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David Hume and divine design

Published: 8 April 2017 (GMT+10)

Today, a correspondent asks about David Hume, a famous 18th century Scottish philosopher and skeptic, and how to approach some of his arguments against design. CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds.

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David Hume

Ryan S. from Canada writes:

Hi guys, I’m in a class at my university called “Logic and reasoning” which has many arguments against creation in favour of evolutionism. I’ve had to read literature by David Hume who ridicules the argument for design. Specifically he talks about how (1) working from the parts to the whole is illogical (2) argument fails because there are no other universes to compare this one to (3) the argument does not prove the existence of only one specific god (4) the argument does not prove that the creator is infinite. I feel a little overwhelmed because I’m unsure if the argument for design is still strong.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

It’s not surprising that you would have to read Hume in a philosophy class at university. And it is worth reading his argument against design,1 if only to be familiar with his objections. Popular atheistic ‘apologetics’ really hasn’t advanced much beyond Hume. However, even some atheists have recognized severe flaws in Hume’s apologetics for atheism. E.g. John Earman, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, and not a Christian, wrote Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles.2

Outdated arguments

However, Hume’s arguments against design are passé. Consider the apologist and slavery-abolitionist William Paley (1743–1805), of ‘watchmaker fame’, from his famous book Natural Theology (1802),3 which initially so impressed Darwin. Paley wrote this three decades after Hume’s arguments, and Paley’s other writings engaged with Hume, which is why the book is not vulnerable to Hume’s objections. Even Richard Dawkins was famously unsatisfied with Hume’s arguments against design:

I feel more in common with the Reverend William Paley than I do with the distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist, with whom I once discussed the matter at dinner. I said that I could not imagine being an atheist any time before 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. “What about Hume?”, replied the philosopher. “How did Hume explain the organized complexity of the living world?”, I asked. “He didn’t”, said the philosopher. “Why does it need any special explanation?”

Paley knew it needed a special explanation; Darwin knew it, and I suspect that in his heart of hearts my philosopher companion knew it too. … An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume, “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, although logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty dissatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.4

Specific points

However, this does not mean Hume’s points were unanswerable even on their own terms. First, ask yourself this: what’s the worst-case scenario if the design argument doesn’t go through? Only that you’re not convinced that the design argument is a good argument. That’s it. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, or that He’s unknowable. In fact, it doesn’t even mean the world isn’t designed! There are still plenty of reasons to think God exists other than the design argument.

But what about the specific points you mention? First, (3) and (4) are easily dismissed. Just because the design argument doesn’t prove one specific God, or that God is infinite,5 doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant for the existence of God. Consider what a cosmic design argument (like the fine-tuning argument) by itself would allow us to plausibly conclude about the designer: it is a necessary, powerful, intelligent, immaterial, personal designer of the universe.

One necessary designer is simpler than many contingent designers. It’s powerful because it must have some way of imposing its design on the whole universe. It’s intelligent because we’re still figuring out how the universe works, and it must know how it works well enough to design it. It’s most likely immaterial because it’s most likely necessary (though it is at least not described by physics of our universe, since our physics is its design). It needs to be personal because to be intelligent is to be personal.

This obviously doesn’t ‘get us all the way to God’ on its own. But so what? Is the biblical God consistent with the conclusion of the fine-tuning argument? Of course! God is necessary, powerful, personal, intelligent, immaterial, and He designed the universe. That the biblical God is more than this doesn’t mean He is inconsistent with this description. We can talk about different candidates for the designer of the universe, and assess the plausibility of each candidate. But doing so, strictly speaking, takes us beyond the realm of the design argument. Moreover, notice that as we do that, atheism is shown to be fundamentally undercut by the design argument, since we’re left talking about which immaterial, personal being is the most plausible designer of the universe. In other words, even though the fine-tuning argument doesn’t get us all the way to God by itself, it can seriously undermine confidence in atheism, and can open up for people the reasonableness of thinking God designed the universe. If the argument achieves this much, it has been incredibly successful. Hume’s expectations for the design argument are way too high.

What about number (2), not having other universes to compare ours to? We don’t need other universes for the design argument to go through. What we need to be able to do is identify the relevant features of the universe that allow us to distinguish between the three remotely plausible explanations available: necessity, chance, and design. The features of the universe that don’t help us distinguish between those three explanations are irrelevant. If Hume thinks they could be, he’s going to have to do more than just hide in the mere possibility that they could be relevant. He’s going to have to explain why they are in fact relevant, and how they might add to the discussion. Hume is just hiding in unknown possibilities to avoid facing the most plausible explanation of the relevant evidence. (Just in case someone takes this in the direction of multiverses, please see On the origin of universes by means of natural selection—or, blinded by big bang blackness.)

And finally, number (1): working from the parts to the whole is illogical. As with point (2), Hume is just complaining that he thinks he has nothing similar enough to the universe to compare it to so that he can make inferences about its origin. As such, the same responses apply: it’s not about the comparing totalities, it’s about identifying relevant properties; and it’s about finding the best explanation of the body of evidence.

Furthermore, Hume was oblivious to what modern science would discover about the unity of the building blocks of nature. Einstein’s hero James Clerk Maxwell pointed out:

No theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change … . The exact equality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it … the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.6

This is strengthened by the discovery of fundamental constants of the whole that are fine-tuned, which points to a single designer in charge. Discoveries in the biological world also point to a ‘biotic message’: the unity points to a single designer rather than many, while the diversity thwarts evolutionary explanations.

The fundamental problem is in the way Hume formulates the design argument. He thinks it’s an argument from analogy, or an inductive generalization. It is neither. It’s an inference to the best explanation. In other words, design is easily the most plausible of the competing explanations available. If Hume were to reject design in that context, he would need an alternative that better explains the data (which as Dawkins says, he did not), or to show that there is little difference in the plausibility of the explanations we do have. Either way, he can’t simply cite mere possibilities, complain about dissimilarities, and whine that the argument doesn’t ‘get us all the way to God’ as reasons to reject design.

Here’s the take home point: doubt the doubters. They don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. See Faith and facts for more information.

References and notes

  1. See esp. Hume, D., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779. Return to text.
  2. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000. Return to text.
  3. Full title Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity. Collected from the appearances of nature. Return to text.
  4. Dawkins, C.R., The Blind Watchmaker, pp. 5–6, W.W. Norton, 1987. Return to text.
  5. Hume will often talk of God as ‘infinite’, but he believed that God ‘infinity’ means that He is so supreme that His perfections are completely beyond human knowledge. However, when theologians talk about God’s ‘infinite’ nature, they mean that He has no limitations outside Himself, i.e. is not limited by anything He created (see What does God’s omnipotence really mean?). So Hume’s critique is misdirected at a straw man version of ‘infinite’, but does nothing against the biblical attributes of God (see Questioning God’s many attributes). Return to text.
  6. Maxwell, J.C., ‘Discourse on Molecules’, a paper presented to the British Association at Bradford in 1873. Return to text.

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