Natural religion Notes for November 4

Main points

One way of proving God’s existence is to point to disruptions in the natural order: only God could cause a miracle. Another way is to point to the cause of the natural order: only God could produce an orderly universe. In the previous section, Hume took on the first sort of argument. In this section, he takes on the second.

Why so touchy?

We began by talking about why Hume would have been so indirect about it. The argument is put in the mouth of a friend who couches it as an imaginary speech by someone else, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Greg asked if Hume managed to fool anyone about his real meaning. That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. The standard biography on Hume is E.C. Mossner’s The Life of David Hume. It’s sitting on my desk, waiting for me to leaf through it to see if there’s an answer to Greg’s question. But given my schedule, it might wait for a very long time.

There might have been a point to all the indirection even if it didn’t really fool anyone. The point might have been something like what we call “plausible deniability.” Even if it’s pretty clear that you’re guilty, so long as you have ‘plausible deniability’ no one can meet the standards of proof to punish you for it.

The argument

“Epicurus’s” argument works by first granting that we can infer the existence of a designer on the basis of the evidence of order in the observable world. “Epicurus” denies that we can infer that the designer has some qualities that God is thought to possess. In particular, the argument holds that we cannot infer that God is provident or just.

The argument relies on a rule of reasoning that tells us what we can infer about unobserved causes of observed effects: we cannot infer more than is strictly necessary to bring about the effect. We can see that the world is imperfect. So what can we conclude about God? No more than the rule of reasoning, when combined with our observations of the world, permits.

The end

Hume raises some interesting objections against the argument that he, er, his “friend” imagined Epicurus making. The discussion of the half-finished building, for instance, is quite interesting.

In the last pararaph, Hume argues that we shouldn’t believe the argument from design in the first place. That is, he argues that we can’t legitimately move from observations of order in the world to the conclusion that an intelligent designer created that order.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted November 12, 2009.
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