25 August 2007

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

First off, I'm glad that I read the introduction after reading the actual text of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. That way I came at it fresh, without one person's opinion influencing my own response to the text. I am grateful for the editor who decided that maybe bold-face indicators of which character was speaking when would be helpful. There are textual indicators of the speaker, but as bits of dialogue might go on for several pages, it would be easy to miss one and get confused as to which character was expounding. Which you can see for yourself in at least two online versions.

You may have guessed that this is another text for my philosophy class, and you'd be right. The full review is below the fold so that anyone else who wishes to read it fresh can choose to do so. This one I recommend unreservedly to anyone interested in religion in any sense. It's a fun, quick read, full of deep insights and interesting thoughts.

As you can probably tell from the title, the text takes the form of a dialogue. The three characters are Philo (the philosopher), Cleanthes (the theist), and Demea (the philosophical theist). Overall, Philo seems to get the upper hand in each argument. The topic under discussion is the nature of Deity and how much we can actually infer about that nature from, well, nature. The conclusion is "nothing useful." Hume does seem to buy into the idea that the world had a Designer, but he doesn't see this as a particularly useful idea as it leads to no new information, and, taken too far, leads to an infinite regress, e.g. "Who designed the Designer?" Ironically, I've occasionally seen ID advocates actually quoting from Hume to support the contention that ID is science. Yup. Quotemining is alive and well.

Essentially, Hume saw any attempt to unite naturalism with religion as ultimately futile, and dangerous to both disciplines. There's another essay in the volume where he decries any and all naturalistic explanations of miracles. It doesn't seem to be that he denies any miracles have occurred. Instead, he denies that it can be proven that they occurred, and that a leap of faith is required to accept them. He doesn't seem to think such a leap is necessary to accept the existence of a Deity, but since some of his writing may be intended as ironic, I can't pretend certainty on that point. It does seem that Hume valued that leap of faith, perhaps as distinguishing religion from science.

There's a lot more in there, but I don't want to go over every last detail. If you're interested in philosophy or religion at all, you should read this. Final thought: I found it interesting to see that many of the thought-processes I'd gone through as a teenager were represented in this volume.

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