The Design Argument
- You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, 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. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them.
- The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence.
- Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and
- that the Author of Nature is also a Designer, somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.
We wonder between two explanations. Is this marvellous world we find ourselves in the result of a creator god, a being of immense power; or the result of purely natural processes? There is an attraction to the design theory. But is it rational?
The contrast between ordinary cases of inference (e.g., house to human builder) and the design argument may be illustrated this way.
|X||=||causes (builders, architects, etc.)|
|1.||Y1 —- X1|
|2.||Y2 —- X2|
|3.||Y3 —- X3||…|
|*.||Yn / [Xn]||?|
In this case our experience of the constant conjunction of Xs/Ys enables us to draw the inference to Xn, the unobserved cause of Yn. Our experience is of a series of conjunctions (1,2,3) where there is a close resemblance within each species of objects (i.e., among Xs and among Ys). We have direct experience of both kinds of objects (i.e., both Xs and Ys). In the case of the design argument our inference has this form.
* <W> / [Z*] ?
We have experience of only one W (i.e., our experience of W is unique). Our experience of W is partial and incomplete (hence <W>), since we know only a small part of it in both spacial and temporal terms. We have no experience of any Zs at all. In these circumstances the only basis for drawing any conclusion about the nature of Z* from our (unique and partial) experience of W is by supposing that W bears some resemblance to objects such as Ys, broadly conceived to cover all human artifacts and productions. There is, however, a vast difference between these effects. It follows that there is little or no basis for assuming that Z resembles something like Xs (i.e., human mind or intelligence). God’s nature, therefore, remains altogether “mysterious and incomprehensible” from the point of view of human understanding.
If we see a house, CLEANTHES, we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder, because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house, that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause; and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider.
In short, I repeat the question: is the world, considered in general, and as it appears to us in this life, different from what a man, or such a limited being, would, beforehand, expect from a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity? It must be strange prejudice to assert the contrary. And from thence I conclude that however consistent the world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures, with the idea of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence. The consistence is not absolutely denied, only the inference. Conjectures, especially where infinity is excluded from the divine attributes, may perhaps be sufficient to prove a consistence, but can never be foundations for any inference.
Hume’s first sustained attack on natural and revealed religion appears in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), specifically in two essays, “Of Miracles“, and “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State.” “Of Miracles” contains an assortment of attacks on the belief in miracles; the thrust of the essay is that it is unreasonable for anyone to believe in testimonies involving miraculous violations of laws of nature. The first of this two- part essay contains the argument for which Hume is most famous: uniform experience of natural law outweighs the testimony of any alleged miracle. We might imagine a scale with two balancing pans. In the first pan we place the strongest evidence in support of the occurrence of a miracle. In the second we place our life-long experience of consistent laws of nature. According to Hume, the second pan will always outweigh the first. Regardless of how strong the testimony is in favor of a given miracle, it can never come close to counterbalancing the overwhelming experience of unvaried laws of nature. Thus, proportioning one’s belief to the evidence, the wise person must reject the weaker evidence concerning the alleged miracle. In a 1737 letter to Henry Home, Hume states that he intended to include a discussion of miracles in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), but ultimately left it out for fear of offending readers. It is probably this main argument to which Hume refers.
Hume begins by offering four factors that count against the credibility of most miracle testimonies: (1) witnesses of miracles typically lack integrity; (2) we have a propensity to sensationalize, which prompts us to uncritically perpetuate miracle stories; (3) miracle testimonies abound in barbarous nations; and (4) miracles support rival religious systems and thus discredit each other.
In the religion/atheism debate Christians often assert that they accept a scientific view of the world and the scientific method but that science has limits. “There are questions which science cannot answer. For these questions we must turn to religion”. But should science accept limits imposed by religion? And are there really separate areas of knowledge requiring the different methods of science and religion?
Evolution of religion and science
During human and social development every culture developed both supernatural and logical explanations of the surrounding world. Often the explanations were mixtures of the supernatural and logical, particularly when they were required to assist with practical activity such as navigation, building and agriculture. The rational, logical, approach developed into the scientific method. The supernatural approach was incorporated into the mythology, stories and religions of the culture.
Religions also incorporated teachings about morals, values, society, property and legal rights. Sometimes, but not always, religious mythology included concepts of supernatural gods which were given roles in the creation and management of the world. Theistic religions used their gods to explain things, to justify moral and legal positions and often to justify and promote wars. We can see the concept of a god evolving to incorporate the various roles mankind required of it ( In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions by Michael Jordan describes this with respect to war). God was a creation of man and the concept, together with the resulting institutions (churches) and dogma, was used by ruling groups to advance their specific interests. This man-derived purpose for gods continues today.
So today we have these two approaches to knowledge. The scientific based on empirical evidence producing a relative, but ever-improving, knowledge tested in practical experimentation. The scientific method has proven to be a powerful way of understanding reality as seen by the rapid progress of technology with the accompanied improvement in the quality of life. On the other hand religion is still largely based on supernatural interpretations of reality although its sphere of influence has been vastly reduced because of the advance of scientific knowledge. However, many religions still continue to advance explanations of the world, and its creation, and of human values, morals and social arrangements. They usually attempt to give legitimacy to their claims by using supernatural authority (God) and its earthly institutions and representatives. Religious teachings and dogma are in effect using supernatural claims to justify and impose human values and ideas without the normal testing of scientific method.
Those special questions?
Some of the questions claimed by religion are a bit like “When are you going to stop beating your wife? To ask: Why are we here?; What is the purpose of life? etc., in effect presuppose a god. They are not objective questions. They don’t need an answer.
A group of questions religion jealously guards for itself are those along the line of What is good?; What is evil?; How should people behave? These are questions science can consider, and it does. Science is investigating the evolutionary and neurological bases of human values and morals. We are getting a clearer idea of how our morals and concepts of good and evil evolved. We can also appreciate the relative nature of these values in different societies and at different times.
And of course questions relating to the origins of the universe, evolution of the cosmos, formation and evolution of life on earth (and possibly elsewhere) are all questions properly the province of scientific investigation. As is the big question itself – Was the universe created by a super-intelligent being?
Problems with the religious answers
A huge problem with religion attempting to claim for itself the answers to these sort of questions is the methodology used. There is no objective testing of hypothesis, rejection of theories inconsistent with reality, or development of theories as a result of new knowledge here. The religious answers are “revealed,” claimed to be derived from a supernatural god, but in practice originating out of human belief and imposed by religious (and sometimes legal) authority. God is being used by man to impose these answers.
Some people buy the argument for placing limits on scientific knowledge because they see it as an impersonal belief system with its own inflexible dogmas which will be imposed. In other words they see it as another alternative religion. Of course plenty of people will take scientific knowledge to support their own dogma (and don’t religions often do this?). But the scientific method itself is objective. It produces knowledge of reality which is always relative, incomplete, open to question, but continuously improving. For this reason it is a powerful objective method for revealing and understanding reality. It is a far more reliable way of understanding reality and humanity than a fixed dogmatic religion relying on supernatural authority to impose preconceived beliefs and values.
Infidel Hume – lecture from Oxford