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Divine Deceit

In his Meditations, the philosopher René Descartes famously pondered the question of the possibility of God’s deceit. If God was deceitful, we as his creations could never trust anything we contemplate or perceive; it may simply be a deceitful, omnipotent God directly warping our faculties or, as our creator, deliberately constructing us with faulty, unreliable faculties to start with. To dodge this disturbing possibility, Descartes argued that God, a perfect being, could not be deceitful because deceit is a fault, an imperfection. This simple stratagem appeared to satisfy Descartes and he continued with his meditations, unperturbed further by the possibility of divine deceit. But was Descartes really on to something more insidious and unthinkable than he was willing to contemplate and was he too hasty in sweeping this concern under the rug? I will argue that divine deceit, and far worse, is indeed a troubling and consequential issue that should not be casually dismissed, and that it should be given much more serious consideration in its impact on religious argumentation.

To set the stage for my argument, I will restrict the scope to the question of the existence of God and specifically to the god of the Abrahamic religions, commonly and simply called “God,” for these reasons. It is indeed this God that was the target of Descartes’ meditations. It is typically this God who is at the centre of current religious argumentation regarding his existence and hence the arguments are well developed and well known. The main purported traits of God are generally known by most and there is broad agreement on at least the basics. The controversies surrounding the issue of God’s existence impact a significant portion of society and social awareness, and are thus of broad interest. The resolution of the question of the existence of God is primary in religious debate since, without his existence, other issues surrounding religious arguments, such as the truth of evolution, the truth of some religious doctrine, the moral standing of atheists, and so on, are incidental.

It is broadly agreed that God is construed as some incorporeal person who possesses the traits of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He is also considered to be a perfect being such that, on all conceivable counts, especially personal freedom, there are none that exceed him. It is this perfection that impressed Descartes to dismiss the possibility that God could be a deceiver. He wrote:

“… this same God, I say, whose idea is in my mind—that is, a being who possesses all those lofty perfections, of which the mind may have some slight conception, without, however, being able fully to comprehend them, and who is wholly superior to all defect [and has nothing that marks imperfection]: whence it is sufficiently manifest that he cannot be a deceiver, since it is a dictate of the natural light that all fraud and deception spring from some defect.”[1].

The word “perfect” itself contains no intimation of value along a moral scale. There is no goodness implied, although perfection is commonly construed as a desirable state, which may explain why some characteristic of goodness is assumed. But the fundamental meaning of “perfect” is, as an adjective, to describe a type or characteristic which has attained its ideal limit, is pure and unsurpassed and without any countervailing flaw whatsoever. One can indeed have a perfect crime! Or, for instance, “perfect” may be equally applied to diametrically opposite concepts such as in a case where we consider light incident on some surface. We may say that the surface is perfectly reflective, in which case all of the incident light is reflected and none is absorbed. Just as validly, we may say the surface is perfectly absorptive, in which case all of the incident light is absorbed and none is reflected. Both are equally perfect, although exact opposites, not unlike good and evil.

If we take a closer look at the rather terse dismissal put forth by Descartes, we see that it indeed turns on the tacit assumption that God is at least fundamentally benign. For it is only against a ground of a benign disposition that deceit would be considered a defect, an imperfection. Descartes, like most who contemplate God, simply assumed, without any attempt at justification, that God is benign or benevolent. The unspeakable opposite is never contemplated. If, on the contrary, we force ourselves to assume that God is fundamentally sinister or malevolent, then God being a deceiver would be unexceptional, not a defect or imperfection at all! In a perfectly malevolent God, it would be occasional acts of kindness or compassion that would be considered defects. Hence, God could still be considered perfect and unsurpassed even if perfectly malevolent. Further, perfection as applied to the trait of evil or malevolence would be omnimalevolence, without even the slightest smidgen of benevolence. There could be no greater malevolence than omnimalevolence. This is still perfection.

