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Philosophy of Religion

"Author! Author! Some Reflections on Design in and beyond Hume's Dialogues"

William Lad Sessions
Washington and Lee University

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ABSTRACT: Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) may be read in the way Cleanthes (and Philo as well) reads Nature, as analogous to human artifice and contrivance. The Dialogues and Nature then are both texts, with an intelligent author or Author, and analogies may be started from these five facts of Hume's text: the independence of Hume's characters; the non-straightforwardness of the characters' discourse; the way the characters interact and live; the entanglements of Pamphilus as an internal author; and the ways in which a reader is also involved in making a dialogue. These and other analogies should reflect upon the Author of Nature as they do upon Hume's authorship: They do not prove the existence of their respective authors, but may well shed some light on the nature of these disparate beings.

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The bulk of Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion is given over to two discussions of "the" so-called argument from design. (1) In Part 2 Cleanthes succinctly states an "argument a posteriori" that attempts to "prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence." According to this argument, the world and its parts are (like) intricate machines or human contrivances, implying "by all the rules of analogy" that their cause, "the Author of Nature," is a designing intelligence (all 2.5.Cleanthes to Demea and Philo). Philo then subjects this argument to various and withering criticisms in Parts 2-8, although he later ends up confessing, more than once, (2) his inability to deny the powerful attraction this form of argument and its natural theological conclusion has for everyone, himself included.

In Parts 10 and 11, following an interlude considering Demea's "simple and sublime argument a priori" (9.1.Demea to Cleanthes and Philo), Cleanthes again attempts to use an argument a posteriori to prove the moral (as opposed to the natural) attributes of God, in two versions: the first must "deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man" in order to infer a completely benevolent Deity (10.31), the second works from mixed (good and evil) phenomena and supposes "the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind" (11.1). Again, Philo states numerous objections, and ends up proclaiming a sceptical "triumph" concerning the first version (10.36) and judging an indifferent Deity more probable than a benevolent finite one concerning the second version (11.15).

Because it is so prominent, everyone notices that a central concern of Hume's Dialogues is empirical natural theology—how one can discern from Nature, using empirical facts and "experimental" forms of inference available to anyone, the existence and nature of an Author of Nature. But few connect this concern to the simple fact that the Dialogues is itself authored. It is a text with an author, David Hume. At the very least, then, on Cleanthes's approach, (3) there should be some resemblances between the world and this text, insofar as they both imply an intelligent "author;" at the most, this analogy of authorship might prove even more fruitful for theological understanding than the mechanical and biological analogies mentioned by the characters in Hume's text. By this, I do not mean that we can prove God's existence from the very existence of Hume's text! In fact, I will not even be concerned with the existence of God: Just as the existence or "being" of an Author of Nature is not truly in question in the Dialogues, so I will not trouble it here. Rather, my central concern, and the text's as well, is "the nature of that divine being" (PH.5). My suggestion is that we may learn something useful about the nature of Nature's Authoring from the way the Dialogues are authored. (4)

There is no doubt that Hume wrote the words of the text. Even if we didn't have a fairly clear causal trail from his pen to posthumous publication in 1779 by his namesake nephew, it would still be evident that Hume is the author of this text, since it is so overwhelmingly in his style and manner—too much "like him," one might say. Moreover, it is a very well-constructed book. Hume, whose life's "ruling passion" was "literature," (5) wrote at the end of his life to Adam Smith that upon revising this work "I find that nothing can be more cautiously and more artfully written." (6) He worked on the manuscript for some 25 years, with an initial draft (at least through Part 3) completed by 1751, a revision ten years later, and further extensive revisions in 1776, the year of his death. So we can be sure that there is thoughtful intention and design in this work.

But what did Hume mean by this text? What is the author's design? Here we encounter a surprising fact: There is considerable scholarly disagreement about Hume's intentions in and through the Dialogues. The major tussle is over who "wins" the Dialogues; and, connected with this, who speaks for Hume (on the assumption that Hume would only back a winning speaker). Most interpreters follow Norman Kemp Smith in holding that Philo is the winner, in quality as well as quantity of argument, and that therefore he is Hume's "mouthpiece." (7) But others plump for other winners and mouthpieces: Some hold that Pamphilus is Hume; (8) some take Cleanthes to be the "hero" of the Dialogues; (9) others think that no speaker represents Hume consistently because they are types not individuals (10) or because they are all muddle-headed; (11) still others think "it is the whole of the dialogue which represents Hume". (12) One bold interpreter, (13) doubtless out of frustration, has even gone so far as to declare that "I shall take it that Hume in the Dialogues is any speaker who appears to be making a good philosophical point"!—which is tantamount to identifying Hume with the reader!

