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Hume Debunks Reason in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

An attempt to define Hume's voice within the Dialogues.

In the wake of new discoveries within the fields of science and mathematics, philosophers of the 18th century began to turn to reason in attempting to solve all conflicts, including those of religion. Hume?s Dialogues emerged during this time in response to the prominent ideal within society that human reasoning and logic stood at the base of the unraveling of the secrets of the universe. Debates abound as to discerning the voice of Hume within his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Though some profess Cleanthes as Hume?s mouthpiece, myriad evidence exists to the contrary. The introductory statements of Pamphilus indicating the obscure and indeterminable nature of the philosophy of natural religion support the theory of Hume?s perspective more closely resembling the philosophy of Philo than that of empirical theist Cleanthes. Philo?s successful casting of doubt upon the utilization of reason as a basis for natural religion, Cleanthes?s failure to transcend the doubt cast, as well as the composition of the work itself, as a dialogue, provide further evidence as to the voice of Hume?s skepticism. Failing to offer a definitive conclusion as to the determination of the nature of God, Hume, in true skeptic fashion, merely invokes opposition to the prominent theory of reason-based religion. Indeed, Hume exhibits his belief in the work that no definitive conclusions of natural religion can ever be ascertained, whether they are based on human reasoning or revelation.
Throughout the work, Hume provides philosophical skepticism through the character Philo in an attempt to debunk the assertions of empirical theist Cleanthes that religious belief can be rationally grounded in experience. Supporting a fideist view, Hume displays the inherent fallacy within the underlying logic of reason-based religion through the exhibition of the lack of evidence Cleanthes provides to justify his assertions. Cleanthes argues that by merely looking at the world, man can gain sufficient evidence that allows him to justifiably draw conclusions concerning the nature of God. He utilizes the analogy of comparing the universe to a splendidly constructed machine. Because the ?machine? of the universe runs so intelligently, Cleanthes argues that one may infer the superb intellect of its designer. He avers, ?the order and arrangement of nature, the curious adjustment of final causes and plain use and intention of every part and organ of the world all bespeak in the clearest language the intelligence of the cause or author? (Hume 32). Philo swiftly exhibits the fallaciousness of this reasoning, pointing out that the basis of Cleanthes?s argument relies on the assumption that the same logic employed within our world applies within that of God. This, Philo avers, reduces the argument of the supremacy and infinity of the wisdom of the divine if a mere mortal may employ the same logic as an omniscient creator. ?Your method of reasoning, Cleanthes, renounces all claims to infinity of the intellectual attributes of the deity. As your logic falls under our cognizance, it is not infinite? (35). Philo provokes incessant inquiry into the assumption that the divine mind is human-like and can be conceived by humans, highlighting to Cleanthes the anthropomorphism at the base of his theory.
The erroneous nature of Cleanthes?s theory of viewing the universe as a splendidly crafted watch, constructed by God the master craftsman, is revealed. This theory, based on the underlying assumption of like effects producing like causes, inspires Philo to advocate that the world more resembles a vegetable or animal than a watch or machine and therefore, it is more probable to believe in the cause of the universe as generation or veneration than an infinite deity. ?In a like manner that a tree sheds its seed into neighboring fields and produces other trees, so the great vegetable, the world, may have produced within itself certain seeds which vegetated into our world?. Philo admits he has no data to support this theory, asserting that indeed humans possess no proof to ?establish any system of cosmogony?. Our experience remains ?so imperfect in itself both in extent and duration that it can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things? (45)
The emerging of scientific, astronomical, and mathematical discoveries within the late 17th and early 18th century, in particular those of Newton and Galileo, shed an entirely new light on the understanding of humans? relationship with the divine. Society credited the unraveling of the mysteries of the universe to the utilization of reason, rather than revelation, thus inspiring philosophers to turn to the scientific method in attempting to solve all conflicts within society, including religious debates (Newman 1999). Cleanthes utilizes the theories of Copernicus and Galileo as a basis for rebuttal to Philo?s assertion that human reasoning fails to explain the nature of God and his relationship with man because of our lack of experience within any other world. Cleanthes inquires to Philo, ?would you say that one should withhold his assent on the arguments of Copernicus and Galileo for the motion of the earth because their explanations were too magnificent for the narrow limits of human reason? Have you other earths? ? (Hume 8). Philo informs Cleanthes of the fact that the Copernican system owes to its existence the study of the revelations of the sun, moon, and other planets of the solar system. Philo points out that Cleanthes fails to provide any analogies of the same kind upon which he may support his theory. Philo asserts that the only true way in which one can aver conclusions as to other universes and the nature of our creator is to possess experience of them. The only means of accepting probable theories on natural religion occurs when the theorizer provides his account of actual observations of other ?worlds being formed under his eye and observing the whole progress from the first appearance of order to its final consummation?. Only then may he cite his experience and deliver a possible theory (22).
The ambivalence of the character Demea lends support to the theory of Philo representing Hume?s voice within Dialogues. Representing traditional orthodox Christianity, his vacillation between reason and revelation indicates the compelling argument Philo presents. Though he fails to agree with either conclusively in the end, he seems to lean more toward the principles of Philo than those of Cleanthes. In regard to the ability of man to look within nature to gain evidence as to the nature of the divinity, Demea claims, ?the unity of the divine nature is very difficult, if not absolutely impossible, to deduce merely from contemplating the works of nature? (54).
Pamphilus?s introduction of the Dialogues provides additional support to the theory that Hume speaks within the character Philo. Just as Philo asserts throughout the work, Pamphilus states that natural religion remains among the subjects ?peculiarly adapted? to dialogue writing, which are those of philosophy that remain ?so obscure and uncertain that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard to it? (1). Although some argue Pamphilus declares Cleanthes the ?winner? of the dialogues, the fact that Pamphilus reveals his status as a formal pupil of Cleanthes indicates his conclusion of the principles that ?most closely approach the truth? may be biased and unreliable.
Hume?s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion provokes inquiry into the prominent 18th century assertion that religious beliefs can be rationally grounded in experience. Hume attempts to exhibit the fallacy of this logic by employing a dialogue in which the characters engage in a debate as to the theory?s logical basis. Through Philo, Hume?s exhibits his disbelief in the ability of human reason to provide compelling evidence as to the existence of an intelligent creator, primarily because he feels man possesses no comparative evidence of another world on which to base his conclusions. The anthropomorphic bias of any theories man provides remain limited to the present life, and will always inherently possess within them the inexperience of man in the world of the divine. Though Hume may have believed in the existence of a deity and world beyond human comprehension, he desired to prove within Dialogues that neither he nor anyone else could produce evidence to justify such a claim.

Works Cited
?17th and 18th Century Works: The Beginning of the Modern World?.
Baruch College. 1999. Newmann Library at Baruch College. 29
April 2003. .

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett,

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