The only concern Descartes had was to dismiss the much milder notion of God simply as a deceiver and he really failed to address the broader issue of God’s assumed benevolence. Can we deduce God’s benevolence, in fact omnibenevolence since he is taken to be perfect, from his other given traits? If taken one at a time, none of his traits mentioned earlier, not omnipotence, not omniscience, and so on, logically necessitate benevolence, and the opposite could be easily conceived. Richard Swinburne has attempted to deduce that God must of necessity be perfectly good[2]. The gist of his argument runs thus:

  • An agent who freely performs some act will always act with the intention that the act being performed is in some way a “good thing.”
  • Now, the term “good” also describes moral acts, or morally superior acts in contrast to morally inferior acts.
  • Hence, an agent who is not under some irrational influence will always choose a morally superior act over a morally inferior one, if he knows which is which.
  • Since God is perfectly free and hence not subject to irrational influences and since he is omniscient and always knows which are the morally superior acts, he will always act in perfect accordance with the moral good.
  • Hence he is perfectly good, or omnibenevolent.

It would take too much space to examine this argument in detail but it can easily be shown to fall apart on a number of grounds and the reader is encouraged to fill in the details in the following brief analysis. Granting some common sense to the first premiss, the notion of “good” does not at all presume a strictly moral dimension. A criminal may freely choose, without risking any charge of irrationality, to rob a bank. He would most certainly consider the act, if successful, to be “good” in terms of personal gain, even though others would consider it morally reprehensible (especially if their money was in the vault). Hence, this premiss cannot be restricted as applying only to a moral dimension in the acts of agents. This argument also presumes what is called moral realism, that is an objective morality that somehow exists independently of any person—including God—since, in this particular argument, he needs to use his omniscience to know about it. First, this raises the Euthyphro dilemma regarding what is moral, by asking whether God commands moral acts because they are moral objectively and independently of God, or these acts are moral simply and for no other reason than that God commands them. Moral realism is a contentious and unsettled philosophical issue. Swinburne himself admits that without the truth of moral realism, the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, it would be misleading to call perfect goodness a property of God! Even granting moral realism, we may note that there is a conflict between God’s perfect freedom and always acting in accordance with the moral good. The former states that God may do anything he chooses, including evil things. After all, our evil actions are often explained by the free will that we have been granted by God to choose evil even if we know full well that it is evil. This does not presume that we need to be irrational or under compulsion to make such a choice, since either precludes free will. But Swinburne’s argument essentially concludes that God’s actions are in perfect lockstep with the dictates of some objective morality that is independent of God, a truly robotic behavior contradicting God’s perfect freedom.

Why, then, not stop beating around the bush and simply proclaim, by definition, that God is omnibenevolent in addition to his other traits? Then we can go about our business of arguing about his existence as so defined. This is all fine and well, but it needs to be made clear that once omnibenevolence needs to be included by definition, it’s an admission that omnibenevolence is not logically entailed by God’s other traits. Then one can symmetrically, and without contradiction, come up with a counterdefinition of God, or some equally perfect being of whatever moniker, where only omnimalevolence is substituted for omnibenevolence. By now it should be abundantly clear that the assumption that God is necessarily omnibenevolent is simply unfounded and not necessitated by his other traits. Even more to the point of this article, it should be evident that we may indeed rationally contemplate a perfect being identical in all respects to God except that this being is perfectly malevolent, that is omnimalevolent. In fact, reasonable inquiry demands that we contemplate such a being in examining all competing hypotheses! If natural theology, at least, claims to be founded on reason, it could not continue to do so and refuse to give proper weight to an omnimalevolent God. In the remainder of this article, to differentiate the two hypotheses, let’s continue to use the moniker “God” for the omnibenevolent being and “gOD” for his perfectly evil counterpart.

What’s the big deal about the possibility of gOD? Religious arguments are about the existence of God, not gOD! No one in their right mind would want to argue for the existence of gOD! However, the big deal is that God and gOD are indistinguishable save for their moral inclinations. Hence, any argument for the existence of God that does not turn on moral inclination is equally and symmetrically an argument for the existence of gOD. There are definite implications resulting from this symmetry which I will address shortly, but first I will show that the most common arguments for the existence of God in fact do not turn on his moral trait.

