Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Parts X&XI

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In Part IX Demea had proposed an a priori argument as more suitable to religion and talk about God than Cleanthes's a posteriori argument. Problems were raised in response to that, and Part X closes with Philo's pointing out that the a priori argument requries metaphysical and abstract reasoning, and that religion, however much it may be supported by the argument, will always derive from another source than it.

Demea opens Part X by conceding that much, and suggests that other source: "[E]ach man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast, and, from a consciousness of his imbecility and misery, rather than from any reasoning, is led to seek protection from that Being, on whom he and all nature is dependent." Driven by fear and misery, we look for hope in the future, by way of prayer and sacrifice, and thereby find consolation in religion.

It is a sign of Demea's cluelessness as to the game being played that he would suggest this at this point, but it is entirely consistent with what he has said elsewhere.

Philo seizes on Demea's suggestion, saying that "the best, and indeed the only method of bringing every one to a due sense of religion, is by just representations of the misery and wickedness of men." Note how Philo in taking up Demea's claim has readjusted it to form the seed of a response to Cleanthes. Cleanthes had said that his a posteriori argument was a sufficient foundation of religion; if Philo's claim made here is true, Cleanthes's claim about his argument must be false. Further, Cleanthes committed himself in Part VIII to the design of the universe being benevolent. At the same time, Philo's readjustment has made Demea's position toothless, for he goes on to point out that "just representations of the misery and wickedness of men" owe more to eloquence and imagery than to serious reasoning. Thus Demea's suggestion gives him no ground on which to argue for his own view, and gives Philo ground for attacking Cleanthes. It is an ingenious move, but subtle enough that it might be missed.

Demea, still clueless, falls for the trap, and agrees, adding that human misery has become proverbial. Thereafter follows a curious back-and-forth. Philo follows this up by noting that there is considerable agreement between the learned and the vulgar on this point. Demea, carried away, says there is probably no book in Cleanthes's library in which the author has denied it. Philo replies that Leibniz did, and Demea responds that he cannot "bear down the united testimony of mankind, founded on sense and consciousness." Even better for Philo, he begins to give examples of misery in the animal world, which Philo then develops. Demea suggests that this is so common that only the human race is exempted; Philo responds that, on the contrary, it is with the human race that they are most apparent, and gives reasons for it. Demea enthusiastically begins expanding on them.

The perceptive reader will catch on quickly to the fact that Philo is herding Demea in the direction he wants the argument to go.

Cleanthes finally manages to break into the discussion by remarking that, while he has seen a few people who have this severe sense of misery, he doesn't feel it himself, and hopes it's not so common as the other two represent it. Demea assures Cleanthes that if he doesn't feel it, he is quite exceptional, and begins to list eminent examples of people who felt it: Charles V, Cicero, Cato....

Philo here abruptly brings the argument back to Cleanthes:

And is it possible, Cleanthes, said Philo, that after all these reflections, and infinitely more, which might be suggested, you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: whatever he wills is executed: but neither man nor any other animal is happy: therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: he is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: but the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?


And here we have it: Philo has set up the board as he wants it, and sets out to checkmate Cleanthes. Philo concedes (note it) that Cleanthes reasons justly in concluding that there is a purpose and intention of sorts in nature. But this purpose and intention appears to have no end in view except the preservation of individuals and the propagation of species -- well short of the benevolent design Cleanthes had suggested.

I have said before that Hume did not write Cleanthes to be a stupid character but, on the contrary, a very intelligent one. And Cleanthes shows his intelligence now, because he sees exactly what his old friend is doing:

And have you at last, said Cleanthes, smiling, betrayed your intentions, Philo? Your long agreement with Demea did indeed a little surprize me; but I find you were all the while erecting a concealed battery against me. And I must confess, that you have now fallen upon a subject worthy of your noble spirit of opposition and controversy. If you can make out the present point, and prove mankind to be unhappy or corrupted, there is an end at once of all religion. For to what purpose establish the natural attributes of the Deity, while the moral are still doubtful and uncertain?


Philo's long agreement with Demea, if I am right, was indeed the erecting of a "concealed battery" against Cleanthes. There is reason also to think that Cleanthes is right about the rest: if Philo can make his point out, he can sever any connection between Cleanthes's argument and religion. We get the natural attributes of God but no moral attributes; without moral attributes, no religion. This is very probably Philo's intention; he wishes to cut off Cleanthes's argument from religious practice. I think people often fail to recognize this because of a particular question that immediately arises: Why would Philo do this? We will see why in Part XII. In the meantime just keep it in your mind as a possibility.

Demea breaks in and says that he thinks Cleanthes is overreacting. Our experience is just a small part of the whole creation; the misery we have now is rectified in the future.

Cleanthes reacts violently to this suggestion:

No! replied Cleanthes, No! These arbitrary suppositions can never be admitted, contrary to matter of fact, visible and uncontroverted. Whence can any cause be known but from its known effects? Whence can any hypothesis be proved but from the apparent phenomena? To establish one hypothesis upon another, is building entirely in the air; and the utmost we ever attain, by these conjectures and fictions, is to ascertain the bare possibility of our opinion; but never can we, upon such terms, establish its reality.

