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David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was published in 1779, three years after his death.

Likely this delay was because it dealt with sensitive religious issues. It was a progressive era, and the last witchcraft trial in the British Isles had occurred at the start of the century. Nonetheless, it remained exceedingly sensitive to publicly debate religion in the 18th century.

However, it was popular to apply tests of reason to all human affairs.

Economics, politics, society, and religion were all subject to these tests, which were part of the greater Enlightenment occurring across Europe. Hume was a (if not the) leading figure in Scotland in the 18th century Enlightenment.


Hume was a great author, as evidenced by the fame he found with his History of England.

The subject matter, Hume believes, is best pursued in dialogue form. The Dialogues span a conversation with five participants. Pamphilus and Hermippus frame the dialogue, and Cleanthes, Philo and Demea are the three voices through which Hume speaks. Hume writes down their different positions at the start of the Dialogues.

Any question of philosphy shich is so obscure and and uncertain that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regards to it ... seems to lead us naturally into the style of dialogue and conversation.

PamphilusPamphilus is the narrator and a student of Cleanthes.
HermippusHermippus is the recipient who receives what Pamphilus says.
Cleanthes"Accurate philosophical turn"
Philo"Careless skepticism"
Demea"Rigid inflexible orthodoxy"
Hume is intentionally ambiguous about his personal position. Religious subject matter was very sensitive.

Hume is not inflexible like Demea, so he must be either like Cleanthes and Philo. Hume aligns himself with Philo.

I make Cleanthes the Hero of the Dialogue. ... To strengthen that Side of the Argument will be most acceptable to me. Any Propensity ... to the other Side crept in upon me against my Will ... . The best way of composing a Dialogue would be for two persons ... of different Opinions ... to write alternately the different Parts. ... I should have taken on the character of Philo, ... which ... I could have supported naturally enough.

Table of contents

The first three Dialogues outlay the subject matter for the rest.

In talking about the first three Dialogues, the intricate play between Demea, Cleanthes and Philo is very important -- who is taking which position on behalf of whom?

Dialogue IShould natural theology be taught sooner or later?
Dialogue II
Dialogue III
The themes begun in the first three Dialogues are then expounded in subsequent Dialogues.
Dialogue IVProblems with the design argument.
Dialogue VProblems with a posteriori arguments.
Dialogue VIProblems with anthropomorphism.
Dialogue VIIOrganic versus mechanical models.
Dialogue VIII
Dialogue IXProblems with facts and a priori arguments.
Dialogue X
Dialogue XI
Dialogue XIIPhilosophical religion and vulgar superstition.

Dialogue I

Should natural theology be taught sooner or later?

Demea assert that students absolutely must first have piety and reverence. Once their religious attitudes are firmly established, they will see how confused philosophy is. Thus, natural theology arguments will not dent the student's faith.

Philo agrees with Demea that philosophy lacks concreteness.

Philo agrees with Demea that ordinary people lack respect for philosophy because of its constant disputes -- two philosophers will come up with five perspectives. However, Philo argues that learned people still find reason useful for natural theology.

Philo puts forth his skeptical position.

There is a problem: reason is weak and the senses deceive us. Even a basic object like a stone becomes a mystery when we consider its coherence, cause, effect, space and time. If we know so little about a stone, how can we know much about anything else?

Cleanthes is suspicious of Philo's piety.

Skepticism was often used to defend religion against philosophy. Nonetheless, Cleanthes wonder if Philo actually wants to attack, not defend, religion. Cleanthes responds:

You propose ... to erect religious faith on philosohpical skepticism. ... If certainty or evidence be expelled from every other subject, ... it will all retire to those theological doctrines. ... Whether your skepticism [is] ... sincere, we shall learn bye and bye

Cleanthes argues that skepticism does not threaten faith.

Cleanthes holds that not even skeptics truly take themselves seriously. If they deeply, seriously doubted their own challenges to reason or sensation, then they would not get through the day. The skeptic is not serious, and if his doubts are not serious, then he is no threat to religion.

