For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about the sections one through five of Hume’s “Dialogues.” The following is my submission
:The subject of Hume’s Dialogues, natural religion, is one which Hume remarks is an example par excellance of a subject which is difficult because it is simultaneously important, ostensively obvious, and gives occasion for many abstruse questions. Primarily for these reasons, then, consideration of it is presented in the form of a dialogue between fictional characters (Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes).
Part 1 begins with a discussion between Philo and Demea. Philo, observing that Demea believed scientifically studying natural religion should begin only after one has been educated in other abstract philosophies such as ethics or logic, remarked that the idea man can learn of such things apart from religious instruction is destructive to natural religion itself. Cleanthes interposes that grounding religious beliefs on philosophical skepticism is, if serious, cognitive dissonance. At this point, Philo’s relatively long defense of the value of cautiousness and common sense seems to imply that his position is near to Hume’s own as described in his “Enquiry.” If this is the case, Hume must believe that all consideration of an immaterial being or realm is speculatory. Regardless, Cleanthes retorts that, given the self-defeating nature of epistemological skepticism, and given that empiricism must allow that we do not know how or why certain events cohere, the same may be said of religion; furthermore, such seems to have historic precedence prior to Lockean philosophy. Philo protests that those who do not believe in God are fools, but that such is only sensible if it is indeed the case that reason is sufficient principle by which one can become intimate with religion.
Following Cleanthes’ opinion that men are disposed to defend their dogmas by whatever means possible, Part II begins with Demea expressing surprise at Cleanthes’ argumentation thus far, which he perceives imply that the nature of God cannot be known. Upon citing Malebranche as an example of a way in which we can come to [intelligibly] know God, Philo, agreeing that the alleged soundness of the cosmological argument hinges the nature of the debate on the know-ability of God, repeats that one can only progress so far in such a manner – or in empirical investigations, for that matter – before one must give way to caution. Cleanthes replies to Philo by appealing to a teleological argument, intending to show that God is anthropomorphic. Both Demea and Philo disapprove of this argument: Demea, because the proof is hinged on empiricism, which implies that God’s existence, let alone nature, is not necessarily true; Philo, because the a posteriori, intuitively causal, analogical, and inductive inferences are fallacious (further suggesting Philo represents Hume). Demea and Philo then converse about a priori reasoning and experience. Philo claims that all a priori reasoning is founded upon experiential knowledge; for instance, we infer the universe is not eternal because we repeatedly note that matter does not form itself into perceived designs and then reason a priori that matter generally does not form itself. Of course, this common sense philosophy predicates the cosmological argument upon experience; hence, the disagreement with Cleanthes, argues Philo, should be due simply to the fact God’s nature is not strictly demonstrable. The narrator writes that Philo seems to have been jesting, and Cleanthes, not persuaded that Philo is being serious, queries whether or not we should apply such skepticism to the Copernican system. Philo replies that the analogy is not apropos, as one can compare planets but cannot compare the generation of the universe to anything.
In Part III, Cleanthes accuses Philo of not seriously considering his criticisms of analogous reasoning, as practically all inferences – inferring a voice in the dark is a man – depend upon it. Cleanthes argues that the appearance of intelligence and beauty are appropriate counterpoints to Philo’s belief that one cannot compare analogous reasoning in science to analogous reasoning pertaining to the origin of the physical world, and that if Philo were to consistently apply his arguments thus far to all things without his own prejudice, he would be left with extreme skepticism. Demea, rejoining the conversation, remarks that as forceful as Cleanthes’ arguments may be, to infer that such a designer is a deity is a non sequitur.
Cleanthes’ replies to Demea in Part IV by asking whether or not “God” is an empty word and if natural religion can be meaningful, to which Demea replies that he merely rejects Demea’s anthropomorphizing. Demea then lists several “perfections” of God, to which Cleanthes replies that such cannot be known if they are not in some sense relative to us. Philo answers that the variance of thought within humankind is enough to question how one can reasonably regard an immaterial being – a being who would possess an infinity of differences from a human mind – as anthropomorphic. Moreover, when one considers the mind of such a God and discovers that its thoughts have no origin, Philo wonders why Cleanthes does not allow this to be the case for men. Cleanthes replies that Philo’s own argument can be used against him, as the cause of a thought must at some final point be attributed to an intelligent being, and that the harmony of nature confirms this to be true.
Philo insists that he will remain cautiously skeptical, and responds to Cleanthes’ attempted rebuttal by asserting that the argument assumes perceived effects must be produced by similar causes (i.e. intelligence from intelligence); if Cleanthes is to be consistent, he must admit God is not perfect, immortal, or infinite, as man is not perfect, immortal nor infinite. Thus, Philo remarks that the idea that the “beauty” to which Cleanthes had earlier referred could be attributed to such a being is dubious. In order to avoid the import of these arguments, Philo anticipates that Cleanthes will have to complicate his argument or arbitrarily dismiss sections of his rebuttal, and Part 5 ends with Cleanthes exclaiming that he believes none of these arguments and that Philo must presuppose the teleological argument in order for his arguments to be sensible.
Briefly analyzing the dialogue so far, each character’s arguments have there own strengths and weaknesses. Philo is correct to proportion belief with evidence, but, given his criticisms of Cleanthes and his empiricism, it is not apparent for what reason he believes in God. Cleanthes is correct that Philo and Demea do not seem to be speaking about “God” with any intelligible meaning, yet he himself utilizes subjective argumentation which he cannot validly dogmatize. Demea speaks soundly when he affirms that only a priori reasoning can substantiate certainty that God exists, yet how he has discovered God’s nature is questionable. Each character must either admit he cannot know God by natural religion or explain more precisely how he can within the bounds of his own beliefs.