Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Problem of the Evil/Miracle Ratio (Part 2)

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

I’m currently working my way through the following article by Morgan Luck:

In part one, we saw how it was Luck’s goal to provide an argument that worked from premises concerning the nature of evil to a conclusion relating to the identification of miracles.

The first step towards this goal was taken by outlining Aquinas’s definition of miracles. According to Aquinas, a miracle can be defined as a super-creational effect, caused by God. If that definition is completely opaque to you, then you should really read part one before proceeding any further.

In this part, we’ll see how this definition feeds into Luck’s overall argument.

1. The Suitability of Aquinas’s Definition
Aquinas’s definition of miracles does not appeal to the traditional distinction between natural and supernatural events. For Aquinas, a miracle is simply an effect that is not within the power of a creational entity to cause. Thus, Aquinas allows for possibility of monistic miracles, i.e. miracles involving wholly supernatural or natural events. For example, the creation of an angel would count as a miracle for Aquinas, but would not involve any natural events.

The importance of this approach to defining miracles lies in the fact that it rules out, as not being proper instances of miracles, any events that are caused by supernatural creational entities such as angels or demons. This is an attractive approach for religious apologists because it necessarily restricts miracles to acts of God.

The question we need to ask is whether this definition is acceptable. Luck argues that one way in which to establish the suitability of a definition is to employ the paradigm case approach. This initially involves the identification of a paradigm instance of the term we wish to define, followed by a consideration of whether the definition captures this paradigm instance.

One paradigm instance of a miracle, according to Luck, can be found in Exodus 7. This is the case in which God turns Aaron’s staff into a snake. This is a paradigm case because (a) there is a strong religious tradition supporting the idea that this is a miracle and (b) there is a strong intuition to the effect that the instantaneous transmogrification of wood into a snake is miraculous.

But on this paradigm case, Aquinas’s definition seems to fail. Why? Because this is not a supercreational effect. According to the same book of the Bible (Exodus 7:11), it is within the power of a creational entity (an Egyptian sorcerer) to bring about the same effect.

Traditions and intuitions can be wrong, so are there other reasons to be wary of Aquinas’s definition? Luck thinks so.

2. Demons and Natural Evil
To see the problem we must first revisit Plantinga’s (in)famous response to the (logical) problem of natural evil.

Plantinga proposed a sophisticated version of the free will defence to the logical problem of evil. The typical response to this defence is to point out that not all instances of evil are attributable to the freely willed acts of human beings. There are also natural evils. Indeed, as I write this, one of the wealthiest and best-prepared countries in the world is struggling to deal with the fallout from natural evil (I refer, of course, to Japan and the recent tsunami).

Plantinga argued that these cases of natural evil could (possibly) be the result of the freely-willed acts of non-human agents, i.e. demons or fallen angels. This, in effect, reduced natural evil to supernatural moral evil. This type of response can also, with scriptural support (Exodus 7:11, Matthew 24:24 and Revelation 13:14), be used to account for the miracles associated with other religious traditions. Luck calls this the “Luciferous Defence”.

The problem with the Luciferous Defence is that by increasing the causal powers of supernatural creational entities, it narrows the logical space available for true miracles. This can be called the problem of the evil/miracle ratio:

The more power we grant to fallen angels in order to account for natural evil, then the fewer kinds of events we are entitled to call miraculous.

To overcome this problem, we will need to know what is a creational power and what is not. This is not easy to do. And since the problem arises directly from Aquinas’s attempt to tie the definition of a miracle to an act of God, Luck argues that it will need to be addressed by all apologists who adopt an account of miracles that restricts their cause to God.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. Somewhat unrelated to miracles, but pertinent to free-will types of defense, I have recently been pondering why god couldn't just have us all believe in him (and in his correct form). The defense is typically that belief needs to be freely chosen/accepted.

    However, I think most theists believe that the human moral "compass" is instilled by god and a sign of his authorship of humans. Regardless of our tendency to "transgress," I believe theology would still have it that a conscience separates us from animals and is given to all mankind by god.

    But if this sense doesn't override my free will (I can still be immoral at will), I don't know why a similar sense of alignment toward one particular god would override free will. As I've been thinking about it, the believer needs to think that the one true god made all of mankind to have a basic intuition about right and wrong, but apparently left us absolutely clueless as to who the apparent author of this morality is!

    Anyway... there's some rambling for you. Have you ever run across any discussion on this before?