Monday, May 24, 2010

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Robert Wright's discussion of intelligent design and a "designing process" in The Evolution of God (May 13, 2010 post) recalled a book on the bookshelf that I have been intending to read for a couple of years --- David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume, I read once, had actually criticized William Paley's intelligent design "watchmaker" argument decades before Paley wrote about it, and the Dialogues, a carefully crafted discussion among three friends, representing three different 18th century views on the nature of a deity, includes a debate between an anthropocentric advocate of god as an intelligent designer (Cleanthes) and a skeptic (Philo) who, while willing to acknowledge that nature appears to be a purposeful creation, is unwilling to assume a parallel between the human mind (which does create works of art) and a divine mind.

A modern eye will recognize that this pamphlet, initially written in the 1750s, anticipates Darwin's theory of natural selection, which was not published until a century later, as well as Gregor Mendel and Crick and Watson. When the third friend, Demea, asks the skeptic, Philo, "How is it conceivable that the world could arise from anything similar to vegetation or generation?" Philo replies: "Very easily. In like manner as the tree sheds its seed into the neighboring fields, and produces other trees; sothe great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds. A comet, for instance, is the seed of a world; and after it has been fully ripened, by passing from sun to sun, and star to star, it is at last tossed into the unformed elements, which everywhere surround the universe, and immediately sprouts up into a new system. Or, if, for the sake of variety, we should suppose this world to be an animal; a comet is the egg of this animal; and in like manner as an ostrich may lay its egg in the sand, which, without any further care, hatches the egg and produces a new animal." Demea says he understands, but asks, "What data do you have for such extraordinary conclusions? And is the slight, imaginary resemblance of the world to an animal or a vegetable sufficient to satisfy the same inference with regard to both?" Right, says Philo, "we have no data to establish such a system of cosmogony. . . but if we must fix on some hypothesis . . . Is there any other rule other than the great similarity of the objects compared? . . . When I see an animal, I infer, that it sprang from generation; and that with as great as certainty as you conclude a house to have been reared from design."

I reprint this extensive quote, because, while it lends some support to Richard Dawkins' conclusion in The Blind Watchmaker that Hume did not have either Darwin's biological "data" or his theory of evolution in hand and failed to fully appreciate "biological design," the quote also reveals that Hume enjoyed a much greater insight into nature than Dawkins is willing to concede. Darwin too was unaware of Gregor Mendel's work on genetics and was a century ahead of the discovery of DNA, but nevertheless deduced that plants and animals sexually transmitted their traits generationally. And Hume does fully appreciate this (which Darwin, himself, appreciated a century later): we have more to learn about nature from vegetation and animals than we could possibly learn from how machines are built. And Hume appreciates what has been a central topic of this blog since the first post discussing Seth Lloyd's Programming The Universe (see August 17, 2009 post): life, as we know it (and do not know it) and its creation is reducible to units of information, the transmission of information, and adaptation to new or changed information.

There is, in the Dialogues, much the same debate that plays out now between theists advancing the proposition that all life reflects the work of an intelligent designer and atheists, such as Dawkins, who advance Darwin's theory of natural selection as a sufficient explanation for the creation of life. It is impressive, to say the least, that this discourse was published over two hundred years ago. Was Hume an atheist in the sense we think of atheists today? Skepticism is a term that is most often associated with Hume, as well as Hobbes and Spinoza, and the theologians and theological philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries tended to label any skeptic an atheist. Hume, Hobbes, and Spinoza all shared a strong objection to an anthropomorphic deity as nothing more than man projecting its image onto an imaginary creator. Spinoza, however, did not fully abandon the term "god." Spinoza was a pantheist who marveled at all of nature and called the totality of the universe "god." Hume does not reveal his views on the existence of god in the Dialogues: all three characters in the Dialogues accept the existence of a god, and they merely disagree about its nature, but it is by no means clear that Hume shares this view and commentators are uniform on this perspective. Hume is definitely not a theist, and he is hostile to organized religion, religious doctrine and ritual. But he never denies the existence of a nonanthropomorphic deity of some sort.

This is the sort of discussion that would have benefitted Robert Wright's historical survey on god and religion. Instead, as I mention in the May 13, 2010 post, Wright ends his survey in the 8th century. In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright does not seem to be able to part with the idea that because a belief in a deity has survived in our many human cultures for many thousands of years, there must be some "purpose" to its survival and "evolution" must have something to explain for its survival and purpose. In my view, Wright has a soft spot for intelligent design that he cannot shake. Wright's "designing process" is nothing more than an "apparent design" argument that appears to embrace Darwinian evolution. That is the same argument that some biologists (who reject intelligent design), including Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin's God, embrace today, purporting to capture evolutionary biological processes as part of god's initial design.  Of course, evolutionary theory cannot deny or negate the existence of a creator, but neither can evolutionary theory negate the non-existence of a creator.

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