Stanley Tweyman on “What is Philosophy of Religion?” part 2

stweyman-cStanley Tweyman is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The topic of God’s benevolence is discussed in Parts 10 and 11 of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[i]. Cleanthes is the speaker who, in Part 10, seeks to establish God’s benevolence in conjunction with God’s infinite power, or (when this hypothesis runs into difficulties) in conjunction with God’s finitely perfect power in Part 11. Philo is the one who argues against these views. While Philo argues against each hypothesis, where God’s benevolence is conjoined with some consideration of God’s power, nowhere in the text does Philo provide a proof that God is not benevolent. In this blog, I intend to show that Philo does, in fact, have such a proof, although the proof is not to be found directly in the actual words spoken by Philo in these two Parts of the Dialogues. Allow me to explain by way of analogy.

Pentimento is an art form, in which an underlying image has been painted over[ii]. In this blog, I propose to show that there is a Pentimento-type structure in Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues, and that it is only when we go to the underlying structure of the text that we discover Hume’s proof that God is not benevolent. Of course, Hume is not painting a picture, and, therefore, there is no underlying image. However, there is an underlying logical structure to Hume’s argument, and it is here that we learn Hume’s proof denying divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento effect in Parts 10 and 11.

The aim of the Dialogues is to determine whether the design of the world enables us to infer anything about the attributes of the divine designer. In Part 10, Cleanthes maintains that the best hypothesis for explaining the moral character of the world is that the designer is infinitely powerful and benevolent. Philo argues against this hypothesis, maintaining that an infinitely powerful benevolent designer would produce a world that is all good, and, therefore, totally devoid of evil. However, all speakers agree that evil does exist in the world, as well as good[iii], thereby forcing a shift in Cleanthes’ position in Part 11.

Cleanthes is adamant about supporting divine benevolence throughout the discussion, but in Part 11 he is willing to give up the claim of God’s infinite power, and conjoin divine benevolence with God’s finitely perfect power: “A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater: Inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end: And in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present”. (D.161) On this account, natural evil is due to the interactions of natural objects and forces, even  though the latter were put into the world by the God for good: in short, God permits evil to occur, rather than causing evil to occur. God designs the best world He is able to design, but given that God’s power is limited, that some evil will enter the world is unavoidable. Further, since God is never an underachiever in producing good in the design of the world (God is finitely perfect), whatever evil does exist in the world, God is unable to remove or correct, as any attempt at removing or correcting the evil in the world, would actually make the world worse, not better. Philo strongly disagrees with Cleanthes’ position, by arguing that the four natural causes of evil in the world – the introduction of pain into the world; conducting the world by general laws; the great frugality, with which all powers and faculties are distributed to all sensible creatures; the inaccurate workmanship of all the springs and principles throughout nature – are neither necessary nor unavoidable[iv]. In Part 10, Cleanthes gives up the claim of God’s infinite power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence; in Part 11, Cleanthes is prepared to give up the claim of God’s finitely perfect power to save the hypothesis of God’s benevolence.  But, at no point in his analysis, does Philo provide an argument for denying divine benevolence. As stated earlier, my view is that Philo does have a proof that God is not benevolent, which is based on his critique of Cleanthes’ two hypotheses of divine infinite power and benevolence and divine finitely perfect power and benevolence, and which can be discerned, once the logic of these positions is understood. This is the philosophical equivalent of the Pentimento strategy I introduced at the beginning of this blog.

Using ‘B’ to stand for ‘God is benevolent’ and ‘I’ to stand for ‘God’s power is infinite’, the following captures Cleanthes’ position at the conclusion of Philo’s critique of his positions in Parts 10 and 11, namely, Philo has established that no consideration of God’s power, when conjoined with the claim of God’s benevolence, can account for the good and evil in the world. And since Cleanthes insists on God’s benevolence, Cleanthes must give up any consideration of God’s power in accounting for the good and evil in the design of the world.

Logically, employing modus ponens, we get the following:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)


∴~ (I ∨~I)

Since ~ (I ∨~I) is self-contradictory and (I ∨~I) is necessarily true, we can construct the remainder of Philo’s argument against Cleanthes’ view of divine benevolence by employing modus tollens:

B ⊃ ~ (I ∨~I)

(I ∨~I)

∴~ B

Notice that these logical proofs are not found in the text, but rather they constitute the logical underpinning of Philo’s argument against divine benevolence. This is the Pentimento- like effect in these two Parts of the Dialogues. It should be clear that Hume has not offered a free standing proof that God is not benevolent. The proof that God is not benevolent follows from Cleanthes’ insistence on the benevolence of God, and his willingness, in the light of Philo’s criticisms, to deny that God possesses either infinite power or finitely perfect power.

Part of the nature of the philosophy of religion involves putting forth arguments about God, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. But our analysis in this blog reveals an additional feature in the area of philosophy of religion, namely, to determine the consequences of a position that is put forth about God – consequences which the proponent of the original position does not welcome. In this blog, I have shown that Parts 10 and 11 of the Dialogues can be understood as possessing an underlying logic, which, ultimately, can be used against Cleanthes’ position regarding divine benevolence. But we can go further than this in the case of the Dialogues: in fact, the structure of the Dialogues generally involves examining the consequences of Cleanthes’ position, although this examination does not always involve a Pentimento-like approach. In this regard, it is worthwhile noting, in a passage in Part 2, what Philo says to Demea (the third speaker in the dialogue) about his, i.e. Philo’s, objections to Cleanthes’ position: “You seem not to apprehend, replied Philo, that I argue with Cleanthes in his own way; and by showing him the dangerous consequences of his tenets, hope at last to reduce him to our opinion.”(D.111) In short, Hume’s Dialogues, as a whole, can be seen as exemplifying this approach in philosophy of religion.

[i] All references to David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, are taken from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, (from the original handwritten manuscript), edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, Routledge (London and New York), July 1991. Revised Second Edition, issued by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, by arrangement with Routledge, 2000. Third edition, re-issued by Routledge, as part of their Philosophy of Religion Series, February 2012. This book will also be reissued in paperback as part of the Routledge Paperbacks Direct programme, and as an e-book.

[ii]We need not discuss possible motivations of the artist for painting in this style.

[iii] See, especially, pages 152-56.

[iv] For purposes of our discussion, we need not elaborate on Hume’s analysis of the four causes of evil in the world, and why God is unable to increase the quantity of good in the world, and diminish the amount of evil.


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