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David Hume, The Subject Of Religion

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. 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 … at 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 this riposte to Cleanthes: Your theory itself cannot surely pretend to any such advantage; even though you have run into anthropomorphism, the better to preserve a conformity to common experience.

Let us once more put it to trial. In all instances which we have ever seen, ideas are copied from real objects, and are ectypal, not archetypal, to express myself in learned terms: You reverse this order, and give thought the precedence. In all instances which we have ever seen, though has no influence upon matter, except that matter is so conjoined with it, as to have an equal reciprocal influence upon it. Cleanthes makes no substantial reply, and Demea the pietist comes to the stage with another set of conditions with which the Argument from Design must be reconciled.

These conditions include the unhappiness of humanity and human corruption. With his famous ejaculation, “The whole earth, believe me Philo, is cursed and polluted,” he sounds the note Philo has been waiting to hear to drown out Cleanthes’ flat pitch. He queries Cleanthes how, in the face of the orchestrated facts, can he assert the “moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in the human creature? His power we allow infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor animal are happy . . In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men? ” With these words, Philo proceeds al fine, allegro non stoppo, championing his cause.

His reasoning dampens any spark of hope for whatever good there may be in Nature. Here he understands Nature as something in which nothing can be regarded as essential, and nothing if anything can be taken as temptation for one to covet a higher state of living and experience. Note the contrasts of his analogy with Cleanthes’ earlier machine: Look round this universe.

What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible and odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!

The true conclusion for Philo is that the original source of every thing is wholly apathetic to all the principles at work in the universe, and regards health no better than harm, good not better than evil, lightness no better than heaviness. Nature is a mixed, balkanized state. And so the coup de grace: If one is baffled about the true state of the world, how can one argue from design? Rather than following Demea out the door, however, Cleanthes converts. The Dialogues, however, does not commit the error of tendering Philo’s view as the correct one.

Cleanthes’ conversion demonstrates it is enough for the view to be credible. In one sense, irrespective of the demolition of the Argument from Design, or the “religious hypothesis”, the Dialogues is a dramatization of the success and achievement of skepticism. It is a concession of the inadequacy of every weltbild to present itself as the norm. Philo (read Hume) uses his skepticism to balance theory against theory and so suspend judgment. The one who is able to balance theory off theory, holding none of one’s own, is the victor. So skepticism is the rationalists’ arrow to skewer natural theology.

It therefore appears every endeavor to argue from design, like the Promised Land, has its Dead Sea. Arguments may float, but desiccated by the salt and sun of skepticism, will hold no convincing power. They are in principle impossible. A priori questions must be asked: what is the bias of the world view? Views of nature are fashioned from concealed (even from the fashioner) bias by the one(s) who fashion them. What Cleanthes says about Nature and God says more about Cleanthes than Nature and God. By postulating predictive impotence, Hume has set up an impasse.

The death knell of Hume’s refutation of natural theology has left undaunted some critics of his writings. It has proven to be a tarbaby to all who are bound by the same questions as Hume about natural theology. To be a successful, enduring critic of Hume one has to change the nature of the Question, or, introduce new categories of thinking, questions and categories to which Hume might not have enjoyed access. 1. R. G. Swinburne maintained that no criticism of Hume against natural theology has any validity against a more “carefully articulated version of the argument.

Employing arguments of analogy based not on spatial but on temporal regularities, Swinburne has satisfied himself that he has shown the Design Argument to be a legitimate inference to the best explanation for God. Its value depends only upon the vigor and durability of the analogy and upon the degree to which the resulting theory makes explanations more simple and coherent. Moreover, in the Design Argument he thinks strengthens the Christian monotheism habit. Swinburne launches his new and improved version of the Design Argument by nuancing the types of order into spatial and temporal categories.

An example of the former is a section of books on a library shelf arranged by author’s last name in alphabetical order. The way bodies behave in accordance to the law of gravitation illustrates the latter. Keeping a mental finger on this, he then hypothesizes that in order to explain the operation of many natural laws, we should lay them at the feet of divine activity; they are not scientifically or empirically obvious. With this established, he then proves how an analogical argument can be designed to show how evidence confirms the hypothesis.

As are caused by Bs. A*s are similar to As. Therefore–given that there is no more satisfactory explanation of the existence of A*s–they are produced by B*s similar to Bs. B*s are postulated to be similar in all respects to Bs except in so far as shown otherwise, viz. , except in so far as the dissimilarities between As and A*s force us to postulate a difference. In the Design Argument, As are regularities of succession, Bs are the human agents who cause As. A*s are the regularities of succession exemplified by natural laws and B*s are the rational agents or causes of A*s of divine status.

