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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does God exist?, February 11, 2005
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
David Hume, a philosopher of the period often classified as British Empiricism, is the intellectual associate of philosophers John Locke and George Berkeley. Born in Edinburgh in 1711, he attended the University of Edinburgh but did not graduate. He went to France during his 20s, and spent time there working on what would become his most famous work, 'An Enquiry into Human Understanding', first published under the title 'Treatise of Human Nature'. However, Hume was a prolific writer, and dealt with many areas of philosophy, including politics and ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. He wrote in the area of history as well, and had a politic career as British ambassador to France and a post as a minister in the government for a few years. His final work, 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', was published posthumously in 1779, although work had begun on it as early as the 1750s.

Hume was very concerned about rationality. Hume was never publicly and explicitly an atheist, but his rational mind, concerned about sensory and intelligible evidence, led him to question and doubt most major systems of religion, including the more general philosophical sense of religion and proofs of the existence of God. The primary arguments in his 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' deal with the Argument from Design, and the Cosmological Argument. There is an assumed distinction here between natural religion and revealed religion, an especially important distinction in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophical structure.

- Natural Religion and Revealed Religion -

Natural religion is the idea that we come to know and understand God (and, consequently, what God wants or expects of us, if anything) simply from nature and our sensory perceptions, as well as our interpretations (emotion and rational) of this kind of understanding. From very early in his writing career, Hume attacked the idea of natural religion and most of its conclusions, drawing a sharp line between what we can actually know and what ends up being fanciful extrapolations based on other-than-rational ideas and evidence. Revealed religion is primary what most religions base themselves upon - the burning bush to Moses, the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances to the Apostles, the Buddha's enlightenment under the tree - these are examples of revelation. While Hume does take on the idea of revealed religion in his other works, this particular text does not concern itself with that topic, and stays in the domain of addressing natural religion.

- The Argument from Design -

Arguments from Design have always had a strong appeal to believers within religious frameworks; they have often been used as tools of evangelism, as attempts to show that beyond the revealed doctrines, the very nature of things points to a creator. In very short order, the Argument from Design in Hume's newly-industrial time might have read like this:

- Machines are designed by beings with intelligence.

- The world and the universe it is in resembles a machine.

- Therefore, the world must have been created by means of intelligent design.

This is an argument by analogy, and is convincing to some, but often more convincing to those already inclined to believe in the existence of God.

- The Cosmological Argument -

The Cosmological Argument is at once both more subtle and more simple. The most simple way of stating it would be that God is the 'first cause' of everything. If everything has to have a cause (even the whole universe), then that first cause must be God. In the twentieth century era of thinking of a universe that began with a Big Bang, it seemed to some that the Cosmological Argument was confirmed.

Hume would have been familiar with Leibniz's more subtle form of the Cosmological Argument, which argues for a world of infinite contingent causes. However, there has to be something outside of this system of infinite causes that produced the series - thus, even in a universe with no set beginning or ending, there would still need to be an overarching cause.

- Hume's Arguments -

Hume argues on many levels. His first criticism of the Argument from Design is that this analogy (as are most arguments from analogy) is faulty and not exact; we have no idea if the universe is like a machine. Even if it was, machines are often designed and built by several designers - why argue for one God rather than several? How do we know that matter and the universe don't have their own, internal self-organising principles?

With regard to the Cosmological Argument, the argument is a little more strained. Hume argues that, in any series of causality, once one knows about each cause, it makes no sense to inquire beyond the sequence of causes to some other effect. This is a very Empirical argument, to be sure, and while perhaps not entirely satisfying, it still has merit in philosophy to this day.

- Hume's Structure -

This is a dialogue, set up in the classical way of people talking with each other about the subjects. Hume draws primarily from Cicero, whose work 'On the Nature of the Gods' uses characters of the same names. However, whereas Cicero was concerned about the nature of the Gods (their attributes, powers, etc.) and not their existence, it is the very existence of God that occupies Hume's thoughts.