Argument from scriptures: Divine inspiration is often claimed for features of religious texts, constituting evidence of God’s existence or the truth of a religious doctrine. Divine inspiration hinges on God’s/gOD’s omnipotence, not on his moral nature. Scriptures are full of reprehensible and cruel injunctions from gOD/God in addition to those that may be construed as good, such as against killing and theft. Hence scriptures are indifferent as to gOD or God since both cases are represented. The contradictions and some confusions may be well be viewed as deliberate attempts by gOD to deceive and mislead his adherents as to his precise intentions, leading to the splintering of sects due to various interpretations and the consequent intersectarian strife over who has the “true” faith and who blasphemes. Scriptural injunctions to regard other religions as false, and blasphemy and apostasy as mortal sins has led to endless religious strife and cruelty, hence evidence of gOD.

Argument from miracles: Miracles are normally presumed to be personal interventions by God that are unlikely on naturalism to the extent that they may go against the laws of nature and hence provide evidence for the existence of God. Again this turns largely on the traits of omnipotence and omnipresence. If the miracle did not bring benefit to anyone (like a burning bush that is never consumed), but was just very unlikely, then there is no moral dimension to it and either God or gOD are equally supported. If the miracle was of benefit or good, it could still be the work of gOD deviously preparing for a greater evil such as sectarian strife that results from a selective sectarian belief in some particular miracle. Or gOD may be duping humans with the presentation of a miracle to believe in a good God in order to relish their horror as they face the inevitable letdown. Further, how do we know that in cases where some evil befalls us, it wasn’t gOD intervening in a situation where naturalistically, the evil would not normally have happened? We can term this the “antimiracle” that provides evidence of gOD, but no different in kind from what are normally called miracles. We expect bad things to happen and have no way of differentiating if such events are simple chance occurrences or the intervention of gOD. After all, miracles are often just unexpected “goods” but are typically brought into effect naturalistically by the purported intervention of God; the actual “hand of God” is not in fact visible. For instance, a miracle would be an unexpected recovery from a terminal illness—a case of the hand of God. But in the symmetric case for gOD, the antimiracle would be the unexpected terminal illness of a perfectly healthy and even perhaps morally upstanding individual.

Argument from religious experiences: Usually, religious experiences are said to be positive, and they leave a great impression on the who experiences them, even to the extent of making them more devoted, and hence provide evidence for the existence of God. Again, this turns largely on the trait of omnipotence and omnipresence without resting on a moral requirement. Symmetrically, gOD could also account for the very same uplifting experiences to make someone more devoted in the exquisite irony of such a person eventually realizing a wasted and deluded life once he or she still ends up in eternal torment. Further, even in life, some persons experience visions and nightmares of hell, and the torments of mental illness. These could easily be induced by gOD as symmetric counterexperiences to God’s beatific experiences.

Argument from faith: That people have simple faith in God without any evidence is taken as a sign of the existence of God, presumably based on God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. The reasoning for gOD here is the same as for religious experience above.

Argument from Reason: Our capacity for reason is said to be better explained as deriving from the rationality of God than from naturalistic, mechanical, mindless laws. There is no mention here whatsoever as to the moral character of God, only his rationality; hence gOD fits as well as God. Why would gOD give us reason? To allow us to deduce our limitations, eventual illness and death, and worry about all the evils that may befall us and those we care about. The misuse of reason would allow us to rationalize such that conflicts among individuals and groups would arise leading to much unabated misery. Reason would allow us to have doubts, and live in uncertainty and vacillation. The benefits to gOD in terms of reveling in the suffering of humans as a consequence of their ability to reason, moreover to reason poorly, is endless.

Transcendental Argument: It is impossible, this argument claims, for any authoritative rationality (including an atheist’s) to emerge from inchoate matter—the existence of God must be assumed, therefore, in order to deny God’s existence. The lack of a moral dimension and the possibility of gOD is much the same as under the argument for reason.

