David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

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In Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion we are introduced to three characters that serve the purpose to debate God and his nature, more specifically, what can mankind infer about God and his nature. The three characters; Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes all engage in a debate concerning this question and they all serve the purpose of supporting their views on the subject. It is the “argument from design” put forth by Cleanthes that is the focal point of the discussion, and it is Demea and Philo who attempt to discredit it.

It is Cleanthes who gets the ball rolling in Part II of Hume by laying out his “argument from design.” Cleanthes believes that there is ample evidence in the nature that surrounds us to draw conclusions on what God is like. Cleanthes compares the surrounding world as one great “machine.” He goes on to discuss how this “machine” is “subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain.”(837) Cleanthes goes on to suggest that these “machines” are all adjusted to each other in such a way that it resembles the productions of man and human design. By this Cleanthes is saying that nature is organized much the same way as a machine built by man. He states this by saying “the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”(837) Cleanthes main emphasis is not the question of the intelligent designer itself, but rather that the designer similar to mankind. He makes his assumption concrete by saying “By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.”(837)

In other words Cleanthes believes that we need to look no further than this analogy to prove that God is similar to a human designer, only much more perfect due to the perfection we see in the system of nature.

It is this inference by Cleanthes that both Demea and Philo have problems with. In turn they spend the rest of Hume’s Dialogues rebutting Cleanthes claims. However, Demea and Philo do differ from each other on why they believe Cleanthes’ “argument from design” is flawed.

Demea firmly believes that God is so outside the realm of hu...

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Personally, after assessing all the information brought forth in Hume’s Dialogues I can only say that I agree more with Demea and Philo than I do with Cleanthes. It can be easily construed that Hume wrote these dialogues with the intent of portraying Philo as the victor, contrary to what Part XII might say. I must say that if I did believe in a supreme being I would have to side with Demea’s argument that we as humans cannot possibly comprehend God, or try to understand him through our reasoning. Further more, with respect to Cleanthes claims that God can be understood through out own surroundings, I have to disagree for most of the same reasons as Philo did. The concept of evil is virtually impossible for Cleanthes line of reasoning to overcome and is definitely the strongest argument against the “argument from design.” Over all I have to once again go back to Demea as being the overriding constant voice of dissent. His assertions of mans' inability to understand God, although simple, in my mind easily overrides all arguments put forth by Cleanthes.

Work Cited

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. 1779. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989.
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