Demea’s Cosmological Argument

Although it was written in 1776, Hume did not actually publish Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in his lifetime; it was published three years after his death in 1779. It has been suggested that Hume, a well-known atheist, suspected that the work would not be well received amongst his peers, and especially the Church. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a somewhat controversial work, as it challenges the very existence of God although it was published during a time of great religious faith.Interestingly, Hume writes his philosophy in the form of a dialogue to give a well-balanced argument, while highlighting the fact that he is fully aware of opinions other than his own. This gives the impression that he is almost challenging his own work. Hume uses three characters in his dialogue: Demea, who strongly defends the cosmological argument, Cleanthes, a defender of the Teleological argument, and Philo, who appears to be the least religious of the three. Indeed, when challenging the Cosmological Argument presented by Demea, Cleanthes states, ‘I shall not leave it to Philo, said Cleanthes, (though I know that the starting objections are his chief delight) to point out the weakness of this metaphysical reasoning,’ highlighting Philo’s religious prejudices. In fact, it could be suggested that Philo is an atheist, and for this reason it is thought that Hume’s own opinions are portrayed through Philo.The Cosmological Argument uses a general pattern of argumentation that extends inferences made based on facts about the world to the question of the existence of God. Iit is also known as the ‘prime mover argument’ or the ‘first cause argument’. The phrase ‘first cause’ is often used as an alternative for ‘God’ by those who are uncomfortable with the religious meanings associated with the term. The Cosmological Argument can be seen as a solution to the problems arising from man’s desire to learn more of the universe and of how it was in fact created. It addresses the question of how the universe began and indeed why there is a universe, as opposed to simply nothing. The argument is based on the claim that God must exist due to the fact that the universe needs a cause. The human desire to learn more about the existence of the universe requires an explanation, and it is this argument that insists that it is in fact God who is the cause. However, the Cosmological Argument does not attempt to prove anything about God besides His existence.The earliest forms of the Cosmological Argument are found in Plato’s Laws 893-6, and later in Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. It was Thomas Aquinas who adapted an argument found in Aristotle to form one of the earliest European forms of the argument. The basic Cosmological Argument starts with the belief that a contingent being exists, inasmuch as if it exists it could quite concievably not exist. Given this fact, such a being must have a cause for its existence, but this cause is exterior to the contingent being. If this is the case then the cause of the being must be another contingent being or in fact a non-contingent being, that which might be called a necessary being. However, contingent beings alone cannot cause or explain the existence of another contingent being. Therefore, what causes or explains the existence of this contingent being must be a necessary being. Moreover, the necessary being must exist, as if it did not exist, then it could not not exist, and would therefore not be necessary.In earlier parts of the Dialogues Demea is open and unwavering about her religious faith. With this, we see the origins of his Cosmological Argument, yet may question his willingness to partake in the arguments of Cleanthes and Philo, as he is often found to be fairly narrow-minded. For example, at the beginning of Part II, he suggests that God’s existence should not even be called into question, arguing that no one ‘of common sense . . . ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident.’ One feels that Hume does this to weaken the Christian ideas of the Cosmological Argument.Demea’s Cosmological Argument in Part IX starts with the belief that ‘whatever exists must have a casue or reason for its existence; it being absolutely impossibe for anything to produce itself, or be the cause of its own exsitence.’ However, there are two results that arise from this: either one traverses an infinite series of causes without an ultimate cause, or one ends up with an ultimate cause which exists necessarily. Demea suggests that the first result is absurd, arguing that:’In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing: And yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object, which begins to exist in time.’Therefore, Demea concludes that there must be an ultimate necessary being.As previously mentioned, Hume uses Cleanthes as the instrument to portray the Teleological Argument. The Teleological Argument is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning end or purpose. Therefore, we can describe the Teleological Argument as the belief that the universe is ordered towards some end or purpose. It supposes that the universe is comprised of many complex ordered parts working in harmony to ensure the smooth running of the universe. Due to the complexity of the parts, it is therefore suggested in the Teleological Argument that some intelligent being or cause created the universe. Although this is certainly disputed by those who speak of nature or evolution as our designers, this appears to be a simple linguistic truth.The first opposition of the Cosmological Argument is formed by Cleanthes, who suggests that an a priori argument for the existence of anything is impossible, explaining that ‘nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction.’ As Ayer states in his book Hume: Past Masters, ‘Cleanthes’s rebuttal of this argument is that the existence of a deity is supposed to be a matter of fact, and that no matter of fact is demonstrable a priori.’ Cleanthes argues that we can conceive of God’s existence, and given that we can conceive of something’s existence, we can also conceive of its non-existence. With this Cleanthes continues, implying that if we can conceive of God’s non-existence, then the non-existence of God does not imply a contradiction. If God’s existence is necessary, then the non-existence of God implies a contradiction. Therefore, Cleanthes concludes that God’s existence is not necessary, arguing that ‘there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.’ In reply to Demea’s Cosmological Argument. Cleanthes states, ‘it seems to me so obviously ill-grounded, and at the same time of so little consequence to the cause of true piety and religion, that I shall myself venture to show the fallacy of it.’ Cleanthes claims that a necessary being is one whose existence is ‘demonstrable’, that which can be proven a priori. Cleanthes in fact states that ‘there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori.’ According to Cleanthes, a proposition is demonstrable only if its contrary implies a contradiction. Cleanthes insists that that which is contradictory cannot be conceived, and that ‘whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent.’ Therefore there is no being at all which cannot be conceived as a non-existent, destroying Demea’s argument about the necessary being. With this argument, Cleanthes is suggesting that, while he does believe in God, it is quite conceivable that God might not exist. By doing this, Cleanthes must be aware that, by his own admission, there could be a universe very similar to this one without the presence of God.Cleanthes begins with the premise that all demonstrable truths cannot logically be denied. Take the famous expression ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’ for example. By attempting to deny this, by suggesting that not all unmarried men are bachelors, we are creating a logical contradiction. Since claims about existence are matters of fact and not relations of ideas, Cleanthes does not think that such claims can be settled with a priori arguments. There can never be a contradiction in asserting the non-existence of anything. Cleanthes suggests that even if the Cosmological Argument were valid, it would not prove enough to dictate a belief in God. It is of Cleanthes’ opinion that all the argument does is prove that there is a necessary being, but it does not give us reason to believe in that we perceive to be an omnipresent or omniscient God. Moreover, the necessary being could simply be the material universe.Also, Cleanthes argues in Part IX that it is impossible to talk about a first cause of an eternal succession of events as surely something eternal cannot have a cause because the whole concept of cause essentially involves a beginning of existence:’it is pretended, that the deity is a necessarily existent being, and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that, if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist as for twice two not to be four.’ Cleanthes believes that nothing that is distinctly conceivable involves a contradiction, suggesting that it is impossible for us to imagine anything that involves a contradiction. For example, one cannot imagine a wooden table that is made out of wood and that is not made out of wood. However, Cleanthes claims that whatever we conceive of as existing we could also conceive of as not existing, as he states, ‘it will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist.’ For example, we can imagine an umbrella not existing, although umbrellas clearly do exist. Therefore, any statement that is able to deny the existence of something does not involve a contradiction. Moreover, there can be no being whose existence is demonstrable. Therefore, Cleanthes concludes that there can be no contradiction in the statement, ‘God does not exist.’It would appear that Philo is satisfied with Cleanthes’ objection, but wishes to add one more of his own. ‘Though the reasonings, which you have urged, Cleanthes, may well excuse me, said Philo, from starting any farther difficulties; yet I cannot forbear insisting still upon another topic.’ Philo criticises Demea’s belief that there must be an infinite chain of causes or else there must be some self-causing being. Instead Philo suggests that there could be a principle of necessity in the material world – perhaps a law governing nature that acts as the final explanation. Philo likens necessity to the necessity found in mathematics, suggesting that those who are familiar with algebra understand that patterns arise because of mathematical necessity, as patterns arise in the universe. Therefore, Philo concludes that very few people have ever been persuaded of the truth of religious beliefs on the basis of an a priori argument. Philo concludes that ‘the (Cosmological) argument a priori has seldom been found very convincing, except to people of a metaphysical head.’