Saturday, June 7, 2008

the "will" of God

When Socrates quizzed Euthyphro on the nature of piety, he bequeathed to us an interesting and seemingly perennial philosophical puzzle about how to speak of God (which, for me at least, is equivalent to how to think of God).

It seems that one’s answer to Socrates either limits the scope of God’s power or makes equivocal the sense of “good” that is used to speak of God. Either way, the results aren’t so great (for the theist).

The issue comes up again in a different context between Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. The context is the scope of their rationalism(s) vis-à-vis what can and cannot be explained.

Here are three different ways of thinking through the “will” of God and standards of value.

Descartes believes the following:

  • The will of God is indifferent from eternity with respect to any fact.
  • It is not possible that (a) God considers x to be good and (b) x’s being good is (logically) prior to the divine volition to make it the case that x is good.
  • God willing the world to come to be as it is constitutes the world’s goodness.
  • God did not will the world to come to be as it is because he somehow perceived that it would be good if he were to do so.

From this it follows that there is no (rational) explanation for God’s actions, which is equivalent to affirming the existence of “brute” theological facts.

[Philosophical and autobiographical aside: Acknowledging the very real differences between the early modern rationalists causes me to get heated about pontificators who make sweeping generalizations about “the” Modern Period and the allegedly monolithic views that “modernists” had about the power of human reason.]

Leibniz can’t stand Descartes’ view of the will of God for at least two reasons.

  • Morally speaking, he finds it repugnant that God would be a being who chooses with no standards guiding its decisions. What Leibniz implies is that there is a stink of moral incompetence in a scenario in which an agent is making arbitrary, unguided choices.
  • Related to this is a conceptual constraint on the meaning of “will.” Leibniz writes in a letter to Monatus, “Descartes’ God has no will.” What he means is that the concept of will includes a rationalizing object of will (a particular good that is the proper object of a will). Surely, a perfect being should have a perfect will, which for Leibniz implies that there must be a rationalizing object of God’s will. Otherwise, what would it even mean to say anything about the “will of God,” much less a will in general?

Leibniz similarly in his New Essays gives trouble to John Locke by complaining that (a) to credit God’s action to God’s “arbitrary will and good pleasure [Locke’s words]” is tantamount to (b) impiously denying that God is good and (c) conceptually botching the handling of “pleasure” (i.e., an analysis of “pleasure” in a divine being must include a rationalizing object in exactly parallel fashion as in the case of “will”).

Spinoza flushes the whole lot. What Spinoza brings to light is an issue about anthropomorphism with respect to the concept of “will.” He is especially situated to do so because of his monism. Using contemporary jargon, one might say that language at the two levels of mental attributes and physical attributes consists simply of two modes of presentation of the self-same substantial reality underlying every fact—namely, God or Nature, which amounts to the same thing. To take too seriously language about the “will of God” (and also perhaps language about God itself) is to commit a gross kind of anthropomorphism, because this implies that there is an irreducibly personal substance—either God or any allegedly individual substance—that makes choices.

For Spinoza, there is no sense in which it is ever right to say of God that it is “like a man,” which is what bothers him about Leibniz’s view. However, Spinoza is not a Cartesian either, since there is no sense in which God is a person on his account. God may be a substance, but it’s not a person or agent in any sense.

For now, I’m closer to Leibniz than I am to either Descartes or Spinoza. I confess to finding Leibniz’s conceptual analysis of “will” to be prima facie compelling, and, not being a philosopher of religion, I'm likely to have to work harder than many to iron out my own thoughts on this.

My first obvious thought, however, is: Isn’t my predilection for Leibniz's concept of “will” just a gross anthropomorphism—a kind of “putting God in a box,” to use the pious vernacular? Good question... I don’t know how to respond, except to ask whether the mere act of speaking of God is an instance of “putting God in a box.” Until someone can give some real content to that allegedly impious boogeyman of a phrase, I don’t know what to say except that conceiving of the “will” of God along Leibnizian lines seems simply one place along a continuum of speaking of God, which is to deny that it’s impious or limiting per se, the via negativa notwithstanding.

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