Argument from design: The teleological version states that the universe and living things are too complex to have happened by chance without some intelligent designer. The “fine tuning” version claims that the physical parameters of the universe are so finely tuned and improbable that they would be extremely unlikely by chance, but need to be as they are to ensure that life eventually appeared in the universe. Yet again, there is no mention here whatever as to the moral character of God, hence gOD fits as well as God. Why would gOD design toward life? He needs living creatures capable of suffering upon whom he can inflict his innate malevolence.

Cosmological Argument: The argument from first causes, prime mover, the beginning of the universe, Kalam, etc. None of these hinge whatsoever on the moral character of God, hence gOD fits as well as God. Why would gOD create the universe? The reasons in the argument for design also apply.

Ontological Argument: An a priori argument based on the “perfection” of God. Typically,
    1. God is the most perfect (‘the greatest’) being conceivable.
    2. It is more perfect (‘greater’) to exist than not to exist.
    3. Therefore, God must exist.

There is no explicit mention of God’s goodness here, only perfections: traits whose values cannot be exceeded. As discussed earlier, both good and evil may be conceived to exist in a perfect state even though they are diametrically opposite. Of course gOD possesses omnimalevolence, that is, a perfect malevolence which cannot be exceeded and is unalloyed by any vestige of good. Hence, gOD fits this argument well (perfectly well, in fact).

These show that arguments for God could symmetrically be construed as equally good arguments for gOD. But what about arguments against God? Could they not also be used to counter the gOD hypothesis? Indeed they could, but then, again symmetrically, the same arguments theists use to defend against arguments counter to God could also be used to defend against arguments counter to gOD. For instance, one of the most potent arguments against the existence of God is “the argument from evil.” Briefly, it claims that an omnibenevolent God would not visit such personal and natural evils upon humans as patently exist in the world endlessly. Of course, this argument could also be construed as contributing support for the existence of gOD. Then, theists could argue the mirror strategy that the patently clear existence of good in the world would be an argument against the existence of gOD and would contribute support for the existence of God. Neither argument is a good case for the existence of either being but is a good case against the existence of the being of opposite moral bent.

Theists have developed various defenses of God in explaining why evil exists and all of these can be reversed as defenses of gOD in explaining why good exists. That is, there is a clear symmetry here. For instance, it is claimed that God gave humans free will which allows humans to chose to do evil things, but free will also allows us to grow spiritually. Symmetrically, it may be claimed that gOD gave humans the illusion of free will so that we are duped into believing that we can do good and grow spiritually. The joke is on us. It does us no good in the end—despite a lifetime of good deeds and “spiritual growth.” Note that the symmetry here is around the notion of free will and not whether we actually have it or not. As another example, it is claimed that sometimes evil must be done for a greater good which only God has the knowledge to understand. Symmetrically, sometimes a good must be done as a precursor to a greater evil that only gOD can understand. Or, evil is needed to contrast with the good, otherwise we would have no evil against which we could choose freely to act good. This allows our expression of free will. Symmetrically, good is needed as a contrast to evil, otherwise we would have no good against which we believe we have a choice to act evil. This is needed to maintain the illusion of free will. Finally, there is the typical trump card always held in reserve to explain God’s actions and motives which asserts that, as mere mortals, we cannot fathom the reasonings of an omniscient divine being; this is patently symmetrical without any further explanation.

Since we now clearly have a mirror situation even when examining the issue of God’s/gOD’s moral nature that was largely ignored by the other arguments regarding only his existence, it would seem that the impasse could be resolved by simply comparing the good vs. the bad in the world. However, it would be futile to try to create a balance sheet to tally evil against good in the world in order to give an edge to either gOD or God. How does one judge such things (recall the Euthyphro dilemma and the question of moral realism)? Not to mention that what may be deemed good in one sense could be evil in another; the world is full of double-edged swords. For instance, what is poison in one instance (belladonna), could be medicinal in another (atropine). This also goes for otherwise toxic chemicals used beneficially in chemotherapy. Nuclear technology can generate much needed power but also contaminate the environment and vaporize cities. The majestic beauty of a polar bear beheld at a safe distance would be judged quite differently at close quarters. Do we count each sighting of a rainbow as good, an impractical target, or only the category? Thus, an attempted tally will fail to achieve consensus and not resolve the issue between the two poles.

