Philosophy of Religion

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Challenges to the Teleological Argument from Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was an atheist at a time when atheist writings were banned in many countries. Hume wrote his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in 1750 but it wasn’t published until after his death. As an empiricist Hume was keen to show that the study of the natural world could not succeed in telling us anything of the Christian God. It is important to remember that Hume predates Paley by 20-30 years. Hume was not responding to Paley but rather the argument as outlined by thinkers such as Plato, Cicero and Aquinas.

Hume puts forward four premises:

  1. The Universe is orderly – Hume raise the question of morality. Evidence would suggest that the world is far from being harmonious e.g. suffering, disease, pain and illness. This raises the question as to why a benevolent God would allow such things to take place. Furthermore, recent evidence would suggest that the universe is not a mechanical as Newton would have us believe. Hume argues that there is no obvious sense in talking about the universe as being orderly.
  2. Order is the result of design – as an empiricist Hume believed that our knowledge of causes and effects is based upon our experience. We know a builder has built a house because we have seen many houses being built. The same cannot be said about the universe. In this way the universe is unique.
  3. Design presupposes intelligence – Hume looks at the complexity of a ship. He notes that in the construction of a ship many shipwrights are employed. Hume point out that the same could be said about the universe – i.e. many creator gods or demons…etc. For Hume, the Teleological Argument does not necessarily lead to the classical Christian definition of God.
  4. As the universe is so complex in design, there must be a complex intelligence – Hume postulates as to whether or not this universe is actually complex. We have got nothing to compare it to. In the past people thought slide rules were complex, today in comparison to a modern computer they are very simple.

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