David Hume and Religion

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion David Hume addresses some of the arguments surrounding the subject of God that were prevalent during his time. Hume uses three characters who encompass various standpoints and posit various arguments concerning the nature of God.

Demea represents fideism, the belief or view that the nature of God exceeds human comprehension and therefore, theorizing about the nature of God is futile. “Finite, weak, and blind creatures, we ought to humble ourselves in his august presence” (13). Demea also claims that God is self-evident and therefore, discussing the existence of God would be a fruitless endeavor. “No man; no man, at least of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning the being but nature of God”(13). Representing the Orthodoxy, Demea finds it reasonable to support his claims with nothing more than a testimony from Father Melebranche.

Within Melebranche’s testimony we find the concept of anthropomorphism: the act of ascribing human characteristics to non-human beings such as animals or deities.

“But in the same manner as we ought not to imagine, even supposing him corporeal, that he is clothed with a human body, as the Anthropomorphites asserted, under color that that figure was the most perfect of any so neither ought we imagine that the spirit of God has human ideas or bears any resemblance to our spirit, under color that we know nothing more perfect than a human mind.” (14)

The fideist argument hinges on the assertion that human comprehension is limited and the nature of God exceeds this limit. This argument bears a commonality with the skeptical/atheistic argument posited by Philo, though this resemblance is only on the surface. Philo expresses agreement with Melebranche’s assertion of anthropomorphism

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature.” (14)

Demea and Philo both assert that the precise nature of God is unknowable, yet their agreement is on the surface only. Demea, while maintaining that one cannot know the precise nature of God, still claims that God exist. Philo, while agreeing with Demea In that the nature of God is unknowable, goes further to assert that the existence of God, too, is unknowable.

Cleanthes, representing empirical theism, posits the argument from design. In response to Demea’s fideism and Philo’s skepticism, Cleanthes asserts that the world and every part of it is “one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines” (15). He then asserts that nature operates in a way that is similar to what one would expect from a machine designed by human deliberation, yet exceeds anything that could be produced by human design. He concludes that, because nature resembles a machine in it’s complexity, that there must have been a supreme being capable of designing it which has a mind similar to the human mind, but far more powerful. The argument put forth by Cleanthes is an a posteriori argument, which establishes his character as an empirical theist.

Philo states, in reply to Cleanthes, that our uncertainty about the origins of the universe is so extensive that one could postulate any number of possible situations. Furthermore, one who postulated any one situation over the others could not provide a sufficient reason as to why he/she did so (17). What this means in more objective terms is: the idea of God as the creator of the universe is one idea among an infinite possibility of ideas which, due to their ambiguous foundations which rest outside of anything observable or testable, are all equal in probability. This is to say that the idea that the Abrahamic God created the universe has no more evidence, and no more reason to be believed than the idea that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. Both of these ideas are equal in that there is absolutely no evidence for, or against them. Philo ends this argument with the conclusion that “experience alone can point out to him the true cause of any phenomenon” (17). This is to say that we can only make truth claims regarding what can be experienced through our senses, and therefore, observed and tested first hand.

Philo then addresses the reasoning of Cleanthes. He first asserts that Cleanthes is mistaken in his usage of analogy as scientific inquiry. “But observe with what extreme caution all just reasoners proceed in the transferring of experiments to similar cases. Unless cases be exactly similar, they repose no perfect confidence in applying their past observation to any particular phenomenon” (18). Philo is addressing the leap made by Cleanthes when he takes the “operations of one part of nature upon another for the foundation of our judgment concerning the origin of the whole” (19). To illustrate Philo’s objection to Cleanthes’ use of analogy, we can observe the argument postulated by Cleanthes in a broken down form:

-Things in nature are complex.

-Machines are complex.

-Machines are created by designers.

-Therefore, nature was created by a designer.

We can go one step further and replace the subject matter with variables, while maintaining the logical structure of the syllogism:

-p is x

-q is x

-q entails y

-Therefore, p entails y

Now that the argument postulated by Cleanthes is in it’s most basic form, we can observe how it may lead to an absurd conclusion when there is too much separation in the similarity of the subject matter:

-All humans are mammals

-All dogs are mammals

-All dogs are born in litters

-Therefore, all humans are born in litters.

