12 November 2012
The Façade of the Teleological Argument
In Accordance with David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”
The Teleological argument for the existence of God seems strikingly compelling at first glance, but greatly weakens once it becomes subjected to intense discourse. This argument, also referred to as the “design argument”, is an a posteriori argument claiming that through observation of the universe we can discover evidence of intelligent design that justifiably infers the existence of a “grand designer”, usually posited as God. In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume, a British empiricist, first presents his version of the Teleological argument through the use of his character Cleanthes, Hume’s representation of the typical 18th century empirical theist: 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, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them . . . By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the
existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence. (Hume, and Smith 143) Cleanthes argues here that the universe is like a purposefully made machine––only an extremely intricate, big, orderly, and complex one. He asserts that since an intelligent, human creator must design every machine (as machines do not assemble themselves randomly nor by chance) we can justifiably assume that an intelligent creator, whom instead holds divine-like, rather than human-like, properties, must have designed the universe as well. However, Hume attempts to disprove this assertion through the discourse of his other characters––Cleanthes’ friends–Demea, an Orthodox fideist, and Philo, the philosophical skeptic.
It is worth noting that at beginning of Dialogues all of the characters seem to be arguing over the nature of God and not necessarily over His existence, if at least tentatively. Even Philo, who bears the strongest resemblance to the empiricist Hume, consents using a variation of the Cosmological argument for his reasoning: But surely, where reasonable men treat these subjects, the question can never be concerning the Being, but only the Nature, of the Deity. The former truth, as you well observe, is unquestionable and self-evident. Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it be) we call God; and piously ascribe to him every species of perfection. (142) All three characters agree for now that, indeed, God’s existence is not questionable, but Philo and Demea are in disagreement with Cleanthes on whether God’s nature is actually unknowable. Cleanthes, arguing that His nature is indeed knowable, maneuvers this by claiming that we can draw reasonable conclusions from God’s “art” (the universe) about God’s perceived perfections. Basically, Cleanthes is supporting an anthropomorphic version of God (relating God directly to Greavu 3
human beings) but with perfected attributes. I believe Hume includes the original consensus on God’s existence to allow for some of the stronger objections to Cleanthes’ argument––those directed specifically at God’s specific nature, occurring later on in the text––to flourish, as it would be rather silly to begin questioning God’s nature without first affirming His existence. Demea and Philo present several counterarguments to Cleanthes’ reasoning. First, Demea, the fideist, does not like the fact that Cleanthes is using an a posteriori argument for proving both God’s nature and His existence. He argues a posteriori reasoning is not...
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