What you ascribe to the fertility of my invention, replied Philo, is entirely owing to the nature of the subject. In subjects, adapted to the narrow compass of human reason, there is commonly but one determination, which carries probability or conviction with it; and to a man of sound judgement, all other suppositions, but that one, appear entirely absurd and chimerical. But in such questions, as the present, a hundred contradictory views may preserve a kind of imperfect analogy; and invention has here full scope to exert itself. Without any great effort of thought, I believe that I could, in an instant, propose other systems of cosmogony, which would have some faint appearance of truth; though it is a thousand, a million to one, if either yours or any one of mine be the true system.
For instance; what if I should revive the old Epicurean hypothesis? This is commonly, and I believe, justly, esteemed the most absurd system, that has yet been proposed; yet, I know not, whether, with a few alterations, it might not be brought to bear a faint appearance of probability. Instead of supposing matter infinite, as Epicurus did; let us suppose it finite. A finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions: and it must happen, in an eternal duration, that every possible order or position must be tried an infinite number of times. This world, therefore, with all its events, even the most minute, has before been produced and destroyed, and will again be produced and destroyed, without any bounds and limitations. No one, who has a conception of the powers of infinite, in comparison of finite, will ever scruple this determination.
But this supposes, said Demea, that matter can acquire motion, without any voluntary agent or first mover.
And where is the difficulty, replied Philo, of that supposition? Every event, before experience, is equally difficult and incomprehensible; and every event, after experience, is equally easy and intelligible. Motion, in many instances, from gravity, from elasticity, from electricity, begins in matter, without any known voluntary agent; and to suppose always, in these cases, |an unknown voluntary agent, is mere hypothesis; and hypothesis attended with no advantages. The beginning of motion in matter itself is as conceivable a priori as its communication from mind and intelligence.
Besides; why may not motion have been propagated by impulse through all eternity, and the same stock of it, or nearly the same, be still upheld in the universe? As much as is lost by the composition of motion, as much is gained by its resolution. And whatever the causes are, the fact is certain, that matter is, and always has been in continual agitation, as far as human experience or tradition reaches. There is not probably, at present, in the whole universe, one particle of matter at absolute rest.
And this very consideration too, continued Philo, which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an œconomy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation, which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms, which it produces? There certainly is such an œconomy: for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this œconomy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity. But where-ever matter is so poized, arranged, and adjusted as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance, which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole: and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element, in which the form subsists; to the materials, with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form, which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter, of which it is composed, is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form. If no such form be prepared to receive it, and if there be a great quantity of this corrupted matter in the universe, the universe itself is entirely disordered; whether |it be the feeble embryo of a world in its first beginnings, that is thus destroyed, or the rotten carcass of one, languishing in old age and infirmity. In either case, a chaos ensues; till finite, though innumerable revolutions produce at last some forms, whose parts and organs are so adjusted as to support the forms amidst a continued succession of matter.
Suppose, (for we shall endeavour to vary the expression) that matter were thrown into any position, by a blind, unguided force; it is evident that this first position must in all probability be the most confused and most disorderly imaginable, without any resemblance to those works of human contrivance, which, along with a symmetry of parts, discover an adjustment of means to ends and a tendency to self-preservation. If the actuating force cease after this operation, matter must remain for ever in disorder, and continue an immense chaos, without any proportion or activity. But suppose, that the actuating force, whatever it be, still continues in matter, this first position will immediately give place to a second, which will likewise in all probability be as disorderly as the first, and so on, through many successions of changes and revolutions. No particular order or position ever continues a moment unaltered. The original force, still remaining in activity, gives a perpetual restlessness to matter. Every possible situation is produced, and instantly destroyed. If a glimpse or dawn of order appears for a moment, it is instantly hurried away and confounded, by that never-ceasing force, which actuates every part of matter.
Thus the universe goes on for many ages in a continued succession of chaos and disorder. But is it not possible that it may settle at last, so as not to lose its motion and active force (for that we have supposed inherent in it) yet so as to preserve an uniformity of appearance, amidst the continual motion and fluctuation of its parts? This we find to be the case with the universe at present. Every individual is perpetually changing, and every part of every individual, and yet the whole remains, in appearance, the same. May we not hope for such a position, or rather be assured of it, from the eternal revolutions of unguided matter, and may not this account for all the appearing wisdom and contrivance, which is in the universe? Let us |contemplate the subject a little, and we shall find, that this adjustment, if attained by matter, of a seeming stability in the forms, with a real and perpetual revolution or motion of parts, affords a plausible, if not a true solution of the difficulty.
