David Hume, A Logical Empiricist – Philosophy of Religion Essay
As a logical empiricist, it is no surprise that David Hume has sufficient rebuttal to challenge the teleological arguments for an ultimate architect of the universe. Through the skeptical lens of empirical
criticism, there are many rational flaws within the specious attempts of philosophers to anthropomorphically denote a creator in the likes of the human intellect. With nothing to prove, Hume has only to point out the shortcomings of others’ attempts at defining, proving and creating, as it were, the ultimate source of all existence. Content with no answer, fulfilled with no ultimate designer, empirical, rational, logical means are more than enough to disprove attempts at logically proving the infinitely ineffable, mind crushing source of all existence.
From the outset, Hume questions the very nature of the bridge that the argument from design purports to construct. In comparing the construction of, say, a house with the creation of the universe, one integrates a relational dissimilitude that negates the potential to infer similar sources. The relative appearance and composition of the two examples echoes the ontology of the analogy; an analogy that attempts to gap an infinitely large discrepancy. Hume points out that man has plenty of experience to recognize a house and assume an architect built it, but he has no such experience with which to examine the naturally occurring design of the human body, let alone the universe, and make an analogous assumption concerning its source. The difference being that in the teleological argument man imposes his experience on two ontologically disparate kinds of things, using evidence for one category as evidence for the other, thereby linking the two within an analogy. Man’s attempt to relate the two by virtue of his a posteriori experience is a categorical error. For while his experience may succeed in ordinary, rational comparisons, this particular comparison does not involve such closely related matters. In other words, according to Hume, the authenticity and reliability of the evidence deteriorates as the nature of the experiment (mans’ experiences of the world) strays from the goal of the inferred conclusion (the source of existence/the universe)(But observe…importance, 164). Consequently, when man compares the cause of manmade thing to the cause of the universe, he stretches the power of the parallel beyond its capacity. The analogy attempts to liken the finite, temporal, spatial human mind to one that defies such categories, as it necessarily precedes such boundaries as the cause of them. The parallel brakes down, for mans’ logic fails to remain coherent within the nature of the analogy.
Man has plenty of experience with how manmade things come to be, but he has no such experience with how existence, and its ensuing evolution, came to be. The difference between these two categories of comparison, is infinite: a little, or even a lot, of experience with the source of manmade things compared to zero experience with the existentially pre -time, -space, -material source of the universe. So when Hume says that, “wherever you depart, in the least, from the similarity of the cases, you diminish proportionally the evidence; and may at last bring it to a very weak analogy, which is confessedly liable to error and uncertainty”, this example is one of the most extreme cases of that analogical stretch in evidence (162). It is relatively apparent how incoherent it would be to relate temporal causes, those that appeal to experience a posteriori, with the a-temporal, pre-time cause of time. For it would be an inference from the physical to the metaphysical. Comparing things that have no linear connection in time, void of any possible cause and effect relationship. In this sense, the argument from analogy is a leap from the temporal to the timeless, from the finite to the infinite, a shift in the species of cause and effect, as Hume puts it. Accordingly, extrapolating from one to the other is unconditionally illogical.
This error reflects a misunderstanding of man to think the universe works as he has evolved to perceive it, the way in which his rational mind has been conditioned by evolution to interpret it, which does not necessarily reveal the true reality of the universe. By virtue of evolution, it is mans’ nature to put order into his reality, and rightly so. For without such faculties, he would not survive. But the extent to which he can use those same methods to fully understand the true nature of reality is quite dubious, and the teleological attempt is paradigmatic of this blunder. The tools he has used to make sense of his life within the temporal cause and effect reality in which he lives, do no necessarily transfer over to handle such questions as the source of existence itself. When Hume composes this dialogue,
It is still the image of mind reflected on us from innumerable objects. Add, a mind like the human, said Philo. I know of no other, replied Cleanthes. And the liker the better, insisted Philo. To be sure, said Cleanthes. (168)
He is surely speaking of how man would like there to be a creator with a similar nature of mind and thus looks for such qualities, but this is only what he would like, not what is so.
And here is where empiricists such as Hume know not to go. The hypothetico deductive reasoning that science stems from relies on a rubric of evidence that renounces the potential to approach such questions of timeless, immaterial sources of existence that arguments for god attempt to explain.
So as long as science, the entity that legislates public knowledge, holds to its publicly verifiable groundwork, it is highly unlikely that it, and those under it, will ever concede to a rational argument for god. Because to do so, would effectively undermine itself and the spirit of its approach: one that is intrinsically confined to the material scope of publicly verifiable evidence—the realm this question attempts to transcend. As science should, for any attempt to explain such a matter with the rational logic of the intellect will fall prey to the same problems the teleological argument encounters. It does not follow, however, that the doors to truth are necessarily locked away from apprehension, but the form of the intellect in the shape of language are certainly not the key.
Meditation, through which we try to free ourselves from the empirical world by analytical methods of contemplation and intellectual dissection, gets us more and more involved in it, because instead of reversing the direction of our mind, we concentrate our whole attention upon the phenomena of this world, thus strengthening our own illusory conceptions of it. The dissection of empirical phenomena does not free us from their fundamental claim of representing reality, but only succeeds in depriving them of their meaning, their essential relationships, without gaining thereby any positive insight into the ultimate nature of all phenomena. (77, Govinda)
David Hume: Design and the Teleological Argument, From Rowe and Wainwright (eds) Philosophy of Religion (3rd edition) 1998, Harcourt Brace.
Lama Anagarika Govinda: Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, 1969