Thursday, June 25, 2009

If the world is your premise

Religious philosophers looking at the natural world are often on the defensive, defending God’s existence from the many miseries the world inflicts upon us. But sometimes they go on the offensive, arguing that the natural world positively demonstrates God’s existence. They claim that the world reflects a certain intelligent order; that (for example) biological organs and organisms reflect the kind of intelligent design we find in our own human artifacts. And indeed it’s easy to be impressed (as the famous 18th century thinker William Paley argued) when you study biology, and tempting, even, to reach the conclusion that like our artifacts the world must have some intelligent designer or maker.

But that, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) thinks, is a temptation which one ought to resist.

For Paley's argument depends first of all on an analogy between the world as a whole and the human artifacts we know to be caused by designers. But in general we can only reason from effects back to their causes in this way when we have observational experience of the effects following from their causes. With artifacts we have often witnessed their production by human beings. But when the effect is (as in the case of the world) singular, individual, and without specific resemblance to any artifact, and where there is no possibility of observing the production process, we simply cannot reason backwards to its cause.

This becomes clearer when we examine how little the world can really teach us, at least if we restrict ourselves to concluding nothing more about its cause than is strictly warranted by the effect itself. We ought to renounce (for example) the infinity of this alleged designer; for since the world is, as far as we can tell, finite in proportion and nature, we may not infer anything greater of its cause. Nor can we infer the designer’s perfection or his freedom from mistakes. For even religious philosophers (in their defensive mode) admit that the world is riddled with imperfections. If they insist that the world’s “order” demonstrates it has a designer then they must also admit that its imperfections demonstrate his!

Yet even supposing the world were perfect we still couldn’t infer its designer’s perfection, since for all we know he brought the world about very inefficiently, by trial and error, by creating a long series of universes all botched and bungled until he finally got it “right.” And how could we infer that there was just one designer? Complex structures designed and made by humans typically are brought about by whole teams of individuals. If religious philosophers insist on the analogy between the world and our artifacts then they ought to reason their way to polytheism, to the belief in multiple deities!

In fact we can’t legitimately infer there is any designer at all. For all we know the material world has for eons been undergoing randomly changing arrangements of its innumerable particles all on its own. Some of these arrangements appear “ordered,” of course, while others not; and obviously that arrangement which includes ourselves must appear “ordered” since we could only exist on the supposition of order. But that hardly means this order was intentionally designed. It might just be the random product of a long but random series of variations. No designer necessary!

In short, if the world is our premise then it might in the end also have to be our conclusion. No amount of reasoning can legitimately take us to belief in anything beyond the world itself.

Source: David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts II, V, VIII. Richard H. Popkin, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1980).

1 comment:

  1. I have just read your book, the God Question, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was very well put together, and the way you linked the chapters with other related chapters was great.
    I look forward to book 2, which hopefully will include views from the East, the hindus of India or of Bali. Also I am sure Goethe, Carl Yung, Rudolf Steiner, White Eagle, Red Cloud have interesting views on God that are worth looking at.
    There may not have been an intelligent designer, but that doesn't mean that Go(o)d doesn't exist.
    Peter Heskett -