Mon 28 Jan 2013
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the great 18th C. Scottish skeptic David Hume considers four hypotheses about the first cause (or causes) of the universe: “that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness or malice” (Part XI).
The first hypothesis is clearly false, he argues, given how much suffering and evil there is in the universe. But the second is also false, since there is also goodness in the universe alongside of all the evil. The third hypothesis is Manichaeism, the thesis that there are good and evil gods locked in eternal struggle; this Hume rejects on the grounds of the uniformity and steadiness of the laws of nature, which sometimes make us happy and at other times make us suffer. This leaves the fourth hypothesis as, in Hume’s judgment, “by far the most probable:” the causes or causes of the universe is or are completely indifferent to our happiness. It is (or they are) neither benevolent nor malicious. On Hume’s view, the most that human reason can establish is that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Part XII, penultimate paragraph).
The presence of evil in the universe is a standing challenge to the belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, as Hume never tires in pointing out. But is the notion of a morally indifferent God really all that probable? Or does it, too, face some challenges? The cause of the universe cannot be morally indifferent in the way that the laws of physics are indifferent, since whatever caused the universe must be the author of the laws of physics. But why would a being cause the universe and its laws to exist? If this being acted freely, then it presumably acted for a reason. To act for a reason is to act for a goal that one judges to be good. A creator acting before there is a world and causing that world to be can only be acting for the sake of some good, and (before anything else is) that good can only be itself. If we conceive of the causing of the universe as a free act of an agent, then, we cannot conceive of it as being morally indifferent.
On the other hand, we might view the cause of the universe as operating by a kind of necessary emanation, not a free act of creation or initiation. The problem with this is that the universe does not seem necessary. It seems, rather, to be one of many possible universes. It seems shot through with contingency. It does not have to be the way it is. This suggests that the first cause of the universe made something like a free choice of this universe and its laws and not some other. We are back, then to the question of why it acted at all, and this leads away from the thesis that it is morally indifferent.
Hume is right to point out the difficulties in the notion of a perfect God who creates an imperfect universe, but his solution of a morally indifferent creator has its own problems.