Monday, June 11, 2007

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Part VIII

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Previously, Philo attacked Cleanthes's analogical design argument by proposing a set of alternative analogies that suggest that Cleanthes's argument does not result in a cause whose nature is clearly a human-like mind in the way Cleanthes suggests. Cleanthes replies to this that Philo's analogies are merely imaginative fancies that "may puzzle, but never convince us." In doing so he is actually being clever, since it is a weakness of Philo's skepticism that according to it we should follow (non-dogmatically) the inference that has the greatest natural force, as Cleanthes knows well. When Cleanthes made this move before, Philo was confounded.

But Philo is not playing quite the same game as he was before, since he has moved from rejecting the analogy to rejecting Cleanthes's certainty about the sort of conclusion the analogy allows. Thus Philo is able this time to come back with an answer. The response would be cogent in matters of every day life, since usually in every day life, we find one supposition to have some sort of probability, and the others, at least to a man of sound judgment, can be seen to be sophistical. But in this instance, it is not so:

But in such questions as the present, a hundred contradictory views may preserve a kind of imperfect analogy; and invention has here full scope to exert itself. Without any great effort of thought, I believe that I could, in an instant, propose other systems of cosmogony, which would have some faint appearance of truth, though it is a thousand, a million to one, if either yours or any one of mine be the true system.

Note that Philo is not rejecting the analogy; he is pointing out that there are "a hundred contradictory views" that preserve some imperfect analogy; and, of course, Cleanthes has no way to weed them out. Philo has already given some cosmogonies with an imperfect analogy; but there are others, and to prove it he gives an example of yet one more, the 'Epicurean' or atomist hypothesis.

This, Philo concedes, is commonly (and he says, justly) regarded as absurd; but, he insists, even it can be given some sort of verisimilitude:

Instead of supposing matter infinite, as Epicurus did, let us suppose it finite. A finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions: and it must happen, in an eternal duration, that every possible order or position must be tried an infinite number of times. This world, therefore, with all its events, even the most minute, has before been produced and destroyed, and will again be produced and destroyed, without any bounds and limitations. No one, who has a conception of the powers of infinite, in comparison of finite, will ever scruple this determination.

Demea jumps in here to object that this assumes that motion can begin in matter without a voluntary agent. Philo notes in response that we already recognize cases (like gravity and electricity) where some sort of motion begins in matter where there is no obvious voluntary agent. To be sure, one could hypothesize that there is one, but there isn't much reason to do so. "The beginning of motion in matter itself is as conceivable a priori as its communication from mind and intelligence." Further, why couldn't motion have been conserved in matter from all eternity? This can get some appearance of probability, since it is conformable to human experience: matter has been in motion for as long as we've been around to experience it.

This leads Philo to suggest yet another hypothesis of cosmogony. In the world as we know it, matter undergoes a perpetual agitation of motion, but also preserves a constancy in the forms of things (things aren't continually dissolving from the agitation). We know, then, that continual motion of matter can produce, in finite steps, the world as we know it; and yet it can also preserve constancy in the forms of things. However, any world combining these two features, perpetual motion and constant form, will have the appearance of design. Sometimes things in this world will break down; but the 'corrupted matter', i.e., the remains will continue to undergo motion until it reaches a state in which it can survive for a while in constant form. The whole world can degenerate in this way; but if matter keeps churning, it will eventually churn itself until some forms come about by accident that are so composed that they can survive, and off we go again.

If we suppose, then, that the universe was thrown into a particular position by a " blind, unguided force". If it just did this once, the result would still be chaos. But if the "actuating force, whatever it be" continues to throw things in different positions, through all possible positions. Then we'd have order arising, even if in all probability it would be gone the next moment. But if it goes on long enough, there just might be a streak in which things maintain a general uniformity of appearance while nonetheless continually undergoing motion. And if this occurred, it, too, would account for the apparent design of the universe.

Thus, says Philo, in vain do we emphasize so much the apparent design of animals; animals that weren't apparently designed couldn't survive. We know, in fact, that if you start messing with the adjustment of parts in an animal, it dies. Likewise, it is in vain to emphasize the apparent design of the world, since a world that weren't apparently designed wouldn't exist, at least as a subsisting order. This, regardless of whether it is actually designed or not.

