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David Hume is a remarkable philosopher of the 18th century who made significant contributions to the epistemology of religion. He criticizes existence of religion based on rational premises. David Hume views epistemology of religion from the point of empiricism, for he is an empiricist who believes that epistemology emanates from experiences that people undergo.
In his argument about the existence of God, David Hume asserts that sufficient evidence is lacking to prove the existence and nature of God rationally. From an empirical perspective, David Hume perceives that it is beyond the rational capacity of humans to comprehend the existence of God on the premise of experiential evidence. Hence, as an exposition of religion, this essay examines Hume’s objection to design arguments, contemporary teological argument, and two-pronged attack on rationality of religion.
Summary of Hume’s Objection
Hume objects design argument that attributes nature and existence of God to design elements that are present in nature. From his objection, Hume asserts that religious philosophers do not use rational inferences in proving the existence and nature of God in the universe.
Religious philosophers hold that existence of order in the universe is not a product of an accident, but a proof that a supreme being ordered it. Therefore, God designed the universe and provided it with all artistic elements that display splendor and beauty of the universe.
On this view, Hume objects that religious philosophers cannot prove existence and nature of God by merely inferring from what they observe in the universe. According to Hume and Selby-Bridge (2011), “while we argue from the course of nature, and infer a particular intelligent cause, which first bestowed, and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a principle, which is both uncertain and useless” (p. 66).
The principle of inferring the existence and nature of God from the cosmic design is uncertain because the design of the universe is beyond human experience, and is useless because no one can revert and observe new design. Hence, Hume builds his objection basing on the principle that inferences should have their basis on rational experience, but exclude mere imaginations.
According to Hume, it is rational to infer the existence of God based on observations, but it is irrational to extent inferences to include imaginations. Using the analogy of footprints and wet roads, Hume argues that we can infer many things. When one sees footprints at the seashore, what comes into the mind is that someone walked across the seashore.
Moreover, when one observes wet roads, what comes into the mind is that there was a heavy rain. These inferences have their basis on the experiences that human beings undergo in their lives. However, on religious matters concerning the existence of God, it is difficult to make rational inferences based on human experience because no one has experienced God.
The inferences of the existence of God as a designer of the universe all have their basis on imaginations rather than rational experience. “In human nature, there is a certain experienced coherence of designs and inclinations; so that when, from any fact, we have discovered one intention of any man … to infer another, and draw a long chain of conclusions concerning his past or future conduct” (Hume & Selby-Bridge, 2011, p. 68).
This manner of reasoning is appropriate in making inferences from human experiences, but it is inapplicable in inferring the existence of God since no one has experienced His behavior or nature during the design process of the universe. Hence, religious philosophers do not have firsthand experience of God, yet they suppose that their imaginations provide a basis for inferring His abilities in designing the universe.
Summary of Contemporary Teological Argument
Contemporary teological argument about the design of the universe states that the universe exhibits both temporal and spatial order. These two orders represent regularities that are evident in the universe. It is surprising that both plants and animals exhibit unique designs that show regularities. Body parts of living things exhibit spatial order while their existence across all ages shows temporal order.
Using inductive reasoning, one can argue that the universe has temporal order that it follows no matter the actions of humans. Focusing on the regularities of succession and inductive reasoning, Swinburne state that, “if induction is justified, we are justified in supposing that things will continue to behave as they have behaved in the kinds of respect which scientists and ordinary people recognize and describe” (1979, p. 66).
In this view, the contemporary teological argument holds that humans can recognize and describe temporal order that is evident in the universe. Although humans can recognize and describe the temporal order that exists in the universe, they have no influence on its course. Hence, the existence of temporal order across the universe proves that God is the designer.
The contemporary argument based on the analogy between the natural world and the one ordered by humans indicates that God must be responsible for the orderliness that is evident in the universe. While humans order things for beauty and efficiency, God also orders the universe for the interest of humanity.
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In spite of the fact that significant dissimilarities exist between the natural world and the world ordered by humans, similarities available show that God orders the world according to His design. “The existence of order in the universe increases significantly the probability that there is a God, even if it does not by itself render it probable,” (Swinburne, 1979, p. 73).
Therefore, with His design abilities, God had a reason when created an orderly world that is also beautiful for humans to dwell and enjoy its resources. By seeing the blue sky, expansive land, extensive sea, waterfalls, shinning stars, diverse plants and animals, and changing weather patterns, one cannot fail to realize that they have a specific order that he/she can only attribute to the design work of God.
The contemporary teological argument is successful because it uses inductive reasoning to argue that the orderliness, which is present in the universe, emanates from the design work of God. The temporal order that is evident supports the hypothesis that God is responsible for the existence of the universe. Since Hume’s objection to the design argument relies on the rational experience, teological argument relies on inductive reasoning.
Hence, Hume’s objection still applies to the contemporary argument because the argument does not consider rational experience. Like religious philosophers, the teological argument infers the existence of God from the imaginations. Swinburne states that, “the proponent of the teological argument claims the order of the nature shows an orderer, God” (1979, p. 69). Since no one has experienced God, according to Hume’s objection, it is irrational to infer otherwise that He designed the universe.
Section X and XI of the inquiry provide a two-pronged attack on the rationality of religious beliefs. Section X of the inquiry holds that religion has its basis on faith, which relies on miracles as evidence of religious beliefs. It takes faith for one to believe in miracles but not rationality. In this view, Hume argues that miraculous events are not reliable in making any inferences because they present secondhand experience from the testimonies of others.
In contrast, firsthand experiences are most reliable because one infers from own experience. Moreover, section XI of the inquiry holds that religious philosophers infer the existence of God basing on their imaginations rather than experiences that they have undergone. Given that no one has experienced design ability of God, religious philosophers resort to their own imaginations when making irrational inferences regarding the existence of God who designed the universe.
According to Cabrera (2001), “miracles are rather arguments against the existence of God,” (p. 234). Miracles do not support the existence of God because they are not empirical evidence. Hence, the two-pronged attack on rationality of religious beliefs is very persuasive as Hume is an empiricist who argues that religious beliefs have their premises on faith and imaginations, but not rational and empirical experiences.
Philosophers have formulated many theories to prove or disapprove the existence of God. David Hume is one of the philosophers who vehemently opposed religious views about the existence of God. In his arguments, Hume asserts that religious philosophers make irrational inferences regarding the existence of God basing on faith and imaginations.
Although contemporary teological argument infers the existence of God based on the design of the universe, it still has elements of imaginations that Hume objects. Overall, inferences made based on miracles and imaginations offer the two-pronged attack on the rationality of religion, which has its basis on faith.
Cabrera, M. (2001). Hume’s reflection on religion. New York: Springer.
Hume, D., & Selby-Bridge, L. (2011). An inquiry concerning human understanding. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg.
Swinburne, R. (1979). The argument from design. In L. Pojman & M. Rea (Eds.), Philosophy of religion: An anthology (pp. 63-74). New York: Cengage Learning.