Friday, December 23, 2005

David Hume on Natural Religion

It is somewhat surprising, in these current Intelligent Design debates, that no professor has yet referred to the works of David Hume. Hume dealt with very similar arguments in his work on natural religion, some 230 years ago, contradicting the idea that Intelligent Design proponents are simply dressing up creationism- actually, they're repeating the old "house builder" argument. To wit- if you found a house in the woods, you would naturally think that someone had built it. So, why wouldn't you think that God constructed the universe? Isaac Newton, for example, believed in the existence of an intelligent designer.

Hume sets up the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as a conversation between three thinkers: Cleanthes- a theist advocate of Natural Religion, Demea- a more rationalist theist, and Philo- who questions the other two and who is often taken to represent Hume's own view.

One of Hume's main targets is the "anthropomorphism" of those who compare creation to the work of a man. If nature seems, to us, akin to the work of a man, how can we tell that this isn't just our way of understanding it, a sort of projection?

Moreover, if God is the cause of the universe, then what is the cause of God? Here, he argues against the ontological argument- every effect has a cause, and there is an ultimate cause instead of an endless chain of causes. The characters argue that one can't know if God is the ultimate cause, or the material world is the ultimate cause, or alas, if there really is an endless chain of causes.

The increasing understanding of how complex the universe actually is makes it increasingly hard to relate its creation to that of a craftsman. Moreover, the universe does not resemble a watch (here referencing William Paley's "universal watchmaker" argument) so much as an animal or a vegetable. In that case, it could have grown like vegetation. This seems ridiculous, but how does the "vegetation" argument differ from the "reason" argument, when ultimately, we have little empirical evidence of either?

Hume writes:
"To say that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving, a priori, both that order is, from its nature, inseparably attached to thought; and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter."

It's hard to tell if Hume is an athiest, or an agnostic, but he seems to take a conservative approach to God- there probably is a God, but we can never know through empirical means, and thus Theism, atheism, and Diesm are all suspect. Human reason really cannot explain ultimate causes, which actually is an argument against both scientists making conjectures about metaphysics and theologians injecting metaphysics into empirical studies. Both approaches suggest a supreme human arrogance.

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