David Hume
David Hume

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David Hume

3.4 Proving God's existence

Deists had at their disposal three traditional ways of arguing for the existence of God.

The most popular in the late eighteenth century was the argument from design (also known as the teleological argument, from the Greek word telos, meaning end or purpose). This argument begins with an observation: the world around us is not chaotic but ordered and harmonious. Some examples: whenever the tide comes in it goes out again shortly after; without an ability to inhale air we could not survive, but we have lungs so we can; plants need to be pollinated to survive, and bees do it for them, benefiting in turn from the nectar. According to proponents of the argument from design, the only plausible explanation of all this observable order and harmony involves supposing that an intelligent, benign and all-powerful being – God, in other words – created the universe.

Notice that this argument does not depend on accepting the Gospels as true. This is what makes it useable by a deist. Someone who used it enthusiastically was Voltaire. In the following passage from a book introducing Newton's empirical discoveries to the French world (Elements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), he suggests that Newton's law of gravitation was proof of God's presence in the world:

The whole philosophy of Newton leads of necessity to the knowledge of a Supreme Being, who created everything, arranged all things of his own free will … If matter gravitates, as has been proved, it does not do so by virtue of its very nature, as it is extended by reason of its nature. Therefore it received gravitation from God. If the planets rotate through empty space in one direction rather than another, their creator's hand, acting with complete freedom, must have guided their course in that direction.

(Quoted in Hampson, 1968, p. 79)

Voltaire's thought here is that God's will is evident in the fact that all of nature, without exception, obeys the simple laws discovered by Newton.

A second popular argument for God's existence was the cosmological argument. As with the argument from design, the hypothesis that God exists is adopted as the only plausible explanation of an observable phenomenon. This time the observable phenomenon is not order and harmony but motion in the material universe (or the ‘cosmos’). Something must have made things move in the first place, and God is an obvious suspect. In this guise he is sometimes referred to as the ‘first mover’.

According to a variant of the cosmological argument, God is needed to explain not only motion in the universe but the very existence of the universe. God, conceived of as the all-powerful creator, once again fits the bill.

The third traditional argument for the existence of God, known as the ontological argument, was out of fashion at this time, perhaps because it did not rest upon empirical observation. It will not figure in these courses, but for the sake of completeness it goes like this: God is, by definition, a perfect being. He is ‘that being than which no more perfect being can be conceived’. So he cannot possess anything but perfect properties. Since the property of not existing would be an imperfection, God cannot possess it. Therefore he must exist.

See Plate 3 (portrait of Isaac Newton by William Blake, 1757–1827), which relates to the comment below.

Painted a decade or more after the period with which these courses are concerned, Blake's portrait shows Newton at work modelling the cosmos, and unlike Wright's Orrery painting (Plate 2) is filled with religious intent. But this is not an easy work to interpret, and indeed there is no agreed way of reading Blake's intentions here.

On first examination it seems as though Blake is following Voltaire in claiming that we can discover God through Newton's laws using the argument from design. Nature, behind Newton, is more powerful than he is, seeming to embody a higher being; this higher being is then represented on the page with Newton serving almost as a kind of magnifying glass. And on the page we see, in place of Newton's laws, a graphical representation of the Trinity.

But Blake is known to have been hostile to the widespread lionisation of Newton as the man who has revealed the underlying nature of reality. This suggests we should look for a different interpretation. A possible clue is in the way Newton is made to resemble Adam in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (1508–12). As Newton is creating a diagram on the page, so God is creating Newton. But Newton is oblivious to all of this as he peers at his page; he is looking the wrong way. Were he to turn around and use his imagination, he would see his creator in nature. Instead he is reason's slave. Using his intellect and outer senses alone, he has sought to regiment nature into a tiny number of laws and measurements, erasing all trace of God in the process; and yet from his relatively puny ‘Laws of Nature’ he is desperately attempting to reproduce religious knowledge. Blake himself made the same claim in a related text: ‘He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only’ (There is no Natural Religion, 1788, quoted in Butlin, 1983, p. 7). Blake's position is the precise opposite of Voltaire's.

Click to view Plate 3: William Blake, Isaac Newton, c.1795, colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper, Tate Gallery, London. Photo: © Tate, London 2002 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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