Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

by David Hume

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

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 self-evident and undeniable. When we examine various aspects of nature in terms of the latest scientific information, the most obvious conclusion at which we arrive is that these aspects must be the result of design. By citing several examples, Cleanthes tries to show the immense plausibility of the argument from design. (In other works, Hume always stressed the fact that a reasonable person could not help being impressed by the order and design in nature and could not avoid coming to the conclusion that there must be some sort of intelligent orderer or designer of nature. However, Hume also insisted, as he did repeatedly in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that no matter how convincing the argument may be, it is not logical and can be challenged in many ways.)

To counterattack, Hume has Demea point out another failing of the argument from design. If we gained knowledge about God by analogy with the human mind, then we would have to conclude that the divine mind is as confused, as changeable, as subject to influence by the passions, as is that of the human being. Such a picture of God is incompatible with that presented by traditional religions and by the famous theologians. In fact, as Philo and Demea point out in parts 4 and 5, if the argument from design is accepted, then strange theology will ensue. Because the human mind is finite, by analogy so is God’s mind. If God’s mind is finite, God can err and be imperfect. If we have to judge God’s attributes from the effects of which we are aware, what can we actually ascertain about God’s nature? We cannot determine, from looking at the world, whether it represents a good achievement, as we have no standards of universe-construction by which we can judge. We cannot tell if the world that we perceive was made by one God or by many deities. If one takes the analogy involved in the argument from design seriously, all sorts of irrelevant conclusions are possible and any conclusion about the type of designer or designers is pure guesswork: "This world, for aught he [man] 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. . . .”

These and all sorts of other hypotheses are all possible explanations, by means of the argument from design, of the order in the universe.

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 not able to infer that he is perfect, wise, and good, from our limited knowledge of the dismal and painful existence of human beings.

Demea offers a religious explanation of the evils: namely, that our present existence is just a moment in the course of our existence. The present evil events will be recompensed and rectified in another realm, in an afterlife. However, Cleanthes insists, if human beings are to judge of divine matters from their experience, they have no information to support this religious supposition. The only way in which they can accept a belief in a benevolent deity is to deny Philo and Demea’s thesis that human life is absolutely miserable. To this, Philo replies that the occurrence of any evil, any misery, any pain, no matter how small a part of human life it might be, raises difficulties in ascertaining if God has the moral attributes accepted by traditional religions. If God possesses infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, how does anything unpleasant happen?

Cleanthes argues, in part 11, that if one goes back to his analogy between the human and the deity, an explanation can be offered. If the author of nature is only finitely perfect, then imperfections in the universe can be accounted for as attributable to God’s limitations. Philo, in turn, argues that present experience provides no basis whatsoever for any inference about the moral attributes of the deity, and that the more we recognize human weaknesses, the less we are capable of asserting in support of the religious hypothesis that the world is governed by a good and benevolent deity. If we knew that a good and wise God existed, then we might be able to account for the evils in this world by the theories of either Demea or Cleanthes. However, if we have to build up our knowledge and our hypotheses from what we experience, then we will have to admit that there are four possibilities concerning the first causes of the universe: that they are completely good, that they are completely bad, that they are both good and bad, and that they are neither good nor bad. The good and the evil events in human experience make it difficult to conclude from our experience alone that one of the first two possibilities is the case.

As Philo explores the four possibilities and seems to be leaning toward the last, Demea realizes with dismay that he and Philo are not really in accord. Demea stresses the incomprehensible nature of God, the weakness of human intellectual capacities, and the misery of human life as the basis for accepting orthodox theology. Philo employs the same points to lead to an agnostic conclusion, that we cannot know, because of our nature and God’s, what God is actually like, and whether there is any explanation or justification for the character of the experienced world. Demea apparently accepted revealed information as the basis for answering the questions that human beings, by their own faculties, could not, while Philo turned only to human experience for the answers and found that no definite ones could be given. As soon as Demea sees how wide the gap is between them, he leaves the discussion, and Philo and Cleanthes are left on the scene to evaluate the fruits of their arguments.

