Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Modern Philosophy 15

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 nine through twelve of Hume’s “Dialogues.” The following is my submission:

In section IX, Demea, having listened to Philo’s explanation of the limitations of a posteriori argumentation, suggests that a priori argumentation – specifically, the cosmological argument – is a more than adequate substitute when attempting to discern the nature of God. Cleanthes replies that a proposition is true only if the contrary is impossible to conceptualize and that conceptualizing reality without the existence of any single being, including God, is possible, as the material universe, for example, may be eternally existent. Philo, who believes that a priori arguments are unpersuasive, adds that mathematics display uncreated characteristics.

Demea replies in section X by opining that a reason many may find a priori arguments unconvincing because there are people who will use any means of argumentation to validate their intuitive beliefs. Philo agrees, also providing an answer as to why he believes natural religion is plausible, viz. the wickedness of men. This observation leads to a brief dialogue which leads Demea to remark that this could stem from the idea that man’s worst enemy is himself in the form of diseases of the mind and Philo to impute this wickedness to externals and claim that if man’s complaints and despair in all ages were absolutely sincere, more people would have committed suicide. Philo then asks how God can be anthropomorphic without being evil, introducing Epicurus’ postulation of the “problem of evil” into the discussion, to which Demea replies that evil functions as a means to future good and Cleanthes to argue that men are not absolutely miserable. Cleanthes, after calling Demea’s speculation groundless, defends his position by refusing to allow that Demea’s and Philo’s previous dialogue on the wickedness of man accurately depicts reality. Philo retorts that Cleanthes’ answer is as weak as it is doubtful, since evil still exists and is more potent, if less frequent, than good. Philo essentially rests his case for cautious skepticism with regard to the nature of God on this argument.

To begin section XI, Cleanthes posits that God may be finitely perfect, thus denying one of the premises of Epicurus to solve the problem. In rejoinder, Philo questions the know-ability of such a deity and insists that even a finitely perfect God would be capable of preventing some extant evils. He then outlines four evils which he believes cause most evil actions and may not be unavoidable: instinctual self-preservation, laws of nature, limitations in genetics to that which is necessary, and the brutality of nature. A posteriori arguments would be, in the face of these arguments, hard-pressed to demonstrate an anthropomorphic God who is good, and Philo even mentions that deism or an impersonal God – one who is neither good nor bad – would be a consistent alternative. At this, Demea and Cleanthes expresses amazement that Philo would propound such overtly skepticistic and unconventional theological beliefs, and some time thereafter Demea parted the company.

The final section consists of a conversation between the two remaining men, which begins by Philo remarking that despite his skepticism, the harmony he perceives in the sciences at every point presses upon his mind the belief in the existence of a divine being. That he finds this to be a strong indication of the existence of a sentient God’s is ironic, since this he had criticized Cleanthes’ teleological argument earlier. Cleanthes and Philo also agree that many disputes within natural theology are due to impreciseness in use of terms or exaggeration of opposite themes of similar conclusions. They furthermore agree that man’s moral capacities are defective and that evil should be ascribed to that cause rather than to God. Men even use religion, which ought to civilize, to justify evils. Superstition is too often allowed to infringe upon rational religion. The discussion proceeds in like manner, and concludes with Philo assenting to the idea that God bears an analogous intelligence to humanity but asserts that the surest way to Christianity is cautious skepticism. Pamphilus concludes the narrative declaring his instructor, Cleanthes, to have presented the strongest arguments, followed by Philo.

The criticisms of the superficial cosmological argument provided by Demea do show it is insufficient to substantiate his opinion of a priori reasoning and God’s demonstrability. Demea did seem to have argued weakly. Hume’s characters didn’t, however, note that morality within an empirical world-view is question-begging, as brute observations of physical occurrences would not logically imply how one ought to act. Finally, the argument from design which Philo eventually forwards and with which Cleanthes agrees is subjectively based, which, given Philo’s and Cleanthes’ earlier arguments against the cosmological argument, is interesting. Neither appears to recognize this confliction, however. In conclusion, then, natural theology does not seem to provide any rational reasons to believe in the existence of “God.”


Joshua Butcher said...


Aren't these chapters from the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, rather than Enquiry (on human understand or on moral principles)?

Ryan said...

Thanks for catching that. I usually just copy/paste the first paragraph and make the necessary changes, but forgot to do that here.