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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

David Hume

Part XI

Part X

Part XI, page 2

page 1 of 3


Cleanthes finally realizes that he has hit a pretty big obstacle to his empirical theism, and he tries to surmount this obstacle by sacrificing the "infiniteness" of God. God, he says, might just be finitely perfect. This might explain why he cannot make the universe exactly as he wants it to be: as a finitely perfect God he must make some compromises. His benevolence is regulated by wisdom and limited by necessity.

Philo, though, shows Cleanthes that this sacrifice will not help him. Even this sort of God (a finitely perfect one) cannot be inferred based on the evidence available to us. It might well be true that ours is the best world that God could have provided for us given the constraints within which he was working, but when we look at the world we cannot see that, and thus the evidence provides us with no basis on which to conclude that God is at all perfect. To illustrate his point, Philo draws an analogy between our universe and a very ugly palace. It might well be the case that the architect responsible is highly skilled and that he managed to produce the absolute best dwelling space he could have produced given the limitations of his materials and space. But still, when we look at the palace and see only that it is terribly ugly, we have no grounds on which to infer that the architect is talented.

Philo then shows us in what ways our universe appears to be like the ill- constructed palace. He identifies the four sources of misery in the world, and shows that (as far as we can tell) they are all unnecessary. First, there is the existence of physical pain. The purpose of pain is to motivate us to avoid certain actions and to engage in certain others. But this same goal could be fulfilled with only pleasure: God could have arranged the world so that those actions that were good for us cause pleasure, and those actions that are bad for us cause a lessening of pleasure. For instance, instead of the sensation of burning, fire could simply make us feel less nice than we would feel otherwise. Pain could then be cut out of the picture entirely. The second source of misery is the fact that the world is conducted by general laws. It would be better for us, Philo claims, if God ran the world by particular volitions, or if he at least regularly suspended or manipulated the laws of nature in order to produce a greater good. For example, whenever a small innocent child found itself in the way of a launched bullet, God could suspend the laws of physics and either change the bullet's trajectory, or cause the bullet to vanish into thin air, or do any number of other things to prevent the tragic meeting of bullet and child.

The third source of misery is the limited abilities of every particular species. God just gave each species what they needed in order to survive; he did not give any of them what they need in order to really thrive and be comfortable, safe, and happy. All human beings need in order to greatly improve their lot in life, for instance, is a much greater diligence. If God had given this gift to us then we would be morally, intellectually, and practically superior beings and most of our problems would disappear. The final source of misery is the fragile nature of the universe. In order for our world to function at its best, the conditions need to be just right. Too little of something and there is a disaster; too much of something and there is a disaster. For example, if there is not enough rain then there is drought and plants and animals die; if there is too much rain then there is flooding and plants and animals die. The same can be said of wind, heat, bodily fluids, and innumerable other earthly variables.

What can we conclude from a world with these four seemingly unnecessary features? So long as we have an independent belief in a benevolent God, Philo assures his friends, these features of the world are not sufficient to disprove our faith, since we can presume that God's goodness and the world's evil can be reconciled in some unknown way. But we certainly cannot infer the goodness of God from such a universe. Actually, if we do try to infer God's moral attributes from the world (which Philo thinks we should not do) then the only proper conclusion to draw is that God is neither good nor evil, but entirely indifferent to these principles—that God, in other words, is morally neutral.

Demea is offended by this last part of the argument and finds an excuse to exit.

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Whomever wrote this may very well be Kantian but...

by Bobarooney, May 29, 2014

This chapter is about the Cosmological argument for God's existence, not the Ontological. Of course, Ontological arguments get their name from the term 'ontos' meaning existence, yet it is missleading and potentially detrimental that this is written as though it is about the ontological argument. I've not read the whole thing, though at a glance it is quite obviously mistaken. In short, whomever wrote this cannot have read the 11 paragraphs of Section IX in the DNR.

In truth, the first part of Demea's argument runs closely with Dr Sam... Read more


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