Monday, January 07, 2008

Is God a Bit of a Deceiver?

God, it is said, is no deceiver; Descartes famously based his worldview on that certainty, and the idea still seems popular, e.g. Swinburne (The Existence of God, 2nd edn. 2004: 241): "God, if he is not to deceive us and yet give us a real free choice between helping and not helping others, must make a world where others really do suffer." But it strikes me that, even if I grant that opportunities for displays of compassion, charity and self-sacrifice are desirable, nonetheless if any creator of such an opportunity had a choice between deceiving all the participants or else torturing one of them, then the choice of the latter (to avoid being deceitful) would display a marked lack of those very virtues (compassion, charity and self-sacrifice).
......What does the Bible have to say? Well all four Gospels tell how Peter denied Jesus; that is, that Peter lied about God. Did the disciples murder anyone, steal much or have naughty sex (et cetera)? No, so how bad a sin could it be, if Peter did it? The Old Testament contains several stories in which God's people (e.g. Moses) used deceit to outwit their enemies, apparently with God's approval (or even complicity). Matthew 13 contains a nice account of Jesus explaining why he spoke in parables; and if Noah's Ark (or any other bit of Genesis) was fictional then God was a bit of a deceiver because until recently people would have had no reason not to take such stories literally (and if not then it's deceptively fictional-looking nowadays). And was there not something like deceit in God's tempting of Abraham?
......But my grasp of the Bible is very weak, so those examples may not prove anything; but my point is really just a question: Why is divine deceit regarded as unthinkable? We would find it acceptable to tell our children white lies if that would keep them from harm, and surely (as Swinburne says of the alternative, in the first of these quotes) "God who is, ex hypothesi, so much more the author of our being than are our parents, has rights so much greater in this respect." Is it that, were the object of our compassion (et cetera) shown to be a hollow puppet we would feel that our goodness had been wasted? But suppose we were shown that after the purpose of the opportunity in question had been revealed to us; would we not then feel gratitude?
......It may depend upon what that purpose was; but suppose it was our opportunity to define ourselves as good—then our good acts, far from being wasted, would have become our good being; and being good we would not want the cost of that to be the suffering of another. And the purpose could hardly lie entirely in it being a genuine (or objective) rather than merely apparent (or subjective) helping of another, when even such a real act would add so infinitesimally little to the infinitely greater goodness of the transcendentally Real creator of the opportunity in question.
......Now, I'm not suggesting that the holocaust (for example) was hollow because (i) we should not, even were that the case, think that it was (although surely we should hope it was), and (ii) I don't think that the point of life (on Earth) is likely to be soul-building—I do think it's likely to involve some deception (if that is plausible), although nothing worse than what would follow from having chosen to be hypnotised in order to behave better (since we would have volunteered for it); whence the question, could it involve divine deception?


Jeff said...

I realize that you're open about the fact that your argument doesn't hinge on the biblical aspects, but I would like to point out that the apostles constantly mess things up. (Especially before Jesus' crucifiction)
The case of Peter is particularly interesting. In one of my favorite passages in the whole bible, the resseructed Christ approaches Peter and asks him three times "Do you love me"
Each time Peter says "Yes" and Jesus follows up with instructions to take care of people in the world.
Lots of folks think that the person and the number of times this question asked isn't a coincidence, but that this scene is representing an absolution, forgiveness, balancing, (whatever) between Jesus and Peter for Peter's earlier denial.

As for the wider and more basic question:
In this world we would occasionally take advice from somebody who didn't follow their own. We might have an unhealthy doctor, a mechanic with a run down car, a teacher with ignorant kids, etc.
If we did so, the only reason we would is on the assumption that the expert knew what he was supposed to do but for some reason didn't do this: the doctor lacks the discipline to eat in a healthy manner even though he knows what he should eat; the mechanic is to lazy to keep up with his car; the teacher is too selfish to spend time educating his kids because he likes to do crossword puzzles instead.
While we might decide that any of the above suffer character defects, while we might choose to not use their services because we don't want to support the lazy, undisciplined, etc, the fact of these peoples' hypocrisy does not necessarily mean they are lacking in knowledge.
IT seems to me that God is a different case. God is the author and ultimate "understander" of physical reality and ethical norms.

If God both says "Don't lie" and then proceeds to lie, it's hard to see any extenuating circumstances that would excuse him. I suppose that if one believed that God never said "Don't lie" one could allow him not to lie.
But I think it would be difficult to claim that it's o.k. for God to lie and for us not to lie, that there's some inherent difference in this aspect of our different positions. I think that God has a tremendous list of options open to Him. It's hard to imagine how he'd have to lie if this is something he didn't want to do.

Enigman said...

Hi Jeff, thanks again... but I'm not saying that Peter's denials weren't wrong, just that they weren't very wrong, e.g. would Peter have betrayed Jesus for money? or would Peter have banged the nails in? And Exod.20:16 is just about not bearing false witness against one's neighbours (as opposed to foreigners, presumably), not about saying things (more generally) that one believes to be false. When talking to us God's motives are quite unike our motives for talking to each other, and He/r options are limited by our imperfections; and it's quite OK for God to take our lives, but not quite so OK for us to take our lives. In short, I think it's an obscure point (so I intend posting again on this tomorrow).

jeff said...

The orthodox Christian position is, I think, that sin is sin. I'm not saying it's easy to defend the position that hating is as bad as genocide. But if you take Jesus' words seriously, it's pretty hard to deny that this is what the bible says. So, I think that most Christians would resist the temptation to say that Peter was only a little bit wrong.

Enigman said...

This post, about how Jesus never made mistakes, is interesting. I think of the last words of Jesus as indicating that Jesus wrongly thought of God had forsaken him, rather than that God had forsaken him, as I don't like the latter thought; and the idea that he never made mistakes seems to have pretty weird consequences...

Enigman said...

...another thought: to create a world of mountains and oceans which seems clearly insensitive to us, which appears totally indifferent, which may even obey natural laws slavishly but only because its creator chooses to have it that way, whilst observing and judging everything, well, that's a bit deceptive anyway isn't it?

Enigman said...

(and then there's Jonah 3, where God does not do what He told Jonah to say He would; cf. the Revelation of John, which might have been told to us by John because of God's hope (open theism) or knowledge (closed theism) that we would be put off going such a way - cf. having the thought of manglings in one's head as one crosses a road in order that they won't occur - a possibility that angry Christians often overlook!)