In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Cleanthes’ argument from design is successful in supporting the idea that the universe has an ordered arrangement and pattern. This argument is not sound in its ability to prove the existence of the Christian God. However, Cleanthes does present a sound case for order in the universe, which can be seen as an aspect of one’s faith in a Supreme Creator.
In the argument from design, Cleanthes is attempting to discover and defend the basic foundations of religion by using the same methods applied in scientific thought. Paramount in the process of scientific thought is reliance on previous observation and experience of certain causes resulting in specific effects. If a scientist experiences a million times that when chemical A is directly exposed to fire, an enormous explosion takes place, it is logical that the scientist is wholly expecting the same effect the next time the experiment is run. It appears through this line of reasoning that the argument from design relies heavily on the relative probability of an event occurring over a specified period of time. This idea corresponds to human interpretation of the Universe in that perception without the aid of experience is not sufficient in the realization process of a particular phenomenon. If a human were left only to their own perceptions of the universe without prior experiences, they would be able to make several value judgements, but without experience with these judgements it would be impossible to determine which were genuine. (p.61, par.2) Even if one believes that truth is relative, they must agree that there is an experience that has occurred in the past causing this person to label a particular outcome as being true or false. If I have no prior experience or knowledge of the qualities of a tree, I would be left to hypothesize on these qualities only from what I could perceive by looking at the tree. I may come up with several theories, one of which may happen to be the correct one, but with no prior experience on which to base these guesses, I would have no way of knowing which theory was correct.
Philo objects to the use of only human intelligence as the benchmark by which to measure the order of the universe. Nature is also an example of a great wealth of order and arrangement that coexists with the human mind in the universe. He believes that by comparing the order that is present in the universe, being the whole, to the order that appears in the parts, being the human mind and nature, one makes too presumptuous an inference concerning the characteristics of both the whole and its parts. (p. 65) However, it is logical to presume that the qualities of any whole are reflected, at least in part, in the workings of the whole. The use of the watch to analyze the design of the universe originates in the belief that the universe would dictate the qualities of the watch, and would therefore bestow upon the watch characteristics similar to its own. It is indeed arbitrary to select human intelligence as the means by which to analyze whatever order may exist in the universe, but it seems as logical an example as any. Surely, nature, the cosmos, and other examples of order exist in the universe, but human intelligence is by far the most know entity to humans of any of these examples. It should appear logical to analyze such a monumental task such as the arrangement of the universe using the most know example of design that human beings can comprehend.
The next important aspect in Clenthes’ argument is the implementation of the theory of cause and effect as it applies in the case of perceiving means to an end and presuming that effects follow from a previous, related cause. As mentioned above in regards to the scientist, events that have similar effects are assumed to have similar causes. Cleanthes argues that the universe is “nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines.” (p.59, par.4) From human experience with machines, it is believed to be true that they involve a complex system of design and order through working parts. Through the rules of analogy, Cleanthes comes to the following argument and subsequent conclusion: Since both machines and the human mind share the tendency toward order and producing an end from previous, ordered means, the two most likely arise from a similar cause. Cleanthes therefore concludes that the creator of nature is similar to the creator of the mind of man. (p.60, par.1) In other words, because machines and the universe share common characteristics and tendencies, it can be inferred from experience that they share similar characteristics and come from similar causes. It’s reasonable to conclude that Cleanthes comprehends the folly in believing that discovering the natures of the universe and proving beyond the shadow of a doubt the existence of a Supreme Being will end successfully. He is a man searching for answers through the avenue most familiar and reasonable to himself. Believing in mystery as opposed to measurable experience is not a logical or viable solution to him.
On the issue of comparing two events from experience, Philo contends that the origin of the universe was a singular event of which man has no experience, and therefore cannot compare it to anything such as a watch or a house. (p. 66) This premise is true, but what needs to be taken into account when studying the argument from design is that Cleanthes is referring to merely a quality he believes the universe to hold, namely design, not the very nature of its origin. To presume to understand from experience an event so beyond the scope of logic granted to the human mind is absurd, but to ruminate on the nature of such a creation is far more realistic. As Philo has said, humans are presented with examples of design in the universe everyday. It is a natural human inclination to postulate on phenomena beyond their comprehension through tangible examples such as nature, the human mind, and the cosmos.
There is a scientific theory that appears to, in part, concur with Cleanthes’ argument from design in assessing the nature of the universe. This theory is known as the Anthropic Principle. There are variations within this principle, but the basic foundation is this: New worlds are created with every particle interaction, and with all these worlds (or universes), it is not unexpected that at least one is ideally suited for life. Henceforth, the universe came into existence with the “capability and tendency to evolve life, conscious and even self-conscious creatures.” This principle holds in common with the argument from design that, inherent in the nature of the universe is a certain order that fosters the perfect environment for intelligent life. Certainly, we cannot know to what extent similar life forms exist beyond our own solar system, or even our own universe for that matter. However, we do know that within our own solar system, earth is the only planet perfectly suited, physically, for the generation of a sustainable life form. Perhaps this is another example of examining the part in an attempt to rationalize the whole, but we must use examples of things that we know to be true to analyze things we know nothing about.
It is true that many of those who believe some variation of the Anthropic Principle deem it logical to presume from its premises that a pre-existing God that we cannot observe is responsible for the universe and the order within. This is certainly an unsound conclusion, but the idea of believing something that we cannot observe is what faith is all about. This is not an attempt to avoid responsibility in supporting an argument that falls short in proving the existence of God. On the contrary, one must conclude that logical reasoning can only take the human mind as far as an experience of the subject matter will allow. Surely man would love to know how and why he arrived here and who is responsible, but without experience of this phenomenon, he will never know for sure. Cleanthes’ argument from design is an attempt by a man to come to grips with an incomprehensible event through human faculties of both science and religious faith. He may have fallen short of proving the existence of a Christian God, if that was even his original intent, but Cleanthes’ does present a very intelligent and persuasive argument in favor of a universe based on order and design.