The argument from design at its best

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, philosopher David Hume concluded that the classical arguments for the existence of God, even if they were logically sound, would not in fact prove what believers want to have proven.  The characters Cleanthes and Demea set out to demonstrate to the existence of God, and find themselves unable to satisfy their friend Philo.  After Cleanthes has made the case for believing that the orderliness of the observable world demonstrates that it is the creation of a supernatural being, Philo responds with a series of conclusions that follow at least as logically from Cleathes’ arguments as do the conclusions which he would like to draw.  The final item in this series is the following:

In a word, CLEANTHES, a man, who follows your hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions: but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think, that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

This passage came to mind when I read yesterday’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Zach Wienersmith has sharpened Philo’s hypotheticals a bit:


  1. Smiley Face !

  2. I found myself more fascinated by the churning of the sea of milk depicting on the walls of the temples at Angkor than I have ever been by the Jesus story. Apsaras everywhere!

  3. One of the interesting things about the Jesus story is the extent to which it would have struck first-century people as more or less exactly like the stories that David Hume and Zach Wienersmith tell. The Messiah isn’t a king who raises an army and restores Israel, but some itinerant preacher from the Galilee who winds up on a cross?

    There was a comic several years ago called Battle Pope that should help us put ourselves in the sandals of the people scandalized by the early Christians’ declaration that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s set after Jesus has come back. But the Second Coming has turned out to be as politically ineffectual as was the first, and Jesus has to take refuge in the Vatican, where a cigar-chomping, whiskey-guzzling, womanizing pope commands the armies that fend off the chaotic forces that dominate the world. If Christians want to know how blasphemous first-century Palestinian Jews of a Messianist bent found the Jesus story, they should read Battle Pope– I suspect that will give them the exact length, depth, and breadth of their reaction. Here it is for sale on Amazon.

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