Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialog

This is part two of a three part post series that explores some issues and ideas proposed to me by Mack Hassler as part of the independent study that he’s conducting for me on the works of Philip K. Dick.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Extract from A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialog.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832: An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York: Routledge, 1998. 80-81.

You may find an expanded version of this extract online here.

In this extract, Shelley is questioning the prevailing social order, maintained by the monarchy and church, and its requirement for what he calls a “supernatural intelligence” (80). Also, he considers the conflict between order and disorder in that system, and the supposed requirement for a “power” that supports order, and another, malignant, that supports disorder (80).

In a thought experiment, he questions if order might have a penchant for evil, and disorder a hint at good. Why do these divisions necessarily remain diametrically opposed? He answers that order and disorder are constructions that we map onto our understanding of the world and our relationship to it (80). Therefore, what is good for us is heavenly ordained and that which is ill for us is the work of Satan.

He points out that order and disorder cannot be universal, because the criteria for those things are as varied and colored as the different people whose “opinions and feelings” create those criteria (80).

The most powerful passage in this extract is when he establishes that good and evil are relative, not only in effect, but more importantly in the relationship between people and their perception of the external world. It is human attribution of good or evil to objects and events external to the perceiver rather than an extrinsic or universal attribution of those descriptions.

And, connecting this extract to the previous, he concludes that one cannot reason the existence of a Deity, because what is believed to have divine motivation in the external world are really judgments and opinions of people mapped onto the events observed.