Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Default Philosophy

A thought:

The Dialogues are a criticism of the argument from design in the form in which that argument was current in Hume's time - a form in which it persisted into the nineteenth century in the writings of Paley and so many others, and which survives in popular and semi-popular forms to the present day. This argument, it cannot be too emphatically insisted, is not a teleological argument of the Aristotelian type. It does not, that is to say, consist in the thesis that the natural order, with which man is so integrally bound up, fulfils an end of absolute and intrinsic worth. It is an essentially anthropomorphic type of argument, resting upon an alleged analogy between natural existences and the artificial products of man's handicraft. We can, it was maintained, gain a sufficient basis for the conception of God as an ordering intelligence in our knowledge of the self and of its relation to the products which it consciously designs. ...

In the absence of an alternative explanation of a more credible kind, the 'religious hypothesis' (to use Hume's phrase) held the field. It was not, as a rule, that it was thought out, and quite deliberately adopted, still less that it was held as a belief which played a specifically religious role in their minds. No alternative being in sight, it was conceded, especially as regards living organisms; and having been conceded, it came in only when quite ultimate issues were raised; and even then it was little more than an admission of ignorance, expressed in the terms of the traditional creed. This attitude was the more practicable, in that the argument from design was, as already stated, formulated with only incidental reference to moral or scientifically religious considerations.

- Norman Kemp Smith, Introduction, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

DCNR has been my bus book for the past few weeks (a good way to read it: my commute is only long enough for a few pages per day, which lets it sink in better than if I inhaled it by chapters. However, I probably lose the "sweep" of the argument that way). The Philo character delivers some excellent subtly sarcastic putdowns of religion ;-).
If you don't have it, I recommend the edition with Norman Kemp Smith's commentary as he greatly helped me understand the Dialoges.
The renaissance of the design argument by the ID movement seems to have led a number of people back to Hume and the Dialogues. If you'd like suggestions for further reading, let me know:

carl DOT sachs AT gmail DOT com (no spaces)

I'm no Hume scholar but I know of some of the relevant scholarship, esp. as it relates to Hume and ID.
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