The text here is the introduction I'll actually lead off the episode recording itself with, just as Wes just did on #166 on Spinoza. We're interested in hearing from you, both regarding whether you think having one person give this sort of extended, uninterrupted speech to start us off is helpful in clarifying the issues involved in the episode, and what you think of this prototype video, which was put together by Jason Durso, with music by Tyler Hislop.
If you'd prefer to read the text, here it is unedited:
David Hume is one of the most famous representatives in philosophy of empiricism, which is an approach to the theory of knowledge that insists that all we can know must be based on experience. So science is just about noting regularities among our various experiences.
So where does this lead religion? We don’t have a direct experience of God, so it might seem like there’s nothing in our experience that corresponds to this concept, “God.” So an empiricist might want to say that we really don’t have such a concept at all, or that God is just not something we can know anything about.
But that was not the route that most empiricists of that time took, that time being the the mid 18th century… Hume was a boy when Newton died. Many scientific thinkers believed that, yes, all of our beliefs have to be backed by evidence, and this evidence has to come from our senses, but that this evidence is enough to ground a belief in God.
The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which Hume completed shortly before his death in 1776, give us a conversation between three characters representing different views on this topic. One of these, Cleanthes, shares this modern take on religion: While of course we don’t have direct experience of God, we do discover, through science, the orderliness of nature. We can look at any part of nature… the human eye is the example that’s often given… and we say “wow, the structure is complicated, and really ingenious. Nothing this intricate and well made could exist unless someone designed it.” So that’s the proof for the existence of God usually called the “argument from design.”
One of the other characters in the dialogue is named Demea, and he’s presented as having a more orthodox, less modern take on religion: God is so great that He defies our comprehension. An infinite Being is really not going to be like a person in any recognizable way. And this causes problems for the argument from design. We’re familiar with how a machine is the result of thinking and planning by a human mind and construction with human hands, but even if nature suggests a machine, all we could reasonably conclude is that someone or something made it… not that an infinite, all-knowing, all-good Being made it. So the argument doesn’t actually get us the full-on, Judeo-Christian concept of God.
The third character in the dialogue is Philo, who acts as the skeptic, and helps the other two characters rip down each other’s arguments. So Demea doesn’t think that the argument from design works. Cleanthes doesn’t think that traditional, a priori arguments for God work: like that the very concept of causality itself implies that there must be a God, or that it’s inconceivable or logically impossible that God not exist.
The Skeptical Philo agrees with and augments both of these attacks, and thinks that we’re not in any position to confidently conclude anything about the origin of nature at all. We might observe an orderliness in nature, but saying that that comes from God doesn’t actually explain the orderliness; we’re just as well off positing that the orderliness is inherent in matter itself. And actually, nature doesn’t resemble a machine as much as it does an animal, or better a plant, and so those ancient creation stories where the whole world is born out of an egg or spun from the web of a giant spider aren’t any less fanciful than positing a tinker God. All of these just push back the thing that needs to be explained from the world itself to this alleged creator or cause of the world.
The dialogue is broken into 12 parts, and by part 10, the focus has shifted to the problem of evil. So even if we regard nature as a machine that must have been created, why would we conclude that its creator was good? A lot of the parts of the machine seem pretty poorly made, and though we, as some of its parts, do a pretty good job in staying alive as a species, there’s just a lot of misery in the world. Demea has no problem with that: Our misery is actually what makes us feel like we need a God to redeem us, and no doubt whatever injustice is going on here will be settled in a future life, or it’s part of God’s grand, incomprehensible plan.
For Cleanthes, our belief in a good, all-powerful God would have to derive from observable facts, which means he has to insist that life as we observe it is more good than bad. Demea and Philo think that this is obviously not what we actually observe.
In Part 12 we actually get Philo’s positive view, which is that yes, he thinks that the complexities of nature do suggest strongly suggest a creator, but that’s about all we can know for sure about the matter. Is this creator “an intelligence?” Since the distance between a human mind and a divine mind is immeasurable, Philo actually thinks that the dispute between an atheist and a theist is a merely verbal one: There is some source of the world’s orderliness, but it’s kind of arbitrary whether we want to call that God or not. It’s just a matter of how you characterize the highly imperfect analogy between this source of order and the world on the one hand and a human mind and its inventions on the other.
Though it’s reasonable to assume that this view of Philo’s is Hume’s own view, that’s of course open to debate.