Hume, despite many years of work on this text, probably never quite thought it was finished. He left the work to Adam Smith (the noted economist, and friend of Hume in Edinburgh), who also thought the arguments against the existence of God were too strong, and likely too damaging to Hume's overall reputation. The tug-of-war over the publication makes for interesting reading in and of itself.

These are important arguments, worthy of discussion and dialogue in philosophy classes, theology classes, and among others who ponder the existence of God.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Paradigm of Philosophy, June 2, 2004
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
With the possible exception of his incalculably influential A Treatise of Human Nature, this, I think, is Hume's finest work. The Dialogues is a paradigm of sustained philosophical argumentation on a single subject, and I can't think of a more inspiring work of philosophy. Another reason to read this book is that Hume is one of the few philosophical figures whose work is worth reading as literature. His prose is, of course, lovely and clear as can be; and the Dialogues is packed with the sort of evocative passages that readers of Hume except to find in his work. Furthermore, he's clearly mastered the dialogue format as a way of writing philosophy. He never turns his interlocutors into ciphers spouting the details of their respective positions. Each characters has a forceful and distinct personality, and each of them comes to the debate with a well-defined position and adequate means of defending it. In short, I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Most of the Dialogues is devoted to discussion of a posteriori arguments for the existence of God. The main argument considered here is the classical argument from design, which Hume seems to understand as an analogical argument of the following sort: the complexity and order of the universe show that it is similar to artifacts created by human intelligences; similar causes have similar effects; therefore, the universe must have been created by a being with something like a human intelligence; therefore, the universe must have been created by God.
Hume's objections to this argument are legion, and many of the individual objections are both ingenious and forceful. He provides reasons for thinking that the universe isn't all that similar to artifacts created by human beings. He argues, for instance, that at least in some respects, the universe resembles animal or vegetable life more than it resembles artifacts created by human beings. Hume also provides for thinking that, even if we think the universe is similar to a human artifact, we ought to think the universe was created by a being quite unlike God. The relevant empirical evidence, he argues, provides us with no good reason to think that the universe wasn't created by multiple beings (large human artifacts are usually created by multiple beings), or that the being(s) who created it are still alive (human creators die), or that the being(s) who created it were infinite (it's not clear that creating the finite universe would have required infinite power), or that the being(s) who created it were morally perfect (the universe, with all its misery and despair, certainly isn't what one would expect from a perfect being). Furthermore, he proposes certain alternative naturalistic explanations of the existence and nature of the universe; and he claims that it's unclear why an appeal to divine creation is to be preferred to these speculative naturalistic stories of the universe's creation.
As I hope this all-too-brief synopsis suggests, Hume's cumulative case against the argument from design is quite impressive. It is, of course, possible to avoid some of these criticisms in various ways, and his speculative naturalistic explanations leave quite a bit to be desired. But the total case is a philosophical demolition par excellence. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that Hume has shown that the argument from design is more or less worthless as support for anything resembling traditional theism. So, if you're enamored of that argument, I suggest you pick up book and wrestle with the criticisms found here.
Where, then, does Hume come down on the issue of theism? It's hard to tell, as it's not clear that any of the particular characters speaks for him. Philo, the character who often appears to be speaking for him, never denies the existence of a deity; he simply denies the ability of human reason to discover anything substantial about what such a being is like. That Hume agrees with this is, I think, the most we can glean from this text about Hume's own religious views. It seems clear that he has no sympathy for organized religion, or for any religious views that purport to describe the nature of God, His intentions, or how and why He created the universe as He did. And the only positive religious claim that is given respectful treatment here is the bare claim that we have reason to think that the cause of the universe as a whole is somewhat similar to a human intelligence.