Cleanthes is unimpressed, and says that it's good that it was clearly a hypothesis suggested on the spur of the moment. If the world came about in this way, so that the subsisting order existed only because everything shifted about until an order capable of sustaining itself was hit upon by chance, we wouldn't have an explanation of how good the order of the world is. We'd expect a sort of minimal sort of subsisting order, not the elaborate functionality and suitability to human use that we find. The world would not have dissolved if human beings had not been able to domesticate animals; but the world has animals able to be domesticated. The world would not have dissolved if we only had one eye instead of two; but the usefulness of two for us is pretty clear. And we can think of extraordinarily many things of this sort; "any one of them is a sufficient proof of design, and of a benevolent design, which gave rise to the order and arrangement of the universe".

It is a subtle shift in the argument, but a major one. Cleanthes has gone beyond the mere fact of order, and asserted a special type of order -- an order suggestive of benevolent design. No doubt this is why he thinks the one and only argument on the subject he allows to be good is sufficient for religion. It is this that he is effectively proposing as a way for weeding out alternative suppositions.

Philo concedes that Cleanthes's reasoning is a good reason to think that his suggested alternative supposition is incomplete and imperfect; but this, he suggests, will always be the case with cosmogonies, even with Cleanthes's. In our own experience, for instance, ideas originally derive from material objects, thought from bodies; but Cleanthes reverses this order. Thus the proper conclusion is that we should be very careful about condemning each other on this subject, since all we have to go on are slight analogies. And this paves the way for the skeptic again, not to deny that the analogies exist or that hypotheses can legitimately be formed on their basis, but to suspend judgment about which of these hypotheses is the true one.

Here, at the end of Part VIII we have reached the end of Philo's reversing fortune. At the end of Part III, he was confounded; by his own principles, given the particular form of attack he chose, Cleanthes had forced him into a corner in which he had to admit Cleanthes' position. However, inspired by Demea, Philo changed his course of attack, and now has rebuilt a full skepticism of the sort he espouses. The skepticism is a subtle one. It's not that he thinks we can't talk about the subject, or reasonably speculate about it; in fact, we can hypothesize all the systems of cosmogonies we please. Given just how cheaply and easily these hypotheses come, though, we should not embrace any one of them; we should not choose any one of them as our "abiding city," as something we are required to defend. If you wish any brief summary of Philo's standing position in the Dialogues, it is this, read in context.

So Part VIII finishes Philo's successful re-defending of skepticism after the first attempt to defend a skeptical position failed in Part III.

Why, then, are the Dialogues still continuing? The answer is subtle but simple. Recall that I had said previously about the rules of the game and the initial positions. The 'rules' were:

(1) Cleanthes and Philo are playing a game of which Demea is not wholly aware, because Cleanthes knows that Philo is half-joking in his support of Demea, whereas Demea thinks that Philo is wholly on his side.
(2) Philo concedes to Cleanthes that skeptics like himself must recognize the natural force of arguments from sense and experience.
(3) Cleanthes has introduced the crucial issue of scientific conclusions, and pointed out that they show that the skeptic can't restrict the natural force of arguments from sense and experience to arguments with conclusions devoted wholly to matters of everyday life.
(4) Demea has made the distinction between arguing for God's existence and arguing that He has certain attributes, and Philo has agreed to it completely.
(5) Cleanthes has presented the particular argument to be discussed. This argument is an argument from sense and experience, and it is in particular an analogical argument from sense and experience.

And the initial positions were:

(6) Cleanthes commits himself entirely to this argument as the one and only argument he can accept.
(7) Demea's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its 'a posteriori' character.
(8) Philo's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its analogical character.

Philo's play from his original initial position failed, so he switched to Demea's. However, by rule (1) there are actually two games going on. In one game, Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes are playing together, with Philo and Demea in league. But this is a game into which Philo has entered not because he agrees with Demea, but because it is a move in a more fundamental game being played between the two friends, Cleanthes and Philo, of which Demea is not a part. That move has begun to wrap up, although Demea has not yet realized it; and in the next two parts Philo will play a brilliant endgame in which he, by knocking Demea out of the game (sacrificing him as a pawn, one might say), simultaneously builds a trap for Cleanthes.

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