In David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” Hume has three characters discuss the existence of God, and the manner in which one knows a deity exists, and also characteristics of God’s being. Cleanthes, who’s pupil narrates the story, uses the argument by design to demonstrate an empiricist argument for God’s existence. This argument also lends itself to the belief that God has a mind similar to man’s and that is demonstrated by the intelligently designed universe and the way it resembles a machine which is made up of many smaller machines. Demea uses a fideistic argument saying that one can discover God’s existence by using proper rationalization. Philo makes a skeptical argument to show that God’s existence can’t be proven.
Part I of the “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” begins with a discussion of how Demea has decided to educate his children as a comparison to that which Cleanthes uses for Pamphilus. Demea has decided to follow the advice of an undisclosed ancient philosopher and taught his children many sciences before teaching them theology. Hume shows Demea’s educational method in the following quote:
The method I follow in their education is founded on the saying of an ancient, ‘That students of philosophy ought first to learn logics, the ethics, next physics, last of all the nature of the gods.” This science of natural theology, according to him, being most profound and abstruse of any, required the matures judgement in its students; and none but a mind enriched with all the other sciences can safely be entrusted with it. (Hume 1998, 3)
Philo questions Demea’s method of education citing a concern that Demea’s children could simply reject religion because they had not been introduced to it until they have had a chance to develop an understanding of the other sciences, which, according to Philo could be a basis for doubting theology. However Demea goes on the explain:
“ít is only as a science, replied Demea, subjected to human reasoning and disputation, that I postpone the study of natural theology. To season their minds with early piety is my chief care; and by continual precept and instruction I hope too, by example, I imprint on their tender minds an habitual reverence for all the principles of religion. While they pass through every other science, I still remark on the uncertainty of each part…” (Hume 1998, 3)
Demea, despite not teaching his children about theology until they have explored the other sciences, does however, impart the principle of piety upon them so as to prepare them for the subject before being introduced to it. While teaching each other science, Demea also makes sure to cause his children to doubt the validity of the subject so as to make it easier to teach the theology as being the one true science in the world. For in the apparent weaknesses of each of the other sciences that Demea teaches his children, he leaves a gap that will be filled once they are taught the lessons of theology.
Given the approach Demea uses to school his children, it is interesting that h decides to follow this ancient’s advice at all. For if one of his children were to study the subjects more properly than Demea had intended, he may find that the mysteries he left to be solved by theology could perhaps be determined by his children if not taken at the face value they are taught. However, the fact that Demea does in fact leave these gaps in the education of his children, in order to strengthen the resolve of the lessons he plans to teach in theology, does make sense insofar as he makes the point for human error being the cause of any fallaciousness of the other sciences. Given Demea’s belief that God can be understood through rationalization, he creates an environment where this makes the most sense. A Priori knowledge must come from somewhere, and if not through means explained in the sciences, then Demea demonstrates that God is the source of all knowledge and understanding which creates a base for understanding of logic, ethics, and the like.
I will be exploring the idea of what the benefit would be to teaching theology last, as a supplement (or basis of) logic, ethics, and physics. I will be look to for the answer to whether, without Demea’s piety being taught as the basis of education, if theology would be the natural underlying principle of the sciences, or if by studying each subject as its own, without a dependency on theology would cause one to believe differently? Is Demea’s approach the most beneficial method for teaching one’s students the true nature of piety, or does he do them a disservice? Would theology be better being taught as a first subject rather than last if it is the be the basis of each other science?
The first subject that Demea elects to teach his children is logic. Given that in many circumstances, especially from those with rationalist intuitions, it is commonly believe that logic is the basis of knowledge, it makes perfect sense to begin by teaching one the basics of formal logic. For by lerning logic, one is able to better understand arguments that are being made, and discover fallacies in invalid arguments. Having a basic understanding of logic enables one to study other fields of study with more confidence as they learn, which as a result can cause one to spend less time second guessing themselves, and more time applying the knowledge they have to developing solutions to other problems they may encounter.
Demea’s teaching logic, if taught without the focus on piety (which one could argue is an improper method), could lead to the development of a skeptical understanding of theology when it is finally taught. The lessons learned in logic could be used in the study of theology to determine that faith is an invalid base for understanding, and as a result cannot be a legitimate basis for religious belief.
After Demea teaches his children logic, he has them learn ethics. Learning logic before ethics is reasonable because it helps one understand the strength of arguments being made for different beliefs in the field of ethics. It allows one to find fault with fallacious ideas, and perhaps develop that problematic feature of an idea into a more well designed argument for ethical belief. Gaining insight into ethics is important and should be taught early so as to ensure that people understand what behaviors are acceptable, and how to determine if they are acting in a manner that is suitable in society. Also, by having one develop an understanding of ethics, one is better prepared to defend their beliefs against those who call them into question, because through the study of ethics, one is able to better understand why they believe actions are right or wrong, not just that they are.
However, like logic, ethics could be better served having had prior knowledge of theology given the fact that it can be said that theology is the cause of ethics. For without religion, would people have developed a notion of right or wrong at all, or is the basis of right and wrong developed as a way to appease the deities that early civilizations worshipped. Those ethical customers then could have been passed along and developed further for each religion.
Physics is the third subject that Demea teaches his children after logic and ethics. The reasoning for this being third makes sense simply in that logic can be used a s a basis for understanding other subjects, and ethics has a practical application within a society. Physics is of also an important subject, however, ethics does seem to hold a more important place in societal function. Understanding the natural world could certainly be a good basis for developing an understanding of God, as the natural religionist would certainly argue that physics is the basis for an empirical understanding of God and God’s nature. It does therefore make sense to learn of physics before studying theology, because by having an understanding of physics can cause one to question how things have come to be.
However, like every subject mentioned before, having a working understanding of theology could certainly benefit one in their study of physics. Knowledge of God would make for a strong basis for where to start one’s search for answers in physics. Having that sold basis on which to develop knowledge is always a supplement for one’s learning.
It would seem that the benefits of studying theology after the other sciences has its merit, however, from the viewpoint of a fideism it would perhaps be most beneficial to study the other sciences after having a working knowledge of theology. For once one understands the basic principles of theology they will better understand the other sciences. The greater mysteries of theology don’t necessarily have to be discovered in the introduction of the subject, but like with the teaching style already employed by Demea, can be further explored as each new science is introduced. However, by introducing theology early, one wouldn’t have to tiptoe around, and discredit each science as the student learns it, which would ultimately create a stronger base of knowledge.
Hume, David. 1998. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.