Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Debunking Design - A Conclusion to Hume

We have finally reached the end.  I know it has been a long journey, but at last we today finish David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  I thank you all for your patience as we go through this remarkably important book.  You may wonder why I have bothered with this book on a science-religion blog; the answer is that, by refusing to be content with knowledge derived solely from philosophy or revealed religion, Hume paved the way for the empirical experimental method.  More specifically, though, Darwin cited Hume as a ‘central influence’.  You can readily see why: Darwin was up against a standard view of the world, which saw both the design of God in the complexity of nature and the goodness of God in the harmony of nature, as revealed through the opening lines of Genesis.  To question the standard interpretation of revealed religion, to wonder if our experience of the world could possibly address the question of life’s origins, was a very Hume-ian thing to do.

Hume influenced more than just Darwin of course.  His writings were central for all sorts of scientists, philosophers, and theologians (including Adam Smith, whose Capitalistic views would also be an influence on Darwin).  Hume struck a nerve, and continues to strike nerves today.  Perhaps nowhere is this so clearly seen as in his second-to-last chapter, in which he essentially destroys the Intelligent Design movement several hundred years before it was even born.

Chapter XI – Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State

This is an unusual chapter for Hume.  Rather than simply state his own ideas, Hume writes this chapter as a dialogue between himself and a friend, with the friend posing as Epicurus defending himself before an Athenian mob.  Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who taught that there is no such thing as a state beyond death, there is no such thing as the divine hand of God wrought through history, and that there is no such thing as divine punishment.  Hume’s friend, in his speech, provides a defence for Epicurus against those who would accuse him of destroying society by rejecting a future judgment.

In his speech he says a few interesting things:

1. Religious philosophers, by trying to base religion on reason, only create doubt, rather than satisfy it.  (Presumably this is because, in his view, matters of faith ultimately cannot be completely grounded in reason.  Faith may be rational, but it does not offer firm proof.  To found religion on reason is to ask for trouble, as rational arguments can then be established to destroy this foundation).

2. When looking at the natural world, these religious thinkers reason from effects to a cause: the appearance of design in nature (the effect) seems to point to an intelligence (the cause).  They then try to argue that this inference of God from nature’s design is itself sufficient to prove God, and does not require any further revelation through scripture to fill in the missing pieces.  ‘These are your concessions,’ says Hume’s friend as Epicurus, ‘I desire you to mark the consequences.’

3.  If we can only see the effect, and we need to infer a cause, we cannot make the cause greater than is minimally sufficient to produce the effect.  For example, if we have a painting and we have the name written on the painting, we can infer that so-and-so painted the painting.  We can also conclude that his attributes contain everything that is necessary to create a painting of that particular style and beauty.  We cannot infer that he is capable of better paintings, or worse paintings, or of applying his skills to architecture.  We also cannot infer that he in fact did anything else beyond paint this one painting.  He may very well be an architect; but this would be sheer speculation without further proof.

4.  In the same way, then, if we see an effect, there are two things that we cannot do: (1) we cannot give the cause more attributes than are necessary for it to produce the effect, and (2) we cannot reason from the cause to determine its other effects.

5. If we accept that nature appears to have behind it a God or gods, we can only give him/them exactly those attributes required to produce this creation.  We have no justification, for example, for declaring that in the future God will restore nature to some earlier glory.  (We also cannot conclude that there is only one designer, or a multitude of designers).

Hume’s friend sums all this up quite nicely:

‘You find certain phenomena in nature.  You seek a cause or author.  You imagine that you have found him.  You afterwards become so enamored of this offspring of your brain, that you imagine it impossible, but he must produce something greater and more perfect than the present scene of things, which is so full of ill and disorder.  You forget, that this superlative intelligence and benevolence are entirely imaginary, or, at least, without any foundation in reason; and that you have no ground to ascribe to him any qualities, but what you see he has actually exerted and displayed in his productions.  Let your gods, therefore, O philosophers, be suited to the present appearances of nature: and presume not to alter these appearances by arbitrary suppositions, in order to suit them to the attributes, which you so fondly ascribe to your deities.’

6. Epicurus, via Hume’s friend, says that he listens with deference and awe when the religious scholars speak of an Eden-state prior to the fall of the world through sin; but when reasoners speak of the same thing, and say that they have come to this idea by inferring causes from effects, he cannot listen to them, because they are lying.  One can only make conclusions based on the present state of the world, not of the past (!)  If they say Eden must have existed to account for evil, his response is that, we cannot infer that God is perfect by looking at nature alone; we can only infer that he is responsible for creating this imperfect and evil-filled world.

7. These religious scholars who talk about Eden could in fact be right.  The point is that there is no evidence.  It cannot be known for sure.  So why bother spending time with it?

