Divine benevolence

-Divine benevolence makes its first appearance in modern philosophy with Descartes saying that this benevolence makes it impossible that God give him non-veridical cognitive powers.

-Descartes, in this as so much else, sets the tone for what will count as divine benevolence, i.e. creating humans with veridical cognitive powers. As an account of divine benevolence, this is ridiculously specific and even hubristic. God could not have possibly had another more important overriding good than giving us veridical sense powers? Really? What if God thought it was more perfect to have species, and all their attendant powers, arise by selection and chance? What if he thought the freedom of superior intellects who were able to deceive us was just as important as our own freedom?

-There are completely convincing proofs of divine benevolence, but all of them prove that God perfectly acts in a way appropriate to a god.

Ah, but there is one morality that is common to all intellectual agents, and God is an intellectual agent! This makes less sense than insisting that there is one morality for all sentient agents, and concluding that dogs are therefore evil for not marrying (like men) or not eating their spouses (like spiders).

Ah, but we know that God could never torture a small child without a good reason. If he did this, it would defeat any ability to call him “benevolent”! Here again, we’re appealing to this one-morality-for-all-intellectual-agents idea. Taken more closely, the question (which was Paul Draper’s) has a torture clause and the “without a good reason” clause. Remove the second, and the first becomes (at best) far less convincing, but the second says nothing more than that a thing with intelligence acts with intelligence. Again, all we get is that God does whatever his intelligence discerns is proper for gods to do. This certainly makes him benevolent, but it tells us nothing about how he acts towards us.

-God’s challenge to Job can be re-imaged as the command: “Go ahead and tell me about this ‘divine morality’ you seem to so confidently know about. Tell me about all the observations of the divine life that you’ve based this on.” You might as well try to predict the behavior of any species that you’ve never observed.

-Descartes should have concluded that reason is incapable of establishing an absolute basis for itself and, given it desires one, can only borrow it from the divine mind. He could have made an impressive defense of philosophia ancilla theologiae. If you want to know anything about God’s plan for you, or for humanity you have no means to get it unless he tells you. Reason can’t see the end of history.


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