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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Classics) [Paperback]

David Hume
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Book Description

22 Feb 1990 Classics
In the posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume attacked many of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, expressing the belief that religion is founded on ignorance and irrational fears. Though calm and courteous in tone - at times even tactfully ambiguous - the conversations between Hume's vividly realized fictional figures form perhaps the most searching case ever mounted against orthodox Christian theological thinking and the 'deism' of the time, which pointed to the wonders of creation as conclusive evidence of God's Design. Hume's characters debate these issues with extraordinary passion, lucidity and humour, in one of the most compelling philosophical works ever written.

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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Classics) + An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Oxford World's Classics) + Critique of Pure Reason (Penguin Modern Classics)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (22 Feb 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140445366
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140445367
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 12.9 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 471,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

David Hume (1711 - 1776) was a philosopher who wrote A Treatise of Human Nature and considered the nature of religion.

JM Bell is Professor of Philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University and Head of the Department of Politics and Philosophy.


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First Sentence
it has been remarked, my Hermippus, that, though the ancient philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue, this method of composition has been little practised in later ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those, who have attempted it. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does God exist? 5 Jan 2006
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format: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.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is God Knowable By Reason? 10 Mar 2005
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
David Hume made a reputation by writing on reason and its limits. The main thrust of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is to question whether theological arguments for God that assign Him positive attributes (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc.) go beyond reason's limits in assigning these attributes. We watch Cleanthes (believer in theological arguments), Demea (believer more on faith) and Philo (disbeliever in theology's efficacy) hash out whether reason and experience alone give us reason to say anything whatever about God.

Hume explores all of the major arguments for God's existence. First, the a posteriori argument is explored; the argument that just as seeing a house gives us reason to assume an architect and builder, seeing the world should give us reason to infer a designer. Hume (through the skeptical voice of Philo) sees much wrong with this argument. Why? Because the reason we infer a builder for a house is because experience has shown us that houses have builders, thus when we see a house, we assume that, like other houses we've seen, this one too has a builder. But experience does not tell us that where there is a world, there is a designer. The leap is extra-experiential. Further, even if we DID infer a designer, why infer just one? Houses have construction crews of multiple people; if we analogize between the house and the world, then why not infer that the world, too, might have infinite creators? (And why infer that the world's creator is omnipotent, if all that is needed to create something is to be more powerful than the thing created - no more, no less?)

Next, we go through the a priori argument - the argument from first cause. Hume (Philo) is quick to point out the obvious flaw with this. If everything needs a cause, then what caused God? If God is said to be eternally existing, then why couldn't the natural world - rather than God - be thought eternal instead? And further, why is a infinite chain of causes and effects so unimaginable, anyhow? (Isn't it just as sensical as an eternal God itself not caused?)

Lastly, Philo brings up the argument from evil. In a nutshell, Philo suggests that while theology sees all the perfections of the world, proclaiming them clear evidence of remarkable design, theologians dismiss or downplay the imperfections. If God is said to all-good Himself, then why did he create humans with such flaws? (one assumes that an all-powerful, all-good God could have avoided those errors).

Still, the main thrust of this book is that Philo, far from challenging whether God exists, challenges theologies capacity to assign ANY characteristics to God by reason and experience alone. Hume does a good job not only in outlaying arguments as to why reason is not capable of knowing a thing about God, but also in making believable dialogues (compared to Plato, whose characters are all made to be one-dimensional foils for "Socrates.") As in so many other areas, Hume was a pioneer in the realm of the philosophy of God. This book furnishes strong proof of that!
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Paradigm of Philosophy 2 Jun 2004
By ctdreyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: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 character 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.
Now, this isn't all Hume discusses in the Dialogues. There's a section discussing a priori arguments for the existence of God; it focuses on arguments against a version of the cosmological (i.e. first cause) argument. And Hume's arguments concerning the cosmological argument also rule out any sort of ontological argument, as he claims that no sense can be made of the idea of a necessarily existing being. The book also includes a few some brief discussion of particular issues concerning religion.
Where, in the end, 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.)
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hume's Posthumous Classic 13 July 2003
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This short and artfully written book was published after Hume's death. Hume did not wish to experience the controversy engendered by the arguments advanced in the book. It is likely as well that Hume was concerned also with offending some of the moderate Presbyterian clergy who were his personal friends and had been his partisans in other controversies. This book is primarily an attack on the idea that the exercise of reason and logic provides support for religion, and particularly that application of reason leads to strong evidence for the existence of a beneficient God. This line of thought had become particularly popular among liberal theologians in the first half of the 18th century and was a widely held notion among Enlightenment intellectuals across Europe and North America. This idea is still widely held today and can be seen in the writings of the so-called 'intelligent design' advocates of creationism. Hume's criticisms, then, are not only of historic interest but continue to have relevance to our contemporary lives.
The Dialogues are constructed as a 3 cornered argument between three friends. Demea, a man upholding revealed religion against the idea that reason provides support for the existence of God. Cleanthes, an advocate of natural religion. Philo, a skeptical reasoner who attacks the positions held by Demea and Cleanthes. For those who like Hume's sprightly 18th century style, this is a fun book to read. Hume artfully divides some of his strongest arguments between Cleanthes and Philo, and gives the Dialogues the real sense of a dispute among 3 intelligent friends. Philo is generally taken to represent Hume's positions but Cleanthes articulates some strong arguments and provides some of the best criticisms of Demea's fideism. Much of the book is devoted to attacking the argument from design, which Cleanthes attempts to defend against assaults from Philo and Demea. In many ways, the argument from design is the major idea of those supporting the natural religion approach to existence of God. Hume's critique is thorough and powerful. It even includes an anticipation of Darwin's idea's of selection, though the basis for Hume's critique is primarily epistemological. In the later parts of the book, Hume attacks also the comsological argument for the existence of God, though this discussion is relatively brief and a bit confusing. Hume's analysis is consistent broadly with much of his philosophical work. In many ways, his great theme was the limitations of reason, and this book is an example of his preoccupation with the relatively limited role of reason in establishing certain facts about the universe. He finishes with short criticisms of the idea that religion is needed for a stable and well ordered society and defends the usefullness of skeptical reasoning.
It is important to view the Dialogues as part of a critique of religion that Hume sustained in several works. His Natural History of Religion, the On Miracles section of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understacing, and other essays comprise a broad criticism of religion. Other pillars of religion, such as the existence of miracles and revelation, are criticized in his other work. While Hume denied being an atheist and was apparently disturbed by the dogmatic atheism of French philosophes he met in Paris, he was certainly not religous in any conventional sense.
This is a short and very readable book but the power of its arguments are totally out of proportion to its length.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How Natural is Religion? 3 Dec 2010
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
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.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A shattering blow to theistic rationalism 15 Mar 2000
By TheIrrationalMan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The last word on the question of whether or not the universe was the product of a creative intelligence. Not only is it a profound challenge to the belief in divine causality, which is to say, the view that the universe was the result of design, but it even impells the atheist to question the foundations of his own position. A landmark in the history of the philosophy of religion.
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