Dialogues concerning Natural religion

by Hume

Those of you, who like me, spend some time discussing religion, one is bound to hear the name of Hume mentioned. Being that I like such debates and would, for all that is reasonable, want to participate in a discussion where I could say something, I endeavored to read Hume. I started with the above book which is going to be the subject of our discussion today.

Natural religion is defined here as the “religion of nature,” in which God, the soul, spirits, and all objects of the supernatural are considered as part of nature and not separate from it.

In this dialogue, we have Cleanthes, Demea and Philo all arguing from different viewpoints. When we first meet the three friends, Philo is telling them he intends to postpone the teaching of religion to his children until they have a firm foundation in philosophy, a proposition which doesn’t sit well with Cleanthes. His [Cleanthes] first response is a rejection of skepticism and argues no one can live in that manner. He says

in a flush of humour, after intense reflection on the many contradictions and imperfections of human reason, may entirely renounce all belief and opinion, it is impossible for him to persevere in this total scepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours. External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him; his philosophical melancholy dissipates; and even the utmost violence upon his own temper will not be able, during any time, to preserve the poor appearance of scepticism. And for what reason impose on himself such a violence? This is a point in which it will be impossible for him ever to satisfy himself, consistently with his sceptical principles.

Philo responds by saying

[..]To whatever length any one may push his speculative principles of scepticism, he must act, I own, and live, and converse, like other men; and for this conduct he is not obliged to give any other reason, than the absolute necessity he lies under of so doing.

Hume, through Demea wants us to believe

No man, no man at least of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning the being, but the nature of God.

a doubt which I think was entertained at least by a few men of his time if not of an earlier time. Demea continues to tell us

next to the impiety of denying his existence, is the temerity of prying into his nature and essence, decrees and attributes.

but why should we not inquire into these questions? We have been told at least by some divines that the belief in god is important to us for the security of our life in the nether world. It is only natural that we must inquire into the being of such a deity, its nature and mode of existence.

Cleanthes then claims to establish the existence of god posteriori. He says

[..]The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

which here is anthropomorphism at work.

Cleanthes living before Darwin makes the argument that creationists are wont to employ whenever they argue for design in nature, that of complexity. Here he tells us

[..]Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity.

which I have already said above is an argument from ignorance. We now know that the eye is a case of adaptation and natural selection that has taken several million years to develop.

The dialogue continues in this vain with Cleanthes maintaining the world resembles the working of a mind, only, superior to man’s, but a mind all the same. To dissuade him from this thought, Philo argues

[..]But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making. In such subjects, who can determine, where the truth; nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypotheses which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined?

he continues to question Cleanthes in this manner by asking

To multiply causes without necessity, is indeed contrary to true philosophy: but this principle applies not to the present case. Were one deity antecedently proved by your theory, who were possessed of every attribute requisite to the production of the universe; it would be needless, I own, (though not absurd,) to suppose any other deity existent. But while it is still a question, Whether all these attributes are united in one subject, or dispersed among several independent beings, by what phenomena in nature can we pretend to decide the controversy?

This is the same question raised in Aristotle’s first cause argument. For how, in the name of all that is reasonable, arrive at the number of designers or first cause[s] involved in the being of the universe? The argument that since man has been able to design a particular species of things, then the universe must also have been designed doesn’t help solve the problem. In fact as has been oft repeated, even allowing a designer, we still cannot get to the nature of this designer and whether such a designer is still extant.

Demea tells us

Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence; it being absolutely impossible for any thing to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all; or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: Now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved. In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing; and yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in Nothing’s having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of causes which constitutes the universe. What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce any thing. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being; that is, there is a Deity.

To which Cleanthes responds by saying first

Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.

and then continues to make what I consider a decisive argument against necessary existence, a line oft repeated by Craig and his many clones

It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent.

and he asks further why

may not the material universe be the necessarily existent Being, according to this pretended explication of necessity?