The only method of supporting Divine benevolence, and it is what I willingly embrace, is to deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man. Your representations are exaggerated; your melancholy views mostly fictitious; your inferences contrary to fact and experience. Health is more common than sickness; pleasure than pain; happiness than misery. And for one vexation which we meet with, we attain, upon computation, a hundred enjoyments.


Demea's suggestion is contrary to Cleanthes's Newtonian rules of reasoning, in which we should avoid reasoning on hypotheses but only conclude by induction from the phenomena, rising from effect to cause. Cleanthes believes that God is benevolent not because of some supposition about the afterlife but because Demea is simply wrong about the misery of life.

Philo slily points out how tenuous this position is. Originally Cleanthes had suggested that his design inference was a sufficient foundation for religion; later it came out that it could only be so to the extent that it concluded to benevolent design; now we find that it can only conclude to benevolent design if it's established as fact that human existence is predominantly happy rather than miserable. Since this is uncertain, Cleanthes's whole system of religion is uncertain.
Moreover, Philo can press his attack to an even greater extent. Even if life is predominantly happy, God is usually supposed to be infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent. Cleanthes cannot prove this.

Here, Cleanthes, I find myself at ease in my argument. Here I triumph. Formerly, when we argued concerning the natural attributes of intelligence and design, I needed all my sceptical and metaphysical subtilty to elude your grasp. In many views of the universe and of its parts, particularly the latter, the beauty and fitness of final causes strike us with such irresistible force, that all objections appear (what I believe they really are) mere cavils and sophisms; nor can we then imagine how it was ever possible for us to repose any weight on them. But there is no view of human life, or of the condition of mankind, from which, without the greatest violence, we can infer the moral attributes, or learn that infinite benevolence, conjoined with infinite power and infinite wisdom, which we must discover by the eyes of faith alone. It is your turn now to tug the laboring oar, and to support your philosophical subtilties against the dictates of plain reason and experience.


In Part III we found Cleanthes cleverly backing Philo into a corner by forcing him into a position where he would have to accept Cleanthes's argument or reject natural sentiment, which Philo's particular form of skepticism wouldn't allow. Now we find Philo explicitly pointing out to Cleanthes that the tables are turned. Philo has put Cleanthes in check.

But check is not exactly checkmate, and Part XI opens with Cleanthes making the unexpected move of conceding the point. He is not trapped, however, because he suggests that the Author of nature is finitely perfect -- albeit much more perfect than any human being could be. He does not commit himself to this; he instead asks Philo's opinions on it, saying that if it deserves attention it could be developed later. Philo's opinion is basically that it does not change anything; an impartial spectator, one not antecedently convinced that the deity was benevolent, would not find enough in actual experience to conclude that the Author of nature was very good. The same question still arises. Philo, to be sure, doesn't deny that, if we add some suppositions and hypotheses, the world we experience still might be consistent with a benevolent deity. (It is interesting that Philo states this very carefully and clearly: by adding 'conjectures' you can defeat the problem of evil. But conjectures can only show the consistency of the conclusion with the evidence; they do not show that the inference from evidence to conclusion is a good one.) Of course, Cleanthes cannot argue on suppositions and hypotheses.

Philo's (long) development of his reasoning on this point is interesting, but I won't summarize it here, because the game is winding down. Philo and Cleanthes, in fact, have already begun to shift out of one of the games being played. I suggested that there are two levels being played, one involving Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea. This game, however, is simply one (major) part of a game being played between Cleanthes and Philo alone. What we find in Part XI is an abrupt shift from the three-person game to the two-person game -- Cleanthes and Philo, still playing their two-person game, pause in playing the three-person game long enough to discuss whether one possible move in that game -- finite theism -- has much promise. Cleanthes, you will remember, did not put forward the move as the one he wanted to make; he simply suggested it and asked Philo to give his full opinion of it without interruption. Philo goes on to comply by giving his opinion at some length.

Demea feels the sharp change in the game, which has suddenly gone far beyond where he was expecting it to go:

Hold! hold! cried Demea: whither does your imagination hurry you? I joined in alliance with you, in order to prove the incomprehensible nature of the Divine Being, and refute the principles of Cleanthes, who would measure every thing by human rule and standard. But I now find you running into all the topics of the greatest libertines and infidels, and betraying that holy cause which you seemingly espoused. Are you secretly, then, a more dangerous enemy than Cleanthes himself?


Cleanthes finds the protest amusing. "And are you so late in perceiving it?" he says.

Shortly after Demea gives an excuse and leaves; it is suggested that he does so because he "did not at all relish the latter part of the discourse."

The three-person game has ended. But the two-person game, a much friendlier game, and the one that holds the key to the Dialogues, continues. We'll pick it up with Part XII.

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