Monday, November 9, 2020

Essay on David Hume reductio ad absurdum Argument

Originally written August 2020

The Creation and the Creator

The context of this essay revolves around if the world (perfect or not) was created by a perfect or imperfect God.  Scottish Philosopher, David Hume, argues the world was not created by a perfect God.  He advances this claim with an analogy by comparing the world to a ship, which was created by a carpenter who finally succeeded by mimicking superior craftsmen, through repeated failures, attempts and successes.

Presented in the reductio ad absurdum form of argument, Hume claims:

To prove: the world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

Assume the opposite: The world does have a creator in the way a ship does.

Argue that from the assumption we would have to conclude: an imperfect world must have been created by an imperfect god.

Show that this is false (morally or practically unacceptable): God cannot be imperfect.

Conclude: The world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

This essay will first question the validity of Hume’s analogy and then respond to Hume’s premise that the world is imperfect.  If the analogy is not valid, then the argument breaks down.  Also, if it can be demonstrated that the world is indeed not imperfect, then Hume’s argument can be further refuted.  The essay will also elaborate on the Stoic concept of God, in response to the idea of perfection and imperfection.

Hume’s Analogy Not Quite Valid

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy is as follows:

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy fails in a few ways.

First, a ship is an inorganic object which floats on water.  Earth, on the other hand, is organic, teeming with life inside an atmosphere.  The earth exists in the vacuum of space instead of a body of water or a dry dock.

Secondly, the degree of complexity between ship and a planet is wide and the required maintenance of each varies.  The actual mechanisms to manipulate the ship are simple compared to those of the earth.  A ship merely needs a rudder and an engine, from something as simple as a sail or a motor.  After that, the ship requires a captain and crew to steer it and maintain it (removing barnacles, replacing rotten wood, etc.).  The earth, however, has a core, layers of earth, complex life support systems in the land, water, and layers of atmosphere, to maintain its viability to sustain life.  And despite its complexity, the earth requires no intervention of a crew for on-going maintenance and repairs.  A simple ship would crash and rot without a crew.  The complex earth needs no crew to persist.

Thirdly, the purpose of a ship and the purpose of the world are different.  The goal of a ship may range from being a pleasure boat for people to explore exotic islands or it may be to transport thousands of passengers across the world to another continent or it may be designed to carry munitions in a war, to fire them on an enemy.  Broadly speaking, a ship’s purpose is for transport of people and things over water – its purpose and scope is finite.  The world, in contrast, may have a multivariate purpose, some of which may be deeply philosophical.  But it is evident, the world is not strictly a means of transportation.  There is no port from which the world has departed nor to which it will return – there is no evidence to support this idea.  And there is no clearly defined goal and universally understood mission or purpose of the world – it is not finite.

The other part of Hume’s analogy compares the creator of the ship to God.  This part of the analogy does not quite seem relevant to the scope of argument.

When most people who believe in a God, think of the concept of God, they will “go up the chain” as a matter of speaking, as far as possible.  Even the deeply seated philosophical question of “who created me” hits at the very essence of the question.  Of course, we know that my biological mother and father created me – that is how I literally came into existence.  But we want to go further, to the point of asking, who created the first human.  And even then, we may not know if whoever created the first human is indeed God or not.  Perhaps Hume was trying to limit his analogy to the scope of a creator of a ship, but in fact, he should have found an analogy that assumes a broader scope, such as one that asks the question of who designed the creator of the ship, or who is the original architect of the design of ships.  The goal would be to get to the ultimate fount of creation, instead of focusing on an intermediary.  In sum, the scope of his analogy is too limited.

His creator of the ship analogy falls apart on a few levels.  Comparing the ship to the world does not equate.  And the creator, in the analogy, is too limited in scope.

Even if we were to grant that Hume’s analogy is valid, it still fails on the point of God creating an imperfect world.  The concept of perfection versus imperfection must be addressed from a Stoic perspective.

Refuting the Idea of Perfection Versus Imperfection – a Stoic Response

The Stoic God is everywhere and is everything.  Nature is God, to the Stoics.  Everything flows from Nature, including the world.  As such, Nature is greater than the notion of perfection and imperfection.

The idea of perfection (or a superior standard), is a difficult definition to pin down, in time and space.  Things are in a constant state of change regarding time and space.  Humans have created the idea of perfection (or a superior standard), which simply means any standard they think should exist is perfect.  Without evidence of perfection, or a standard to refer to, the idea of perfection and imperfection, does not exist; rather it only exists in our minds.

As opposed to this dichotomous thinking (perfect vs imperfect), we have evidence of a hierarchy of tension in objects in the cosmos.  At the foundational level of tension are things that have no consciousness and are always acted on.  Next would be things that have consciousness but may act on other things.  At higher levels would be things that are conscious and usually act on other things.  At the highest level resides the Stoic God: Nature, which is conscious and acts on everything.  From Nature flows all things, both conscious and unconscious, both things that are acted on, and things that act.

In sum, if there is only one fount, from which all the universe, and the cosmos and everything in the cosmos, flows, then everything within the cosmos has continually changed, and simply exists now, and is in a constant state of change in the future, due to things acting on other things.  Therefore, as the universe is in a constant state of flux, if such an idea of perfection existed, it would only exist in the now.  More succinctly stated: Nature is.

