David Hume on the Argument From Design

In conjunction with our meet-up on August 20th to discuss the philosopher, David Hume, this is the first post in a series about his philosophy as it relates to empiricism and skepticism. 

David Hume is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the English language.  His writing established the development of empirical philosophy.  He followed and built-upon the work of John Locke, and inspired the works of Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, and many others.

Hume was a prolific writer, and not just of philosophy.  He wrote a six-volume work called The History of England (that took him fifteen years to write), as well as novels and poetry.  His first philosophical work was called A Treatise of Human Nature, which he wrote when he was only 26.  Book 1 of ‘Treatise’ dealt with ideas, Book 2 dealt with emotions, and Book 3 dealt with morals.  This third book was an attempt to utilize a scientific approach to moral reasoning.  And by doing so, his essay rejects the hold that religion had on moral truth.  His most popular philosophical work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, was published a few years after his death.  This was intentional because of it’s resolute attack on Christian philosophy, that surely would have caused him trouble by the church and legal authorities.

Hume was a staunch critic of Christianity and believed that it should be completely distinct from political, moral, and legal proclamations.  He is credited for making a devastating critique on the Argument from Design (the argument that the universe and natural world have elements of design, thereby providing proof in the existence of an intelligent designer, aka “God”).  Hume argued that this conclusion of God’s existence did not necessarily follow from the premises.

Hume believed that the Argument from Design suffered from infinite regress (A is caused by B, B is caused by C, etc.).  If one studies the world to determine the causal factors that show elements of design, Hume explains that behind each cause, there will be another cause, and another cause, etc.  So he merely dismissed this argument as an ad infinitum argument.

When countered by Christian philosophers that the causal factors go all the way back to God, Hume countered by stating that if you argue in this way, from the natural world, you will see that the argument presumes that there is a close analogy between the mind of God and the mind of human beings.

Christian philosophy analogized that a watch clearly is designed, and therefore was made by a watchmaker.

In section 5, of the Dialogues, he deconstructs this argument further and ultimately arrives at an important conclusion. As Christian philosophy relies on analogies of God interactions to that of human interactions, thereby strengthening their argument, they are in fact, defining God as very similar to humans (complete with all of the weakness and infallibility that comes with it) and not of an intelligent designer.