Philosopher David Hume’s Criticism of the Design Argument

Does the universe operate like a clock or well-oiled machine, ordered and designed by an all-knowing creator? Philosopher David Hume’s agnostic character Cleanthes in ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, proposes such an argument to prove the existence of God. Cleanthes explains the nature of God as that of an architect whose design of the universe performs in a mechanistic fashion. That there is order and an appearance of design in the universe, Cleanthes’ analogy is to that of human invention. If intelligent humans create machines then the analogy holds that that which has design and order in the universe must also have an intelligent creator.

The machine and the creator have a Cause and Effect relationship for Cleanthes. The human mind creates the design to build the machine as the Cause and the machine operates and functions as an Effect. In Cleanthes’ analogy, God is the Cause of creation and the universe is the Effect that functions as a result. This may place God as only the cause of the universe and not existing within it, but just as a man may interact with his machine, so could God with the universe.

Though Cleanthes’ argument gives a dynamic analogy to prove the existence of God, Hume, the author, leaves much open to be contested. Playing the part of the skeptic for Hume is his character Philo who makes several criticisms of Cleanthes’ design argument. Philo states not only that the analogy is weak, but also that flaws can be pointed out in the human concept of God. These flaws support Philo’s atheistic stance, which does not necessarily disprove the existence of God, but challenges the arguments made for it.

One such criticism made by Philo is the problem of evil in the world. The common human concept of God is an idealized image of man, all knowing and benevolent. How is it then, as Philo questions, that evil has such a presence in a world created by this God who is intelligent and kind? Philo and a third character of dogmatic religious belief Demea, claim this evil as the wickedness of man. Just as one would question why a man would let his own creations and inventions be subjected to wrongdoing, the criticism stands of a benevolent God who lets evil exist in the world.

It becomes apparent to Philo that Cleanthes’ analogy does not fit well within the human concept of God as all knowing and benevolent. God cannot be a being with only the intention of kindness in the universe’s design if it allows for the wickedness of man. Philo’s criticisms become more about the nature of God then the questioning of his existence.

Should this argument be presented in this century, as opposed to Hume in the 18th Century, Philo’s criticism would still be relevant. The wickedness of man persists today in the form of disease, terrorism, poverty and so much more. Evil is around every corner, on every Television news channel and newspaper headline, the fear of evil controls many and hinders a healthy state of mind of the individual. The current conflicts in the Middle East exemplify the fear of evil in man. Some Arab nations fear what they see as the wickedness of west and westerners fear the wickedness of Arab terrorists. Each nation of people views the other as terrorist and if this is part of God’s design it contradicts the supreme moral character of God in man’s mind.

The problem of evil may not support the human concept of God as the benevolent creator, but it does not necessarily disprove the design analogy. God can still be the architect of the design and be all knowing, but not of supreme moral character. Evil may itself be a part of God’s design and serve a purpose so that man may realize good. More simply, God could be an indifferent designer who set forth his experiment of creation without the intent of good or evil, just existence.

We now see that it is possible that God may have designed the universe with or without the intention of good and evil. Evil itself possibly being part of a planned creation only further supports the design argument and does not refute it. The use of a machine or something mechanical in the analogy also implies a calculated existence in which all the parts have a purpose. Thus Philo’s criticism using the problem of evil only challenges the concept of God having the intention of kindness in his design of the universe and not the analogy of design in itself.

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