Hume on the Teleological Argument

by Max Andrews

Below is a brief outline of David Hume’s criticisms of the teleological argument found in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion] and responses to them.

  1. The argument doesn’t get us to God, at most it just gets to a designer.
    1. This is not arguing for God, just an extremely intelligent mind, which exists apart from the universe.
    2. Constructive empiricism[1]
  2. You can only use analogy to argue for things that are similar, but the universe is unique.
    1. As long as the two things being compared are relevantly similar in the properties under consideration, they can be analogized.  Everything is unique in some way; however, we can still compare things where they are similar.  The universe is not unique in all its properties for it shares some properties with other things (design).
  3. You can only use analogy about things you have empirically experienced, but no one experienced the origin of the universe.
    1. Scientists infer the existence and operations of empirically inexperienced entities on the basis of analogizing from what they do know from experience (i.e. particles)
  4. The designer needs a designer and so on to an infinite regress.
    1. One need not explain the design of the designer in order to conclude that something has been designed by that designer.
    2. In order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation.
  5. All known designers are corporeal human beings; therefore the most one can infer is a super human being.
    1. No, refer back to objection 1, not all properties have to be similar in using analogy.
  6. Why not postulate more than one designer, there is no evidence of a single designer.
    1. Occam’s Razor, the principle of simplicity argues for one unless there is evidence for more.  The objection doesn’t even defeat the need for at least one.
  7. The universe may be more like an organism than a machine.
    1. Organisms still show evidence of design.
  8. It is still possible that order in the universe was brought about by chance and randomness.
    1. The point isn’t what is possible, but given the evidence, it is what is the best or most probable explanation; the order we do experience and continue to experience calls for some sort of explanation.
  9. There are many signs of disorder in the universe.
    1. One can only infer disorder if there is supposed to be order and one only need one piece of evidence of order to argue for a designer.

[1] Constructive Empiricism regards the theoretical entities of science pragmatically rather than realistically.  Accordingly, the legitimacy of a scientific entity is tied not to its ultimate reality but to its utility in promoting scientific research and insight.


3 Comments to “Hume on the Teleological Argument”

  1. I haven’t read Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion but it’s interesting to see that most of the current arguments doing the rounds with the new atheists have their roots in Hume. In one respect it’s a shame that many atheists haven’t taken any notice of the theistic responses to Hume’s objections. In another repect it’s a good thing for theism that these arguments no longer have any force. At some point in time I’m going to have to stop worring and just accept that theism has the edge in the philosophy of religion at the moment.

  2. Thanks for a very helpful succinct appraisal of Hume’s arguments re: the teleological argument. I am teaching an apologetics class at my church, and this information will be helpful to pass on to the class (with appropriate credits).

  3. I read Hume’s dialogue a few years back and now certain details escapes me. Hume never really addressed the real relationship of the watch and how it relates to its actual designer.

    How would one go about explaining the true relationship with designed objects in the absence of observing the design process? If you where in a room full of designed stuff, how could you use science to explain those objects? I’m not saying whether you could just simply watch someone making them, but how do the objects themselves show what transpired before they came to be in their currant state.

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