Hume’s criticism of the attempt to ground religion in the design argument is framed as a dialogue. Cleanthes represents the defender of the attempt to establish religious principles on the basis of observed fact about the natural world (natural religion); Demea represents the defender of religious belief who does not attempt to ground this belief in evidence about the world; and Philo comes the closest to representing Hume’s own perspective. He is a philosophical skeptic about the attempt to ground religion in an inference from observed phenomena to the existence of an intelligent designer.
The sections from the Dialogues we will be looking at are a series of six arguments presented by Philo against the kind of use of the design argument we saw in Paley. Below is an outline of the six arguments, organized by the selections in the coursepack.
Hume suggests that in cases where we justifiably infer from the existence of some phenomenon that a certain kind of cause must have existed, we do so on the basis of an observed pattern of correlations:
“That a stone will fall, that fire will burn, that the earth has solidity, we have observed a thousand and a thousand times; and when any new instance of this nature is presented, we draw without hesitation the accustomed inference.”
The problem: we have no pattern of observed correlations between universes and their designers:
“But 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.”
A reply: what the argument requires is not sameness, but just sufficient similarity. This leads to Hume’s second objection.
Hume points out that when we infer from the fact that one phenomenon has a cause that some other phenomenon has a cause of the same time, we must be very cautious in making sure that the two phenomena are indeed similar:
“That all inferences, Cleanthes, concerning fact are founded on the supposition that similar causes prove similar effects, and similar effects, similar causes, I shall not at present much dispute with you. But observe, I entreat you, with what extreme caution all just reasoners proceed in the transferring of experiments to similar cases. Unless the cases be exactly similar, they repose no perfect confidence in applying their past observation to any particular phenomenon. ...”
The example of the circulation of blood and sap.
But if this is right, then the dissimilarity of artefacts to the universe must be taken as a flaw in the case for natural religion:
“If we see a house, Cleanthes, we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder because this is precisely the species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy here is entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess ...”
“Admirable conclusion! Stone, wood, brick, iron, brass, have not, at this time, iin 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 part of nature a rule for another part very wide of the former?”
Hume thinks that if we are justified in thinking that anything which displays order must have an intelligent cause, then the design argument can be used not only to demonstrate the existence of God, but also of a creator of God:
“If reason ...be not mute with regard to all questions concerning cause and effect, this sentence at least will it venture to pronounce: that a mental world or universe of ideas requires a cause as much as does a material world or universe of objects ...”
He puts the dilemma more clearly a bit later:
“How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of anthropomorphism, the Ideal World into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world or new intelligent principle? But if we stop and go no farther, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on ad infinitum?”
How this can be regarded as a reductio of certain principles about explanation.
The example of the virtus dormativa. Trivial and substantial explanations. Hume’s claim that explanations of the universe in terms of an intelligent designer are like the virtus dormativa example:
“It was usual ...when the cause of any phenomenon was demanded, to have recourse to their faculties ...and to say, for instance, that bread nourished by the nutritive faculty, and senna purged by its purgative. But it has been discovered that this subterfuge was nothing but the disguise of ignorance, and that these philosophers, though less ingenuous, really said the same things with the skeptics or the vulgar who fairly confessed that they knew not the cause of these phenomena. In like manner, when it is asked, what cause produces order in the ideas of the Supreme Being, can any other reason by assigned by you, anthropomorphites, than that it is a rational faculty ...? But why a similar answer will not be equally satisfactory in accounting for the order of the world ...may be difficult to determine.”
An objection to one reading of this argument. Another reading of this argument as an elaboration of Hume’s third objection.
Hume thinks that the differences between the nature of the universe which had been disclosed by science make it seem quite different from any human artefact; he thinks that this should lead us to think that it’s origin should be different in virtually every way from human beings:
“All the new discoveries in astronomy which prove the immense grandeur and magnificence of the works of nature are so many additional arguments for a Deity, according to the true system of theism; but, according to your hypothesis of experimental theism, they become so many objections, by removing the effect still farther from all resemblance to the effects of human art and contrivance. ...The farther we push our researches of this kind, we are still led to infer the universal cause of all to be vastly different from mankind, or from any object of human experience and observation.”
Why this is a problem for the argument from analogy; how the argument relies on similarities between humans and the designer of the universe.
Hume’s final objection is that even if we can use an argument like this to establish that the universe had an intelligent creator of some kind, the argument gives us no grounds for thinking that this creator has any of the attributes which we traditionally ascribe to God (infinity, perfection, goodness, etc.).
“In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able, perhaps, to assert or conjecture that the universe sometime arose from something like design: But beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. The world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: It is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors: It is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him ...”
How a proponent of the design argument should reply.
Versions of the design argument based on analogy, and versions based on more abstract formulations of inference to the best explanation.
The argument from analogy.
The universe is analogous to human artefacts, but greater.
Like things have like causes.
The universe must have a maker which is analogous to the makers of human artefacts, but greater.
The argument from inference to the best explanation.
The universe is well-ordered for the production of some phenomenon (e.g., intelligent life).
The best explanation of this fact is that the universe was created by an intelligent designer.
The universe was created by an intelligent designer.
It seems that strains of each can be found in Paley’s discussion.
The question of whether Hume’s arguments count against each equally.