David Hume Dialogues and Natural History of Religion

Introduction

David Hume born in Edinburgh in 1711 is a philosopher of the period known as British Empiricism. He attended the University of Edinburgh and was an intellectual associate of philosophers John Locke and George Berkeley although he did not graduate. A prolific writer, Hume dealt with many areas of philosophy such as politics and ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics as well as wrote in the area of history. He had a political career as British ambassador to France and a post as a minister in the government for a few years. His final work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ was published posthumously in 1779. It was said that he had begun on it as early as the 1750s.

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Hume was very concerned about rationality and that although he was never publicly and explicitly an atheist, his rational mind was mostly concerned about sensory and intelligible evidence. He question and doubt most major systems of religion, the more general philosophical sense of religion and proofs of the existence of a deity.

Discussion

The book of Hume includes a section on miracles from Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and the full versions of both The Natural History of Religion and the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.

Book Arguments

The primary arguments in his book dealt with the Argument from Design, and the Cosmological Argument. Subjects natural religion and revealed religion are distinguished and considered as specially important distinction in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophical structure.

    • Natural Religion and Revealed Religion –
  • For Hume, natural religion is the idea that people come to know and understand God as well as what God wants or expects through inklings from nature, man’s sensory perceptions, and in the interpretations of emotion and rationality. He argued against the idea of natural religion and most of its conclusions. Hume also drew the line between what humans can actually know and what ends up being fanciful extrapolations based on other-than-rational ideas and evidence.
  • Revealed religion on the other hand is considered as what most world religions base upon and these may include popularly believed extra-terrestrial events such as:
    • the burning bush encountered by Moses,
    • the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Christ to the Apostles,
    • or even the enlightenment of Buddha under a tree.

Hume takes on the idea of revealed religion with this book focusing on natural religion.

The Argument from Design

Arguments from Design are strongly preferred by believers within religious frameworks. These are used often as tools of evangelism and aims to show that beyond the so-called revealed doctrines are the very nature of creations point to a supreme being as the creator. The Argument from Design as may be understood un Hume’s newly-industrial period as a rationale for logical thoughts as:

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  • Machines and artifacts are designed by intelligent beings.
  • The universe and every natural things in it are comparable to advanced machines and artifacts.
  • Therefore, the universe must have been created through intelligent design.

An argument by analogy, this proposition is convincing to a few. However, it is undoubtedly more convincing to those who are already believers in the existence of a god.

Hume’s first criticism on the Argument from Design is that this analogy is faulty. He insists that people have no exact idea if the universe is similar to a machine. Machines, he proposed, are mostly designed and built by several designers so it follows that the argument is open for several god-designers and not just one. He questions how do people know that matter and the universe do not have their own, internal self-organizing principles.

The Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument maybe considered as both more subtle and more simple. A simplest statement of it would be that God is the “first cause” of everything. Further, it is expounded that if everything has to have a cause at such extent as the whole universe, then that first cause must be being of supreme nature as God. In the twentieth century, the Big Bang theory seemed to reaffirm that the Cosmological Argument was definitely true.

It could be possible that Hume was familiar with Leibniz’s more subtle form of the Cosmological Argument. It argues for a world of infinite contingent causes. However, there has to be something outside of this system of infinite causes that produced the series – thus, even in a universe with no set beginning or ending, there would still need to be a single possible cause.

Hume finds the Cosmological Argument strained claiming that in any series of causality, once one knows about each cause, it becomes irrational to inquire beyond the sequence of causes to unrelated effect. This Empirical argument may not be entirely satisfying but it still is considered in philosophy today.

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Hume’s Structure

Hume, drawing primarily from Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods that focuses about the nature of the Gods such as attributes, powers, or character, concerns the very existence of God.

Hume points out the extent of human ignorance and the impotence of human reason to discover the things illustrating the impotence of reason. He offers that people’s tendency to believe various religious thesis cannot be explained as a justifiable way of thinking about the world. He explained through certain general principles governing the operation of human minds.

Conclusion

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion provides provocative and quite acceptable arguments on theism that is not easy to dismiss until today. He expounds on the human rationale of finding causes for effects in un-ending way so as to arrive to a conclusion about a supreme being that possibly designed mankind and everything else in this world.

While Hume’s arguments may be convincing at most, certain conditions such as lapses and dismissal of logic and analogies exercised prior to his book or even sources and references, made his thoughts bounce back: what made him insists that there is the natural capacity of creations to have internal orderliness?

As much as design starts from details prior to connecting parts made of details, there is a need to go back to the first. And Hume tries to elude this argument just because of humans’ inclination for analogy. Most many empirical arguments are logical to most. And that will always guide and prevail in many instances.

Reference

David Hume. Dialogues and Natural History of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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