But does acceptance of this minimal thesis amount to his being a theist? Again, it's very hard to tell. First, of course, one might wonder whether this fairly vague positive view is enough to amount to some form of theism. But let's put that issue to one side. Even if it is enough to support some form of theism, it's often difficult to tell whether Hume means to be advocating such a position here. The problem is that it often seems Hume's explicit advocation of this position amounts to little more than a description of what he thinks is an inevitable human tendency to think this way. Given how our minds actually work, he seems to think, we're bound to think something like this about the origin of the universe. Yet it's somewhat unclear that he thinks forming beliefs in this way is reliable. It may simply be that we have a brute instinct to think in a way that insures we'll see the world as resulting from some human-like intelligence, and it's at least not clear that that isn't a debunking account of the plausibility of theism. (For more support that this is a debunking explanation, see his The Natural History of Religion, where the explanations of various religious beliefs certainly seem to be one's that suggest those beliefs simply aren't plausible.)
Popkin's edition of the Dialogues, which is fine for students and the general reader, also includes the famous section on miracles from Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding along with his posthumously published essays on suicide and on immortality. And there's a short introduction that focuses on both Hume's intentions in these works and historical details concerning their creation, publication, and influence. Finally, the reader should be aware that spelling and capitalization have been modernized in this edition.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound and disturbing, November 12, 2003
By 
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
I've never really been particularly religious or spiritual, but the argument that the organization of the world seemed to have a tremendous intelligence behind it always bothered me. Dismissive explanations that matter can have it's own organizing principle that, through trial and error, could result in what we have today, were never completely satisfying. How does randomness lead to something like, for example, the human eye? (I think this question is supposed to have puzzled Darwin too.)
This book doesn't answer those questions, but it does point out that they are incorrectly asked to lead to certain comforting conclusions about the existence of god. The operation of the world doesn't really point to an intelligent creator, the book points out, as much as a self-sustaining vegetable intelligence, the type that allows nutrients to go up the roots of a plant or that controls the cell division of an amoeba.
This is presented in an elegant and frankly airtight argument by Philo who, as much as I could tell, is Hume's mouthpiece-even though Hume throws in some lame sidesteps to pretend that he's actually on the side of natural religion, perhaps to sneak this incredibly dangerous little book into the hands of people who might not otherwise read it.
I read this book in one sitting, and my head had a strange throbbing sensation at the end. I actually laughed a couple of times because too many ideas were bouncing around in there at once. I press this book into the hands of all my friends who regard the evidence of god as self-evident, not to destroy their faith but to destroy the foundation of lies that it often rests on.
Kant regarded this book as the last word on the subject, and I agree. Faith and reason are different things, and the only convincing proof of god's existence that this book leaves one with is: I just know that it's true, because I feel it. The myriad other reasons that are put forth by people who don't really feel the presence of god, but want too-that losing religion destroys morality, that is gives people nothing to live for-are demolished with disturbing precision. Hume has no tolerance for sloppy thought.
The other essays aren't as profound (Hume spend years and years working on the Dialogues, although the format of it makes it seem more spontaneous and less labored over) but still worth having. This is the edition I have, and it's the cheapest; the notes that one gets from other publishers aren't really essential. Whatever parallels exist between this book and Cicero's dialogues strike me as of secondary importance.
A book of philosophy for everyone: I can't think of another one that addresses more universal concerns with such clarity.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic statement of arguments against God's existence, November 16, 2006
By 
Greg (Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
While being a theist I do not accept Hume's conclusions, he is no doubt the finest philosophical skeptic in the West since the time of Sextus Empiricus.