These dialogues continued to cover pain and suffering in the world and how this affects belief in a benevolent deity.

At the end Hume says

I cannot but think, that PHILO’s principles are more probable than DEMEA’s; but that those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer to the truth.

Hume has here made a claim that the existence of a deity is a given, the question to be answered here is the nature of deity. I contend here that neither the nature nor the being of a deity is given or known and as such talk of deities leads to an abyss of meaninglessness and wild speculations that is the habit of those divines and frauds who speak of knowing the mind and intention of deities.

Berkeley’s arguments against the materialists

As found in his book, the three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous against the skeptics and atheists

In this book, the question addressed by Berkeley is about reality, that is, about what is. He starts by telling us a skeptic is one who doubts of everything.

In the first dialogue, the two want to settle the question of whether a thing can be said to exist without being perceived. Here is a dialogue between the two

Hylas: To exist in one thing and to be perceived another

Phil: I speak with regard to sensible things only. And of these I ask, whether by their real existence you mean a subsistence exterior to the mind and distinct from their being perceived?

Hylas:  I mean real absolute being, distinct from, and without any relation, to their being perceived.

Phil: Heat therefore, if it be allowed a real being, must exist without the mind?

Hyl: It must

The dialogue continues to cover taste, odours, sound and colours, matter, extension, solidity and so on.

At the conclusion of the first dialogue, Hylas admits that he no idea can exist without the mind to which Phil tells him that by his arguments he denies the reality of sensible things since he made it consist in an absolute existence exterior to the mind.

Following Hylas’ above concession, Phil in the second dialogue suggests to him that

[..]to me it is evident for the reasons you allow of, that sensible things cannot exist otherwise than in a mind or spirit. Whence, I conclude, not that they have no real existence, but that, seeing they depend not on my thought, and have all existence  distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist. As sure, therefore, as the sensible world really exists, so sure there is an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it.

I don’t agree here with Berkeley, the world is my idea and the argument for the existence of an omnipresent spirit that contains and supports the world is unwarranted.

After the above comment by Phil, Hylas says

What! This is no more than I and all Christians hold, nay, and all others too who believe there is a god and that he knows and comprehends all things.

Phil disagrees with him, he argues

Men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by god, because they believe the being of a god; whereas I, on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a god, because all sensible things must be perceived by him.

In saying this, Phil declares a triumph against atheism and goes ahead and says

But that–setting aside all help of astronomy and natural philosophy, all contemplation of the contrivance, order, and adjustment of things–an infinite Mind should be necessarily inferred from the bare EXISTENCE OF THE SENSIBLE WORLD, is an advantage to them only who have made this easy reflexion: that the sensible world is that which we perceive by our several senses; and that nothing is perceived by the senses beside ideas; and that no idea or archetype of an idea can exist otherwise than in a mind. You may now, without any laborious search into the sciences, without any subtlety of reason, or tedious length of discourse, oppose and baffle the most strenuous advocate for Atheism. Those miserable refuges, whether in an eternal succession of unthinking causes and effects, or in a fortuitous concourse of atoms; those wild imaginations of Vanini, Hobbes, and Spinoza: in a word, the whole system of Atheism, is it not entirely overthrown, by this single reflexion on the repugnancy included in supposing the whole, or any part, even the most rude and shapeless, of the visible world, to exist without a mind? Let any one of those abettors of impiety but look into his own thoughts, and there try if he can conceive how so much as a rock, a desert, a chaos, or confused jumble of atoms; how anything at all, either sensible or imaginable, can exist independent of a Mind, and he need go no farther to be convinced of his folly. Can anything be fairer than to put a dispute on such an issue, and leave it to a man himself to see if he can conceive, even in thought, what he holds to be true in fact, and from a notional to allow it a real existence?

