Philosophy21 Jul 2010 08:20 am
David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published in 1779, three years after the Scottish philosopher’s death. The “dialogue” mentioned in the title takes place between three fictional characters: Demea, who believes that God’s existence can be proven through reason; and Cleanthes, who thinks that God’s existence is proven by the existence of the universe; and Philo, who’s more nuanced views are, most likely, Hume’s own.
The work was published after Hume’s death because of the great deal of controversial material it contained. Many of these ideas continue to be debated today, but a particularly fascinating passage is hidden among the more abstruse theology.
It begins when Cleanthes makes a standard argument for the divine Creation of the universe: “Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines … we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy … that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”
Philo, the skeptical stand-in for Hume, is having none of it. He begins by restating Cleanthes’ argument — “Throw several pieces of steel together, without shape or form; they will never arrange themselves so as to compose a watch.” — and then knocks it down. He does so by suggesting how it would, in fact, be possible to throw things together into a watch:
“And what surprise must we feel, when we find him [i.e., God] a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.”
A world of items, stupidly thrown together, and “gradually improving … throughout an eternity.” Hume needed only to go a few steps farther to anticipate Darwin by nearly a century. Alas, Philo (and, therefore, Hume) backed down, so the world had to wait.
You can find the full story in Daniel Dennett’s wonderful book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”
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