The Question of God’s Existence from the Viewpoints of William Paley and David Hume

The debate on the existence of God has been the subject of discussion by philosophers, theologians, moral theorists and scientists for several millennia now. However, this debate continues to elicit more philosophical questions than answers due to a lack of universally acknowledged description of God or existence (Swinburne 2).

There exist many positions that argue for and against the existence of God. It is the purpose of this essay to analyze William Paley and David Hume’s views about the existence of God.

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William Paley was a British philosopher and apologist who used the teleological argument of the watchmaker analogy to argue for the existence of a supernatural being. He was engaged in the pursuit of natural theology. The watchmaker analogy entails comparing some natural phenomena or experiences to a watch, with the premise that a design must have a designer (Paley, Eddy & Knight 9).

As a teleological argument, the analogy presupposes that the complex inner mechanisms of a watch must require an intellectual designer. As with a watch, the intricacy or complexity of living organisms, natural universe, and other forms of life necessitates an intelligent designer.

Paley argued that if an individual found a watch in an open field, its complex design would lead that individual to rightly make conclusions that the watch had a designer – the watchmaker. In equal measure, individuals should be obligated to conclude that there exists a great designer behind the natural universe and all living creatures that resides in it due to the complexity of its design (Paley, Eddy & Knight 11).

For Paley, this intelligent designer is the supernatural creator – God. According to the philosopher, no living creature “…can have contrived its own limbs and senses; can have been the author to itself of the design with which they were constructed” (Hart para. 4).

He was of the opinion that every indication of machination and design existing in the watch also exist in the natural universe, the only difference being the fact that the indication of contrivance and design in the natural universe is much greater and exceeds all computation.

This reveals the existence of a designing intelligence in the form of a Deity. For the philosopher, the uniformity of plan that we observe in the natural universe coupled with the semblance of all huge worldly animals in their structures further points towards the existence of a great designer – God.

David Hume, an empiricist Scottish philosopher, was critical of the design or teleological view about God’s existence. The philosopher was repeatedly thought of as an atheist, and was highly critical of the Roman Church, which he accused of engaging in superstition and idolatry (Hume & Bell 12).

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume used three characters – Cleanthes, Demea, and Philo – to articulate his views about the existence of God. The character ‘Cleanthes’ argues along William Paley’s assertion on the design and the designer.

But for Hume, even though the natural world has its designer the same way the watch was created by an intelligent designer, individuals can only learn about the existence of the supernatural being only through their own life experiences. According to the character played out by ‘Cleanthes’, it is virtually impossible for individuals to develop beliefs if they have no capacity of learning and understanding the knowledge and beliefs about others.

Hume presupposes that individuals get to learn about God the same way they get to learn about other characteristics of life. In this respective, individuals must be taught the truth about God, just as they are taught about why the universe rotates around the sun, or why the rain falls from the skies (Hume & Bell 23).

Consequently, as character ‘Philo’ concedes, no individual can understand why any phenomenon in the natural universe is as it is if he lacks any prior life experiences on the phenomenon. For Hume, it is only by realizing the elaborate work requisite to design a machine as complicated as a watch can any rational individual in turn comprehend that he himself may be a product or creation of some supernatural being (Hume & Bell 31).

Therefore, without the experience and understanding of learning how a designed watch works, rational beings have no business comparing the analogy of designer creating watch to that of a supernatural deity creating man. David Hume was also highly critical of the notion that religion, particularly Christianity, is sustained by revelation.

Works Cited

Hart, T.E. Natural Theology of Paley. 2002. Retrieved 8 Dec 2009

Hume, D., & Bell, M. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. London: Penguin Classics, 1990. ISBN: 0140445366

Paley, W., Eddy, M., & Knight, D.M. Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN: 192805843

Swinburne, R. The Existence of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0199271682

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