Hume’s Criticisms of Design Arguments

You can see Paley’s Design Argument here.

Despite Hume dying 26 years before Paley published Natural Theology, Hume managed to foresee Paley’s argument and wrote criticisms of the argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason.

1. Design Arguments Are Not Enough to Support the God of Christian Theism

Hume wrote his criticisms in response to Christian theologians. These Christian theologians wanted not only to prove that God existed but rather that he had a specific nature – that there is a singular God that is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omnipotent) and all-loving (omnibenevolent). They did this by pointing to the degree of complexity of the universe which is far beyond what any human being would be capable of.

However, Hume argued that to assert that design arguments lead to this kind of God is out of proportion with the evidence provided. He believed that design arguments can only show that the universe was designed, not what kind of designer designed it. For example, the universe may not have been designed by a singular God but a whole team of different beings. This would be proportional to the evidence provided. Thus, Hume believed that design arguments are not enough to support the God of Christian theism.

2. The Evidence Points to a Limited Designer

Hume thought the problem was much graver than the evidence not being enough to support the God of Christian theism. He thought there was also evidence to suggest that, if there was a designer who designed the universe, then this being was significantly flawed.

Hume pointed to the problem of evil. Within the world, there is a significant amount of suffering that is caused both by man-made and natural evil. This may include the destruction of homes and death by natural disasters or murder and wars. For Hume, this would suggest the world was designed by an incompetent God.

Philosophers have struggled to answer why an omni-potent, omnibenevolent God would design evil into the world (this is referred to as the inconsistent triad). Hume instead argued that philosophers spent too much time trying to solve these problems rather than looking at the inconsistencies of design arguments.

3. Problems with Arguments from Analogy

The strength of arguments from analogy are dependent on how similar the objects being compared are. For example, arguing that a raven can fly because we know seagulls can is a strong argument due to the number of similarities there are between raven. However, the argument quickly weakens when there is a reduction in similarities. For example, there may be similarities between a seagull and an ostrich. Despite this, the differences make it unreasonable to conclude from a seagull that an ostrich will fly.

In the same way, Hume argued that it is not an accurate comparison to compare the universe to a machine. For example, he compared the universe to vegetables. He highlights that maybe the universe was not designed, but grows in the same way a vegetable would without a designer. He didn’t genuinely believe the universe grew like a vegetable, but he uses it to erode the comparison between the universe and a machine.

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4. Lack of Experience with World Building

Hume made the argument that the reason we are able to conclude design from various objects is because we have seen those objects being designed many times. We know that clothes have been designed because we see the designing of clothes every day. However, each time we experience a new object, there are different facts about it that become involved. Designing clothes is very different to designing cars.

However, when it comes to the universe, we have no experience of what it takes to create a universe. If we don’t have these facts, then we cannot conclude what was involved in either it’s creation or design.

Hume goes as far as to accuse defenders of the design argument of anthropomorphism. This is the human need to attribute human features to other things, including animals or God.

5. Alternative Explanations such as Developing by Chance

Hume also points out that there are alternative explanations that could explain the regularity of the universe without retreating to the conclusion that it was designed. One idea he used to support this was the Epicurean Hypothesis. Epicurus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who was one of the first to develop a theory of atoms. He believed that there were a finite amount of these within the universe and thus there were a finite number of ways they could be structured. Eventually, and given enough time, the particles would become ordered.

Hume argued from this that it is reasonable that the world could have come into the state it is without a designer. Thus, the regularity of the universe does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God designed it.

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