What then are the implications of the unavoidable symmetric possibility of either God or gOD? It is clear that the existence of gOD would most certainly not be desired either by the theist or the atheist. But from the atheist’s perspective, the existence of gOD, although logically possible, would make no more sense than the existence of God for the very same reasons and hence would be cause for equally little concern. In fact, the atheist, who is likely among the condemned under either God’s or gOD’s dominion, would feel that he/she would fare the same anyway in either unlikely case. To an atheist, the primary utility of the equal possibility of gOD and God is in the arena of religious argumentation. Any theistic argument could easily be flipped, with little imagination, to be one for gOD, a most dreaded state of affairs for a theist, and we’ll see shortly why this is important.

From the theist’s perspective however, the real possibility of the existence of gOD would be a dreaded disaster of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine spending a lifetime of devotion, worship, and sacrifice to God only to realize in the afterlife (if indeed gOD provides one) that it was a grand hoax perpetrated by an unmitigated evil who relishes the thought of sublimely tormenting you for the rest of eternity. Atheism seems mild in comparison! Of course gOD could simply withhold the reward of an afterlife and let the devotee blink out of existence at death, but this would be a mercy and an oversight on the part of a truly malevolent being who could get so much more mileage inflicting an endless afterlife of torment. The most devout, ascetic, and faithful would suffer equally with the most profane and profligate or perhaps even more so, just as an exquisite, deliberate, evil divine irony. Then devotion, in hindsight, would be deemed the height of utter gullibility, foolishness, and waste. It would go without saying that a devoted theist would likely fight tooth and nail before admitting the equal logical possibility of gOD. But if it is shown and asserted in religious debates that any argument presented for the existence of God is just as equally and forcefully an argument for the existence of gOD, as was easily shown above, it immediately dilutes the likelihood of the truth of the existence of God to never more than 50% on the overly generous assumption that one of these hypotheses must be true. Of course, in reality there are many more hypotheses in contention for the truth and God must always equally share his particular region of likelihood with gOD, his conjoined mirror twin.

This is where the real implications of the equal possibility of gOD lie, that is, in religious argumentation and its consequences. As shown above, an unbreakable symmetry exists between God and gOD. Any arguments that don’t turn on God’s moral nature—and I have shown that largely they don’t when it comes to questions of his existence—may be turned around to equally demonstrate gOD’s existence. Even if God’s moral nature is part of the issue, it is easy to show that it may be gOD, the ultimate deceiver, who is feigning benevolence for some evil end that we, as mere mortals, cannot begin to fathom. The importance of all this concerns why we have religious argumentation in the first place. If the consequences of such arguments pertained strictly to private, personal feelings, very little would be made of them. But such arguments derive their note and prominence from their broad impact on very public domains such as social and political trends and influence, laws, ethics, taxation, public policy, medicine, science, not to mention decisions to engage in warfare and other deadly mayhem. And clearly, the impact on these domains would be entirely different in the case where one concludes that God may exist than it would be in the case where one concludes that gOD may exist. For instance, society would be loathe to give tax breaks to religious organizations if the sublimely evil gOD was behind the facade. Even more significantly and to the point, religions could hardly assume the moral high ground and presume to dictate ethics and behavior if they were dupes of gOD’s deceit.

But I have shown that God and gOD are indistinguishable on virtually all justifications. Hence it would deflate any presumption by theists to foist God onto the public sphere when it is equally likely that gOD is the one being imposed thereon. What would one think of a doctor whose proposed treatment for a trivial affliction is as likely to kill as to cure? Who could be convinced to play Russian roulette with three of the chambers loaded despite any purported rewards for winning the game? For an honest theist, such odds are simply too significant to dismiss considering the stark contrast in their implications.


[1]Descartes, René. Meditations on the First Philosophy, tr. John Veitch, 1901. Meditation III.

[2]Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God, Published by Oxford University Press, 2004. Ch. V.