Now none of these views is obviously correct, and I believe there is good reason in the text for the obscurity. J.C.A. Gaskin amusingly reports: "As an academic colleague of mine remarked about Hume, having just read the Dialogues for the first time, 'What does the dashed fellow actually believe in the end?'" (14) This bewilderment, I believe, stems chiefly from improperly trying to identify the beliefs of Hume, the author, with the statements of one or more of his characters. Hume's characters are no mere "mouthpieces" for the author or for any other historical person. They are literary creations of Hume, to be sure, yet such vivid ones that they have an integrity of their own. They express views and points of view that have a certain internal coherence, complexly meshing with details of individual personality and style, that may be only marginally or tangentially related to Hume's own views and point of view.

Here, then, is our first analogy: The creations of Nature, God's creatures, are like literary characters. If literary characters can have a certain independence of their author, then surely natural creatures can have a similar integrity apart from their Author. This means not only the obvious point that creatures can have states of mind—intentions, thoughts, beliefs, desires—that differ from, indeed sometimes even oppose, their Creator's mind. It also means that there is no ready inference from creaturely states of mind to the divine mind: Just as you can't necessarily identify Hume's beliefs with or from any of his characters' beliefs, so you can't identify God's beliefs with or from any of his creatures' beliefs. Moreover, while an author or Author presumably has some states of mind—in particular, some intentions in and for her work, some "design" in mind—nonetheless the particular state of mind need not be at all clear to the respective "readers." Just as a well-made philosophical dialogue is more than using a "mouthpiece" instead of speaking directly in an essay, so a well-made world may be more than using puppets instead of achieving ends directly. That there are designs of authors of dialogues and Authors of worlds in which dialogues are written may be more apparent than what those designs are, in any detail. Both author and Author may allow or create characters and creatures who are more or less independent of their maker or Maker, and this independence may be (part of) the design.

Second, characters do not themselves always speak what they believe, and they do not always believe everything they say. They may have very good reasons for withholding or dissembling. Philo, in particular, is a different person when Demea is present than when Demea is absent: Before Demea leaves, Philo is combative and aggressive; he displays a "spirit of controversy" combined with an "abhorrence of vulgar superstition" (12.1) that are incited to fever pitch by Demea. Moreover, Philo and Demea are competing for the affiliation and education of Pamphilus, the youthful observer of the discussions and the ostensible narrator of them to his friend Hermippus. So, before Demea leaves, Philo's attacks have to be taken with a grain of salt. Philo's extensive objections to Cleanthes's design argument (for the Deity's natural attributes), e.g., are confessed by him later to be only "mere cavils and sophisms" (10.36.Philo to Cleanthes). Also, in the very first Part, Philo cons Demea into believing that he is a fellow-traveler in Demea's "rigid inflexible orthodoxy" (PH.6), agreeing with Demea that the divine nature is a "mystery" to our frail capacities, while in truth Philo's piety is radically different from Demea's. Cleanthes, in recognizing Philo's "spirit of controversy," says he would rather "reason with either of you [Philo and Demea] apart," in separate dialogues instead of a joint trialogue. The point I want to make is that Hume's characters are more complex than some readers assume: they are thoroughly capable of all the artful and shady dealings of actual people, and so they are not even constant "mouthpieces" for their own true views, much less those of their author. Only in certain circumstances, when "the company" is just right for authentic conversation, as it is in Part 12 of the Dialogues, can they be trusted to say straightforwardly what they mean, and to mean just what they say.

Creation may be like that too. Creatures may reveal, or be able to reveal, their true natures only in some special circumstances, not in all situations alike. Sometimes there may be deliberate concealment of their true bent, whether the dissembling is for self-advancement or for self-protection. But often it may be that the situation just is not conducive to uncovering or displaying one's genuine nature. In particular, situations of competition and strife, of enmity and antagonism, may block even the ability, much less the desire, to speak from the heart, to reveal vulnerabilities, to open oneself to the views and viewpoints of others. More generally, no creature flourishes and fulfills its nature equally well under all conditions. Often we can recognize when something should be expected to display its true nature—or to speak its true mind—but sometimes we do not know enough about it to know what circumstances are ripe for self-revelation as opposed to self-concealment. So we should not expect the creatures in a Book of Nature to reveal their natures easily, always, to just anyone.

