Natural Religion

Notes for November 5

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 how orderly nature is: only God could produce a uniformly ordered universe. In the previous section, Hume took on the first sort of argument. In this section, he takes on the second.

This section grants, for the sake of argument, the central claim of natural religion, that we can infer God’s existence from the order of the natural world. It denies that we can use this reasoning to infer that God has two qualities that are commonly attributed to him: providence and justice. If he succeeded, he would have raised a strong challenge to the point of organized religion and helped make the case for the possibility of morality among atheists.

In the last paragraph, 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.

The main 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.

We considered a variety of ways of responding to this argument. They all turned on attempts to show that what seem to be imperfections in the world really are not that way. Perhaps there is a purpose to suffering that we cannot easily discern. If so, the fact that there is suffering in the world does not show that god is not provident.

The half finished building

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. If you see a construction site, it makes no sense to conclude that the builders want there to be a pile of rubble. The sensible inference is that the building is incomplete.

But if we can make that inference for a human builder, why can’t we make a similar one for a divine builder?

Key concepts

  1. What Epicurus’s argument grants and what it denies.
  2. The rule of reasoning that is proposed in Epicurus’s argument (see pp. 93–94).
  3. How Epicurus used this rule.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted November 5, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy