arguments for the wickedness of God. This fact demonstrates that what distinguishes the average person from the greatest of thinkers is a thorough understanding of the arguments of the opposing side.


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