8. Inferring an intelligence from nature is, according to Hume’s friend, ‘uncertain and useless.  It is uncertain; because the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience.  It is useless; because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from the course of nature, we can never, according to the rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause with any new inferences…’  In other words, the informational content of the inference from design is very, very low.

Hume then replies to his friend, that such an argument could be refuted as such:

1. If we were to see a half-constructed building, we could infer that it had a designer.  Then, from the cause, we could further infer that the building would be finished at a later date.  Or, finding a single footprint in the sand, we could infer that a human had been walking on the beach, and further infer from the cause that there had been other footprints, which had been washed away.  Why, then, can we not infer a future perfect state from the imperfect order of this world?

Hume’s friend’s response:

1. The difference is that we know man; we do not know God.  We can use what we know of man to infer other effects when all we see is a single effect.  But if we were to survey an alien building, we would have no idea of its state of completion, or if it were already finished.  We would be at a loss to infer anything other than its creation by an intelligence.  Similarly, then, with God.

2. Our mistake is in anthropomorphizing God – of supposing that God is like ourselves.

3. What this means is that, beyond providing us with knowledge of some sort of creator, religion from reason offers us nothing that our own senses and experiences hadn’t already told us.  Epicurus, by denying God’s providence and a future state, is surely then not harming the moral thinking of society, when all that he is doing is stating what everyone already knows.  Vices and virtues can be discerned without needing any notion of a future wrath.

Hume’s response:

Although religion may, to a reasoner, add nothing to society, this is not the case for people of faith.  Epicurus, by denying a future state of reward or punishment, may be a good reasoner, but is not a good citizen, by loosening the reasons for moral living that the faithful have.

The climax of the argument

Hume’s friend uses reason to demonstrate that the argument from design is, at best, not evidence for God.  It is simply evidence for some sort of designer, and the designer that it points to must be either incompetent, evil, easily satisfied with imperfect things, lazy, or morally quite different from us, as this is the world it has produced.  We definitely cannot, simply by looking at design, infer that God is One, or good, or just, or loving.  This, says Hume’s friend, is the consequence of denying revelation, and establishing your religion on reason only.

Hume, at the very end of the chapter, interjects that his friend has not gone to the logical conclusion of his own argument.  Says Hume, God (or intelligence) can NEVER be inferred from nature.  Remember how we need to experience the same cause-effect relationship multiple times in order to know how it works, because causes are conjoined to effects through custom?  Well, there is only one universe.  And if there is a God/gods, he/they are very different from us.  How do we infer, from the apparent design within a single universe, anything like God?

We would need multiple examples of this cause-effect relationship to make such a claim.  We would need multiple life-filled worlds.  Furthermore, even if we did have multiple life-filled worlds, we still could not attribute them to an intelligence, as the intelligence of God could be categorically different from the intelligence of man.  The analogy of man’s ability to design cannot be used as a proof of the world’s design by God.

This is the true consequence of using reason to prove God – it ends up telling us nothing at all.

Although Hume does not state this explicitly, I think based on the beginning of the chapter he would quickly agree with his friend that this is not the death of design; but what the design argument requires in order to work are a series of matters-of-faith.  If you begin with revelation in scripture, then we know that we are made in the image of God; this means that anthropomorphisms of God must not be all wrong.  When the Bible tells us that God is a Creator, we can infer that we participate in this image when we too create.  Our design is, therefore, analogous to God’s design, even if it is limited.  It is then safe for us to use reason to infer design from nature and attribute it to intelligence; the only problem is that we knew this already, since it was revealed in scripture.  What is the point of making a design argument if it requires revealed religion to work, and is already revealed in religion?

Now, I do think Hume has somewhat overstated his case.  We may only have one earth, but if design happened multiple times, and not just once, then this at least injures his first objection.  Furthermore, customary conjunctions are useful for predicting the future and making generalities, but there is nothing wrong with providing a one-time only description of a cause/effect, so long as we don’t make a general rule out of it.  Custom ingrains in us that a certain effect always or often follows from a certain cause.  Without custom we cannot talk about proofs or probabilities, nor can we form a customary connection between the cause and its effect.  But certainly we can still describe what we are seeing!

And if this material world exists, there is no reason to suppose that, as the creator of a material world, God must be so completely different from us that we could never use our own intelligence as analogous to his own.  That said, the design argument still cannot be derived solely from reason; it requires certain propositions that can only be accepted as true through faith in revelation.

I’m still processing the consequences of this chapter, so perhaps you could persuade me to change my mind.

Section XII – Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy

In this short concluding chapter, Hume essentially argues that pure scepticism is too extreme, and needs to be tempered by a common-sense approach to experience.  I have little to say about this chapter, but will let Hume have the final word with three quotes from the end of this amazing book:

‘The existence, therefore, of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause or its effect; and these arguments are founded entirely on experience.  If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything.  The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits.  It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another.  [Footnote:  Not only the will of the supreme Being may create matter; but, for aught we know a priori, the will of any other being might create it, or any other cause, that the most whimsical imagination can assign].’

