Skeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 4

In Miracles and the Modern Mind, Norman Geisler summarizes Spinoza’s argument about miracles:

1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
2. Natural laws are immutable.
3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.
(MMM, p.15)

Geisler raises four objections to this argument (MMM, p.21). Before considering any objections, however, we need to determine whether Geisler has accurately summarized Spinoza’s thinking about miracles.

The short answer is: No, Geisler has not accurately summarized Spinoza’s argument. However, as we shall see later, Geisler has done a decent job of adapting Spinoza’s reasoning for use in an anti-miracle argument.

Spinoza does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Rather, he assumes that miracles do occur, but argues against defining “miracles” in terms of violations of natural law. In other words, just as Spinoza defines “God” in a non-standard way, he defines “miracle” in a non-standard way. Spinoza is laying out an intellectual path that Deists and Liberal Christians will follow later. Liberal Christians, for example, don’t openly deny or reject the resurrection of Jesus, they just re-conceptualize the resurrection so that it does not involve a dead person literally coming back to life.

Spinoza maintains belief in God, revelation, and miracles, but he redefines these basic religious concepts in an effort to construct a reasonable and logically consistent system of thought. To do so requires that he toss out various traditional theological assumptions along the way, and Spinoza, as an honest-to-goodness freethinker, does so freely. He does his best to follow reason where it leads him (with the exception of seriously considering the option of simply tossing religion aside).

Consider this key passage on miracles from Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise[1]:

From these premises therefore – that in nature nothing happens which does not follow from its laws, that its laws extend to all things conceived by the divine understanding, and finally that nature maintains a fixed and unchangeable order – it most evidently follows that the term ‘miracles’ can be understood only with respect to human beliefs, and that it signifies nothing other than a phenomenon whose natural cause cannot be explained on the pattern of some other familiar thing or at least cannot be so explained by the narrator or reporter of the miracle. (TPT, Chapter 6, paragraph 5)

In other words, all events must conform to natural laws, so the word “miracle” should be defined not as an event that violates a natural law, but as an event that some person, due to ignorance or the limitations of human minds, is currently unable to explain in terms of natural laws. On this proposed definition, Spinoza can continue to believe in miracles, without having to accept the traditional theological assumption that God sometimes intervenes in the world and violates natural laws.

In view of Spinoza’s belief in miracles, and his rejection of the traditional conception of miracles as involving a violation of natural law, we need to formulate Spinoza’s argument a bit differently than Geisler (above):

5. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are possible only if the violation of a natural law is possible.
6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.
7. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are impossible.
8. Miracles are possible.
9. Miracles do not require the violation of a natural law.

This argument from Spinoza in support of a re-definition of the word “miracle” can be adapted, similar to what Geisler has done, in order to support the skeptical view that miracles are impossible.

To be continued…

1. Theological-Political Treatise by Benedict De Spinoza, edited by Jonathan Israel, translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2007).