Hume and the Evidential Problem of Evil

 

1. Selections from Hume=s Dialogues and Natural History of Religion

 

Our readings on the problem of evil from Hume (1711-76) will focus on two sections of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts 10 and 11 (pp.95-115).

 

2. Background to the Reading

 

Hume was a famous historian and philosopher; he is considered among the greatest skeptics in the history of philosophy. His Dialogues is considered his most controversial work and he himself did not publish it in his lifetime. It was published by his nephew three years after his death. The overall aim of the Dialogues is to answer the question >What, if anything, can we infer about the first cause of the universe from the evidence we find in this world=?  The most important philosophical argument for the existence of God in Hume=s day was the AArgument from Design@. It had been endorsed by Sir Isaac Newton and was accepted by most eighteenth-century scientists. According to this argument, one can infer the existence of an intelligent and benevolent God based on our discovery  of order and purpose in the natural world. It is this argument which is the main topic of the Dialogues.

 

In the two parts of the Dialogues we are now looking at Hume is primarily interested in exploring the question >What can we infer about the moral properties of God from our experience of evil in the world?=. In other words, he is discussing what we have called Athe evidential problem of evil.@ (The editors of PR somewhat misleadingly entitle their selection from Hume's Dialogues  AEvil makes a strong case against God=s Existence.@ In the Dialogues, Hume is primarily discussing the question about we can infer about God=s nature, not His existence (see the first three paragraphs of Part II on pages 43-44).) All the characters assume that God exists. For >God= is the name we give to first cause of the universe, whatever that is. The selection in our text would be better entitled >Evil makes a strong case against God=s moral goodness= (at least if  we understand >moral goodness= as it applies to human beings).

 

The Dialogues are presented as a conversation between three characters each of which represents a certain view on natural religion, and the evidence we can have for it. Cleanthes is the character who puts forward the Argument from Design. He argues that we can infer the properties of the first cause of the universe from our experience of the world. He is accused by the other characters of being an "anthropomorphite"--that is making God too much in the image of man.  In our selection Cleanthes insists that there is much good in the world, and that the good outweighs the evil.

Demea is a traditional theologian who thinks that one can infer the existence of the Deity through abstract reason (a priori), not by examining the nature of the world. (For an example, in Part IX, third paragraph he puts forward a form of what is called the cosmological argument). He is accused by Cleanthes of a being a "mystic", that is of making God totally incomprehensible. (If that were right, what is the difference between God and pure force or matter?) In the selection we are looking at he disagrees with Leibniz=s optimistic view of human life. He stresses the importance of reflections on human misery, in bringing people close to God.

Finally, Philo is a sceptic. At first he agrees with Demea about the incomprehensibility of God, but later (in Part 12) he is willing to draw cautious conclusions about the first cause of the universe. Through most of the Dialogues he presents objections to the Argument from Design presented by Cleanthes. In Part X, he allies himself with Demea in describing all the evils of human life. But his real purpose is to criticize Cleanthes= argument, and show him that if he insists on inferring the properties of the Deity from experience, he will be forced to conclude that God does not have moral virtues such as justice, benevolence and mercy that are generally ascribed to Him--at least as those qualities are understood by human beings.

 

3. Questions to be answered in your Notebooks:

 

1. The first paragraph of Part X is a speech of Demea. He gives his own view as to what it is that makes people seek religion. What, according to Demea, is the purpose of religion in our lives?

 

2. Philo agrees with Demea in the second paragraph. What does he say we need to have a Adue sense of religion@?

 

3. Philo and Demea then go on to say that if we listen to what ordinary people (Athe vulgar@) say about their lives, and read most books that  have been written over the ages we will become convinced of the misery of human life. Philo says (page 96) that Leibniz is an exception, but just dismisses his view.  a) Given what Philo and Demea say on pages 97-top of page 100 what are the five chief sources of misery in human life?  b) If human life is so bad why don=t more people commit suicide according to Philo?

 

4.  Cleanthes response to Philo in the third paragraph of page 99 is short. (Yet it needs to be noted, if for nothing else than we know it fits with Hume=s comments about his own psychology elsewhere.) What is it?

 

Cleanthes= response is given more fully on the bottom of page 101-top of page 102. He strongly opposes the view of religion expressed by Demea and Philo in the passages you discussed in answer to questions 1 and 2 above. What according to him should be our source of religion? Explain the difference between his view of the source of religion and that of the other characters.

 

5. What conclusions must we draw about God from all the evidence we find around us, according to Philo (the rhetorical question at the end of the first new paragraph on page 100?

 

6. Explain in your own words the argument from Epicurus (an ancient philosopher living in the third century B.C.) given by Philo in the next paragraph.

 

7.  In the first paragraph on page 101 Cleanthes expresses strong opposition to the view of the world presented by Philo ("And have you at last...."). In the next paragraph Demea responds by saying that Cleanthes should not see any opposition to religion in Philo=s remarks. Explain Demea=s reasons and Cleanthes' immediate response at the bottom of the page (i.e. What does he mean by "arbitrary suppositions"?).

 

8. . Philo, in turn, objects to the view of Cleanthes in the following paragraphs, first saying that he is founding religion on a very questionable claim (AYou have put the controversy upon a most dangerous issue.@) if he insists that human life has more happiness than unhappiness. However, in the end Philo says that, even if Cleanthes were right about this, he would not have solved the evidential problem of evil. Why not? (pp. 102-4).