Philo responds that skepticism does have flaws when applied entirely.

Philo agrees that skepticism may seem erratic and inconsistent, because a full skeptic still has to get through the day. Practical needs are not vulnerable to skepticism, but anything remote and detached from practical needs (such as cosmology and theology) are good targets for skepticism. However, Philo puts forth that skeptical positions may be effective when restricted to philosophy. A skeptical, questioning, doubting skeptical attitude can be good, if a full skeptical worldview.

Skepticism is weak against ordinary, practical observations; but it is strong against metaphysical abstractions including those in theology.

A consistent skeptic will simply suspend judgment about theological issues. But that in itself is a victory for skepticism, because suspended judgment means there is no confidence in metaphysical abstractions. Thus, skepticism can bring down theology.

Cleanthes does not like Philo's position and asserts two form of skepticism: vulgar skepticism, and philosophical skepticism.

This is in the context of Greek skepticism, which systematically doubted all knowledge. However, it's also in the context of Isaac Newton, who was the greatest hero of Hume's time. Newton had provided a world system that gave understanding of the universe as a whole. So Cleanthes puts forth an unusual skepticism: that cohesion of a rock may be inexplicable, but rigorous mathematical proof may reveal the universe's structure.


Vulgar skepticism

Vulgar (traditional) skeptics reject all results of reasoning and if it worked, would undercut all reasoning and threaten knowledge -- even math and physics. Vulgar skeptics are not taken seriously, because if they took themselves seriously they would not make it through a day. Vulgar skepticism is no threat to faith and religion.

Philosophical skepticism

Philosophical (unusual) skeptics simply treats some things, not everything, as inexplicable. This is unusual: the philosophical skeptic holds something as true if it has enough evidence. They take the cohesion of a stone as inexplicable, but astrophysics not. The philosophical skeptical with agree with something in proportion to the evidence.

Skepticism had historically been used both for and against religion.

If the philosophical skeptic can have confidence in physics, then why not theology? After all, Aquinas' Five Ways begins with observations. In that era, skepticism had been used to dissolve philosophical reasoning. Theology stood over discredited philosophy. However, an anti-theology skepticism would later develop.

Skepticism became synonymous with atheism, though in prior centuries that had not at all been the case.

John Locke tried developing a rationalist natural theology as a foundation for religious belief. Once that happened, a new wave of skepticism (focused around Pierre Bayle in late 17th and early 18th centuries) turned skepticism against philosophical religion. At that time, skepticism became distinctly anti-religious and anti-Christian in the eyes of most 18th century people who knew anything about it.

At this point, Philo says, "The Fool, in his heart, says there is no god."

Philo, remarking on that quotation from Psalms, says that not just in his heart does the fool say this -- the fool now says it out loud, too. Cleanthes ties this to skepticism, which he says is worrisome because it just cannot be valid.

Philo says that Cleanthes is a two-faced rational-skeptic, using skepticism to both support and attack theology.

Cleanthes, in a sense guilty of that, responds that these issues of faith and theology are very important and it is reasonable to use the tools available.

Thus, Hume hammers out the relationship between natural theology and skepticism.

Dialogue II

Two terms come into use: a priori and a posteriori.

A priori

A priori refers to something that comes before experience and observation. Hume uses a priori to mean reason independent of observation.

A posteriori

A posteriori refers to something that comes after experience and observation. Hume uses a posteriori to mean observations based on the senses.

Demea throws in his dislike for natural rationalist theology.

He holds that god's existence is certain and self-evident, and that natural theology is unnecessary. God's nature, god's properties, is simply incomprehensible and unknown to humans. Demea goes so far as saying that there ought be no positive theology: trying to directly understand god is sinful.

Demea states that there ought only be a negative theology.

Having started with god's existence as self-evident, it is possible to study god's nature only by making statements about what god is not. This is negative theology. Instead of saying, god is merciful, one says god is not unmerciful or god is not unjust. God's nature is incomprehensible. God does not have the qualities characteristic of humans.

Philo states that it is plain and evident that god exists. His only question is god's nature.

Philo puts forth an argument that he contends is not skeptical, and as such it does not argue that there is no knowledge. Nor does it undercut faith in general.


God is perfect

He takes the pious, reverent position that god has all perfections.

Creatures are imperfect

However, god's perfect traits are not found in any of god's creatures.

Ideas from experience

Philo points out that when we think, we think with or through ideas, and he claims that we don't have any ideas not derived from experience. This was conventional in Western tradition. Aquinas himself says, "There is nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the senses."

No experience of god

Philo's point is that we have no experience of god's attributes and operations, and so we have no idea of god's attributes and operations. Thus, it is easily proven that we have no idea of god's properties because we cannot observe these qualities.

Cleanthes disagrees, thinking Philo is defending Demea.

Cleanthes sarcastically characterizes what Philo is saying as the pious declamations of Philo, not believing tht what Philo is sayig is pious. But Cleanthes' response argues more against Demea than Philo.

Cleanthes begins his a posteriori argument (not a priori) to prove god's similarity to a human mind and intelligence.

Cleanthes starts: observe the world, and marvel at it. What we observe is a big machine composed of smaller machines. Also, each machine is fitted to one another with means adapted to ends.

To understand Hume's meaning of machine, recall that this is in the enormous aftermath of Isaac Newton and the Industrial Revolution.

Newton had elucidated the universe's workings. Within the universe, The smaller machines are like the solar system; the earth revolving around the sun; the moon around the earth; and so on, all the way to the human body. These are progressively smaller machines. Also, the Industrial Revolution meant that very complex machines became common in Europe. These machines hugely impacted people's lives, and among the thinkers, machines were a significant topic.

There is also an adaption of means to ends.

This is more vague, but is clarified by an analogy: a human eye. Just as the universe has many interacting parts, so does the human eye. Each part constitutes a complex whole with a purpose: vision. Each anatomical component interacts as a means to fulfill a purpose, an end: seeing.

Cleanthes gets to his point: God is to the natural machinery of the cosmos as humans are to artificial machines.

An architect is to a house as god is to the universe. Cleanthes tries to get us to understand something unfamiliar (the whole universe) by comparing it to something familiar (a house, an ordinary artificial machine). Then Cleanthes takes the second step, which is to state that a human is the maker of an artificial machine just as there is a designer of the larger natural machine. God stands to the natural cosmic machinery as a human stands to an artificial machine. An architect stands to a house as god stands to the universe.

Just as artificial machines must have had designers, so does the natural machine (the universe).

Artificial machines must have had designers, as they do not just come together randomly. Similarly, the natural machine (the universe) must have had a designer. Both artificial machines and the natural machine are machines, and thus similar. Therefore their causes are also similar: god is like human beings.

Cleanthes would have difficulty making this same argument before Newton and the Industrial Revolution.

In earlier centuries, most Europeans were unfamiliar with machines other than grinding mills. It was only in the 18th century that they became prominent in the public mind. Machinery was not part of earlier philosophical arguments as it was for Hume.

Demea rejects Cleanthes' argument on two grounds: it is a posteriori and god is not like human beings.

Demea rejects any a posteriori argument in this context, because as it is based on observations it is merely probably and and cannot replace an a priori argument, which is certain.

Philo responds that Demea is right (and Demea, in turn, disagrees with Cleanthes).

Philo agrees that a posteriori arguments are inherently weaker than a priori arguments, but holds that some knowledge can be a posteriori if an experiment is repeated enough. For example, fire always burns. However, consider this: blood circulates in human beings; and blood circulates in amphibians; and thus, sap circulates in trees. Wait! No, sap does not circulate. The analogy is weak. Likewise, Philo insists that Cleanthes' analogy is weak.

Philo is in agreement with Demea that Cleanthes is weak in comparing a house to the universe.

Cleanthes is right to say that a house must have a designer as we have regular experience of it, but it is not right to compare it to the universe because they are unlike one another. Unlike a house, we have no regular experience of the whole universe.

Cleanthes concedes that a posteriori arguments are weaker and that houses and the universe are somewhat dissimilar.

Cleanthes agrees that a posteriori arguments are of a lower status than a priori arguments, as the former is only probably and never certain. However, Cleanthes adds that an a posteriori should not be automatically dismissed as it may provide some conviction. Cleanthes then reaffirms his key point: houses and the universe are similar in each having a means-end relationship.

Demea responds that this is nonsense.

Demea insists that an argument for god's existence must be absolutely certain if it is any argument at all, and thus must be a priori.

Philo tries to strike down Cleanthes' a posteriori argument and force the latter to attempt an a priori argument, as Philo thinks he has proof that god's existence cannot be proven a priori.

Philo tries to do this by eroding confidence in Cleanthes' argument, insisting that it is mere a posteriori fancifulness. Philo then subtly alters Cleanthes' argument in order to refute it.

First, Philo asserts that ideas come together on their own, and thus order is intrinsic in the mind.

Matter does not associate itself into a complex machine. However, thoughts can have order, as is clear when put into sentences (the stone is in front of me). Ideas seem to associate themselves into complex mental machines.

Therefore, Philo suggests a revised argument: as the mind stands to a thought, a divine mind stands to the universe.

Philo goes on to say that inferences we make assume reciprocal (two-way) similarity. For example, all houses we have seen were caused by architects; so we can assume that a house we have not seen was caused by an architect. On the basis of similarity, a relationship can be argued (that this unseen lawn was landscaped). But in order to be certain, the causes must be exactly alike, and the effects too. Also, one must be very familiar with the causes and effects.

According to Philo, Cleanthes' argument is thus totally undercut. It fails Philo's test of likeness and familiarity.

First of all, we observe only a fraction of the universe and for just a tiny time. We barely experience it. How can we reach conclusions about the universe if we barely know it? The experience of which one is capable does not support an argument about the whole universe.

House 1 : architect 1
House 2 : architect 2
This argument is valid. As there is House 1, you know there must be Architect 1. As there is House 2, there must be Archictect 2. One knows exactly what a house is, and exactly what an architect is.
House 1 : architect 1
Universe : something
The something stands to the universe as architect 1 stands to house 1 -- it is god. However, the house is not (or at least not enough) like the universe. Also, one is not familiar with the universe as one is with a house. Experience with the whole universe is much more limited. And experience with god is completely unlike experience with architects, as god is unique.
T1 : T2
TU : ?
Consider two sets of ordinary things: T1 and T2. Whenever a T1 is observed, so is a T2. For example, whenever birdsong is observed, so are birds. By observing that T1 exists, it may be inferred that T2 exists. But TU is absolutely unique. There is nothing else like TU. Thus there can be no inference with TU as there is with T1 and T2; there is not even any constant conjunctions of TU's with other things, as there is only one TU. The universe is a TU because there is only one universe.
Cleanthes responds that the same objections could be raised about Earth, but we have knowledge about Earth.

Earth can barely be observed by a single person, and it is unique too, but it is certain that the whole earth moves about the sun. In Hume's time, humans were completely on the ground. So why does Philo have a problem with conclusions about the universe?

Philo responds that knowledge about Earth's rotation is from its similarity, not uniqueness.

Earth's movement around the sun was determined based on observing other planetary bodies. Thus, it is actually Earth's commonness with other planets that allows us to know about it as a whole. When Galileo studied the motion of Juper and its moons, he used that as a model to deduce that Earth was a body in orbital motion around the sun.

Dialogue III

This Dialogue goes further into the argument about design.

The argument has tremendous force, and is powerfully felt by so many people. This Dialogue responds within that framework.

Cleanthes is reaching for a centuries-old analogy: the nature/art analogy where 'art' means craft or technology.

The argument is that it is possible to understand the order in nature by comparing that order with the order that is purposefully built into an artificial object like a clock. Cleanthes takes the relationship between nature and art to just be self-evident, though the earth had to be proven to behave as the other planets.

Cleanthes mentions how when Galileo did his work, it had to be proven that the earth was similar to the other plants in the solar system. Cleanthes says th kind of similarity built into the argument about design (the natural to the artificial) is self-evident and does not need any proof.

Cleanthes uses another analogy to explain "self-evident" -- when we hear a human voice saying intelligble things, we can assume that the voice is caused by a purposeful human.

Once we hear a sentence, we know we have a human being trying to utter that sentence. There might be limited exceptions, like a trained parrot. What Cleanthes imagines is this phenonemon of an intelligible human voice, in the dark. One cannot see the person but it is possible to infer the existence of the voice. Consider that a voice comes from the clouds, and right away everyone (including Cleanthes) assumes that is the voice of god. The voice in the dark stands to the pursposeful human utterer as a voice in the cloud stands to god.

That claim is based on the self-evident analogy, which is the relation between nature and art. They key intermediary notion is that hte utternace from the clouds is purpsoeful, intellgible; it is coming from the natural world, but must be purseful, intelligible, so it must be the voice of god.

Cleanthes continues with a rather strange argument called the Universal Vegetable Library (aka the Living Vegetable Library).

imagine that books grew on trees as did fruit. All these trees have books growing from them in a universally understood language. Understand that it's a lot easier to write Iliad, or any book, than to make a piece of fruit. This notion is The Universal/Living Vegetable Library. But if books like Iliad or Hamlet could persuade you there's no way it could happen unless someone designed it taht way, then it msut be even more convincing that there must be a purposeful divine mind as the cause for organic lie, because humans made Iliad, or Hamlet, but no human can make a piece of fruit. If you are convinced by The Universal Vegetable Library argument of books growing on trees then you must be convinced by fruit growing on trees.

Cleanthes feels pretty confident even in the face of Philo's skeptical attacks, because Cleanthes is making arguments from common sense.

By appealing to common sense, Cleanthes uses detectable organic phenonema like the human eye -- it is simply unimaginable that any of it happened except in any other way than it happened except by a designer. Cleanthes argues that the skeptics' arguemnts could be very effective against abstract metaphysical concepts, but not an intricate organic phenonemon -- and that an inticate organice phenomenon is proof of intelligent design.

Cleanthes began with a mechanical metaphor, but has shifted to the organic.

Cleanthes says that when you point out the structure of nature, some people might bte too stupid to appreciate their design. But this is not skepticism. The skeptic does not think too little, but too much, hyper-analyzing a problem that is much simpler, and it's not a problem anyways, that a posteriori (from observation) there must be intelligent designer.

Demea responds that Cleanthes is just presumptuous, that Cleanthes is implying that god may be understood as the author of a book may be understood.

If god has written a book, it is no human book, it is all of nature itself, a riddle. The effrots that Cleanthes makes to understand god thrugh its creations are just presumptuous and false. Deamea points to the example of Plotinus who, when speaking of god, was so respectful of god's uniqueness, did not even want to apply intelligence to god because that limited to god to having a mind. If we say god is x, then we are denying something to god. Demea thinks of god in that way, whose existence is absolutely certain but whose essence is fundamentally unknowable. Love, pity, other human traits are not applicable to god -- including saying god loves us. All ideas that require us to have senses, are in no way like god, god is totally incomprehensible to us.

Dialogue IV

Human mind is mutable, composite -- not simple.

The mind is composite is obvious, as in the 18th century terms it was thought to be made of a number of metnal faculites like reason, will and imagination and the thinking that goes on is discursive, going on over time, in part because it goes through those compartments.

But god is simple, not composite, so it must not be composite like ours, and it must be immutable.

So that gives us problems with any comparison between any architect's mind and the divine mind.

Also, the mental itself is up until now a self-justified stopping point.

A story went that far away in some exotic country, a student asked a teacher what holds us up, the teacher said earth, the student asked what holds up the earth, the teacher said the ocean, the student asked what holds up the ocean, the teacher said a big turtle, the student asked what holds up the turtle, the teacher said it's just turtles all the way down.

We move from the house to the blueprint to the mind, from the material house to the material blueprint to the non-material mind. But why stop at the mental? Why not look for a cause for the mental, perhaps a higher material cause? Or why go to the mind?

The argument assumes that the order-causing function comes from the mental exerting itself onto matter.

But what causes order among the ideas in god's mind? And why does order belong more to the mind than to matter? What's particularly orderly about the mental, or what's particularly mental about order?

Dialogue V

The design argument is by analogy and a posteriori. In an argument of that type, the stronger the similiarty of causes and effects, the stronger the a posteriori argument. But in the domains of which we speak, which on one hand are astrophysics and microbiology, the experience we're having is as experienced simply too remote to contribute much to very strong arguments. But if the experience itself is remote then we're probably not going to get a strong argument.

In proving that god exists, we're arguing from effects to a cause, and we can do so because we think there is some analogy between the effects and the cause. But if our observations are finite, how can we deduce an infinite cause (god)? And how do we assume one god, as opposed to many gods? One house may have many architects. After all, many religions have been polytheist.

Dialogue VI

Just as the design is fundamentally an argument by analogy, it's also fundamentally anthropomorphic.

If we're comparing it to a human, why shouldn't it be thoroughly anthropomorphic? Why not think of messy things, unlike the abstract, like gender, sexuality and reproduction? In other cultures, god has often been thought about in that way. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, how in the beginning one god begat another and another through a generational process of sexual reproduction. Why not apply that analogy to the universe?

If I'm supposed to know the universe as an imperfect place, does that mean that god is also imperfect? Or if I can view the universe as perfect, does that mean that its perfect would have to come from a maker? Or can its perfection be spontaneous?

Dialogue VI

We have had mainly mechanical models, metaphors -- the house, the clock. But the universe seems more organic and natural than artificial and mechanical. Indeed, one very organic relationship is that between mind and body. Just by thinking certain thoughts you can cause certain physical effects.

When we put up an oject for design and move from a material effect to a mind, why do we view the mind as self-enclosed and not a larger, more comprehensive, mental, organic phenomenon where the ogranic suffuses the mental and vice versa? The design argument is a search for order that follows on the observation of order. And observing order, we intuitively want to know the source of order. Those questions about order seem to push us toward the mental in a design argument, but does order need to be explained by the mental? Can there not be order without anything mental? And while the design argument argues for a single god giving order to a single universe, the order for a designed universe is no less compatible with polytheism than it is with monotheism.

We might think of the model for the universe not as a machine or house, but as a plant or animal. Why is the universe more like a house or machne, but not a plant or animal? Well with a house or machine we have design, but with plants and animals we have propagating generations. If we look at a house or a mature tree, then design (thought) and generation (acorns, ova, sperm) are unobserved causes of observed effects. We could go and find an acorn, but just by looking at the three we know that an acorn necessitated it; similarly, by seeing a house, we can make an inference that it must have had an architect. When we see the tree, we can assume something previous to create the tree: tree 1 → tree 2. Why does that have to lead to a designing mind? Perhaps because it is a phenonemon of order, and if we are convined that order can only come from mind then that's why we need a designing mind to get that order where one tree begets another. But why must we assume that? Why cannot it be purely material? Why couldn't the relationship between acorn and oak tree be purely material with no designing mind? At some point there is a cessation of explanation.

Stopping point. I see where it goes. I see what the causes is. I see where this comes from.

In the design argument, the stopping point is the designing mind. But why can it not be organic generation?

Dialogue VII

1 world resembles organism/machine
2 world is organism/machine
3 world comes from generation/design

In step 3, when we decide how to make the choice that the world comes from generation or design, if we think of generation as evidence of design, if we think of the orderly way in which in hte domain of the organic tree one produces tree two, acorn produces oak, clam begets clam, if we think of that orderly evidence as evidence of design, then why not think of the design (orderliness itself) as evidence of generation? Maybe it is just generation -- turtles all the way down.

Imagine if spiders were philosophers. They would speculate about a universal spider web with a grand cosmic spider. This perhaps gives us an example of the limitation of our own human thinking.

Dialogue IX

The debate so far is about matters of fact: whether god is like humans, whether god has certain attributes, whether god exists. Here in the ninth dialogue we get this: the fact that something exists cannot be proved a priori.

Nothing is demonstrated a priori,
Unless its denial implies a contradiction.
Nothing is conceivable unless it implies a contradiction
Then the denial of any being's existence is conceivable
That god does not exist is conceivable
Thus, god is not demonstrable a priori

Dialogue X

The argument for design, being anthropomorphic, leads into the problem of evil.

From Dialogue IX's rather abstract argument, we turn to the discussion of human misery.

The a priori argument cannot start with facts about the world if it is a priori; and an a posteriori argument does start with facts about the world. But an overwhelming fact about the world is human misery. if we put the notion of human misery together with an almighty god creates the problem of evil: human misery + almighty god → problem of evil

If god is omnipotent, then god not only chooses what happens, but whatever happens is what god wills. Since misery is something that happens, then god must be responsible for misery. A wise, omniscient god chooses means for ends. Nature, created by god, seems designed for misery, not happiness. Humans have limited knowledge and power, which on a divine level are omnipotence and omniscience. Another way of phrasing the problem of evil is: can god prevent evil, but will not?

If god cannot stop evil, that implies impotence, not omnipotence
If god will not stop evil, that implies malevolence, not benevolence; or at least, it implies detachment, that god is fully aware (being omniscient) but just lets it happen. God is not providentially responsible for the evil in the world.

Dialogue XI

The misery we observe may be compatible with god but it is not evidence that god exists.

Instead of thinking of god as infinitely supreme, supremely infinite, we may think of a finitely supreme god. This detcaches god from the problem of evil while still rescuing some elements of divinity. The information that the human mind about the universe is limited and defective, including information that god is supreme.

But others argue that a god that is superlative, even if finite, would never create a messy universe of such misery.

Why? A defective house implies a bad argument. And we should only trust in our beliefs which are very likely because our senses and knowledge are so very limited and unreliable.

Natural evil occurs in nature itself.

Hume suggests we should think of causes, reasons for natural evil: like a tsunami. How can we hang on to the notin of a benevolent god in light of natural evil? Well when discussing natural evil, we usually refer to it in relation to human pain. There below are arguments that seek to maintain a benevolent god despite the problem of evil.


Pain as preservation

We need both pleasure and pain for self-preservation -- but could we could not have just had entirely positive directives? "Shall we conjecture, that such a contrivance was necessary, without any appearance of reason?" (§XI ¶6)

Pain as effect

God makes nature, with natural laws. As a consequence of those laws we get pain. But god began without any laws, and god could have created natural laws such that pain does not happen? Could god not allow pain to not happen? "A fleet, whose purposes were salutary to society, might always meet with a fair wind. Good princes enjoy sound health and long life. ... There may, for aught we know, be good reasons why Providence interposes not in this manner; but they are unknown to us; and though the mere supposition, that such reasons exist, may be sufficient to save the conclusion concerning the Divine attributes, yet surely it can never be sufficient to establish that conclusion." (§XI ¶8)

Nature is strict

Nature is parsimonious and strict. As a consequence of this perfect ordering, beings are imbued with deficiencies and pain happens. But as with the argument above, god could have ordered the universe so as to not have pain. However, perhaps the slightest adjustment would have had tremendous consequences for the universe.

Pain as design

Pain is just part of god's design for nature. But then, evidently, the design is imperfect: nature causes misery and annihilation. A design as troublesome as this one is difficult to reconcile with a benevolent, let alone infinite, god. "Parts hang all together; nor can one be touched without affecting the rest, in a greater or less degree." (§XI ¶11)

Shall we say that these circumstances are not necessary, and that they might easily have been altered in the contrivance of the universe? This decision seems too presumptuous for creatures so blind and ignorant. Let us be more modest in our conclusions. Let us allow, that, if the goodness of the Deity (I mean a goodness like the human) could be established on any tolerable reasons a priori, these phenomena, however untoward, would not be sufficient to subvert that principle; but might easily, in some unknown manner, be reconcilable to it. But ... as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject.§XI ¶12

Imagine that a benevolent god could be proven a priori -- then those facts, these evils, maybe compatible with god's benevolence.

But we know that there is no such a priori proof, there cannot be. So if there'll be a benevolent god it must be inferred a posteriori from the facts; but we know the facts don't support it. Why? There is too much misery, always observable all around us.

Dialogue XII

Philosophical religion and vulgar superstition.

Philosophical religion was mentioned earlier in the Dialogue. It is a religion based on philosophical principle, enriched by a natural theology. A vulgar superstition is crude, raw, simple-minded and thoughtless, completely divorced from any reasoning whatsoever.

Hume observes both kinds of religion in the world and believes they can be evaluated by their behavior, by historical examination.
The traditional argument for vulgar superstition is that no matter how crude (or even corrupt) it may be, it is needed and good belief in the afterlife is necessary to motivate a moral society, to choose between good and avoid evil. The expectations of an afterlife is needed to constrain people into moral behavior.
However, Hum finds that looking at the natural history of superstitions finds that vulgar superstition does not lead to morality.

It does not have a good effect on morality, but rather a bad effect. He looks at ancient Roman religion, where popular religions among the people coexisted with immorality.

Hume angles toward a particular conclusion. He is willing to reach some positive conclusion as a result of this natural theology inquiry, but that this conclusion is highly constrained:

If the whole of natural theology ... resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined proposition, that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence: If this proposition be not capable of extension ... . If it afford afford no inference that affects human life ... . And if the analogy ... can be carried no farther than to the human intelligence ... . If this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive, contemplative and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition ... .

He says that the cause/causes of the universe probably have some similarity to human intelligence. However, he says this cannot be extended to reach further conclusions about human nor any other being's thought.

Why does Hume take such a limited conclusion leaving open so many questions? Because Hume eliminates so much.

Hume eliminates a priori and a posteriori arguments, then tackles the problem of evil. Even if one could prove an a priori argument, the problem of evil negates it.

The last sections of Hume's Dialogue on Natural Religion address the possibility that the universe was created by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. Hume seems to conclude that that is not possible, given the way the world is, the amount of suffering it contains. John Perry attempts to rebut this argument, not by proving that it is false, but by demonstrating that it is possible that God could be perfect and create this world: that there is at least one possible state of things wherein those statements could cohere. Thus he does not attempt to show that belief in God is rationally required, but that it is rationally *respectable*. What follows below is a rough presentation of the main points made in that attempt.

Thoughts on Hume's Dialogues

In Part XI, Philo argues that,

However consistent the world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures, with the idea of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence. The consistence is not absolutely denied, only the inference.

What is it that Philo claims "the idea of such a Deity" is consistent with? Why is the idea of a deity consistent with it? How could the considerations that Philo brings to bear in favor of this consistency answer the challenge issued by Gretchen? What inference can we not make despite this consistency? Why can't we make it? In your opinion, would our inability to make this inference entail that Philo cannot meet Gretchen's challenge? Why or why not? (Hint: examine all of Part XI for the arguments of interest).


Dr. Brian Copenhaver. A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. Lecture, UCLA. August 27, 2012.