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.