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Philo’s Argument for Divine Amorality Reconsidered

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journal contribution
posted on 21.05.2021, 16:52 authored by Klaas J. Kraay

A  central  tactic  in  Philo’s  criticism  of  the  design  argument  is  the  introduction  of  several  alternative  hypotheses,  each  of  which  is  alleged  to  explain  apparent  design  at  least  as  well  as  Cleanthes’  analogical  inference  to  an  intelligent  designer.  In  Part  VI,  Philo  proposes  that  the  world  “...is  an  animal,  and  the  Deity  is  the  soul  of  the  world,  actuating  it,  and  actuated  by  it”  (DNR 6.3; 171); in Part VII, he suggests that “...it is a palpable and egregious partiality” to favour reason as a probable cause of apparent design over other principles such as instinct, generation, vegetation,  and  “...  a  hundred  others  which  lie  open  to  our  conjecture”  (DNR  7.11;  178);  and  in  Part VIII, he offers an ‘Epicurean’ hypothesis according to which the appearance of design is due to  matter  itself.1 It is widely agreed that by the end of Part VIII, Philo has convincingly shown that the empirical evidence considerably underdetermines the conclusion Cleanthes purported it to  establish.  Philo,  at  any  rate,  declares  a  sceptical  triumph:  “A  total  suspense  of  judgement  is  here our only reasonable resource” (DNR 8.12; 186-7).  Philo’s swift argument for divine amorality at the end of Part XI contrasts markedly with this  scepticism.2  Here,  Philo  reasons  with  great  confidence  concerning  what  he  takes  to  be  the  (only)  four  hypotheses  concerning  the  morality  of  the  first  cause(s)  of  the  universe:  divine  benevolence,  divine  malevolence,  Manicheeism,  and  divine  amorality.  He  argues  briefly  against  the first, summarily rejects the second and third, and declares with apparent sincerity that “[t]he true  conclusion  is,  that  the  original  source  of  all  things  is  entirely  indifferent  to  all  these  principles, and has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold, or to drought above moisture, or to light above heavy” (DNR 11.15; 212).  I first discuss Philo’s argument for divine amorality, and I distinguish it from his earlier criticisms  of  any  inference  from  mundane  data  to  divine  benevolence.  In  Section  2,  I  diagnose  deficiencies in two contrary interpretations of the argument for divine amorality. In Section 3, I offer  three  reasons  for  rejecting  the  surface  meaning  of  this  argument.  In  Section  4,  I  reveal  Philo’s argument to be a sophisticated parody of both Cleanthes’ natural theology and his appeal to the passional influence of the design hypothesis. Philo, I argue, does not intend to show that the  Deity  is  probably  amoral;  rather,  he  intends  to  show  Cleanthes  –  by  literally  arguing  with  him “in his own way” (DNR 2.11; 145) – that the  tools  of  Cleanthes’  ‘experimental  theism’  can  equally be wielded in service of a wholly incompatible view.  

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