Providence and design

Class notes for 7 March


We started with some background to Hume’s discussion of providence and design: a couple of passages from the Bible [pdf] and three pages from Hugo Grotius. The Biblical passages help explain why Hume targeted miracles and arguments from design in the tenth and eleventh sections. The Grotius passage links inferences based on design, God’s providence and, ulp, punishment.

To say that God is provident is to say that he cares about human beings and intervenes in human affairs. Thus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, divine providence is “the foreknowing and beneficent care and government of God (or of nature, etc.); divine direction, control, or guidance.”

Incidentally, I accidentally clipped off the last page of what I meant to give you from Grotius. If you go just one paragraph further, you’ll see Grotius say that it is his judgment “that those who first attempt to destroy these [religious] Notions, ought, on the Account of human Society in general, which they thus, without any just Grounds, injure, to be restrained ….” To illustrate what he meant by ‘restraint,’ Grotius notes that the Epicureans “were expelled and banished [from] all Cities that had any Regularity and Good manners amongst them” (Grotius, p. 445). That’s why Hume’s ‘friend’ speaks as if he were Epicurus.

Anyway, we can correct my goof with the internet. I added the last page to the handout, which you can download if you just have to have that last little bit. And being University of Chicago students, I know some of you do.

God’s Providence

The argument from design is fairly straightforward. The world is ordered. The best explanation of the order in the world is that it is the product of design. The only possible designer is God. The argument draws an inference from an effect (the order in the world) to the unobserved cause of the effect (God’s design).

I took a poll about whether Hume’s ‘friend’ meant to dispute the argument from design in paragraph 11. If memory serves, the score was 7 yes, 3 no, and 9 undecided. (It’s a genuinely tricky question. I got it wrong when I was reading it last night. Plus, the answer changes at the end of the section; see the last paragraph on this page)

We spent a fair amount of time on the proper interpretation of the rule for inferring the existence of a cause from observing its effects and the example of the scale that he used to illustrate this rule (paragraphs 12-13).

Then we talked about how Hume applied this rule in paragraphs 16-17. As Garrett noted, he applied it to our old friend, the problem of evil. Remember our first discussion of Augustine? (You can find some of the relevant assumptions about God in Bramhall as well.) Nice catch!

And I could not help noting another old friend: Adam’s perfection before the Fall. Read “Golden Age” as “Eden” and “Jupiter” as “God.” Remember Robert South and New Man magazine?

So why was the answer to the poll “no,” at least for Hume’s ‘friend’? Because the argument assumes that the argument from design is the “chief or sole argument for a divine existence” (par. 11). The conclusion of the argument is that we have no reason to assume that God is benevolent based on our observation of the world as it is. In essence, it grants the premise that evil exists, grants the argument from design, and uses the two in order to undermine our reasons for accepting the premise that God is benevolent.

Jon Handy quickly saw the way out: deny that the argument from design is the only way we can know about God. It may be the best argument for God’s existence, but it isn’t the only or best way of knowing what God is like.

Hume probably knew that too. That’s why there are chapters on both miracles and design.

Everything else

There is so much more to say, but time was running short.

Hume, er, his ‘friend’ playing Epicurus answered the claim that atheists are untrustworthy with a quick version of Hume’s moral philosophy (par. 19-20). Those who take the next term of Philosophical Perspectives will get more of this.

I recommended looking carefully at everything from paragraph 24 to the end. This includes:

  1. An objection on behalf of the argument from design and an answer to it (par. 24-26).
  2. A neat inversion of the Image of God doctrine that we’ve seen before when Descartes rather quickly asserted that a perfect being would not be a deceiver (par. 27)
  3. Hume’s reasons for rejecting the design argument from paragraph 11 (par. 30). Hume’s friend accepts the argument for the purpose of making his own points. But Hume himself rejected it in the end, just as all of those of you who voted “yes” in the poll suspected. I told you it was a tricky question!