In Part IV of the dialogues, Philo asserts that there is a problem of infinite regression within the concept of God. This is the question of “who created God?”. The problem lies in a series of unwarranted assumptions. The first assumption is that the universe was created. From that assumption, theists assume to know what created the universe and proceed to ascribe to that creator characteristics and faculties. The last assumption, that Philo addresses, is that God is the first cause and does not need explanation. The most reasonable standpoint, as Philo suggested, is to concede to uncertainty when it comes to the origin of the universe.

References:

Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Ed. Dorothy Coleman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Religion, Moral Emptiness, and Moral Development

As an advocate of the naturalization of ethics, I find that the most fervent opposition to this movement comes from theology and trickles down through theistic philosophy, evangelism, fundamentalism, and the general religious person. The opposition, possibly older than the Abrahamic God, is that there can be no morality without an absolute source of morality. In other words, without God to give us morality, we would have none, and we would behave “like animals” (though many animals behave much better than we do). In the words of Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov “Without God, all is permitted”. This black and white idea plagues moral philosophy, so easily defended by abstract sophistry and so difficult to oppose with lucid reason. However, psychologically, I argue that one who lives by this theistic argument is morally empty.

Empty is an ambiguous word. What I mean by “empty” is “lacking a particular capacity within one’s self which allows one to synthesize original thought”. For instance, one may be a proficient musician. On the surface, we may think that they are musically rich. However, suppose that this individual cannot read music, doesn’t understand music theory, and knows the pieces that he or she performs only by mimicry and memorization. What is the matter with this? This individual depends solely on external sources for his or her musicianship. Though any musician depends on external sources to an extent, a musician that understands theory and reads well can synthesize his or her own music and musical skill. We may call the musician who learns by mimicry and memorization “musically empty”.

So, what would the morally empty individual look like? As in the musical analogy, the morally empty person lacks the particular capacity within his or herself which would enable the synthesis of original moral thought and action. Yet, why is the ability to synthesize original moral thought and action a good thing? One could argue that an individual who is morally virtuous is morally virtuous whether he or she synthesized his or her moral code or simply inherited it from an external source. I argue that this is not the case.

We may have two individuals, one who synthesizes her own moral code and another who inherits her moral code from an external source. Let’s imagine that the two of them have identical moral thoughts and actions. Are they equally virtuous? I argue that they aren’t. The former is virtuous and the latter is not. Allow me to explain this position. The former individual has the ability to synthesize her own moral code from observation and reason. Observation and reason give this individual some control over their thoughts and actions according to relevant situations. Each new and morally challenging experience that this individual has is essentially an invitation to further synthesize and expand – or amend – her existing moral code. The only present contingency within the morality of the former individual is situational. The former individual does not inherit her moral code from her situations, but uses her situations in accordance with reason and observation to synthesize moral thoughts and actions. The latter individual inherits her moral code from an external source. Remember that in the original hypothetical scenario, each individual has identical moral thoughts and actions. Considering both the dynamics of human existence and the contrast between the two types of morality being discussed, such a scenario may never occur in reality – but this is only for the sake of argument.

The latter individual can have the same moral character as the former individual by accident only. This is because each individual’s source of morality is different, even if we assume that each individual has always experienced the same situations. For the former individual, situations matter for the reason that they are learning experiences. For the latter individual, situations matter less and are approached with disposition. The latter individual’s moral code is fully formed and fixed from the outset, they cannot change it, because it is external and assumed to be unalterable. Thus, when the latter individual is faced with a moral situation, there is little to no reason involved. Instead, she simply calls up her moral memory bank and selects the belief or attitude that corresponds with the current situation, acts accordingly and moves on without a second thought. By accident, she may have done the “right” thing, appearing morally virtuous.

However, when we apply a little more reality to this scenario, the problems of the morally empty individual become more apparent. In the case that the latter individual faces a new kind of situation in which they cannot simply refer to their external and fixed moral code for answers, they are far less capable of making the right decision than the former individual, who regularly synthesizes new moral thought and action. The former individual, who has far more experience in synthesizing moral thought and action, is more likely to take many factors into consideration, conducting a sort of cost-benefit analysis (and not only that, but having a good idea of what constitutes “cost” and “benefit”). The latter, morally empty individual who is experiencing cognitive disequilibrium will be far less likely to accommodate and far more likely to assimilate, to use Piagetian terminology. What this means is that the latter individual will not make necessary changes to their moral code according to the situation at hand (remember, they believe that their moral code is external and unalterable), but will interpret the situation at hand according to their fixed moral code, no matter how inaccurate this interpretation may be. Thus, the latter individual never grows morally, while the former continuously grows morally.