It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know how an animal could subsist, unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find, that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter corrupting tries some new form? It happens, indeed, that the parts of the world are so well adjusted, that some regular form immediately lays claim to this corrupted matter: and if it were not so, could the world subsist? Must it not dissolve as well as the animal, and pass through new positions and situations; till in a great, but finite succession, it fall at last into the present or some such order?
It is well, replied Cleanthes, you told us, that this hypothesis was suggested on a sudden, in the course of the argument. Had you had leisure to examine it, you would soon have perceived the insuperable objections, to which it is exposed. No form, you say, can subsist, unless it possess those powers and organs, requisite for its subsistence: some new order or œconomy must be tried, and so on, without intermission; till at last some order, which can support and maintain itself, is fallen upon. But according to this hypothesis, whence arise the many conveniencies and advantages, which men and all animals possess? Two eyes, two ears, are not absolutely necessary for the subsistence of the species. Human race might have been propagated and preserved, without horses, dogs, cows, sheep, and those innumerable fruits and products, which serve to our satisfaction and enjoyment. If no camels had been created for the use of man in the sandy deserts of Africa and Arabia, would the world have been dissolved? If no loadstone had been framed to give that wonderful and useful direction to the needle, would human society and the human kind have been immediately extinguished? Though the maxims of Nature be in general very frugal, yet instances of this kind are far from being rare; and any one of them is a sufficient proof of design, and of a benevolent design, which gave rise to the order and arrangement of the universe.
At least, you may safely infer, said Philo, that the foregoing hypothesis is so far incomplete and imperfect; which I shall not scruple to allow. But can we ever reasonably expect greater success in any attempts of this nature? Or can we ever hope to erect a system of cosmogony, that will be liable to no exceptions, and will contain no circumstance repugnant to our limited and imperfect experience of the analogy of Nature? Your theory itself cannot surely pretend to any such advantage; even though you have run into Anthropomorphism, the better to preserve a conformity to common experience. Let us once more put it to trial. In all instances which we have ever seen, ideas are copied from real objects, and are ectypal, not archetypal, to express myself in learned terms: You reverse this order, and give thought the precedence. In all instances which we have ever seen, thought has no influence upon matter, except where that matter is so conjoined with it, as to have an equal reciprocal influence upon it. No animal can move immediately any thing but the members of its own body; and indeed, the equality of action and re-action seems to be an universal law of Nature: But your theory implies a contradiction to this experience. These instances, with many more, which it were easy to collect, (particularly the supposition of a mind or system of thought that is eternal, or in other words, an animal ingenerable and immortal) these instances, I say, may teach, all of us, sobriety in condemning each other; and let us see, that as no system of this kind ought ever to be received from a slight analogy, so neither ought any to be rejected on account of a small incongruity. For that is an inconvenience, from which we can justly pronounce no one to be exempted.
All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only |reasonable resource. And if every attack, as is commonly observed, and no defence, among Theologians, is successful; how complete must be his victory, who remains always, with all mankind, on the offensive, and has himself no fixed station or abiding city, which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend?
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)
prepared by Peter Millican
Hume’s final masterpiece was mostly written in 1751-2, apparently revised around 1757 and again in 1761, with the last revision taking place only in 1776 when he was very close to death (the timing of these revisions is carefully discussed by M. A. Stewart, “The Dating of Hume’s Manuscripts”, in Paul B. Wood, The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation, University of Rochester Press, 2000, chapter 9). Dissuaded by friends from publishing such a controversial work in his lifetime, Hume planned to leave the manuscript to one of his closest, Adam Smith. But Smith was clearly reluctant to publish, so the dying Hume decided instead to entrust it to William Strahan, his printer, through a codicil to his will dated 7th August 1776 (he died on 25th August): “I … leave my Manuscripts to the Care of Mr William Strahan … I desire, that my Dialogues concerning Natural Religion may be printed and published any time within two Years after my Death; … I also ordain, that if my Dialogues from whatever Cause, be not published within two Years and a half after my Death … the Property shall return to my Nephew, David, whose Duty, in publishing them as the last Request of his Uncle, must be approved of by all the World.” Meanwhile he ordered two copies to be made, one of them to remain with his nephew, who in the event kept the original manuscript from which he ultimately brought the work to publication in 1779. The text here follows that first 1779 edition, with a minimal number of editorial changes where clear mistakes can be identified (consulting the manuscript in appropriate cases).
