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Whatdidhumethink Notes

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Becky Tun


We know what Philo, Cleanthes and Demea think. What do you think Hume thought?
There has been a lot of debate as to which character, if any, in the Dialogues represents Hume himself. The most obvious character to choose would be Philo, who shares Hume's sceptical attitude and presents the most sophisticated arguments; that is, if it weren't for some confusing facts that obscure the issue - most notably that it is Cleanthes who 'wins' the argument in the end (with the spectator, Pamphilus, announcing that he has come 'closest to the truth'), and that Philo appears to make a complete turn-around in the last part of the Dialogues, retracting his skepticism about the argument from design, claiming that 'no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind [than me]' and admitting that his skepticism amounts to no more than 'a love of singular arguments'. Given these statements of Philo's, another question is raised: did Hume believe in God?
In this essay I will argue that Hume is indeed Philo, though sometimes also putting his thoughts into the mouth of Cleanthes, and that the things Philo says are consistent with Hume's religious skepticism, and lastly that the things Hume says through Philo and in other works suggest that any belief he has in a 'deity' amounts to no more than the admission that whatever original principle of order there is in the universe 'bears some remote analogy to human intelligence', a plain philosophical proposition from which nothing particularly more substantial or life-affecting can be drawn. Pamphilus introduces Philo as the 'careless skeptic', Cleanthes as having an 'accurate philosophical turn' and Demea as 'rigidly orthodox'. As for their roles in the Dialogues, Philo criticises the design argument, raises the problem of evil and maintains that the divine attributes are incomprehensible. Cleanthes puts forward and defends the design argument, offers some solutions to the problem of evil, attacks Demea's ontological/cosmological argument and maintains that religion is nothing if we do not have a comprehensible deity with moral attributes. Demea advocates the ontological/cosmological argument and maintains that God's nature is a mystery. Commentators have come down on various sides of the debate, with some being certain that Hume is Philo, others suggesting that he is Cleanthes, and yet others claiming that he is all or none of the characters. Clearly there are many reasons that support each interpretation. I will consider some of the reasons why one might be led to think that Hume is Cleanthes or that he is not primarily any of the characters, and argue that in each case the best interpretation of all the evidence is still that Hume is Philo. For one thing, there is the fact that the Dialogues attribute a lot of Humean-style argument to Cleanthes as well as to Philo. It is Cleanthes that has the privilege of refuting Demea's a priori argument for the existence of God, and who maintains that the proper office of religion is as the handmaiden to morality. The Dialogues also attribute to Cleanthes something that sounds very like Hume's doctrine of 'natural belief, as in passages like this one: 'tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity'. Here it sounds as if Cleanthes is criticising Philo for the kind of excessive skepticism that Hume always warns against, and accusing him of

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