The Stoic God

Marcus Aurelius explains the Stoic view of God in one concise verse:

Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all. 2

Stoic physics describe God as a philosophical God, “a living being” who is “rational, animate and intelligent.” 3  The basis for arriving at this conclusion comes from the logic that since humans are rational, animate and intelligent, therefore the cosmos cannot give rise to something which it does not possess.  Zeno stated, “that which employs reason is better than that which does not.  Now nothing is superior to the cosmos; therefore the cosmos employs reason.” 4

Beyond Nature is only void.  Consequently, there is nothing with which to compare Nature.  Nature simply exists and is “governed by reason” and exists as “the best possible organization … as there is only one possible organization.” 5

Perfection vs. Imperfection

Traditional Christians and Skeptics suggest that God is either perfect or imperfect.  Hume outlines this argument through the voices of Philo, Cleanthes and Demea.

The Christian argument might focus on the perfection of God with God’s intent to design the world preceding the creation of it.  On the other hand, the Skeptic might argue that the world was a lesser production than the creator intended.

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

The Stoic view might respond to the debate between Philo, Cleanthes and Demea that this is dichotomous thinking.  How do we know what a perfect world is?  By what standard can we point that our world is the final result, stemming from a long string of mishaps and misfires?  It would seem the Skeptic is not skeptical enough!

To a Stoic, things, including our world, simply are.  There is no notion of perfect or imperfect.  Whereas the average person might question why brambles and bitter cucumbers were made and point to such things as evidence of an imperfect world, a Stoic, such as Marcus Aurelius, demonstrates the correct way of contemplating these things.

A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, 'So why are these things in the world anyway?' That question would be laughable to a student of nature, just as any carpenter or cobbler would laugh at you if you objected to the sight of shavings or off-cuts from their work on the shop floor. Yet they have somewhere to throw their rubbish, whereas the nature of the Whole has nothing outside itself. The marvel of its craft is that it sets its own confines and recycles into itself all within them which seems to be decaying, growing old, or losing its use: and then creates afresh from this same material. This way it requires no substance other than its own, and has no need for a rubbish-dump. So it is complete in its own space, its own material, and its own craftsmanship. 6

To reiterate, the Stoic response to the claim that the world is either perfect or imperfect, is to say that it is neither; rather, “it is complete in its own space.”

Marcus further emphasizes this point by demonstrating the philosophy of unity of the Whole.  Nature, and everything in it, is one whole and complete in its own space.

Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world.

One world, made up of all things.

One divinity, present in them all.

One substance and one law—the logos that all rational beings share.

And one truth . . .

If this is indeed the culmination of one process, beings who share the same birth, the same logos. 7

In sum, Stoic physics explain the concept that everything is encompassed in Nature (God).  Things within may need to discard shavings, as evidenced in the metaphor of the carpenter.  But for Nature as a Whole, there is nowhere to place such things to be discarded.  Instead, Nature is able to self-regulate and use everything to its advantage.

The concept of self-regulation can be further explained through the concept of the hierarchy of tension of pneuma of things in the cosmos.

The Hierarchy of Tension

Stoic physics explain differing levels of tension or tonos of things in Nature.  At the low end is simple cohesion (hexis).  Things such as rock would have cohesion.  Moving up the hierarchy of tension is nature (phusis).  Things that have this level of tension would be classified as alive.  The next level up is soul (psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be animals that possess the power of perception, movement and reproduction.  And still higher would be the tension of rational soul (logike psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be adult human beings. 8

Taking this hierarchy one step further, we know that which is higher than the rational soul would be the rational Cosmos.  While the adult human being possesses a rational soul, she is still only “a fragment of matter that constitutes the cosmic body” of Nature.  From this basis of reasoning, we arrive at the conclusion that from Nature, all things flow, both things that are acted upon and things that act. 9

Observing this cosmic perspective of things and events, therefore, helps us to avoid the entire debate of things being perfect versus imperfect, or even good versus evil.

If we accept the premise that all things flow from Nature and that Nature (God) is rational, then we can assume that Nature has accounted for all and is able to self-regulate.

Therefore, as rational beings, we can observe the movement of the stars and the changes of the earth and the life cycle of the animals.  These things naturally manage themselves, without the need of oversight.  A weed grows, it dies, it replenishes the earth and enriches the soil.  If a person chooses to see a weed as an imperfection, then that person has not widened his aperture to the right level of perspective.  He should try to look at the weed in a broader, more cosmic perspective, and he may begin to not see the weed as imperfect, but as a necessary part of Nature’s way of self-regulation.


The essay has attempted to first, refute the validity of Hume’s creator of the ship analogy, by claiming that a ship does not equate to the world, nor does the scope of the creator quite arise to the scope of God.

The essay went on to also question the premise of God creating an imperfect world, by attacking the notion of perfect versus imperfect.  In so doing, it explained the macro framework of Stoic physics, including the Stoic God.  The Stoic God, which is Nature, encompasses things which have differing levels of tension, from simple cohesion such as in stones, all the way up to the fully rational, self-regulating organism of Nature itself.

Within Nature, some people have assumed the wrong perspective regarding perfection or imperfection.  If a person thinks our world is either perfectly made or not, then he has not considered the grand perspective of Nature, wherein all things are managed and in a constant state of change.  If he takes the correct perspective, he will appreciate that, to God (Nature) “all things are fair and good and just” and that it is “people [who] hold some things wrong and some right.” 10


1 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V 

2 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4, 40

3 John Sellars, Stoicism p. 93, 95

4 Sellars, Stoicism p. 93

5 Sellars, Stoicism p. 99  

6 Aurelius, Meditations 8, 50

7 Aurelius, Meditations 7, 9

8 Sellars, Stoicism p. 91

9 Sellars Stoicism p. 104-105

10 Heraclitus, DK B102, from Porphyry, Notes on Homer, on Iliad 4.4

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