Uniquely amongst Hume’s major philosophical works, we still possess the entire original manuscript, preserved by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and housed in the National Library of Scotland (to both of which we are very grateful for providing such excellent images). It is made public for the first time on this website, and provides intriguing clues to both the composition and interpretation of a work whose very dialogue form serves to camouflage Hume’s intentions. It is divided into 12 parts (after a short introduction), involving three main characters, and mostly consists of an analysis and critical discussion of the popular Design Argument for God’s existence, at the time widely considered the decisive proof of theism. Just as in Section 11 of the first Enquiry, this dialogue form allows Hume to canvass “dangerous” opinions without committing himself to them, resulting in much debate as to which of the characters—or what combination of their views—best reflects his own position.
After a few preliminaries, Part 1 provides a discussion of scepticism that gives valuable insights into the “mitigated scepticism” which Hume had reached as the concluding position of his first Enquiry (E 12.24-34). The Design Argument is presented in Part 2 by Cleanthes, the advocate for “experimental Theism” (D 5.2), who appeals to the analogy between the intricately ordered universe and a complex machine. Philo—the “careless sceptic” (D Intro.6) who is generally thought to be Hume’s main spokesman—goes on to attack this argument, objecting that the supposed analogy is too distant to sustain any reliable inference (D 2.17-24). The third main character Demea—introduced as a believer of “rigid orthodoxy” (D Intro.6)—joins with Philo in attacking Cleanthes’ “anthropomorphism”, but is himself taken to task by Cleanthes for the opposite vice of “mysticism”, which by insisting that God is entirely incomprehensible in human terms, becomes indistinguishable from atheism (D 4.1-3).
Parts 5 to 8 are mostly taken up with Philo’s inventive proferring of numerous alternative analogies, by which he effectively ridicules Cleathes’ Design Argument. Rather than a machine, the universe might more properly be compared to a ship or city, produced not by a single perfect designer, but by a succession of many fallible workers who slowly learn their craft by trial and error (D 5.7-12). Its intricate order, so far from being like that of “a watch or a knitting-loom” (D 7.3), is more like that of an animal or plant, which derive from generation or vegetation rather than design (D 6-7). Philo even suggests reviving “the old Epicurean hypothesis” (D 8.2), accounting for the universe’s apparent order in terms of stable patterns that arise purely by chance — many of Hume’s readers have seen here a possible foreshadowing of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
In Part 9, Demea recommends abandoning Cleathes’ “argument a posteriori” in favour of “the simple and sublime argument a priori” which is strongly reminiscent of Samuel Clarke. Now it is Cleanthes’ turn to attack, efficiently dismissing Demea’s argument in an entirely Humean spirit (compare D 9.5 with E 12.28). Demea’s reaction is to admit that his belief in God is based not on reasoning but on “a consciousness of his imbecility and misery … Wretched creatures that we are! what resource for us amidst the innumerable ills of life, did not Religion … appease those terrors …” (D 10.1). Philo now joins with Demea in emphasising the horrors of the world (Parts 11 and 12 together constituting one of the classic discussions of the Problem of Evil), but he ultimately presses the argument well beyond the boundaries that Demea has in mind, towards the conclusion that any creator is likely to be morally indifferent (D 11.15) or even immoral (D 11.16-17). Demea, clearly upset by this turn of events, “took occasion soon after, on some pretence or other, to leave the company” (D 11.21), leaving Cleanthes and Philo to finish the discussion in the famously perplexing Part 12.