Like humans (As), A*s can be somewhat favorably compared to humans in terms of free choice and intelligence. The difference is in degree, not kind. The result is a Design Argument, and if true, is conditional upon the strength of the analogy and upon how coherent empirical matters are processed to a divine cause. 2. A second objection centers in the critique of constant conjunction. Is one instance in itself of constant conjunction sufficient to know a cause from inspection to its effect? In the Treatise Hume has urged us to conceive of events occurring without any causes at all; anything may be the cause of anything.

How do these implicate his Argument from Design? Are our observations one-on-one with our experiences? Is the constant conjunction of events, which Hume says must be experienced as cause and effect, the only legitimate permission we possess for inferring either from the presence of the other? Why can we not infer from the simple and unparalleled fact of the universe an equally simple and unparalleled Deity as Cause? 3. A final objection comes from science. Every scientific stride has come from its putting forth hypotheses which extend beyond the phenomena observed.

A scientific theory that proceeded only upon existing data would be worthless. It could not as an explanation guide experiments and research. Scientists must venture out beyond the already known and infer the unknown. And so do we. We look at our children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters and parents and infer heredity, or more specifically, genes. DNA is an unostentatious reality, inexperienced, but we see its effect. Can we not legitimately infer God as a way to account and even foretell phenomena of the universe? Hume replies:

Ok, OK, so I was not as careful as I might have been in formulating my principle that on the other side of experience there is no door leading to conjecture or hypothesis. I have expressed myself badly in places, but I think I can salvage my cause with a more circumspect exposition. Mr. Swinburne, my respects. You have scored a good point. But your chessboard of an analogy fails because you are too ready to ascribe natural laws to a Deity, when they are pawns unequal to the task of checkmating the prize piece. Natural Laws are not empirically obvious: there is your mistake.

When inferring any particular cause, given certain effects, one cannot ascribe any qualities but what are sufficient to explain adequately the cause. “Adequately” is the watchword. The explanation should be kept as simple as possible. It is unscientific to ascribe certain characteristics to a postulated designer of the universe if those characteristics go beyond what is required adequately to explain the facts. And this god of yours, Mr. Swinburne, whence came He? Is not your God subject to creation–a cause–Himself? I lay your argument to rest at the feet of infinite regression. As to this second objection.

You have divorced your arguments from the authoritative range of experience. My argument is not contained within that old wine skin of analogy. When we face a new species of phenomena, our observation and experience prove unequal to the task; and analogy will fail as a way of explanation as well. As an argument from analogy the Argument from Design is on serviceable. No matter what I’ve said elsewhere, experience leads me only to one honest conclusion: While others take their broad-jump leaps of faith and land in the quicksand of subjective conjecture, I stand on the rock of experience.

Have you experienced the universe as a simple and unparalleled fact? Have you faced a new species of suigeneris phenomena? If you have, then you must truly be God! Of course things will happen without a ready Cause, but that affords you no permission to assign divine causes left and right, willy-nilly, and certainly no license to worship this divinity. Now to the third argument. As some are fond of saying, “Your god is too small. ” You take one realm of localized phenomena, and without benefit of experience, you analogize a God. In science, how many false hypotheses do you come up with before you arrive at a true one?

Are you willing to constitute a religion and call people to faith based on what might be a false hypothesis? What happens when you find two true but conflicting hypotheses, as we have with the nature of light? Is it a particle or a wave? As for the DNA model of analogy, it won’t reward you with a larger version or vision of the god of DNA. Analogies are inductive. Inductions, we have proven over and over, are not sufficient grounds for the certainty you would require. Induction can only give you a probability, and I’d like to see you preach a probability! Ha Ha.

All these slippery objections, specific textual questions and ever-more refined points of logic are nothing but a series of assurances that you can never put one over on me. All reasoning, all inquiries into the nature of the Deity, rests on custom and habit. There is no rational foundation for your claims of “fact. ” Your measures and claims of fact are not knowledge, objective and verifiable, but beliefs. You cannot make causal claims of fact when causation itself is suspect because of necessary connection. Your Design Arguments are arrested at the very outset at the roadblock of a category mistake.

One cannot synthesize from the parts a whole that has nothing to do with the parts themselves. This is the mental gymnastics of a finite mind, and the finite cannot re-present the unknowable infinite. The finite has no metaphysical license to trespass its boundaries. If you do, the best you can do is bag unicorns and dragons; the worst you could do is to divinize your passions, lusts, cruelties, vengeance and the most heinous of vices. All your religious systems are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each will have its day, expose itself, and die from exposure.

But all of them prepare a complete triumph for the skeptic, who reminds over and over that no system can be embraced without some troublesome remainder. A total suspension of judgment is my only refuge, my mighty fortress. It is the only sanctuary I don’t have to defend. The purpose of my open mind regarding uncertainty is to close it on this one thing certain: That the Cause (or Causes) of order in the universe bear no remote resemblance or analogy to humans, animals, plants or nature. What that is we can’t know, for it is parasitic on data we shall never be able to interrogate.

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