According to this model, which is almost certainly right, the two types of moral character diverge dramatically over time. The morally empty stagnating in arrested development, and the morally reasonable developing according to each new experience. If the connection is not yet apparent, the morally empty individual is characteristic of one who adheres to theistic morality, in which one’s moral code is inherited from an external source (God) and is unalterable. Because the Bible bears little to no relevance to present day contexts, the moral theist is likely to find themselves in situations where their fixed moral code does not apply. This is when the theist, who cannot alter their fixed moral code nor synthesize new moral thoughts or actions, warps the situation to fit their archaic moral code. Or, simply proceeds outside of the boundaries of their moral code, as if they had no moral code at all, giving in to impulse. Because they have no internal capacity to reason morally, they will go wherever their impulse takes them. This is why we have so much irrational hatred against homosexuals, non-whites, non-Christian religions, foreigners, contrasting ideologies, and any other senseless hatred you care to name. It is predominately the result of theistic morality.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a traveling evangelist. As an experiment, I posed the very same  question to him that Ivan poses to his brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov: “Suppose your hired as an architect and your job is to create a world of living, thinking, feeling beings – “humans” we’ll call them. For whatever reason, you must create these beings with the faculty of free-will. Yet, this means that as a consequence of you creating this world, at least one, possibly more, infants and children will be made to suffer unspeakably. Would you accept the job?” Obviously, the point I was trying to make is that, assuming that God created the world, it was terribly bad and cruel of him to go through with it considering the immense amount of suffering in the world, not only to adults whom it is easy to argue “they deserve it”, but children, whom such an argument is preposterous to anyone. Essentially, the scenario makes the point that – assuming the Christian worldview is true – our existence is not worth the suffering of even one child. I sincerely believe this and would gladly not exist if this were the case. However, the evangelist felt differently. He replied with “You’re comparing me to God. I’m not God, so I cannot answer for him.” “Yes, but this is hypothetical. I want to know what you would do, I don’t care what God would do” I replied. He was reluctant to answer, because I put him in a position in which he would have to admit that God’s judgment was malevolent, or that the unjust suffering of children was worth our existence. I was shocked at what route this morally empty individual chose. “Well, your an atheist. You don’t have an absolute source of morality. So, you have no way to prove to me that the suffering of children is wrong. So, I would go through with the job”.

Only one who gets their moral code from an external source, such as God, could make such an argument. To expound on what I think Ivan Karamazov really meant, without God, all is permitted, but only because taking God out of the world leaves his former followers with no moral code – since they never had one of their own. They would not know how to think or act when faced with the reality that there are no absolute moral truths, we create morality ourselves – and so we’d better be good at it.

References:

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. Ed. Manuel Komroff. New York, NY: Signet Classics/New American Library, 2007. Print.

Endnotes:

The model discussed above concerning theistic and non-theistic morality is contingent upon one’s level of religiosity, or religious conviction. This is to say that one’s degree of moral emptiness correlates with one’s level of religious conviction. Because we can observe varying levels of religious conviction among the religious themselves, we should be able to observe varying levels of moral emptiness. Therefore, I am not making the claim that “all religious people are completely morally empty.” What I am claiming is that non-religious people tend to go further in moral development than do religious people.

Paleolithic Origins of Religion and Morality

Human history is a conspicuous guide that we have simply failed to learn from. Many of the problems we face today are old problems, caused by similar errors and shortcomings and leading to similar effects. In the subject of morality, there is much to be learned from history. History supplies us with an almost endless supply of anecdotal evidence, so much that it is almost absurd that we moral philosophers would ever need to invent hypothetical examples. This invention of hypothetical examples produces soft spots in moral argument – they are often attacked on the basis that they are hypothetical. Many contemporary moral systems are continuations, derivations, or analogous equivalents of older moral systems – at any rate, they all – old and new – share one basic commonality in that they float on a haphazard basis of superstition and abstraction.

