An Analysis of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
ABSTRACT: Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) may be read in the way Cleanthes (and Philo as well) reads Nature, as analogous to human artifice and contrivance. The Dialogues and Nature then are both texts, with an intelligent author or Author, and analogies may be started from these five facts of Hume's text: the independence of Hume's characters; the non-straightforwardness of the characters' discourse; the way the characters interact and live; the entanglements of Pamphilus as an internal author; and the ways in which a reader is also involved in making a dialogue. These and other analogies should reflect upon the Author of Nature as they do upon Hume's authorship: They do not prove the existence of their respective authors, but may well shed some light on the nature of these disparate beings.
The bulk of Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion is given over to two discussions of "the" so-called argument from design. (1) In Part 2 Cleanthes succinctly states an "argument a posteriori" that attempts to "prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence." According to this argument, the world and its parts are (like) intricate machines or human contrivances, implying "by all the rules of analogy" that their cause, "the Author of Nature," is a designing intelligence (all 2.5.Cleanthes to Demea and Philo). Philo then subjects this argument to various and withering criticisms in Parts 2-8, although he later ends up confessing, more than once, (2) his inability to deny the powerful attraction this form of argument and its natural theological conclusion has for everyone, himself included.
In Parts 10 and 11, following an interlude considering Demea's "simple and sublime argument a priori" (9.1.Demea to Cleanthes and Philo), Cleanthes again attempts to use an argument a posteriori to prove the moral (as opposed to the natural) attributes of God, in two versions: the first must "deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man" in order to infer a completely benevolent Deity (10.31), the second works from mixed (good and evil) phenomena and supposes "the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind" (11.1). Again, Philo states numerous objections, and ends up proclaiming a sceptical "triumph" concerning the first version (10.36) and judging an indifferent Deity more probable than a benevolent finite one concerning the second version (11.15).
Because it is so prominent, everyone notices that a central concern of Hume's Dialogues is empirical natural theology—how one can discern from Nature, using empirical facts and "experimental" forms of inference available to anyone, the existence and nature of an Author of Nature. But few connect this concern to the simple fact that the Dialogues is itself authored. It is a text with an author, David Hume. At the very least, then, on Cleanthes's approach,...