A Different Approach to the Argument from Design

Today I’m writing on David Hume, a Scottish Philosopher from the 1700s, and his approach to the Argument from Design (A.F.D.).  Before reading Hume, I thought that belief in the A.F.D.  was the gateway to religion, and once one believed there was a god, the natural next step would be choosing what god and religion to believe in. However, Hume’s view of the A.F.D. not only is content with just staying at the gateway, but insists that it is irrational to go further.

Hume’s first point is his “Copy Principle,”  which states that all of our ideas are derived directly from our impressions that “exactly represent” them (Wright). Furthermore, if we have complex ideas, they are only built by our simple ideas, thus their root is our impressions. By impressions, he means ideas picked up by our senses of the outside world. For example, he offers that blind people don’t have an idea of color, and that deaf people don’t have an idea of sound. However, when explaining to a person an external object, one is conveying the impression of it. So if I were to describe my phone to you I’d tell you it was black and grey with a case that reads LifeProof– a description based solely on impressions. Now the last point he makes is as follows:

“When he suspects that any philosophical term has no idea annexed to it (as is too common) he always asks from what impression that idea is derived? And if no impression can be produced, he concludes that the term is altogether insignificant (Wright)” 

Therefore, if one has a term that lacks an idea (made by impressions) to back it, the term is unimportant like a claim made with no evidence.

With an understanding of the Copy Principle, we can deduct his criticism of the A.F.D. Hume agrees with the idea that everything has a cause and thus we can call the cause/creator of the Universe– God.  However, he disagrees with the idea that we can have any understanding or attribute any characteristics to God because we can’t reach beyond our impressions, and we have no experience with divine character. Therefore, believing God takes on a human form or is a perfect being has no backing with impressions, causing it to be insignificant. In Hume’s words, “The conclusion is that God’s nature is ‘adorably mysterious and incomprehensible’ ” (Russell). 


Hume directly addresses the A.F.D. using the analogy of builders and house. Hume says that whenever one sees a house, they know that the cause of that house was a builder, and the effect of a builder is a house. Hume claims this builder relationship to be very general, which identifies the issue with the A.F.D. analogy. Our impression of the Universe (an effect) is unique as we exist only in a minute part of it and the rest claimed about it is often theoretical and not made certain by experience.  Therefore, unlike the builders analogy, which is general, the A.F.D. analogy cannot be generalized because we have a unique view of the effect. The point Hume is making by testing the analogy is that we don’t know anything about the cause of something unknown by impression (in this case God), if we don’t fully understand the effect (the universe). Therefore in Hume’s view, the A.F.D. proves the existence of God, but also proves that we can know nothing of God.

I am writing on Hume because I think he shows weaknesses in the A.F.D. that are interesting and seemingly close the door to exploration of believing in religions that believe they have any understanding of God. However, my one issue with his beliefs is that he accepts the First Cause Argument, which is the idea that everything has a cause, but God was the first cause and therefore doesn’t need a cause. Not only does the argument seem self-defeating to me, but Hume has never experienced something without a cause and thus by his own Copy Principle how can he believe in the First Cause Argument?




Russell, Paul. “Hume on Religion.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 04 Oct. 2005. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Wright, John. “First Principles of Hume.” First Principles of Hume. Central Michigan University, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.


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