Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Concept of Perfect Love

Daniel Howard-Snyder and Adam Green have a new article up at the SEP on divine hiddenness arguments for atheism. As these are increasingly popular, it's nice to have a good summary of the current lay of the land.

I confess I've never been remotely impressed with these kinds of arguments, which always seem to me to be weak, and fairly speculative, arguments from evil; the premises always strike me as implausible, and the reasons why others take them to be plausible, when they bother to give them, often seem to me to be cant and sentimentalist tripe. But I'm certainly in the minority on this.

I don't want to get into all the problems I see with the arguments here, but I do want to press on something that, while not definitive, needs, I think, to be taken more seriously than it usually is. A good way to see it is by looking at the following premise in Schellenberg's most recent versions of the arguments, as represented by the above article:

Necessarily, if God perfectly loves such finite persons as there may be, then, for any capable finite person S and time t, God is at t open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with S at t.

Set aside all the complications involved in talking about God "at time t" and what it means for God to be "open" to something. And let's set aside the "necessarily", which raises complications with the principle of remotion. We'll strip it down for our purposes to the notion that if God perfectly loves all finite persons that exist, God is open to being an a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relation with each one that is capable of being so at any given time.

It's clear that this kind of idea doesn't follow from love-concepts in general; love from a distance is not an uncommon phenomenon, and loving someone in complete secret is surely not contradictory. Nor do either of these seem necessarily defective as love. So what must be doing the work is that this is a particular kind of love, perfect love; but, of course, the question is what this perfect love is; it's perfectly fine, of course, to say that you can draw conclusions from such a thing if we know how you got it and what it is, precisely, that you've got.

Under the circumstances, very obviously, we can't get our knowledge of perfect love from observing God acting with perfect love; that would rather defeat the purpose of arguing that God doesn't exist. So it's not based on any prior experience with actual divine perfect love. So there are really only two possibilities here: either it's supposed to be a conceptual necessity based on a concept knowable a priori, or it is an extrapolation to the limit of eminent human love. The first would be very odd (what is going on that makes reason to have a pure a priori concept of perfect love suitable to being applied to God, who doesn't exist?). Perhaps there's some way to relieve the oddity; I'm not out for refutation here, so let's set this aside and assume, for a moment -- which seems actually to be the case if we look at how people actually argue for the above premise, and similar premises -- that we are extrapolating to the limit what we know about excellent kinds of human love (which, if God does not exist, are presumably the most excellent loves we usually know).

We do still run into the problem that was already mentioned, that there are love-concepts where this doesn't seem to be the case. Is it really impossible for us to take 'love in secret' and extrapolate it to the limit and get 'perfect love in secret'? Usually when we would reject an idea like 'God is perfectly loves with perfect shyness', it's because we would point to some reason for thinking that God doesn't act like that, but you can't appeal to that in the middle of an argument for God's nonexistence. And, of course, one need not be so extreme at all; since we can have love-concepts that do not work the way the love-concept in the above premise works, perhaps God's is a different version of these -- for all we know at this point.

Here's a very eminent kind of love with which we are actually acquainted: the kind of love for others in which one is even willing to die for their good. It's a kind of love that we often go to when we are talking about the heights of human love. This is much, much stronger than being "open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship", which seems to be even at best estimate a very basic necessary condition rather than a sufficient condition for perfect love. (One can imagine someone going around saying, "Greater love has no one than this, to be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship." That conception would perhaps be a bit unambitious. So it can hardly be the sum and parcel of 'perfect love'; the most that can be argued is that it is one of the things one needs.)

It seems that if the laying-down-one's-life-for-someone's-good kind of love is itself consistent (as we would have to assume if we are extrapolating to the limit), the kinds of things one did through it would have to be consistent with the possibility of having a friendship of virtue with them. That's promising, perhaps: 'perfect love has to be consistent with the possibility of friendship of virtue with the one loved' does look a tiny bit like 'perfect love has to be open to a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with the one loved'. For one thing, friendships are (if the terms mean anything at all) 'positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationships' with the one loved; and presumably the friendship arising out of virtue is a better candidate for being perfect-love-like than friendship arising out of other things.

