Saturday, June 3, 2017

Review of "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion"

In a recent interview, philosopher Simon Blackburn mentioned that if he could recommend one work of western philosophy to all non-philosophers, it would Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume. According to Blackburn, it is a book that is funny, short, and has a great deal of depth given how short the text is.

After reading it from cover to cover, I would have to agree with Blackburn's assertion. In many ways the book is like a short detective novel, where you think one thing will happen, but you are always surprised. And Hume, while a bit dry at times, can make even the most stoic person break into laughter.

Dialogues begin with Pamphilus, a student of one of the dialogue participants, writing a letter to a friend about a recent dialogue that he had observed. The principle characters in the dialogue are Cleanthes, who is Pamphilus' teacher, Philo, and Demea. Cleanthes is an empiricist, a philosopher who thinks that knowledge comes from sense experience. Philo is also an empiricist, and is the most skeptical of the three involved. Demea is a rationalist and a dogmatist to a certain extent; he exits the dialogue early after having had enough of Philo's skepticism.

The question under discussion is whether or not God's existence can be demonstrated; the three philosophers agree that God exists (although Demea calls both Cleanthes and Philo atheists at various points in the text). Philo states that he wants to build his case upon philosophical skepticism, a school of thought dating back to Pyrrho of Elis. Cleanthes reminds him that this cannot be done, because human psychology will not allow a person to simply be a skeptic (a point that Hume himself makes in book one of A Treatise of Human Nature). However, Philo does his best throughout the dialogue to play the position of devil's advocate.

Cleanthes is the first to give an argument for God's existence. He states that as you look around nature, that nature resembles a machine. Since machines do not come together on their own and are designed, it follows that nature was designed and the designer is God. Philo does not say that this argument is false, but he does point out that if this argument is taken seriously, it will not get you to the traditional monotheistic God. When looking at a machine or a building, we know that it was designed, but we do not suppose that there was only one person who did the job. Design is the result of multiple minds, so if the design argument is to go through then it would be more likely that there are multiple deities rather than one. Philo also points out that nature is not particularly well designed, so if it was designed by a God, there is no reason to believe that the God is almighty; it is more likely that the God of nature is an apprentice who is ashamed of his work.

Demea breaks in at this point, saying that because nothing begins to exist without a cause, there must be a cause that is uncaused and that cause is God. Philo again does not dismiss the argument, but points out that we have no experience of this sort of a cause, and that there is no contradiction in things coming into existence uncaused, especially given that we do not know whether or not the universe began to exist; if it is eternal there may be no such thing as causality.

Philo then brings up Epicurus' argument about the problem of evil, stating that if God were all-powerful and all-knowing that there should be no evil in the world because it is logically possible for God to create such a world. He points out that this is the major problem of theology, and that no theologian has been able to satisfactorily solve the problem. Demea does not really answer the question, but states that everyone knows in his heart that God exists. Philo does not disagree, but he reminds Demea that the kind of God people believe in varies on where they live, and that makes one skeptical about whether such a feeling has value.

Demea leaves at this point, and the dialogue continues with Philo and Cleanthes. Philo bemoans the fact that none of the arguments for God's existence are as sound as he would like them to be, but it would be foolish to deny the existence of God and says that other matters will have to be taken on faith. Cleanthes tells him not to be so concerned with false religion that he cannot have a place in his mind and heart for true religion. The dialogue closes by Pamphilus stating that while he thinks Philo's principles are likely correct, Cleanthes makes the best arguments.

Many philosophers have felt that Philo represents Hume's views on the matter of religion. While a good case can certainly be made for that, I would argue that there is a bit of Hume' thought in all three of the participants. As mentioned before, early in the Dialogues Philo states that he wants to build a case on philosophical skepticism. Cleanthes reminds him, as Hume does in the Treatise, that psychology is too strong for humans to be Pyrrhonian skeptics. Demea also shows a bit of Hume's thought when he points out that certain matters concerning God will simply have to be matters of faith, as Hume himself states in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Perhaps it may be best to say that Hume's thought in the Dialogues is represented by everyone and no one in particular.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is arguably Hume's best work, and a classic in the philosophy of religion. Whether you are a theist, atheist, agnostic, or anywhere in between, you will enjoy Hume's book as he makes the case for all sides of the argument but in classic Hume fashion does not take an affirmative position on either way. You will not be disappointed in this book, that I can assure you.

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