Religious knowledge and the nature of God

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In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he argues about the existence of God and the rationality of religion. Hume is an empiricist and believes that in order for a belief to be rational it must be supported by experiences. Hume presents three characters, Demea, Philo and Cleanthes who all have their own explanation and rationality about religion and present different arguments concerning God’s existence.

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In Dialogue IX Hume presents Demea’s a priori argument for God’s existence and Cleanthes’ objection to the argument.
Early in the text the three characters started by arguing about religious knowledge and the nature of God. Cleanthes was very optimistic about understanding religion and God, while Philo was very skeptical and believed that God’s nature should not be sought after or understood by mortal men. Amidst all this Demea presents the idea that the nature of God is incomprehensible to usfinite weak and blind creatures and we should humble ourselves in his presence (Hume 9). Philo agrees with Demea that God’s existence cannot be known be us and goes on to say that whoever questions this derives to be punished (Hume 10). But Cleanthes objects he believes that even though we do not have any direct experiences about God, there is enough evidence in nature to allow us to make conclusions about what God is like.

As the argument progresses in Dialogue IX, Demea presents a priori argument, the cosmological argument, challenging Philo’s doubt. Demea broke his argument into four parts. The first claim he presented was, Whatever exists must have a cause or reason for its existence, as it is absolutely impossible for anything to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence (Hume 38). He uses this first claim to present the idea that nothing just happens by itself and nothing can bring its own existence. In the second part of his argument he claims In working back therefore, from effects to causes, we must either (1) go on tracing causes to infinity, without any ultimate cause at all, or (2) at last have recourse to some ultimate cause that is necessarily existent (Hume 38). In this part, he is drawing the conclusion that because part one of the claim is unrealistic then it has to be part two, which is the idea that there is something that exists that causes everything else. The third part of his argument was related to the previous claim and Demea thinks since there is no explanation for part one then an infinite sequence of causes is not possible. So he finally concludes in the fourth part of his argument We must adopt supposition and have recourse to a necessarily existent being, who carries the reason of his existence in himself and cannot be supposed not to exist without an express contradiction. So there is such a being: that is, there is a God (Hume 38). He concludes with the last part of his argument tying everything together that something exists and that thing is God.

After Demea presents his argument Cleanthes refutes everything he says, he claims that his argument is flawed and cannot prove what he is trying to claim because of it’s a priori structure. Cleanthes presents these five claims to refute Demea’s argument first, nothing is demonstrable unless its contrary implies contradiction. Second, nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction. Third, whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. Next, there is no being whose non-existence implies a contradiction and finally there is no being whose existence is demonstrable (Hume 39). Cleanthes believes that although Demea’s argument claims that there is a cause, his argument is not substantial enough to make the point, that God exists or is that cause. He proposes the idea of the material world in relation to Demea’s argument in order to refute his a priori argument that God exists by claiming why shouldn’t the material universe be the necessarily existent being? We dare not claim to know all the qualities of matter; and for all we can tell, matter may have some qualities which, if we knew them, would make matter’s non- existence appear as a contradiction Any particle of matter’, Dr Clarke has said, can be conceived to be annihilated; and any form can be conceived to be altered. Such an annihilation or alteration, therefore, is not impossible.’ But it seems very biased not to see that the same argument applies just as well to God (39). This claim that Cleanthes presents is valid in his argument based on the premises that Demea presented in his argument because based on Demea’s argument the material universe does have all the attributes that God is said to have according to Demea. He concludes his argument discussing the idea of a chain of items and he argues that there is not a first cause as stated early that causes the items in the chain but each part of the chain is caused by the part that preceded it, and causes the one that follows. (39)

Although Cleanthes, Philo and Demea all believed that some God exists they all had their personal ideas of how God exists and the relation between humans and God. Philo and Demea who had more conservative arguments and believed that there should be some mystery in the relationship between humans and God and that it is good that humans don’t know God in entirety. Cleanthes on the other hand believed that God should be sought after and humans should try to understand who God is. These beliefs were represented in dialogue IX in the argument between Cleanthes and Demea after Demea’s a priori argument about God’s existence.

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