The notorious puzzle of the Dialogues is how to make sense of Philo’s apparent volte-face in which, having criticised the Design Argument so heavily in the earlier parts, he ends up advocating the argument himself (e.g. D 12.2-4), and ultimately accepting on this basis “That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (D 12.33), a passage commonly known as “Philo’s confession”. There are several themes running through Part 12 that might help to explain (or explain away) this apparent inconsistency, for example Philo’s suggestion at D 12.6-7 that the level of analogy between the human mind and the supposed divine mind is a matter of degree, making the debate between theists and atheists largely verbal. If this is really the ultimate upshot of the debate — as might seem to be confirmed by the authorial footnote 11 (although that concerns “the dispute between the Sceptics and Dogmatists”, and makes no mention of religion) — then Philo’s apparent confession of faith amounts to virtually nothing at all. Nevertheless his overt expression of “veneration for true religion” (D 12.9) has a point within the dialogue, by giving him licence to launch a fierce attack on the contrasting moral corruptions of “vulgar superstition” (D 12.11-21). “True religion, I allow, has no such pernicious consequences” (D 12.23), he says, but one has to wonder whether his appeal to “true religion” here is mere window-dressing, a way of avoiding universal censure and rejection of the views that he is expressing, by purporting to stand up for a virtuous form of religion which supposedly encapsulates “genuine Theism” (D 12.24), but which is in fact conspicuous by its absence in the real world of religious practice. Philo’s unflattering picture of popular religion portrays it as corrupting morality by “raising up a new and frivolous species of merit”, tending to “weaken … men’s attachment to the natural motives of justice and humanity”, and promoting hypocrisy (D 12.16-17). So far from being founded on reason, its psychological basis lies in fear and misery (D 12.25-30), and Philo again emphasises the contrast between such vulgar superstition and the minimal abstract true religion of “philosophical Theists” (D 12.32) before delivering his somewhat surprising confession. He ends on an even more surprising note, remarking that because reason is unable to establish more than a minimal theism, “A person, seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity … To be a philosophical Sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian” (D 12.33).
Those familiar with Hume’s rejection of “revealed truth” (e.g. E 10.40) and his penchant for “theological lying” (as perhaps exemplified most clearly in the first and last paragraphs of his essay Of the Immortality of the Soul) might well consider that Philo is being patently insincere in his final flourish of devout fideism. But Philo is not Hume, and it is therefore possible that his intended role is to portray a genuine sceptical fideist on the model of Pierre Bayle. Hume’s message must then be read not directly from what Philo says, but from the artfully constructed Dialogues as a whole. And this is where the value of his physical manuscript becomes most apparent, enabling us to see some of the stages by which that artful construction took place. Those wanting to follow this up in detail are advised to consult Stewart’s article mentioned above, and one illustration must suffice here.
If you go to Page 79 of the manuscript, on the right-hand side of the sreen you will see the printed text of the Dialogues (as in the first 1779 edition), and on the left-hand side, Hume’s handwritten page. Many traces of revision and deletion are evident, and about halfway down a sign “BB” indicating a place for insertion (just after the line “he is justly suppos’d to bear a considerable Resemblance?”). Looking back now to the text at the left of the screen, scroll down until you come to the corresponding point in the printed version, where “BB” is highlighted in blue to show that it is an active link. Clicking on this blue text will now bring up manuscript page 87 on the left of the screen, showing the “BB” insertion as written by Hume. The “AA” insertion (containing footnote 11 mentioned above) is also on this page, but notice how different the two passages look. This is because the “BB” insertion, which extends over to the last page of the manuscript (click on the “next page” button at the top right) was added as Hume was dying, and the deterioration in his handwriting is very evident. The text around the page break here is highly significant: “… I ask [the Atheist], whether, from the coherence and apparent Sympathy in all the parts of this world, there be not a certain degree of analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every situation and in every age; whether the rotting of a Turnip, the generation of an animal, and the structure of human thought be not energies that probably bear some remote analogy to each other: It is impossible he can deny it … Having obtain’d this Concession, I push him still farther in his retreat; and I ask him, if it be not probable, that the Principle which first arrang’d, and still maintains order in this universe, bears not also some remote inconceivable analogy to the other operations of Nature, and among the rest to the Oeconomy of human Mind and Thought. However reluctant, he must give his Assent. …” Note how this passage (which Stewart calls Hume’s “dying testament to posterity”), while purporting to put pressure on the atheist, in fact serves to undermine completely the force of Philo’s celebrated “confession”: the cause or causes of order in the universe might indeed bear some remote analogy to human intelligence, but no more than to the rotting of a turnip, and this clearly does not amount to any theism worthy of the name! Moreover these are the only two passages in all of Hume’s writings to use the phrase “remote analogy” — and they share the entire phrase “probably bear some remote analogy” — so it seems overwhelmingly likely that they are intended to be read together. Here we have a wonderful example of Hume’s clever composition, hiding a message within the very last paragraph that he ever wrote for publication, so that it might later be discovered and appropriately understood by his discerning readers. That message is Hume’s, but not apparently Philo’s, for Philo remains a Baylean fideist, but this evidence strongly suggests that Hume was far closer to what we would call atheism.
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