Their dialogue continues to tackle MATTER. Here Hylas is forced to concede yet again that what is commonly known as matter doesn’t exist. Phil says in part

HYL. Hold, let me think a little–I profess, Philonous, I do not find that I can. At first glance, methought I had some dilute and airy notion of Pure Entity in abstract; but, upon closer attention, it hath quite vanished out of sight. The more I think on it, the more am I confirmed in my prudent resolution of giving none but negative answers, and not pretending to the least degree of any positive knowledge or conception of Matter, its WHERE, its HOW, its ENTITY, or anything belonging to it.

PHIL. When, therefore, you speak of the existence of Matter, you have not any notion in your mind?

HYL. None at all.

PHIL. Pray tell me if the case stands not thus–At first, from a belief of material substance, you would have it that the immediate objects existed without the mind; then that they are archetypes; then causes; next instruments; then occasions: lastly SOMETHING IN GENERAL, which being interpreted proves NOTHING. So Matter comes to nothing. What think you, Hylas, is not this a fair summary of your whole proceeding?

HYL. Be that as it will, yet I still insist upon it, that our not being able to conceive a thing is no argument against its existence.

As this second dialogue ends, Hylas says in submission

I acknowledge you have proved that Matter is impossible; nor do I see what more can be said in defence of it. But, at the same time that I give up this, I suspect all my other notions. For surely none could be more seemingly evident than this once was: and yet it now seems as false and absurd as ever it did true before. But I think we have discussed the point sufficiently for the present. The remaining part of the day I would willingly spend in running over in my thoughts the several heads of this morning’s conversation, and tomorrow shall be glad to meet you here again about the same time.

The third dialogue is continuation on matter and god and at the end we hear

PHIL. I do not pretend to be a setter-up of new notions. My endeavours tend only to unite, and place in a clearer light, that truth which was before shared between the vulgar and the philosophers:–the former being of opinion, that THOSE THINGS THEY IMMEDIATELY PERCEIVE ARE THE REAL THINGS; and the latter, that THE THINGS IMMEDIATELY PERCEIVED ARE IDEAS, WHICH EXIST ONLY IN THE MIND. Which two notions put together, do, in effect, constitute the substance of what I advance.

HYL. I have been a long time distrusting my senses: methought I saw things by a dim light and through false glasses. Now the glasses are removed and a new light breaks in upon my under standing. I am clearly convinced that I see things in their native forms, and am no longer in pain about their UNKNOWN NATURES OR ABSOLUTE EXISTENCE. This is the state I find myself in at present; though, indeed, the course that brought me to it I do not yet thoroughly comprehend. You set out upon the same principles that Academics, Cartesians, and the like sects usually do; and for a long time it looked as if you were advancing their philosophical Scepticism: but, in the end, your conclusions are directly opposite to theirs.

PHIL. You see, Hylas, the water of yonder fountain, how it is forced upwards, in a round column, to a certain height; at which it breaks, and falls back into the basin from whence it rose: its ascent, as well as descent, proceeding from the same uniform law or principle of GRAVITATION. just so, the same Principles which, at first view, lead to Scepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to Common Sense.

The three dialogues are arguments against materialism and are an attempt to establish the existence of god as was shown above where Phil argues there must be a universal mind that perceives all things. I don’t see why this is necessary. There is no justification as I said before for coming to the conclusion of there being a mind that conceives everything in the universe.

I recommend that if you have time this year, you should make it one of your to read books, regardless of your beliefs or non beliefs.

Year 2013 in review

The helper-monkeys at wordpress have given us a report of activity on this site for the past year. They say in part

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

We are very proud of you all our followers, friends, critics for your continued visits, likes and comments. We hope that we have been able to make your visits worthwhile.

We hope to continue to share with you our book reviews, our thoughts on different issues, our travel photos and movies we have enjoyed watching and hope that we still be graced by your presence here.

We asked if the morality of Jesus was sound, made forays into the question of suffering, wrote a response to a debate on the existence of god, and about the Garden of Eden among many others.

Thank you all once again and keep visiting us.