Hume, the philosopher who woke Kant from his 'dogmatic slumbers', takes a very empirical approach to reality and philosophy. In Hume's mind, the pretensions of the human mind to certain truth and knowledge do not accord with the way things are. Many things are believed on insufficient evidence or sloppy thinking or for reasons of emotional need rather than on evidence and reason. The task he set himself was in many ways like that of Descartes, except unlike Descartes Hume did not believe that either the methods of science or God (Hume was an atheist) could give us grounds for certain knowledge.

The dialogues on Natural Religion are one of his supreme masterpieces. Published after his death, this dialogue features a conversation between two philosophers about the nature and existence of God and the proofs for his existence. One philosopher is a skeptic, Philo, and the other is a theist, Carneades. Demea the Deist provides a third interlocutor in the dialogue. Carneades states several popular arguments for God's existence in Hume's time, including the teleological argument, moral argument, and argument from design. Philo responds to this arguments, mostly using the argument from evil as well as appeals to the rule of regular law in nature, to refute ideas about miracles, providence, and evidential design from a supreme 'architect.' Hume states the counter-arguments in extremely powerful terms, essentially completely demolishing the position of Carnedes and concluding that at best, only a very weak inference can be made for God's existence from the structure of the world.

Hume's arguments have been recently re-stated by several atheist philosophers, including J.L. Mackie and Daniel Dennett. For Mackie, Hume was right in arguing theism is philosophical nonsense, and for Dennett, God is a redundant hypothesis when the order and beauty of the universe is readily and clearly explained by science, and at best a kind of Spinoza-style pantheism is where the sacred can enter into the cosmos. While I disagree, the adoption of Hume's arguments by many leading philosophers shows both the power, beauty and logical coherence of Hume's position, which should be read carefully by any philosopher who wants to offer a rational proof that God exists.

For me it is not the order but the beauty of the universe which suggests God exists, but perhaps for others this beauty is marred too much by suffering and evil to come to such a conclusion, and Hume would surely agree.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Slender paperback stuffed with ideas, February 5, 2007
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
I bought this book for a class, and although we were only required to read sections of the book I ended up reading the entire thing, including the extra two essays (Immortality of the Soul & Suicide). The entire thing was extremely well-written and thought-provoking, even to a novice philosopher such as myself.

This isn't a book you can fly through. Hume requires the reader to slow down and really think about what is being said. The main section of the book (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) involves four characters, three discussing theories, and one student (technically the narrator) listening and occasionally commenting. By using this dialogue technique, Hume is able to present several sides of each argument in a unique way, and not simply expound his own theories. The method is most effective.

I won't go into depth of what this book discusses, the theory of design, arguments about God's nature and being, the argument from the existence of evil, and whether a posteriori or a priori arguments are best suited for proving God's existence. Overall this book is interesting and exciting, even for a 200 year old publication. Even if you're interested in modern philosophy, this book still offers some interesting theories. And obviously if you're interested in philosophy at all, it's a good book to check out for some history on the subject.

The introduction offers a good deal of information about the essays included in the book as well as Hume himself.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Dense, Very thought provoking, April 1, 2005
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
This nearly pamphlet sized book is pretty dense with things to ponder. Hume speaks mostly about how a deity would function as the head of the world. The reviewer is not intent on being cute here. Hume addresses many notions about "God" through a series of dialogues amongst three intellectuals. They are intent on convincing each other of their individual views. Essentially those three have to come to terms with the anthropomorphism associated with the God of Christian belief system. It really is more complicated than that but this is a short review.

In addition to the Dialogues are a short essays on the Immortality of the Soul and the rationality of Suicide. Finally there is a discussion of Miracles. The latter three are well placed with the Dialogues as they address the philosophy of religion in much the same manner but come from Hume rather than the fictional characters of the Dialogue.

This book as short as it is, requires a considerable amount of time to consume. Not only are the concepts that Hume presents detailed and valuable, but the language is particularly arcane and often requires re-reading in order to understand where Hume is going.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How Natural is Religion?, December 3, 2010
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
David Hume was one of the most prominent eighteenth century philosophers and a towering figure in the Scottish enlightenment. Together with John Locke and George Berkeley he is considered to be one of the members of the British empiricist movement. As most other enlightenment thinkers, he has consistently emphasized the roles of reason and empirical evidence in establishing the truth of various intellectual claims.