Third, the design of a dialogue is to be found not only in what its speakers say, but also in what they do and in how they live. Here we must recall that Hume's Dialogues are about "Natural Religion." "Natural" is opposed to "revealed," and "Religion" embraces both "theology" and "piety." While the bulk of the Dialogues is devoted to theological arguments, nonetheless considerations of piety are present and deeply significant. Piety subsumes all of the practical, attitudinal, emotional, and self-involving sides of religion as a way of life. Piety is addressed in a preliminary fashion in Part 1, where Demea remarks about children that "to season their minds with early piety is my chief care" (1.2)—a sentiment with which all agree, except that, of course, they differ radically in their pieties. Then, in Part 12, after Demea leaves, Cleanthes and Philo celebrate their "unreserved intimacy" (12.2) by discussing, and instancing, a piety that takes human community, moral common life, as its center, and seeks to develop a theology consonant with it. These two old friends have such a solid relationship that they can tolerate—indeed, they can celebrate—theological disagreements that would shatter a more fragile friendship. Philo even suggests a way of understanding their disagreements that turns them into disagreements of analogy—how like or unlike a human artificer is the divine Author of Nature!

Here there are two theological applications. (i) Proper piety on the part of a creature may be fundamental to proper apprehension of the Author of Nature—perhaps more fundamental than correct theology. Of course, piety and theology necessarily go together, since theological views have practical effects, and ways of life are guided by views. But piety is more fundamental than theology for a life. (ii) A universe may witness to its design not only in what it "says"—whether literally in the words of (some of) its creatures or figuratively in the "signs" its patterns and events display—but also in what it "does." Here one may regard the universe either as a single organism functioning like a living being on earth or as a society of organisms interacting in helpful or hurtful ways. Harmony of functioning or interacting may be an important clue not only to the natures of the functioning or interacting creatures, but also to the nature of the Author of their natures.

Fourth, authorship may be concealed, in a variety of ways. It is noteworthy that the Dialogues do not present themselves as directly from Hume's hand. Instead, they open with a six- paragraph preface, where we learn about the youthful Pamphilus through a note he writes to his equally young friend Hermippus. Pamphilus is the ward of Cleanthes and through him was present at the remarkable conversations of Cleanthes, Demea and Philo. The gist of these conversations he had earlier conveyed to Hermippus, whose appetite was whetted for a fuller account. Pamphilus now seeks to give a "recital" that does "not omit or confound any considerable part" of the conversations. So Pamphilus is the (internal) narrator of the Dialogues, and things come to us through him, and hence from his point of view. His point of view is evident in the judgments he makes, including his (in)famous conclusion in Part 12, (15) and also in the judgments he induces in others, specifically in Hermippus. (16) But beyond these judgments, we may be a tad suspicious of the "recital" Pamphilus gives of what others say—not necessarily to the point of thinking him the real author of what they did indeed say (he is, after all, a reporter within someone else's invention, not himself the maker of the text in which he speaks), yet recognizing that what one reports is a function not only of what is said but of what one is able and open to hear.

Pamphilus perhaps also exercises a different kind of influence on the conversation. He presents himself as "a mere auditor of their dispute" because of his youth, yet he did not just sit idly by; he eagerly sought instruction from the conversation he now recites. Moreover, it is clear that all three discussants view Pamphilus as something of a pedagogical project. All speak with him in mind, (15) and all speak at least implicitly for his benefit as they see it, all the while they are ostensibly talking to one another. So the youthful Pamphilus's fairly unobtrusive presence in the dialogues he reports is as important as his initial and continuing presence in the recital he gives of them. Thus Pamphilus shapes the conversation because the conversation is shaped to him.

Similarly, the Authorship of Nature may be concealed from creatures even while it is shaped to them, and this in several ways. (i) It is possible that Nature appears, or could appear, as its own Author, even if it is not. So far as we can see, e.g., Nature might seem to be an autonomous animal, even though it is in fact a created animal. (ii) We may glimpse Nature only through the eyes and stories of others—in short, through culture and its cosmologies. For creatures, there may be no such thing as seeing the world as it is, but only seeing it as something or other, in light of some human picture of what it can be and must be. (iv) Even within broad cultural traditions, there are different stories told, or stories told differently, by different speakers—different "recitals" of a culture's discourse about Nature, alternative metaphysics, varying myths. (v) We may ourselves make the story not just in its telling but also in its unfolding, insofar as Nature is not only fitted for our occupancy but also fitting for our enterprises. The purposes of Nature may be, in part, our purposes, the purposes we supply.

