NOTES on David Hume (1711-1776): Doubts About Natural Theology


David Hume (1711-1776)

One of the greatest critical forces in modern philosophy is David Hume (1711-1776). Not only was he critical about such things as whether causality truly exists, he was critical about religion. In “On Miracles,” in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume swung a wrecking ball against several arguments for the existence of God: 1) The Argument From Miracles, 2) The Design Argument, and 3) The Argument From First Cause. In nearly each instance, Hume first tried to show that 1) the argument is weak, and 2) even if the argument is allowed, it does not prove what it is supposed to prove.

I. The Argument From Miracles

To show that the argument is weak, Hume asks us what sort of evidence is needed to convince us to believe in miracles? Since a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, it would take quite a bit of evidence — indeed, evidence sufficient to convince us despite all the weight of our lived experience. Such evidence is unlikely ever to exist. In fact, if such evidence existed, we would revise our notion of the laws of nature, and so there still wouldn’t be a miracle. (Or we wouldn’t believe our eyes. If someone thinks they see Lazarus rise from the dead, it is much more likely that they are mistaken than that Lazarus has truly risen from the dead.)

In addition, Hume believes that the historical evidence for miracles is poor:

  1. Not enough men of good character have witnessed miracles.

We can ask why flying saucers never landed in Carl Sagan’s backyard. Instead, they always seem to land in the backyards of drunk guys who did not graduate from high school. Similarly, not enough men of good character have witnessed miracles to make us think they are genuine.

  1. Some miracles have been discovered to be fraudulent.

Some mediums are fakes. After all, the escape artist and magician Harry Houdini was famous for going into a town, seeing a medium, and asking about his late Uncle Max. After the séance, during which Houdini had communicated with Uncle Max, Houdini would reveal that he had never had an Uncle Max.

  1. Ignorant and barbarous people witnessed miracles.

The people who believe in miracles are often those who read The National Enquirer. (Come and look! The image of Elvis can be seen in the mold growing on my bathroom wall!)

  1. The miracles of the various religions cancel each other out.

People who study comparative religions know that many religions have had a deity who died and then was resurrected. Are we willing to believe that all these religions are true? (For example, a South American religion that believed in human sacrifice also believed in a resurrected deity.)

  1. Records of miracles in ancient times are not like other records of ancient times.

Some records from ancient times we do trust; for example, financial records and records of eclipses. However, these records are not like the records of miracles.

In addition, the philosopher T. H. Huxley went on to show that the argument does not prove what it is supposed to prove. After all, if we examine miracles from the Old and New Testaments, sometimes they do not show the existence of the Christian God who loves all his children.

For example, take the miracle of the Walls of Jericho. The Israelites came into Canaan, where they were faced with the walled city of Jericho. To conquer the city, a miracle was needed. The Israelites marched three times around the city, blew their trumpets, and the walls fell down. This miracle reveals a God who takes sides. He took the side of the Israelites against the Canaanites. Let us also remember that when God gave the Land of Milk and Honey to the Israelites, some people already lived there.

From the New Testament, we have the miracle of Jesus casting out demons from the body of a possessed man and putting them into a herd of swine that, maddened, killed themselves by hurling themselves from a cliff. This is unfortunate both for the swine and for the owner of the swine.

Since Hume’s attack against the Argument From Miracles, many people have been trying to come up with naturalistic explanations for miracles. In one adult study class I was in, the class leader talked about Jesus curing a leper by telling the leper to go stand in a river for a period of time. The class leader suggested that minerals in the water cured the leper.

II. The Argument From Design

Hume believes that the Argument From Design is weak. After all, he believes that it is an analogy. We are familiar with houses and housemakers, so when we see a house, we know immediately that it was built by a housebuilder. According to the Argument from Design, when we see a World, we think that the World was designed, like a house was designed, and therefore there must be a Worldmaker, who of course is God.

But, Hume asks, Can we really use a causal analogy here? After all, I have seen people build houses, so I know that there are housebuilders. However, I have never a World being built, so I cannot be sure that there are Worldbuilders.

Besides, Hume asks, Why use this particular analogy of comparing the World to a house? Why not use other analogies? Why not say that the World is like a vegetable, a plant? In that case, a comet could be a seed going numerous times around a Sun, until it is sufficiently ripened and sprouts into a new World.

Or why not say that the World is like an animal? In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and his friend Jim are lying on the raft at night wondering where all the stars came from. Huck finally decides that the Moon must have laid them; after all, he has seen a frog lay almost as many eggs as there are stars in the sky.

Of course, you will say that these analogies are ridiculous. Hume would agree; however, he would add that they are no more ridiculous than saying that the World is like a house.

Hume also says that the argument does not prove what it is supposed to prove. Suppose we allow the argument to stand. What then? Well, if the World is like a house, then there must be many Deities. After all, it takes many men to build a house, so it must take many Deities to build a World.

In addition to that, can’t we say that the Deity is (are?) incompetent? When we judge whether a housebuilder is competent, we take a look at the houses he has built. Well, what about this World that the Deity has built? What is it like?

Look around you, and you will see evil. No rational human being can doubt that evil exists. All anyone needs to do is to take a look inside a Children’s Hospital and see all the little bald-headed children — children who have leukemia or other kinds of cancer. In this World, death is not optional, and it often comes much sooner than we want it to. Besides, look at wars, assassinations, the Holocaust, disease, etc.

Evil exists; therefore, what kind of a Deity made the World? Hume suggests that the World may have been made by an infant Deity or by a senile Deity. The other Deities may look at the World created by our Deity and shake their heads sadly.

According to Hume, all arguments for Deity are wrecked by the Dilemma of Evil, which goes back to the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. This is the Dilemma of Evil:

P1: There is evil in the world.

P2: Either God cannot or God will not abolish evil.

P3: If God cannot abolish evil, then God is not omnipotent.

P4: If God will not abolish evil, then God is not omnibenevolent.

C: Therefore, either God is not omnipotent or God is not omnibenevolent.


P1: If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then He could prevent evil.

P2: If God is omnibenevolent (all-good), then He would prevent evil.

P3: Evil exists.

C: Therefore, either God is not omnipotent, or God is not omnibenevolent.

III. The Argument From First Cause

As usual, Hume starts by saying that the argument is weak. As you will recall, the Argument From First Cause argues that there must be a First Cause that is the explanation of causation in the world. An alternative explanation for causation was an infinite regress of causes. One thing causes another, which causes another, which causes another, and so on. Saint Thomas Aquinas rejected this because it always leaves us with cause, which is what we are trying to explain.

However, Hume asks: What is wrong with an infinite regress of causes? This is something that Hume has no difficulty believing in.

Second, Hume argues that the argument does not prove what it is supposed to prove. Suppose that there is a First Cause. Hume asks, Why can’t we ask for a cause of the First Cause? and Why can’t we ask for a material cause of the material universe?

Hume’s Conclusion

Hume’s conclusion is short and sweet: “All religious systems are subject to insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn, exposing the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them prepare a complete triumph for the skeptic who tells them that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such questions. A total suspense of judgment is here our only reasonable recourse.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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