Some of David Hume’s objections to the design of the universe and my replies

When we talk about the design of the universe we mean that the universe is so complex and ordered, that the best explanation is that it is due to design.

Now the enlightenment view of design, as posed by Paley, granted the mechanistic view of methodological naturalism or Science. This is quite different from Aquinas’ metaphysics of design or telos.

Nevertheless, Hume disagreed with analogies like Paley’s for a couple of reasons. But before we go into that, let’s discuss the analogy.

Now what is the analogy of design?

1. Objects in nature are analogous to manmade machines
2. Manmade machines are the result of design
3. Analogous effects will have analogous causes
4. Therefore, objects in nature are the result of something analogous to design

One of Hume’s objections to the argument is that he thinks it does not get you a single designer like that theist would want. Hume says that from our background experience, we’d expect the universe to be made by multiple designers. Whenever we observe a building being built, we constantly see numerous builders and makers. We don’t just see one. Why assume that the universe has one designer?

Well the problem with this objection is that it tells us what need to multiply entities beyond necessities or what we would call Ockham’s razor. In rational inquiry and in science, you don’t what to come up with more than needed. What do I mean? Well suppose all the evidence in a crime points to there being one criminal. It will be sufficient to conclude that there is only one criminal. In other words, we can see no reason to conclude that there would be a second criminal. In fact, we should not conclude that there is a second criminal unless there can be new evidence that pops up that can’t be indicted on the first victim.

With the universe, do we have reasons to assume that the universe has one designer? A reminder, Hume said yes because of our experience with manmade design. However, this is where Hume is confused. Background knowledge is just one criteria used when accessing a case. We also have to look at ad hocness, parsimony (Ockham’s razor), explanatory power, explanatory scope, etc. It might be true that our experience confirms multiple entities building machines and the like, but analogies aren’t supposed to be perfect like the one posed by Paley. Otherwise, they aren’t analogies. And just because our experience confirms that man made things sometimes have multiple designers, it does not follow that the universe itself has a designer.

Hume contends that the universe looks exactly like it would if it was designed by multiple creatures instead of one. But is this really the case?

Since we are arguing from analogy, we realize that two things aren’t perfectly analogous. So Hume goes on to give us reasons to think that there isn’t a single designer. He thinks we shouldn’t think there is one designer because of the problem of evil. However, this assumes that the design argument is aimed at proving an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, which it is not. So the design argument is exempt from the problem of evil. Another way of putting it, we can still have one very powerful being that isn’t the God of theism.

When one presses further, we could argue that universe looks exactly the way it should if it was designed by one designer as opposed to many.

We could argue like Hume from experience. Experience shows that sometimes things don’t have multiple designers. Rather one person thought of an idea and then made the idea into a physical object. In addition, we’d expect a different universe if it was built by multiple designers. Think about a neighborhood that you go through with different houses. You don’t think there was one designer of these houses. Rather, you recognize that this is what you’d expect if there were multiple designers. Likewise with the universe. We’d expect things like the law of gravity to have an inverse relationship to what we see on a daily basis but in different parts of the universe. But we don’t see this, which suggests this isn’t the case.

Does the fact of the universe having one designer seem ad hoc? Well certainly not.

Is it parsimonious to assume one designer? Yes, a powerful designer would be sufficient to explain the universe. Multiple beings would just being adding one to what already suffices as an answer.

What about explanatory scope? One designer accounts for the fact that there are a lot of things that are alike in the world. Multiple beings can’t account for this. Unless, you say that the multiple designers are the exact same. But why think that?

Another objection that is posed by Hume is that we don’t experience a lot of the universe or the universe as a whole; therefore, we can’t say that the universe is designed. I think that this objection is very bad and I will tell you why.

In order to know that the next monkey I see will probably be brown or black, I don’t need to have seen every monkey. Similarly with the universe. I have a sample size, and I can conclude that at least the earth is designed even if the universe wasn’t.

In fact, Hume’s suggestion would undermine science all together. Science relies all the time on inductive inferences. We don’t wait until 100% of the data is collected. If we had 100% certainty or a whole population, then we are dealing with deduction not induction.

Next, some people think one of Hume’s objections is that we project our views of nature being designed from the fact that we see man made design. In other words, we don’t think nature is designed until we see man made design. Then we just contrast.

First off, why think that this is the case? Hume doesn’t give us an answer to think that this is how humans infer design. He just assumes this.

Secondly, I can give a good reason of how we do infer design. If the thing in question is unlikely to occur by chance and sufficiently complex like a computer or human DNA, then we can attribute that choice to design.

Thirdly, I don’t have to know how something is designed or how to know how something is designed in order to be rationally justified in accepting that it is designed.

What are other objections that Hume has against the design argument?

Well like I briefly mentioned earlier, he said it doesn’t get you straight to theism. So what? But it does get you away from naturalism

Hume also is famous for, “Who designed the designer”? The problem with this is that in order for use to recognize design, we don’t have to know who designed the designer. In fact, this principle would undermine Science because in order to infer an explanation you’d have to have an explanation of that explanation and then an explanation for the explanation for the explanation….ad infinitum.


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