Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 3)

This post is part of my series on miracles, For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article by John Beaudoin entitled “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. In it, Beaudoin presents the following challenge to the religious believer who takes the existence of the Devil (or other demonic supernatural agents) seriously: how can you reliably distinguish between the miraculous acts of God and the work of the Devil?

The challenge is significant because one of the defining characteristics of the Devil is his desire to deceive us, which he could do by performing apparently beneficent miraculous acts.

Last time out, we considered three criteria that supposedly provide grounds for distinguishing the acts of God from the work of the Devil. We found reason to fault each of them. This time round we consider some further criteria.

The criteria are taken, by Beaudoin, from the (infamous?) work of Morton Smith. Remember, for the purposes of this discussion, there are two ways in which a supernatural agent could perform a miracle (a) directly by themselves or (b) through the intermediary of a human being. Smith’s criteria are:

  • (4) Divine miracles fulfill Old Testament prophecies;
  • (5) Demonic miracles involve the explicit invocation of demonic forces;
  • (6) Demonic miracles are often performed for the purpose of self-aggrandisement;
  • (7) Divine miracles convey edifying moral lessons;
  • (8) The effects of divine miracles are permanent rather than transitory;
  • (9) Divine miracles bring about conversions to Christianity;

What are we to make of these? Do they improve the epistemic position of the believer with respect to the work of the Devil?

1. The Failure of the Criterial Approach
Beaudoin deals with each of these criteria relatively brusquely. He does so legitimately in my opinion since the major criteria were discussed last time round and, as he himself points out, some of these criteria are both repetitious and obviously flawed.

Dealing with them one-by-one, the following can be said:

On (4), the link between divine miracles and Old Testament prophecies is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no reason to think that the Devil wouldn’t be above deceiving people with false hope by performing a miracle that fulfilled a prophecy. Indeed, if he wants his deception to be successful, this is exactly the kind of thing he should do. And second, its not clear that divine miracles are always performed to fulfill OT prophecies.

On (5), this only stands a chance of working when the devil works via the instrumentality of a human agent. After all, the devil would have no reason to invoke his own powers when acting by himself. Furthermore, even if the miracle is performed through the instrumentality of a human agent, there’s no reason to think that the invocation of demonic powers would be made obvious to onlookers.

On (6), this assumes that God is not above a bit of self-aggrandisement. Beaudoin argues that there are reasons to think that some of the miracles God performs in the book of Exodus are done as displays of power (he cites the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a particular example of this). Certainly, the overarching message of the book of Job supports this idea.

On (7), this is defeated by the possibility of the Devil allowing for short-term edification in the service of some nefarious long-term plan. We covered this in the previous entry.

On (8), there are conceptual issues that need to be confronted here with respect to the causal effects of all historical events (don’t they all leave permanent traces?). I’ll be considering this issue in a future post. In any event, depending on how one deals with these issues, it could be argued that at least some of God’s miracles have only temporary effect, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea since the sea closed-up again. Either way, (8) is difficult to apply.

On (9), Beaudoin thinks there is a problem in identifying genuine conversions. The defining beliefs of Christianity would need to be identified first. And even if a set of such beliefs could be identified, the question of whether their profession constituted a sufficient condition of a divine miracle would be raised. Beaudoin argues that profession of such beliefs could not be a sufficient condition for identifying a divine miracle because a demon or magician or hypnotist could easily induce such profession through non-miraculous means.

In conclusion then, none of the profferred criteria stand much chance of success.

2. The Epistemic Costs to the Believer
What is the upshot of all this for the religious believer? How damaging is the possibility of demonic miracles to their general worldview? Beaudoin offers some concluding thoughts.

First, he thinks it could be quite damaging from an apologetic perspective. Any use of supposed miracles to evidence the moral character of God is now cast in doubt since beneficent effects and the fulfillment of prophecy could both be attributable to the Devil.

Second, it could be quite damaging to those who rely heavily of personal religious experiences as evidence of God’s moral character. Again, seemingly profound, morally and spiritually beneficent experiences could be the work of the devil. This was what worried St. Theresa of Avila the most and what moved her to develop a set of criteria for properly identifying divine miracles. Of course, the problem with this is that criterial approach seems to fail.

Third, and finally, it creates problems for the proponent of a Plantinga-style reformed epistemology. How so? Well, as readers of this blog are no doubt aware, Plantinga’s claim that religious beliefs are properly basic is premised largely on the idea that if Christianity is true, we have reason to trust our belief-forming faculties. But since at least some forms of Christianity entail the existence of the Devil, and since the existence of the Devil entails the possibility of a supernatural deceiver, the reason Plantinga proposes for trusting our faculties can be defeated.

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