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Monday, September 26, 2011


Having indulged himself for twenty-five pages in a hilarious series of send-ups of the hapless Argument from Design, Hume gets down to business in the very brief Part IX, and in two paragraphs dispatches both the Cosmological and the Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God. If you will allow me yet another irrelevant literary association, Hume's performance here reminds me of Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand's wonderfully romantic play. You will recall that at the theater, Cyrano duels an aristocrat while composing a ballade, the last line of which, "I touch," is spoken as he skewers his opponent. That is how I imagine Hume -- playing with the various proofs until, when his ballade is done, he thrusts, and with one stroke dispatches them all. [Personal aside: As a very young man, not yet out of my teens, I had the great pleasure of attending Jose Ferrar's famous performance of Cyrano in the City Center revival of the play. The youngsters among you may have seen Steve Martin's rather sweet reprise of the story in the movie, Roxanne, co-starring Darryl Hannah.]

Once again, we see the literary flexibility that Hume achieves by the device of dividing his Dialogues among three speakers. Rather unexpectedly, in light of what has taken place in the previous eight parts, it is Demea who states the Cosmological Argument at the opening of Part IX. Here is his statement of it:

"The argument, replied Demea, which I would insist on, is the common one. Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence; it being absolutely impossible for any thing to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all; or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved. In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing; and yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in Nothing's having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of causes which constitutes the universe. What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce any thing. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being; that is, there is a Deity."

There were, of course, many versions of this argument extant in the philosophical literature. St. Thomas offers five proofs for the existence of God, and the first three, from the necessity of a first mover, a first cause, and a non-contingent being on whose existence contingent beings rely for their existence, are simply versions of this same argument, all of them derived from Aristotle, to whom St. Thomas, in an expression of his respect, is wont to refer simply as "the Philosopher." By the way, St. Thomas does not include the Ontological Argument among the five. He was of course familiar with Anselm's statement of it, but Thomas thought it was sophistic, and rejected it. The Ontological Argument had its fifteen minutes of fame as a consequence of Descartes' embrace of it, but was quickly dispatched to the "ash heap of history" by the refutations of Hume and Kant. When I was young, it made an odd comeback in the writings of a number of logically sophisticated analytic philosophers of the Christian persuasion, including, if I am not mistaken, Alvin Plantinga.

Hume assigns to Cleanthes the task of refuting the argument, and Cleanthes does so in words that could have come directly out of Book I of the Treatise. Note, by the way, that in the course of refuting Demea's statement of the Cosmological Argument, Cleanthes also dispatches the Ontological Argument as well. First, the Cosmological Argument:

"I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non- existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it." And that is it. Part IX continues for two more pages, but it might as well have stopped right there. Nevertheless, Cleanthes continues in the next paragraph to dispose of the Ontological Argument, which he treats, interestingly, as a version of the Cosmological Argument.

"It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent."

Since Hume's refutations of the proofs for the existence of God are so similar to those Kant offers in the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason, readers may wonder whether Kant was aware of Hume's Dialogues, which, you will recall, appeared in English only two years before the first edition of the Critique was published. Indeed he was. An interesting character named Johan Georg Hamaan did an abbreviated translation of the Dialogues in 1780 and showed it to Kant, who seized on it and read it carefully. Inasmuch as Hume's arguments reinforced rather than challenged those of Kant, Kant would not have had to make any alterations to the text of the Dialectic.

At this point, Hume is really done. There is nothing more to be said about the proofs for the existence of God. But Hume still has a number of interesting and useful things to say, and he actually manages to carry the discussion on for another 35 pages. He closes Part IX with a rather nice statement of what Gilbert Ryle, in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, called a "category mistake." Returning to the version of the Cosmological Argument that argues for the existence of am first cause, Cleanthes offers this analysis:

"{I]n tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence? In such a chain, too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct countries into one kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I shew you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts."


John S. Wilkins said...

The so-called Kalaam (or Kalam) argument proffered by William Lane Craig runs: Whatever begins to exist has a cause. I always wondered how we knew that about anything at the scale of a universe.

Schimpfinator said...

"The Ontological Argument had its fifteen minutes of fame as a consequence of Descartes' embrace of it, but was quickly dispatched to the "ash heap of history" by the refutations of Hume and Kant."

This is inaccurate. It was revived directly after its Kantian dismissal by Hegel, and had a rich history in modern philosophy before Kant.

Check out this review of a book on the subject:

Schimpfinator said...

btw, I love this series, and no offense was intended! Your efforts are much appreciated.