Thursday, February 5, 2015

Dallas G. Denery II's "The Devil Wins"

Dallas G. Denery II is associate professor of history at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World: Optics, Theology, and Religious Life and the coeditor of Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment, and reported the following:
Sadly, read on its own, page 99 of The Devil Wins probably won’t make much sense -- so let’s give it some much needed context. Medieval and early modern thinkers repeatedly worried whether or not God could lie. There were good reasons for thinking he could. Among other things, the Bible includes stories in which God tricks, lies and deceives various people. Why, for example, did Christ conceal his divinity within the man Jesus? One longstanding answer, already found in Augustine’s early fifth-century writings and still useful to Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, was that Christ needed to deceive the Devil in order to successfully save sinful humanity. On the other hand, there were also good reasons, philosophical reasons, for believing that God was incapable of deception. Omnipotent and perfect, this philosophically conceived God remained aloof from his creation, unchanging and immutable. Why would a perfect God need to deceive, why would it need to do anything? A perfect being, after all, lacks for nothing, and lacking nothing never need do anything, including lying.

Whatever we might think of this question, it was important for medieval and early modern thinkers, and even for the brightlights of the Scientific Revolution. Page 99 picks up this story in the writings of Rene Descartes and some of his admiring critics. Not only does the Bible suggest God can deceive, everyday experience suggests as much:
“From time to time,” Descartes writes, “it does appear that we really are deceived by the natural instinct that God gave us, as in the case of the thirst felt by those who suffer from dropsy. These patients have a positive impulse to drink which derives from the nature God has bestowed on the body in order to preserve it; yet this nature does deceive them because on this occasion the drink with have a harmful effect.”
Descartes, who desperately wishes to prove God is not a deceiver, asks a simple question, “How is it possible that God seems to deceive us when, in fact, he does nothing of the sort?” His answer? God creates the world using the fewest rules to create the greatest order. For the most part, things work out admirably – when we are thirsty, for example, we really do need water. Occasionally though, as the rules work themselves out, certain unavoidable mishaps will occur at the individual level. God could, of course, miraculously intervene, creating one-off rules to prevent these outcomes. He could, but he doesn’t. Such minute fudging and amending would mar the simple beauty of creation, would violate the simplicity of God’s own nature. For Descartes, for most everyone involved in the Scientific Revolution, God could not deceive because, for all intents and purposes, God was no longer involved in the world. He set up the rules that structured the universe – and these were the rule scientists sought to uncover – and then sat back, admiring the simply beauty of it all, dropsy included.
Learn more about The Devil Wins at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue