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How David Hume’s Critique of the Design Argument Survives for Three Centuries (Part 1)

That the universe is designed by an ‘intelligent creator’ as it exhibits balance and order has prevailed for centuries as the ‘most robust argument’ in defense of theism in the philosophical realm of old. Even in the present century, theists recurrently invoke the classic Design Argument as proof of god’s existence. This argument was torn down, however, when David Hume put forward his criticism of the Argument of Design – a treatise that sparked further acerbic debates for many centuries on the subject of god’s existence (Gaskin 1993). Although many attempted to dispute his arguments, the sagacity and decisiveness of Hume’s critique, until today, are difficult to challenge.

Cleanthes vs. Philo and God’s ‘Work of Art’

The “Critique of the Design Argument” is presented in Hume’s book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in which he puts forth a discourse between fictional characters, Cleanthes and Philo. The discourse begins when Cleanthes brings Philo’s attention to the world around them, asserting that the world is but one great machine, with its tiniest parts attuned to each other and with accuracy worthy of admiration and contemplation (Gaskin 1993). Cleanthes further adds that the creator’s ‘larger faculties’, parallels the minds of men as they manifest wisdom and intelligence and thus, it is only logical that an intelligent ‘maker’ shaped them (Swinburne 1991). This argument, Cleanthes believes, ‘proves the existence of a Deity’.

Using the house and the universe as analogy, Philo asserts that the universe does not show any relationship to a house as this is a flawed logic. The universe is a manifestation of nature while the house is man-made as he emphasizes the complexities we fail to clarify in the works of nature. Philo contends that men’s capability to understand ‘infinite’ relations is inadequate and it is “impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contains any great faults” or merits any justifiable adulation when “compared to other possible, and even real systems” (Hume 1739).

Through Philo’s character, Hume contends that order and purpose are perceived only when they are the consequences of design. However, we see some kind of order all the time manifested in seemingly unconscious occurrences like vegetation and generation. Thus, design constitutes only a tiny fragment of our perception with regards to ‘purpose’ and order. Assuming that the design argument is feasible, Hume argues that it is not enough to surmise or prove the existence of a deity from the conclusions gleaned from our knowledge of the universe’s configuration which bears a distant resemblance to human design – cursory and sometimes unintelligent – a world which Hume states is “the only and the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance” (Hume 1739).

Hume believes that god’s intellectual or mental order and faculties need to be understood in order for the design argument to be decisive and reach a logical finality. Otherwise, we could not create a parallel explanation of order, or actually define it, leaving the notion too arcane and inscrutable. Hume also argued that if an orderly and balanced natural world necessitates a special maker or designer, then God’s mind as it is well ordered, likewise requires a creator. Thus, this maker would similarly need another maker, and so on. The comparison with nature and the various things found in it, Hume adds, is ineffectual as things present in the universe are set apart from human material items as they exhibit considerable disparity (Hume 1739).

The Degradation of the Creator

Cleanthes further argues that ‘the works of nature bear a great analogy to the work of art (Sober 2003) insisting that the resemblance which exists between this world and human products is quite significant. Hence, god is somehow ostensible in human intelligence. Hume argues that this leads to a degradation of the creator. He suggests that we know nothing about the nature or the attributes of god as everything about the deity is unknown and there exists only a distant analogy among the diverse operations of nature. These comparisons do not suggest that the basis of the emergence of the universe is the mind or human intelligence. The aforementioned analogies, according to Hume are so feeble and distant that god’s nature cannot be explained nor understood (Poidevin 1996).

An Argument against All Odds

For a many decades, Hume’s treatise has been challenged using modified arguments from the intelligent design proposition. Scholars in the field of religion and philosophy have concocted innovative extensions borne out of the design proposition. These counter-arguments however, fell apart as Hume’s critique stands robust amidst attacks from different schools of philosophical thought.

Hume’s arguments persist until today as his objections to the prevailing idea that an orderly universe exists are strengthened and supported by science. Although knowledge of the universe during Hume’s time is not as advanced as of late, Hume exhibited deeper understanding of the universe we live in.

To be continued…

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