Hume and Epicurus – Philosophy Essay
How often have we looked at the night sky and wondered at the splendor of the stars and planets glowing at us? How often do we see the majesty of the flowers or hear the beating of our heart and, overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the order and beauty, feel the presence of a Supreme Creator? So goes the design argument—it proclaims that because of the order and brilliance of the universe, it follows that there must be a rational, intelligent creator. Hume, in his work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, actually responds to the argument in a unique way.
In fact, he does not criticize the argument itself, but sets it aside and goes about a criticism of the consequences of the reasoning by which those who accept the design case infer morality and all manner of characteristics about God that cannot be seen directly from nature.
The cosmos is a wondrous place. One only has to look at the planets and their circular orbits to conclude, at least in our definition, that we have quite an ordered universe around us. And thus since the recorded beginnings of man’s history it has been. However, because of skeptics who do not see God in the creations of the world, quite a bit of religious philosophy has been written inferring the existence of a god; not only a god, however, but the God we know and are familiar with, that Great Existence that rewards virtue and punishes vice. In Hume’s philosophy, although he admits a god could feasibly be inferred from the marvels of the natural world, he rejects any additional inferences about God that do not relate to the effects of the natural world itself.
Epicurus was a philosopher in Athens who headed a movement called Epicureanism. This school of thought believed the highest goal in life was pleasure and the absence of pain, although pleasure of the mind was preferable to pleasure of the body. Their theology was quite passive, and though most Epicureans admitted to the existence of gods, the deities did not concern themselves with human affairs. Additionally, they were not involved in the natural phenomena, which could be completely explained by science—a philosophy derived from Democritus’ theory of the atom. In Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he takes the place of Epicurus in philosophical defense. He feigns the position against the Athenians, who, during the time of Epicurus, denounced his philosophy.
Hume’s central argument concerns the various roles of cause and effect. One can often infer cause from an effect, he says. For example, he even uses the design argument and admits that the first half can be correct; in other words, it could indeed follow that there is a creator from the wonders of the natural world. However, one cannot then, from that cause, conclude that there are many more effects that cannot be seen from the natural world itself. The design argument, fails then—at least that part that concludes that the God of Christianity or Jupiter, or any other specific god exists and has all the benevolent and just characteristics that are often attributed to him. Hume uses the example of the Greek artist Zeuxis, who was an excellent painter. You cannot simply look at Zeuxis’ paintings and also know that he was a great sculptor, just as you cannot look at God’s creations and know that he is a just being, or that he has a spirit or that he rewards virtue and punishes vice. The only thing you can know is that He has the power to create a tree, or an ocean, or a planet or whatever you see ordered and evidently from Him.
Thus, having a fervent religious belief in God based on reason is impossible and absurd, according to Hume. We can see an unfinished building with the tools of building all around it, and be quite certain that someone either is going to come around to finish it, or that somehow the unfinished building was held up in manufacture. However, we can infer all these things because we are basing on the actions of humans, with which we are quite familiar. Knowledge about God, who we cannot see or have no real familiarity with, cannot be inferred in the same way.
Nowhere in his dialogue does Hume condemn religion itself. He does not deny God or the existence of morals and the importance of virtue and excellence. However, he is quite skillful at showing that our reason is limited. He shows that we must start from what we know and admit as only hypothesis anything from our belief in God that we do not know for certain and cannot conclude from the amazing magnificence around us.