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Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a fascinating work for a few reasons. First, Hume’s style of delivery is uncommon to say the least. The dialogue was used in ancient Greece as a way of delivering a philosophical system. Hume’s contemporaries, as well as philosophers for centuries before and since, have adopted the style of direct instruction, from author to reader. Hume mentions the advantage of this approach, that it allows a system to be delivered with brevity and precision. One thing it lacks, though, is the consideration of alternative perspectives. Philosophy is, after all, in the business of generating questions rather than arriving at specific and unquestionable answers. The dialogue form is a discussion between different philosophers, each putting forth their preferred view.
Another point of interest is that the dialogue allows a review of all of the major philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Through the mouthpieces of his characters, Hume reviews the teleological argument, a perspective we now know as the theory of intelligent design, and the cosmological argument, or the argument of first causes. He lays out the arguments for both the rationalist and empiricist arguments for the Divine, as well as giving the sceptical argument that nothing can be proven with absolute certainty.
This is a perfect piece for those who love the classics. The language might be a bit challenging for some, but if you enjoy Dickens and Hawthorne, you’ll love Hume’s writing. There’s an elegance to pieces written in this era that has been a bit lost along the way. Modern works can be more precise, more sensational, and more colorful, but the language of the 18th Century reflects elegance and sophistication. That being said, I found it helpful to move back and forth between the summary and the main body of the work. Once I had listened to the summary of a specific part, Hume’s own work just seemed to land a bit more easily.
Hume uses three characters, Philo, Demea, and Cleanthes, to voice different arguments for or against God. Each of the characters professes the existence of God, though they approach their proofs from different angles. A fourth character, the pupil Pamphilus, listens to their discussion and makes a final judgment as to the relative strength of their arguments. Cleanthes is the voice of empiricism and the teleological argument, while Demea speaks for the rationalist perspective, claiming that God can be understood through logic. Philo rounds the discussion out by arguing from the perspective of scepticism. Demea departs near the end of the texts, as his arguments have been countered completely by the other two.
Some have claimed the Hume is a sceptic, and there are parts of his argument throughout the text that reflect this. Practically from the start of the piece, Demea references the uncertainty of the sciences, and Philo provides an eloquent argument in favor of the fallibility of knowledge. At the same time, the dialogue form makes it hard to pick Hume’s personal opinion out of the mix. Though Philo’s arguments seem to most nearly reflect other of Hume’s works, by the end of the debate, Pamphilus confesses that Cleanthes’ arguments “seem nearer to the truth.” This might be Hume’s attempt at a bit of protective coloring, a way to express ideas without the knee-jerk reaction many of his contemporaries had for scepticism and atheism. The church was very strong at the time, and those who spoke against it encountered challenges in personal and professional life.
As a philosophical piece, and taking its era into consideration, Dialogues is actually quite lively. Really nice for those that enjoy a good debate. Plus, it lacks the pedantic tone that some of the philosophers carry into their work. It’s definitely heady, extremely intellectual in its own way, but the characters have plenty of personality. Hume manages to capture the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – arrogance of extremely educated people that have become attached to their own way of viewing the world. Even Pamphilus’ final assessment, that the argument of Cleanthes was the strongest, can be seen as a literary element and a reflection of personality. Pamphilus was, after all, the pupil of Cleanthes.
One of the marks of a true critical thinker is to open-mindedly examine other viewpoints and their implications. Otherwise, our perspective is dogmatic, little more than a parroting of what we have been taught. For me, this work demonstrates Hume’s careful and comprehensive philosophical approach. That being said, he does have preferences and biases that appear in the work. One such is reflected in the departure of Demea from the argument. Demea argues the rationalist perspective, using ideas and logic in an attempt to come to an understanding of the Divine. Hume’s own work rejected the idealism of his contemporaries in favor of the empirical approach. He felt that all ideas come from experience. Demea’s humiliation amongst the other characters is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek criticism of other thinkers of Hume’s time. He uses this work to portray their thinking as sloppy and ill-considered. And to be honest, he does a fine job of it.
All in all, I found this piece to be a lot of fun. It’s great for a review of the philosophical arguments for God in the centuries before Hume, and reflects Hume’s own contribution as the turning point of Western philosophy. Hume was the first to deeply explore the nature of human thought and how this thought influences our knowledge. Though Dialogues doesn’t showcase this aspect of his philosophy very well, it puts it into application in the setting of a debate. Sometimes, this is even more valuable than hearing about the ideas in theory. It takes patience and focus, as well as a love of literature. I think that people will get the most out of it if they have had an introduction to Hume’s work and that of the theologians that precede him. However, it can be a beautiful starting point to those works as well, as it condenses hundreds of years of philosophy into the span of a single debate.
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“All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be sceptical, or at least cautious, and not to admit of any hypothesis whatever, much less of any which is supported by no appearance of probability.”
― David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Reading Mill's Utilitarianism the other day reminded me that it has been ages since I've read Hume. Hume's last little book, for me, is nearly perfect. He combines skepticism with a dark and mischievous humor. He is infinitely quotable and his dialogue on natural religion seemed to anticipate PERFECTLY our current Neoatheist debates and squabbles. It is hard for me to read Hume's dialogues without inserting Hitchens, Sullivan and Douthat into the place of Philo, Cleanthes and Demea (not a perfect transposition, but you get what I'm saying).
Anyway, it was a great lazy Sunday afternoon read. I'm glad I read it in my forties, because the humor I found now (based on 20+ more years lived) is considerably more that what I found reading this as an undergraduate at BYU so many, many years ago.
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