Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Parts IV&V

Previous Post

I ended the previous post with the confounding of Philo. When he tries a particular tactic in order to criticize Cleanthes's design argument, Cleanthes tangles him in his own commitments. The argument cannot, on Philo's own terms, be criticized simply for being analogical, and Philo's skeptical preference for inferences with natural force gives the advantage wholly to Cleanthes.

Demea, however, has very little interest in all this, and claims that Cleanthes's argument leads us dangerously close to presumptuousness about God. Cleanthes makes an analogy to a book, but when we read a book, we in some sense enter into the mind of the author. Demea is adamant, however, that we cannot do this with God; and, moreover, the volume of nature "contains a great and inexplicable riddle." Cleanthes can only get the result he wants by making God in our own image.

Cleanthes opens Part IV by criticizing Demea's claim that God is utterly incomprehensible and that there is no likeness between God and human creatures. No doubt God has many attributes surpassing human comprehension, but we must be able to give content to our claims about God. Otherwise claims of the mystics that God is unknown and incomprehensible is no different form the atheist's claim that God is unknown and incomprehensible.

Demea reacts rather poorly to being called a mystic, and, sharply criticizing Cleanthes for name-calling, and, in any case, anthropomorphite is as bad a name as atheist. Human minds are changeable and consist of diverse faculties; this is not consistent with divine immutability and simplicity.

Cleanthes is unmoved, and replies that people who hold divine simplicity in such a sense are simply mystics, or, in other words, "Atheists, without knowing it." The attribute we can most certainly ascribe to God is intelligence, and we should not ascribe anything to him that is inconsistent with that. Total simplicity and immutability, Cleanthes insists, would require us to say that God is " mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all."

Philo jumps in to joke that Cleanthes is effectively calling atheists generations of orthodox theologians, and that at this rate Cleanthes will be the only theist in the world. And so he begins to argue on the basis of Demea's charge of anthropomorphism, proposing to show "that there is no ground to suppose a plan of the world to be formed in the Divine mind, consisting of distinct ideas, differently arranged, in the same manner as an architect forms in his head the plan of a house which he intends to execute."

The argument he goes on to give is that, whether you try to defend the supposition of the Architect of nature on the basis of reason or experience, i.e., a priori or a posteriori, you have no basis for treating mind and matter differently. If you propose an ideal world (distinct ideas, differently arranged, in the divine mind) to explain the material world, you can ask the same question of the ideal world as the material world. As a matter of simplicity it would be much easier simply to suppose that the material world is its own principle of order, as the pantheists do:

If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

Cleanthes is unimpressed by the argument. In response he points out that it is irrelevant to the status of the causal questions whether we can identify the cause of the cause in question, whether in common life or science.

Philo concedes that this is so, but claims that there is a difference: natural philosophers or scientists do not explain particular effects by particular causes, but by general causes; and that this is how their explanations render the particular effects more intelligible. If we try to explain particular effects by particular causes, however, the explanans is as obscure as (or more obscure than) the explanandum.

Philo opens Part V by retracing Cleanthes' argument. It is analogical and 'experimental', i.e., experience-based (like effects prove like causes), and Cleanthes has insisted that it is the sole theological argument. Given these two points, however, "liker the effects are which are seen, and the liker the causes which are inferred, the stronger is the argument." A way of criticizing the argument immediately opens up. For the strength of the arguments depends on similarity. One might hold that all the new astronomical discoveries would be new evidence for the existence of God. But if Cleanthes is right, they are really objections, because they reduce the similarity to the human case. (It is noteworthy at this point that Philo quotes Cicero's De natura deorum, which is arguably Hume's major influence in this work.) The same may be said when we extend our acquaintance with the world in the opposite direction and look at the discoveries made possible by microscopes.

Cleanthes responds that these are not contradictions, but simply new instances of art and contrivance, and thus more reflections of a mind -- a mind like the human mind, since we know of no other mind.

Philo, "with an air of alacrity and triumph," begs Cleanthes to note the consequences of this. If Cleanthes is right, then, first, God cannot have any infinite attributes; second, God cannot be perfect or, at least, cannot be known to be so; third, we have no way of knowing whether there is only one God or not; fourth, the human minds we know are produced by generation, so the analogy suggests a theogony like that of the ancients; and, fifth, the human minds we know have corporeal bodies, so the analogical inference Cleanthes is defending could lead us to the Anthropomorphite heresy in the strict and proper sense.

The point here, of course, is not that Cleanthes is committed to these last three, but that the one and only argument he allows cannot rule any of them out. So Cleanthes was perhaps right in showing that Philo had no basis for rejecting the argument insofar as it suggests the existence of something like design as a cause for the cosmos; but on his own terms he cannot proceed a step further to indicate any characteristic of this cause.

Cleanthes does indeed deny that he accepts these extreme consequences; but he notes that, however extravagant Philo may get, he still has to concede that the world is caused by something like design. And that, he says, is a sufficient foundation for religion.

An audacious claim, that. It will be put to the test starting with Part VI.

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