David Hume’s Criticisms of the Design Argument for God and Responses

Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) criticizes the design argument for the existence of God. We will note his charge that the argument from analogy is unconvincing and that the design argument does not prove the existence of God. We will also offer responses to Hume. 

Hume objects to the argument from analogy that extrapolates from a perceived designed object within the universe (e.g. a house or watch) to the supposed design of the universe itself. We can know that a house is designed because we have witnessed many instances of houses being created. We can thus infer a designer of the house. This inference can be stipulated as follows (1):

  1. We know that house 1 was created by a designer.
  2. We know that house 2 was created by a designer.
  3. We know that house 3 was created by a designer.

Therefore,

4. It is reasonable to conclude that every house is created by a designer.

Therefore,

5. It is reasonable to conclude that the house I see across the street was also created by a designer.

The conclusion is that we can infer a designer to the house across the street because we have witnessed many instances of houses being created. But can we argue the same for the universe? One could, for instance, make a strong argument for the design of the universe if he can employ the same argument as in the case of the house; it could run like this,

  1. We know that Universe 1 was created by an intelligent designer.
  2. We know that Universe 2 was created by an intelligent designer.
  3. We know that Universe 3 was created by an intelligent designer.

Therefore,

4. It is reasonable to conclude that every universe is created by an intelligent designer.

Therefore,

5. It is reasonable to conclude that the universe in which we live was also created by an intelligent designer.

Hume argues that we cannot make such a design inference because our universe is the only universe we know: “Hume also claims that the universe and a watch [or a house] are dissimilar because, while the creation of the universe is a unique event, which has happened only once, the creation of ordinary objects, such as a watch and a house, has happened many times” (2).

In the case of inductive reasoning, the more observations one makes, the stronger his inductive reasoning becomes. But how strong could one’s inductive reasoning be for the supposed design of the universe if he has no other universes to compare it with or if he has never witnessed other universes being created? Hume thus concludes the argument from analogy is weak and therefore fails to prove the universe is designed like is a house or watch.

Hume’s second objection is that the design argument does not prove the existence of God. Even if the argument proves there is an intelligent creator, it does not prove there is anything like God Christians believe in. Hume charges that there are defects in the universe such as natural evils and suboptimal design that do not gel well with a traditional Christian conception of God. Perhaps in light of these defects, the designer is defective in some way. Or why even suppose a single creator God rather than a committee of designers? After all, we observe multiple designers and creators to a house. Further, the natural evils of the world certainly challenge the idea of an all-good and all-loving God.

Third, what designed the creator? Hume argues that if we posit a designer of the universe, we then set up a regress: if we posit an intelligent creator, then who created the intelligent creator? And who created the intelligent creator of the intelligent creator? And who created the intelligent creator of the intelligent creator of the intelligent creator? We could keep asking this question. 

Responses to Hume’s Objections

There are several responses to Hume’s criticisms.

Indeed one may accept that Hume is correct to say we do not have other universes to compare ours to in order to infer design yet still maintain that the universe clearly evidences design. That the universe shows design has been bolstered by recent discoveries within the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. These discoveries reveal an incredibly delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities that if slightly altered to a very small degree would render life impossible. 

These include fundamental constants such as electromagnetic interaction, proton to electron mass ratio, gravitation, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, and many others. When one assigns values to these constants he discovers that the chance of the universe being able to support intelligent life is minuscule. If, for instance, the force of the big bang had differed by one part in 10^60 then life would not be possible. If the mass and energy of the early universe were not evenly distributed to one part in 10^10^123, the universe would again be hostile to all forms of life.

The probability of the constants of nature coalescing to support life has been likened to setting up a target on the other end of the observable universe (many billions of light-years in diameter) and firing a pistol in a random direction only to hit the target in the center. This “fine-tuning” has not been missed by expert scientists. The agnostic cosmologist Paul Davies stated that “There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all… It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe… The impression of design is overwhelming” (3). The conclusion drawn from this is that the argument from design, at least in its cosmological form, has never been so powerful.

Second, what of Hume’s contention that design argument does not prove the existence of the God Christians believe in? Many Christian theists would agree with Hume. The purpose of the design argument is not to prove the existence of the Christian God but rather that the universe has an intelligent creator to whom it owes its intricacies. The theist maintains that this is putting one foot in the door on the path to supporting belief in a theistic God. The theist has the option of marshaling additional arguments to prove the existence of the Christian God, such as from, for example, the historical, evidential argument from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other arguments like the Kalam cosmological argument can also prove informative for inferring a theistic God. 

Third, what about natural evil in the world? One can counter that Hume’s skepticism is misdirected here because this is not a dispute of the design argument but is the argument from natural evil, which leaves the design argument untouched. 

Further, what about the skeptical question as to who designed the creator? As noted, Hume argues that if we posit a designer of the universe, we then set up a regress. Theists counter by arguing that a regress has to terminate at some point. The logical conclusion is that a regress can only terminate in a necessarily existing, non-contingent being. Only such a being who does not owe its existence to anything else could be the solution to an infinite regress.

Additionally, Hume’s argument is weakened in that to infer design one does not require an explanation of the designer, or an explanation of the explanation. To use an example, imagine that we explore a new planet in a distant galaxy and discover abandoned technology on that planet’s surface. We would rightfully infer design. We would recognize that some intelligent being(s) must have designed the technology only to have left it behind. But surely it would be silly for someone to claim that we cannot infer a designer of the technology if we do not have an explanation of those who designed the technology. In other words, rightfully inferring a designer of some object does not require an explanation of the designer. We do not therefore need an explanation of who created the creator to infer that the universe owes its existence to a creator.

References

1. Nagasawa, Yujin. 2011. The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction. Taylor & Francis Group. p. 81-82.

2. Nagasawa, Yujin. 2011. Ibid. p. 80.

3. Davies, Paul. 1988. The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability To Order the Universe. New York: Simon and Schusterp. p. 203.

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