Friday, September 24, 2010

Random Thought on the Theist/Deist Distinction

Roughly, theists and deists agree that there exists a God (a being that is a necessary First Cause, Creator and Designer of the universe). At the core, the difference lies in the acceptance of miracles. A miracle is generally agreed to be a highly unusual event with salvific implications. The theist believes in miracles, whereas the deist rejects them.

Consider now the hypothesis that God exists, and it is within God's power to bring about a miracle, but God chooses not to do so. Would this fall under the realm of theism or deism?


  1. It seems to me that to say that "[t]he theist believes in miracles, whereas the deist rejects them" is to say that the deist believes or asserts God to be incapable of effecting miricles. And, it seems to me ultimately to mean that the deist believes or asserts "nature" to be superior to God.

  2. Or, as in the case of Spinoza, God and Nature are understood as synonymous (pantheism). The creation event (creatio ex nihilo) is already the greatest miracle of all, which is why I've never understood the deist's insistence that miracles are beyond God's purview or power.

  3. I prefer the understanding of 'miracle' as given by Hume, and Hume's definition is quite different than your own. I'd like to intelligently answer your question, although far be it from me to know just what falls into "highly unusual" (which is different than saying it'd be a divergence from natural law) or what 'salvific' involves.

  4. I'm unsure if, for deists, there is an "insistence that miracles are beyond the purview or power" of God. It's my understanding that they believe God just doesn't involve himself. This is different from saying that God doesn't have the power to do so or that he cannot involve himself.

  5. As someone who writes computer programs ... and plays computer games ... the deist position on miracles strikes me as analogous to someone asserting that I, as the author of a computer program, cannot write into the rules of the program a “back door” giving me an ability to modify the program’s data as it executes.

    But, even that analogy is weaker than I mean … it’s just that I don’t expect most people to understand the analogy I really mean. But I’ll attempt to explain.

    In my first job out of college, a long, long time ago, I coded in mainframe assembler (mostly maintaining code written ages prior) for a couple of small mainframe computers; one so ancient it didn’t even have harddrives. On the front of the ancient computer were a couple of panels of indicator lights with toggle switches beneath them.

    These switches allowed one to set bits (and thus bytes) relevant to the computer’s memory, the lights indicating whether a particular bit was on or off. One panel was to set an address indicating a memory location, the other was to see – or change – the content of that memory location.

    So, if a program was chugging along on the computer and encountered a fatal error condition everything stopped, and computer operator either purged the computer, and executed something else, or contacted me so that I might try to get around the problem at the moment and understand it so that I could resolve it for the future.

    Now, as I said, one set of toggle switches allowed one to change the content of memory locations – I could change not only the data which at that moment had been being operated upon, but the actual loaded executable code of the program itself!

    Now, of course, to make an extensive change on the fly like that would have taken more time and effort than simply to pull up the source code, make the appropriate changes and recompile, and then have the operator restart the execution from the beginning.

    Mostly, what I did was change some data in the specific record then being processed, or changed the loaded executable code to have it skip over some problematic section of code/logic.

    But, the point is, I *could in principle* have completely rewritten the program’s currently loaded executable on the fly.

  6. Yeah, so if God chooses not to involve Himself in the world (other than in the creative and sustaining acts), then miracles would be beyond God's purview, but not beyond God's power.

    I define a miracle as being "highly unusual" for two reasons. First, the term stems from the Latin miraculum, which generally denotes something extraordinary. More importantly, though, is the fact that "highly unusual" allows us to say that miracles fall within the domain of the laws of nature. As Houtteville comments in response to Spinoza (and it is applicable to Hume, as well), miracles could be part of God's eternal decree along with the laws of nature, and miracles could be part of some aspect of nature currently unknown to us.

    Of course, this is only an answer to one of the deist's objections. As for what constitutes something salvific, it is when the unusual event in question has some implication with respect to our relationship with God. The resurrection of Jesus is a purported miracle, and belief in it initiates salvation, according to Christians. An unusual event with no salvific implications would be something like the alignment of all the planets of our solar system.

  7. Hmmm ... did I not actually post a second response here? I guess (assuming I goofed up) that it's a good thing I decided to turn the (intended) second response into a post on my own blog.

  8. "Yeah, so if God chooses not to involve Himself in the world (other than in the creative and sustaining acts), then miracles would be beyond God's purview, but not beyond God's power."

    And, this is actually incoherent with respect to the postulates of Deism.

    For, while it *might* be true that God would not intervene in his Creation after setting it in motion, this potential fact is not something that can be arrived at purely via reason nor by observation of "nature." Rather, for humans to possess the knowledge of this "fact," it would have to have been revealed by God to some human or other ... and Deism rejects Divine Revelation.

  9. Ilion, you did post a second time, but my filter occasionally lists replies as "spam." I just made the correction.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Doug,

    I replied to your comments and produced another article. As always, your attention is much appreciated, if i can have it at all.

    There's no need to publish this post. i am just letting you know.

  12. Thanks, I try to publish everything that isn't spam. :)