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 is indeterminable. Even a skeptic like Philo has to concede that we are compelled by nature to believe many things that we cannot prove, and one of them is that there is in the universe order which seems to require an intelligent orderer. The dogmatist has to admit that there are insoluble difficulties in establishing any truths in this area as well as in any other. The skeptic keeps pointing out the difficulties, while the dogmatist keeps stressing what has to be believed.

When these arguments are taken into account, Philo points out, we are still in no position to assess the moral character of the designer. The evidence from the observable world is that works of nature have a greater resemblance to our artifacts than to our benevolent or good acts. Hence, we have more basis for maintaining that the natural attributes of the deity are like our own than for maintaining that his moral attributes are like human virtues. As a result, Philo advocates an amoral, philosophical, and rational religion. In 1776 Hume added a final summation:The whole of natural theology . . . resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined, proposition, that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.

Nothing more can be said, especially concerning the moral character of the cause or causes.

The dialogue concludes with two perplexing remarks. Philo announces as his parting observation that “[t]o be a philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step toward being a sound, believing Christian.” This contention, which was made by all the Christian skeptics from Michel de Montaigne to Pierre Bayle and Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet, may have been a sincere conviction on their part. In Hume’s case, there is no evidence that his skepticism led him to Christianity but rather that it led him away from it.

At the very end, Hume has Pamphillus, the spectator, evaluate the entire discussion by saying that “Philo’s principles are more probable than Demea’s; but those of Cleanthes approach still nearer to the truth.” Critics have variously interpreted this ending, pointing out that Pamphillus and Hume may not agree and that this conclusion may have been intended to quiet possible critics. Others have held that Hume himself may have felt, in spite of his devastating criticisms of Cleanthes’s position, that it contained more truth than Philo’s almost complete skepticism.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has been a central work in discussions about religious knowledge ever since its publication. It is generally recognized as presenting the most severe criticisms of the argument from design, in showing its limitations as an analogy and as a basis for reaching any fruitful conclusions about the nature of the designer of the world. Because in the work Hume discusses only the natural evidence for religion, some later theologians, especially Søren Kierkegaard, have insisted that Hume’s arguments only make more clear the need for faith and revelation as the sole basis of religious knowledge.


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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 religious theory must be sustained by faith alone. Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal were Fideists. Hanson takes issue with the concept that Hume was a skeptic and attempts, in this book, to support that argument.

Hausman, David B., and Alan Hausman. Descartes’s Legacy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. This book is about the thought of René Descartes, George Berkeley, and Hume. Two chapters concentrate on Hume. The entire study is written from the point of view of Descartes’s philosophy; Berkeley and Hume are contrasted with Descartes.

Herdt, Jennifer A. Religion and Faction in Hume’s Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Herdt takes a new look at Hume’s writings about religion and suggests a new interpretation.

Jenkins, John J. Understanding Hume. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1992. Offers a short biography, then spends the bulk of the book discussing Hume’s philosophy, primarily by explicating Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.

Norton, David Fate, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Two biographical sketches follow eleven essays by scholars discussing the philosophy of Hume.

Passmore, John. Hume’s Intentions. 3d ed. London: Duckworth, 1980. A valuable discussion of what Hume said and intended. Passmore corrects earlier imprecise and biased views of Hume.

Penelhum, Terence. David Hume: An Introduction to His Philosophical System. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1992. A short biography of Hume, a discussion of his philosophical system, and a number of annotated excerpts from his writing.

Pompa, Leon. Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel, and Vico. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The beginning of the book is devoted to a discussion of Hume’s theory of history and his thoughts about the past.

Popkin, Richard H. Introduction to Hume’s “Diaslogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1980. Excellent introduction to a fine edition of one of Hume’s most interesting works.

Price, John Vladimir. David Hume. New York: Twayne, 1968. As the author says, “This book is a general introduction to Hume designed primarily for the reader who knows little about Hume.”

Price, John Vladimir. The Ironic Hume. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. Price investigates an aspect of Hume’s practice that is ignored by others. He also suggests some important changes in interpretation that result from Hume’s use of irony.

Quinton, Anthony. Hume. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Wilson, Fred. Hume’s Defence of Causal Inference. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. A lengthy attempt to justify Hume’s arguments and rules about causal inference. For the specialist.

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