In paleolithic humans we find the beginnings of superstition. Without spoken or written language, other than a few noises to identify certain things such as animals, potential threats, or food, paleolithic humans had a much simpler cognitive capacity than we modern humans. They were excellent hunters and masters of survival – our current existence depends on their proficiency at these skills – yet, they were not good thinkers. Not only did they have limited mental capacities, but we must also note that they had no recorded knowledge, nor a way to record knowledge, nor the time to partake in such activities as compiling extraneous knowledge. Any knowledge outside of crafting tools, hunting, building and maintaining fires and seeking shelter would have been extraneous knowledge for the paleolithic human – to partake in such an activity would be to compromise survival. Therefore, things like thunderstorms, celestial bodies, the sun, and death perplexed paleolithic humans. With no capacity to study these phenomena scientifically, they were perceived as deeply mysterious – hence, the coming of superstition.

In The Outline of History, Volume 1, H.G. Wells gives an account of the dominant male of a paleolithic group, the “Old Man”, as being a symbol of fear and security for the rest of the group. The Old Man would have secured his role as the leader not by democratic decision, intellectual prowess, or even charisma, but by simple brute strength, much like the alpha males of other species that we may observe today. This brute strength had to be asserted in order for the Old Man to be recognized as the leader of the group, and it was asserted in ways that were advantageous to the other members group, but also ways that were harmful to members of the group. The Old Man was likely the best, or one of the best hunters. His physical prowess was an indirect source of sustenance for the group. The Old Man also served as a protector of the group from such threats as large aggressive animals and other hostile families. Like in most sexual species, the Old Man was driven to reproduce, and of course, this made possible the competition for mates. The Old Man would have asserted his power over the other males of the group, a process which likely often lead to serious injury and death to the competing males. Fossil evidence, and observation of other animal species, as well as historical accounts of later, more developed humans suggests that the Old Man would have worked to secure his position as alpha male by killing adolescent males, male children and even male infants, as prevention of future competition. It is fair to say that courtship was not necessary for this paleolithic man. When he saw a female he wanted, it was only a matter of physically overpowering her to “win her over”. This was probably not an enjoyable experience for the female. The Old Man would have considered the female to be his, keeping her by his side and inducing her compliance with physical force, a practice that has survived up until today – in some places worse than others. It was through the Old Man’s acquisition of power that the other members of the group came to fear him, and yet, value him for the security he brought them.

The real fear and security that the group felt in the presence of the Old Man was also felt in his absence. Objects associated with the Old Man invoked the feeling of fear – a young male of this paleolithic family would not dare to touch the Old Man’s weapons, sleep in his place, or approach his female, and the female would rarely dare to wander off – out of fear and security. This fear in the absence of the Old Man is called the idea of the Old Man by Wells. The idea of the Old Man persisted in his absence, as well as after his death. Death, being such a mysterious phenomenon for paleolithic humans, compounded with the feeling of fear and security surrounding the idea of the Old Man culminated into a feeling of fear and security that outlasted the Old Man. The idea of the Old Man could have been invoked in the presence of threat. Since, while living, the Old Man had been the protector of the group, it is not unlikely that the group clung to the idea of the Old Man for security after his death. The Old Man was outlived by the taboos that he helped create while living. Perhaps his usual places of sleep and his weapons were treated as sacred by the living group members. These taboos were the beginnings of moral prescription. They were, in a sense, laws and prohibitions against certain behaviors. The idea of the old man would have been connected with these taboos, as if it was by his authority, though dead, that no one trespassed them.

Tradition finds its beginnings here as well. Mothers and other group members would have passed on stories of the Old Man, telling of his frightful and protective power. Through generations of tradition, the idea of the Old Man becomes the myth of the Old Man. Natural events such as storms and seasons would have been interpreted as fortunes or misfortunes – fortune itself being a mysterious agent. This primitive transcendental idea was likely to invoke paleolithic humans to expand this transcendental realm by including the myth of the Old Man. Like the natural phenomena, the Old Man still affected the group (the feeling of fear and security remained) though he was physically absent. The living group members would have expected the Old Man to protect them from the whims of nature, his new adversary, as he protected them from bears and other groups while living. To them it would seem that he must reside in the same sphere as fortune, and could therefore affect it. This would have been the beginning of ritual and sacrifice.

It is possible that this paleolithic alpha male is the original god – and the taboos manifested from the fear he inspired the original divine laws. From morality’s birth, it has been wed to superstitious ideas and practices, and this tradition continues into the neolithic age and the coming of civilizations and empires.

Sources:

Wells, H. G. The Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.