But what it certainly does not require is that one be aiming at such a relationship at every moment, nor that one be actively cultivating it at every moment. If we love someone with this kind of love, it is not even essential to the love that the one who is loved know who you are at the moment. It does not require that, during the whole time one is loving, one "value, seek, desire, promote, or preserve personal relationship", to use a phrase from the article. It is the kind of love in which one would sometimes be willing, right now, to die in anonymity or ignonimy rather than be in a personal relationship -- if, for instance, it were for the good of the one loved. And, of course, one need not go so extreme -- one could have the lay-down-one's-life kind of love without actually laying down one's life; but it seems consistent with such a love, perhaps, to forgo relationship now in favor of better, or more honest, or more fruitful relationship later. Not every time is appropriate for trying to be bestest of best friends -- not that it even seems essential to this kind of love necessarily to try to do so at all. It is consistent with it, should the opportunity arise and be pursued -- but what about a willingness to lay down one's life for the good of others requires that the opportunity arise and be pursued?

We are talking here about human love, of course. Perhaps one might say that we cannot imagine the lay-down-one's-life kind of love taken to the limit; that it's hard to grasp what what it could mean for God to love with a lay-down-one's-life kind of love. That's certainly true. Perhaps one might say that, whatever love God may have, it must be better than can be captured even by taking human lay-down-one's-life love to the limit. And that is certainly true as well. But I will insist, nonetheless, that the lay-down-one's-life love is something like what you would have to look at if you were looking at loves with which we are acquainted that seem to be most like a perfect love. It's not a fluffy greeting-card picture of love (I confess that when someone says things like "a conscious and reciprocal relationship that is positively meaningful, allowing for a deep sharing", as Schellenberg does, the first image that flashes in my mind is a Care Bear). This is a more solemn and dignified kind of love than that. And I will insist that it doesn't work like one would expect from the above premise, which raises some questions for the extrapolation method of trying to figure out what 'perfect love' is here.

As I said above, none of this is geared toward refutation; it is a point that merely needs to be taken more seriously than it usually is. But an abiding quirk of my mind when dealing with arguments is that I don't see arguments on their own; I see families of arguments, series of analogue-arguments. (This sometimes makes it very difficult to explain to people why I am suspicious of their arguments. It's also why I tend to like Neoplatonists and scholastics, because, due to the ways they approach topics, they tend to be very consistent across families of arguments, and to have principled reasons for apparent violations of analogies between arguments, rather than just handling arguments on a case-by-case basis.) And there is a reason here for just looking at this particular thread on its own. Where else do we find arguments about God turning on a concept of perfect love, in which the issues raised by the concept are highly analogous to the ones raised here? In a great many arguments for universalism (in the sense of universal salvation).

In fact, any argument from divine hiddenness can be turned into an argument for universalism by dropping the time requirement and considering possibility in a slightly broader way. The divine hiddenness argument for God not existing always says something broadly like 'God, perfectly loving all, would be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with everyone at any given time; but there are people not in such relationships with God at some time, although it is possible for them to be; if it is possible to have such a relationship with them, God would indeed have such a relationship with them at that time; therefore, God does not exist.' (There are always, of course, refinements and slight variations and clarifications.) You can turn that into a universalist argument easy as pie: 'God, perfectly loving all, would be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with everyone at some time; but there are people have not had such relationships, although it is possible for them to have them; if it is possible to have such a relationship with them, at some time God would indeed have such a relationship with them; therefore God will have such a relationship to them at some time.' (With whatever refinements and variations and clarifications.)

Likewise, it is a besetting problem that universalists often do not manage to solve that many universalist arguments depending on 'perfect love' or the like should also lead us to think that perhaps there should be no evil now, for exactly the same reasons that divine hiddenness arguments deal with every time, and you can turn such arguments into divine hiddenness arguments against God's existence by changing the insistence from 'eventually' to 'now', mutatis mutandis.

The parallels, which are more clear when focusing specifically on the concept of 'perfect love' or similar concepts, deserve, I think, to be more closely studied.

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