Fifth, to dilate upon this last point, any text involves a reader in its unfolding, yet this is particularly true of a dialogue. A good dialogue reaches out from its pages to ensnare the reader, who no doubt is antecedently interested in the topics but finds herself increasingly drawn into the conversation, evaluating the comments and the character of various speakers in turn, wondering to herself about what and how she would reply to someone's remarks, or what she would or should have done instead of or in reaction to some character's actions, thereby implicitly joining in the dialogue. In short, an artful author like Hume finds ways to involve his reader in a dialogue's unfolding drama, making the reader a kind of co-creator of the text—at least of the text-as-understood.

Likewise one may perceive Nature to be not just a dynamic process that causally implicates all its members, but a creative process in which its members can participate. Nature involves its creatures in the business of survival, to be sure, but also entices them into the endless and bottomless effort to understand. It is not too farfetched to view this quest for understanding as learning to read the "language" of Nature, discerning the form and content of the regularities of nature. Beyond such "scientific" understanding, however, and also beyond the "existential" appreciation of one's own entanglement in the world, lies another analogy to a reader's involvement in reading a dialogue: Creatures participate in the world, both by finding creative ways of responding to other creatures, and also by imagining and making new forms of life. We humans, in particular, are no mere passive witnesses to an unfolding world-text beyond our ken and unwelcoming to our participation; rather, we can enlarge our comprehension to "take in" the world, and we can enlarge the world to include our inventions and projects. Just as dialogues by portraying conversations provoke further conversations beyond the text, so a world by unfurling itself regularly and creatively initiates inquiry and further creation beyond the given. We may even imagine that both author and Author welcome these kinds of participation by their respective "readers."

In all these ways, and doubtless many others, questions about the designs of the author of the Dialogues suggestively lead on to questions about the Author of Nature. The characters of this text (not just Cleanthes, but Philo and Demea also, in their own ways) are intensely interested in the "artifice" and "contrivance" lying ready to their view throughout Nature. It would be a Postmodern anachronism to ask them also to notice the well-wrought artifice of the text in which they live and move and have their being. Yet we as readers of Hume's most "artful" work should be open to the ways in which the text itself suggests potential analogies of religion. To a teleologically-inclined mind (i.e., to any human mind), authorship resembles Authorship, and the greater the artifice of the two authors, the more intriguing the analogy. That is why, from so rich a text as Hume's Dialogues, there stream countless potential lessons about the nature—the intentions, the purposes, the designs—of the great Author of Nature.

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(1) There are actually several distinct arguments, with different premises, lines of inference, and conclusions. But all involve teleology in some form or another—design, purpose, intention, ends, etc.—and I will use "design" as the generic title.

(2) Cf., e.g., 10.9, 10.26, 10.36, 12.2, 12.5, 12.33.

(3) In using this empirical, analogical approach Cleanthes is contested by Demea, but not, in the end, by Philo.

(4) Henceforth, I will use "Author" to refer to the divine Author of Nature, and "author" to the human author of a text such as Hume's.

(5) My Own Life, ¶3: "I passed through the ordinary course of education with success, and was seized very early with a passion for literature, which has been the ruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments."

(6) Letter 15 August 1776, to Adam Smith; #538 in Grieg, Vol. 2.

(7) Cf. Kemp Smith, 1947, 59. In general agreement are e.g. Coleman 1989; Flew 1986; Force 1977; Gaskin 1988; Huxley 1894 (with qualifications); Mossner 1936, 1977; Nathan 1966; Parent 1976; Passmore 1980; Penelhum 1979, 1983; Pike 1970 (although he thinks Berkeley is the ultimate winner); Popkin 1980; Price 1965; Williams 1963; and Wood 1971.

(8) Hendel 1963 and Metz 1929.

(9) Laing 1932, 1937; Leroy 1934; Taylor 1921, 1939.

(10) Pakaluk 1984.

(11) Bricke 1975; also Butler 1960; Livingston 1984; Noxon 1966, 1976; Tweyman 1986; Wollheim 1963.

(12) Morrisroe 1969, 1974; cf. Laird 1932, 206-7; Capaldi 1970, 238; Yandell 1976, 111; Yandell 1990, 37-38.

(13) Gaskin 1988, 13.

(14) Gaskin, ed., 1993, xxiii.

(15) "PHILO's principles are more probable than DEMEA's; but ... those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer the truth" (12.34).

(16) Hermippus is the one who mentions "the accurate philosophical turn of CLEANTHES ... the careless scepticism of PHILO ... the rigid inflexible orthodoxy of DEMEA" (PH.6).

(17) This extends from Demea's opening compliments to Cleanthes "on the great care, which he took of my [Pamphilus's] education" (1.1), to Philo's gracious concluding nod to his host: "And I hope CLEANTHES will forgive me for interposing so far in the education and instruction of his pupil" (12.33).


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