Contra Hume


David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, presents a refutation of the argument from design, sometimes called the teleological argument.  This argument suggests that a transcendent creator exists based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the world.  It is perhaps better known today as the “watchmaker argument”, the idea that if one comes across a watch on the beach, with its intricate and obviously purposeful construction, it argues that somewhere there must exist a watchmaker: a being or beings capable of applying intentionality to blind extended matter.   Hume’s refutation of this argument is upheld as definitive, and a principle herald of the modern view of nature, as the desacralized and random interactions of blind and non-perceiving substances.  Does, however, this argument hold up under scrutiny?

Hume’s refutation has the following structure:

If a creator exists, he is like the builder of a house.
If a house is not perfect, it is the builder’s fault (he is imperfect).
Therefore if the world is not perfect, it is creator’s fault (as he is also imperfect).

The world is, in fact, not perfect, therefore the god, the creator, is not perfect.
The idea of an imperfect god is absurd.
Therefore, the world does not have a creator.

There are several places where this argument could be attacked. Most obviously, we can wonder what Hume means by “perfect”. It is true that many things which happen in the world are not to our liking, but this does not necessarily point to the imperfection of the world. It could be read exactly the other way around. It may be that our wants and likings, which run counter to the world, are in error. If we were to bring our desires in line with the world, our grounds for complaint would disappear. Perhaps it is not the world that is at fault for our condemnation, but rather our judgements? If our opinions about the world depend on our judgements, and our judgements are entirely up to us, does it not follow that whether we see the world as perfect, or imperfect, is within our control?

This raises the larger question of just where we get out ideas of perfect and imperfect. A house may be judged faulty by comparing it to another house, but by what standard can we judge the world? As this world is the only one of which we presently have direct experience, (since we are in fact part of it) we have no standard against which to measure, aside from our own imaginings. Hume’s argument depends on a suppressed premise running something like, “Perfection of the world means fully meeting all of my wants and expectations. But clearly if anything is absurd in Hume’s argument, it is this unstated assumption. The world cannot admit to all the wants and expectations of every single person, as these wants and expectations are often contradictory.

Hume could counter that our very ideas of imperfection are themselves an example of a flaw, for why would a perfect creator form unhappy (or potentially unhappy) creatures? But this also rests on assumptions about what the ultimate purpose of our existence, which are going unstated. An athlete’s training, for example, is not judged good by how little it taxes him, but rather on how much it challenges him while still remaining in his power to accomplish. If the world exists as a kind of test or proving ground, its perfection would in fact require some degree of challenge and unpleasantness. In short, perfection only has meaning in reference to some standard of the perfect, and Hume is not revealing his – quite possibly because he has not examined it and is simply importing it from a secularized version of Christian morality.

Another place this argument could be attacked is in its initial analogy comparing the creator god to a human architect or builder. A human creating a house stands entirely outside the creation, and while this is similar to the role of the Abrahamic god, it is entirely different from the Stoic God which is both within and, at some level, synonymous with creation. The analogy here would be much more like comparing God to the intelligence of a living body, rather than an abstract being entirely outside an inert material entity. An argument based on the lack of perfection in the universe could still be constructed using this cosmology, but it would be far less convincing. We understand that embodied intelligences are not entirely free to shift the material of their bodies around to meet every contingency. This is yet another place that Hume’s metaphysical assumptions are revealed. The Greek mythic and philosophic tradition does not necessarily assume that the Gods must be omnipotent in order to exist. As parts of the whole, they are also constrained by the universal order.

A pagan reader might suggest therefore that only Abrahamic monotheism is disproved by Hume, and Greek philosophy is more than adequate to respond to any challenges he raised. While this is entirely reasonable, an astute Christian or Jew could counter that not even biblical monotheism is called into question by Hume, but only a very particular and largely secularized reading of it. All the major Abrahamic faiths admit to some degree in the fallen state of mankind and the world, and have lengthy and sophisticated mythologies which explain how this is possible even with a perfect creator. This concept of a “fall” from a perfect deity to an imperfect world would also not be unfamiliar to Gnostics and neo-Platonists. Even absent the appeal to a fallen world, human agency and freewill could explain our unhappiness. Hume’s argument is therefore peculiar. He wants to take the Abrahamic model for the divine and subject it to critical analysis, but outside the rest of the monotheistic ideology from which it is derived. In this he is following larger trends in western culture which lie outside the scope of this essay. What is certain however, even after this very cursory analysis, is that while Hume’s argument does reveal a very particular form of metaphysics to be logically inconsistent, it does not rule out the idea of intelligent design as such, nor the existence of god or gods which are not designers per-se, but powerful determinative forces and beings.


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