‘Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls, is composed partly of reasonings concerning particular, partly concerning general facts.  It has a foundation in reason, so far as it is supported by experience.  But its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation.’

‘When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?  If we take in our hand any volume…let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does in contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

Why I like Hume (or, In which I say things I may later come to regret)

Let me begin by stating the three major weaknesses that I see in Hume:

1. Relativism – experience is ultimately more subjective than Hume would like to admit.  Knowledge based on experience must necessarily become me-centered, and my knowledge of the world can be very different from your knowledge of the world, with no way to decide who has the ‘right’ knowledge.  A person experiencing delusions, for example, is still experiencing, and forming customary conjunctions based on those experiences.  How can we tell them that their experiences are wrong?

2. Similarly to the first weakness, experience does not have to be right.  All of us, every day, experience the sun moving through the sky, and there is nothing at all to hint that this is apparent motion and not actual motion.  Yet the testimony of scientists assures us that in fact it is the earth that is moving, even though none of us have any experience of this happening.  A common-sense approach to experience is vulnerable to numerous mistakes.  Hume not once acknowledges this, although I think he would be delighted with it, as it yet again reveals the uncertainty and limits of human knowledge.

3. Hume’s empirical approach is in a sense too extreme, as it makes no room for revelation.  As I will argue below, Hume, by basing everything on experience, actually opens the door for revelation.

I have often heard that Hume’s empiricism is somehow harmful to faith.  On the contrary, I see Hume’s common-sense approach to the world as simply being how things are, and it has benefited my faith.  I now know how to talk to ardent atheists or agnostics about my faith: I have made customary conjunctions that they have not made, because I have had religious experiences which for whatever reason they have not had. And I can say that they too may be able to experience these customary conjunctions, if they are willing to step out in faith.  Hume’s important contribution here is that my religious experiences are in no way inferior to the scientific study of the world; they are both experiential, and neither are based on reason.

I also find in Hume validation for James’ interesting observation that ‘faith, without deeds, is dead.’  In this context James is arguing that faith that does not clothe the homeless is useless faith, of no value whatsoever.  But I wonder if he might not also mean, at another level, that faith that is not actively lived out and experienced is dead because experience is the wellspring of faith?  I will not deny grace and there being a divine bestowal of faith, but it needs to be realized that this bestowal can only be experienced.  My faith really came into fruition through working for the church.  It was not through abstract reasoning that my faith flourished; it was through service.  Reasoning added support and security, but service gave it life.

Hume also shows me the necessity for revealed religion.  There are significant limits to human understanding.  There are things that we can never know.  These limits reveal why scripture would be necessary, why we would need God-inspired documents.  Stories cannot be learned through customary conjunction; they must be told.  Without scripture, we would never know the story of God. 

But which story?  Which scripture?  Which God?  This is an interesting and difficult question, but one that feeds back into experience.  Hume told us why we needed scripture, and he also provided us with the means of discerning between the competing scriptures.  Experience.  God invites us into active participation, to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’  I do not believe in the Bible because I am an idiot; I believe in the Bible because its basic promises have been manifested in my life and in the lives of other people that I know.  I then trust, based on the customary conjunctions establishing God’s trustworthiness, that the rest of his revelation must also be trustworthy.  But what interpretation of revelation?  Although there is much that will lie outside our experience, providing much room for theological discourse, there are certain things, such as a literal interpretation of Genesis 1, that violate our experience.  We can then reject interpretations that do not clearly align with experience.  Science informs our faith, and our faith informs our interpretation of science.  However, this is where the weakness of Hume’s unwitting relativism is manifested, as we must then ask, which experience?

What is scary about this for the Christian is that followers in other religions may also have experiences that validate their religious choice.  Faith, then, must be separated from experience, in order to avoid this pitfall.  I honestly do not know how to respond to this.  It is, I think, a definition of faith based on fear, and for that alone I would reject it, but I need to do a more in-depth study on faith before I can resolve this issue.  My gut tells me that, if God wishes to work through other religions, what is that to us?  We are Christians, and we will continue to preach what God has led us to preach.  Everything else we will leave to God.

Some Christians seem afraid of Hume’s empiricism, and to some extent I understand why.  I think as a general theory of how we know the world, Hume provides a satisfying common-sense explanation.  The Christian need not fear this, but must temper it with faith and revelation.  But we can also acknowledge that those things that we believe, that we have never experienced, are believed because experience has taught us to trust.

Other Hume links on this blog:


jmchebib@ucalgary.ca said...

N = 1 is a poor sample size to work with but it is all we have. No two experiences are exactly the same so all causal inferences are statistical with errors. The mind is a probability machine which models reality well enough for survival (some of the time). Hume's ideas are still the basis for these ideas. Great book.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean?

Matthew said...

About what?