As the name suggests, "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" is a collection of philosophical discourses written in a form of series of dialogues. The choice of presenting various arguments in form of statements from several interlocutors echoes Socratic dialogues and Plato's approach to philosophy. However, Hume's own approach is more closely modeled on Cicero's "De Natura Deorum," as well as Galileo's "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems." Hume sets on the task of establishing what sorts of properties are most "natural" for a religion to have in the light of logical and empirical evidence. The three conversant, Cleanthes, Philo and Demea present various arguments for the existence or nonexistence of deity, his properties, and our attitude towards them. The issues that are discussed include the argument from design, the anthropocentric view of god, the existence of evil in the universe, and several others. The arguments tend to be subtle at times, and although this book is written in a very accessible language, the phrasing and the forms of argumentation will be a challenge to the modern readers. It is interesting to point out that the naturalness and validity of religion as such is not challenged at all in this tract, only its scope and validity as can be deduced from the purely rational and empirical arguments. Hume's own view on religion has never been explicitly stated, and although he has long been suspected of being an atheist, the most likely position that he espoused is that of deist agnosticism.

It is always a pleasure to read the works of historically important thinkers in their original form, and this short book enables anyone interested in the history of philosophy to get a better sense of one of its greatest stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even before Darwin, it was unreasonable to be a theist., July 19, 2010
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
Personally, I rejected theism in response to just the sort of philosophical reasoning presented by Hume (though I hadn't read the dialogs themselves or the other essays in this collection until after my de-conversion). As important as evolution is, and as fascinating as critical scholarship of the Bible is, I really wish non-theists would lead with Hume while engaging in counter-apologetics. These arguments (even Hume's much maligned argument against believing that a miracle has occurred, which Anthony Flew defended quite adequately, in my view) require little to no specialized knowledge of history, ancient languages, physics or biology. They undermine the reasons that almost all theists, in my experience, give for believing in God: teleological arguments, cosmological arguments and arguments from miracles and religious experience. The dialogs are short, and even though the 18th century English may be a bit of a distraction to some folks, this is the text that I recommend to theists who want to seriously consider the case against belief in God. As the best of philosophical literature often does, the Dialogs present the opposition's own arguments powerfully (Cleanthes is a better apologist than W.L. Craig in my judgement.) even as it buries them. I'd challenge anyone to carefully and honestly consider Hume's case and remain a (non-fideistic) theist.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of those books often cited but not necessarily read, December 31, 2008
By 
Kerry Walters (Lewisburg, PA USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
I think that ctdreyer's excellent review of Hume's Dialogues nicely encapsulates the purpose and issues in the book, and I agree wholeheartedly with his estimation of it. I'd like to raise two additional points here.

The first is that it's extraordinary that the latest generation of freethinkers--so-called "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens--virtually ignore Dialogues. Each of them pays lip service to Hume as one of their own, but none of them gives any suggestion that they've actually read him. Daniel Dennett, another New Atheism prophet, discusses Hume in his Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but barely mentions him in his later explicit atheist text, Breaking the Spell. This is curious.

My second point is that the failure to discuss Hume may be curious, but isn't inexplicable. While I agree with ctdreyer's appraisal that Hume did a job on the argument from design, it's not at all clear from the Dialogues that Hume thinks the argument totally meritless. Even if it can't be philosophically demonstrated with a high degree of precision, Hume through Philo seems to say that it makes good sense to assume that a universe displaying some degree of intelligent design has a like cause. Hume isn't persuaded that the cause is personal or morally concerned. But he does seem to think that it is rational. This would make Hume a deist of sorts rather than a freethinker.

All of which raises the fascinating question of the relationship between the justifiability and the justification of God-belief. If Hume is correct, the former may not be necessary for the latter. Not exactly the fideistic position of the Dialogues' Demea, but not completely unrelated, either.

By the way: Richard Popkin's introduction to this edition of the Dialogues is excellent. It, along with the inexpensive cost, makes the Hackett edition my favorite.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great Condition, February 11, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays of the Immortality of the Soul and of Suicide (Paperback)
This book came looking brand new and had absolutely no marking inside. It is exactly what I asked for I am happy.
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