Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Analysis

David Hume


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the most famous works criticizing some of the arguments offered by philosophers and theologians to establish the existence and nature of God. Hume, who was known as the Great Infidel in his own time, began writing the work around 1751. He showed the manuscript to several of his friends, who dissuaded him from publishing it because of its irreligious content. Over the years, he revised the manuscript many times and just before his death in 1776 made his final revisions. He was very much concerned to make sure that the work would be published shortly after his death. In his will, he first asked his friend the economist Adam Smith to arrange for the publication of the manuscript. When Smith refused, Hume next tried to get his publisher to do so, and when he also refused, Hume altered his will, instructing his nephew to take charge of the matter if the publisher had not done so within two years of his death. Finally, in 1779, the work appeared, gaining both immediate success and notoriety. It has remained one of the classic texts in discussions about the nature of the evidence presented to prove the existence of God and the character of his attributes.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is patterned after Roman philosopher Cicero’s work on the same subject, De natura deorum (44 b.c.e.; On the Nature of the Gods, 1683), in which a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic discuss the arguments about the nature and existence of the gods. Both Cicero and Hume found that the dialogue form enabled them to discuss these “dangerous” subjects without having to commit themselves personally to any particular view. They could allow their characters to attack various accepted arguments and positions, without themselves having to endorse or reject any specific religious view.

The Case for a Deity

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Hume begins Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion with a letter from Pamphillus, a young man who was a spectator at the discussion, to his friend Hermippus. Pamphillus explains that the dialogue form is most suitable for discussing theology, because the subject, on one hand, deals with a doctrine, the being of God, that is so obvious that it hardly admits of any dispute, while on the other hand, it leads to philosophical questions that are extremely obscure and uncertain regarding the nature, attributes, and decrees and plans of God. The dialogue form, presumably, can both inculcate the “obvious” truth and explore the difficulties.

After having Philo and Cleanthes debate the merits of skepticism in part 1, Hume presents Philo and the orthodox Demea as agreeing that human reason is inadequate to comprehend divine truths. They concur in the view that there is no doubt concerning the existence of a deity but that our natural and rational information is insufficient to justify any beliefs concerning the nature of the deity. Philo sums up the case by asserting that our ideas are all based on experience and that we have no experience at all of divine attributes and operations. Thus, the nature of the Supreme Being is incomprehensible and mysterious.

The Argument from Design

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Cleanthes immediately objects and states the theory that Hume analyzes in great detail throughout Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The information and evidence that we have about the natural world, Cleanthes insists, enable us to infer both the existence and nature of a deity. He then presents what is called “the argument from design,” an argument that had been current in both ancient and modern theological discussions but that had become extremely popular in the form in which it was stated by the physicist Sir Isaac Newton. Look at the world, Cleanthes declares, and you will see that it is nothing but one vast machine, subdivided into smaller machines. All the parts are adjusted to one another, so that the whole vast complex functions harmoniously. The adaptation of means to ends through all of nature exactly resembles the adaptation that results from human design and intelligence. Because natural objects and human artifacts resemble one another, we infer by analogy that the causes of them must also resemble one another. Hence the author of nature must be similar to the mind of man, though he must have greater faculties because his production is greater.

Philo proceeds to criticize the argument from design by pointing out first that the analogy is not a good one. The universe is unlike a human-made object, such as a machine or a house. Also, we discover causes only from our experience: for example, from seeing houses being built or machines being constructed. We have never seen a universe being produced, so we cannot judge if it is made analogously to human productions. We have perceived many causal processes other than human design, processes such as growth and attraction. For all that we can tell from our experience, any of these may be the cause of the natural world.

Cleanthes insists, in part 3, that the similarity of the works of nature to the works of human art is...

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Other Theories: Growth and Chance

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Philo, in parts 6-8, maintains that other explanations can be offered to account for the order in the world besides the explanation of a designer, and that these alternatives can be shown to be at least as probable. Two theories are considered, one that order results from a generative or growth process and the other that order is simply the chance result of the way material particles come together. Over and over again, we see order develop in nature as the result of biological growth. Seeds grow into organized plants. We do not see any outside designer introduce the order. Hence, if we judge solely by our experiences, one genuine possibility is that order is an unconscious result of the process of generation. The world, for all that we can tell, generates its own order simply by developing. Since every day we see reason and order arise from growth development, as it does in children maturing, and never see organization proceeding from reason, it is a probable as well as a possible hypothesis to suppose that the order in the world comes from some inner biological process in the world, rather than from some designing cause outside it.

Even the hypothesis of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, that the order in the world is the result of “the fortuitous concourse of atoms” and that there is no external or internal designing or organizing force, suffices to account for the world as we know it. From our experience, it is just as probable that matter is the cause of its own motions as that mind or growth is. Also, nothing that we perceive proves that the present order of things did not simply come about by chance. Philo concludes the discussion on this point by asserting that an empirical theology, based solely on information gained from experience, would be inadequate to justify acceptance of any particular hypothesis about the source or cause of order in the world, or any particular religious system about the nature of the force or forces that govern the universe.

A Priori Arguments

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Demea, the orthodox believer, who has agreed with Philo’s attack up to this point, now contends, in part 9, that there are rational a priori arguments, not based on any empirical information whatsoever, that show that there must be a divine being. Demea states the classical theological argument that there must be a first cause, or God, that accounts for the sequence of causes occurring in the world. Hume has Cleanthes challenge this argument by introducing some of the skeptical contentions about causality and the inconclusiveness of a priori arguments that Hume had presented in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) and his Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748; best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758). Further, Hume points out that even if the a priori were legitimate, and even if it actually proved that there must be a first cause, or a necessarily existent being, it still would not show that this being had to be God. Perhaps the material world is itself the first cause, the cause of itself.

The Nature of Deity

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With this criticism, Hume concludes his considerations of arguments purporting to establish the existence of God and turns to what can be known about God’s nature or attributes. At the beginning of part 10, Philo and Demea rhapsodize about the misery and weakness of human beings, which Demea presents as the reason that they must seek God’s protection. Philo uses the same information about the human plight to indicate that we cannot infer moral qualities of a deity from what is going on in the human world. If we knew what the deity is like, we might be able to explain, in terms of God’s perfect plan, why the evils of this world occur and why there is so much human misery. However, since we do not know God’s nature, we are...

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Skeptics and Dogmatists

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In the last part, 12, Philo offers what has been taken as a summary of Hume’s own views about religion. Everywhere in nature there is evidence of design. As our scientific information increases, we become more, rather than less, impressed by the order that exists in the universe. The basic difficulty is that of determining the cause or source of the design. The difference between the atheist and the theist, and between the skeptic and the dogmatist, on this matter is really only a verbal one. The theist admits that the designer, if intelligent, is very different from a human being. The atheist admits that the original principle of order in the world bears some remote analogy to human intelligence, though the degree of resemblance...

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Additional Reading

Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This brief introduction to Hume’s life is both well written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.

Chappell, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is valuable to students of Hume.

Hanson, Delbert J. Fideism and Hume’s Philosophy: Knowledge, Religion, and Metaphysics. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Fideism holds that belief in some...

(The entire section is 526 words.)