Skeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 6

Because Part 5 was posted back in November of 2008, I will condense the previous post here, and add a few new ideas too.

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)

Contrary to Geisler’s interpretation, Spinoza does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Rather, he assumes that miracles do occur, and then argues against defining “miracles” in terms of violations of natural law:

Argument for New Definition of “Miracle”

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, however, be modified to support the view that miracles are impossible:

Argument for the Impossibility of Miracles

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.
10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.
11. Miracles are impossible.

This is not, however, Spinoza’s argument, since he asserts conclusion (9), which is the exact opposite of premise (10) in the argument for the Impossibility of Miracles (hereafter: IOM).

Geisler’s first objection to Spinoza’s argument is that it begs the question. Let’s see if this objection holds up against the IOM argument. Geisler makes seven different comments that appear to be related to his “begs the question” charge. I will examine these comments one at a time.

Comment 1: “…anything validly deducible from premises must have been present in those premises from the beginning.” (MMM, p.18)

Deductively valid arguments do sometimes beg the question, but many deductively valid arguments do not. Geisler’s comment implies that all valid deductive arguments beg the question. If this were the case, then his own favorite argument for the existence of God (a deductive version of a cosmological argument) either begs the question or is logically invalid.

Comment 2: “…the anti-supernatural is already presupposed in Spinoza’s rationalistic premises…” (MMM, p.18)

Note that none of the following words occur in the IOM argument:


So, if Geisler is going to make this point stick, he needs to explain or define the term “antisupernatural” (or anti-supernaturalism), and point to one of the premises of IOM, and show how that that premise presupposes “the antisupernatural” (or antisupernaturalism), and then explain why that makes the premise question begging. Geisler has made no effort to provide any such explanation, so the point here is too vague and undefined to be evaluated.

Comment 3: “…Spinoza has provided no convincing argument..” for “the rationalistic premises” of his argument. (MMM, p.18)

The use of the qualifier “convincing” in this comment suggests that Spinoza has provided one or more arguments for a controversial premise(s), and that the argument is defective and falls short of being a solid argument. But if Spinoza has provided an argument for a controversial premise of IOM, then Geisler cannot fairly charge Spinoza with begging the question. The fallacy of begging the question occurs when a controversial premise is simply assumed to be true, without any argument or support being provided for the controversial premise.

Geisler merely asserts that Spinoza has given only unconvincing arguments in support of a basic premise of the IOM argument, without giving any details or explanation or support for this charge.

Comment 4: “…once we define natural laws as ‘fixed,’ ‘immutable,’ and ‘unchangeable,’ then of course it is irrational to say a miracle occurred.” (MMM, p.18)

This statement appears to grant the validity of the logic of the IOM argument. My formulation of the IOM argument does not refer to “unbreakable” natural laws, but the same idea is implied in premise (6):

6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.

Once one grants that it is impossible for a natural law to be violated, then it would be irrational to turn around and insist that natural laws are sometimes violated. But none of the premises assumes that miracles cannot occur. Premise (6) does not say anything about miracles, and premise (10) is based on a definition of “miracle” that Geisler would accept. It is only the combination of premises (6) and (10) that shows miracles to be impossible.

Comment 5: “Spinoza’s argument…begs the question by defining miracles as impossible to begin with, namely, as a violation of assumed unbreakable natural laws.” (MMM, p.21)

The IOM argument does not define the term “miracle”, but it does have a premise that is presumably a conceptual or analytic claim about miracles:

10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.

Geisler does not object to defining miracles as involving a violation of a law of nature. Thus, the question begging that Geisler thinks occurred, relates to premise (6), not premise (10). Premise (6), however, does not put forward a definition of “miracle”, so Geisler is wrong in asserting that a question-begging definition of miracle is being assumed or asserted in the IOM argument.

Geisler is making a similar mistake here as with Comment 4. It is the combination of (6) and (10) that implies the impossibility of miracles, but neither premise (6) by itself, nor premise (10) by itself, assumes impossibility of miracles. Thus, neither (6) nor (10) begs the question by assuming what needs to be proven.

Premise (6) is, however, a controversial claim, so (6) needs to be supported by further arguments or reasons in order for the IOM argument to avoid the charge of begging the question. If Spinoza simply asserted (6) without giving any argument or reasons for this, then Geisler’s charge would be justified (I will say more on this point in Part 7).

Comment 6: Spinoza’s “rationalistic ‘axioms’ are wrong.” (MMM, p.21)

I take it that the word “wrong” here means false. Geisler is asserting that Spinoza’s argument is unsound because it is based on one or more false premises. It should be noted that arguments with false premises need not involve circular reasoning or begging the question. So, even if this comment by were correct, it would provide no support for the charge that the IOM argument begs the question.

Second, to establish this point Geisler needs to specify one or more premises, and then argue that those premises are false. Geisler has not specified any particular premise as being false, and he has not provided an argument to back up this objection.

Comment 7: Spinoza’s rationalistic presuppositions “are never firmly attached to the firm ground of empirical observation.” (MMM, p.21)

Spinoza is known as one of the leading rationalist philosophers. Geisler is attempting to make use of a general objection to rationalism as the basis for an object

ion to the IOM argument. The idea that we can arrive at significant truths about reality and ourselves on the basis of pure reasoning, without making any use of sensory experiences or observations seems wildly mistaken from a contemporary point of view. However, it is not clear whether one must accept Spinoza’s rationalism in order to accept the IOM argument.

In any case, even if some premises of the IOM argument have no support from empirical observation, it does not follow that the argument begs the question, nor does it follow that those premises should be rejected. Other grounds exist for acceptance of premises. There are, at the very least, analytical or conceptual claims that do not rest on empirical observation. Premise (10) is presumably based on some definition of “miracle”, and the correctness of that definition derives from an analysis of this concept, and not from any empirical observations of miracles or alleged miracles.

There may also be normative claims that can be justified on the basis of normative criteria or principles and/or a normative theory. There may be self-evident truths that are acceptable on the basis of some sort of intuition. There may be “groundless” assumptions that are acceptable because they are necessary foundations for the exercise of rational thought and discourse.

Perhaps all factual or scientific claims must be grounded in empirical observation, but it is doubtful that the only sort of claims that one can rationally believe are factual or scientific claims (Note: The claim that “One can rationally believe only factual or scientific claims” is itself a normative claim and not a factual or scientific claim).

Geisler’s favorite argument for the existence of God does rest upon what appears to be an empirical claim: “Some things exists.” Geisler likes this aspect of his version of a Cosmological argument, because it gives his argument an empirical foundation, but it is an empirical claim that is about as certain as one can imagine, thus avoiding the usual vagaries and vicissitudes of scientific thinking.

But other premises of his cosmological argument do not appear to be based on empirical observation (Christian Apologetics, 1976, p. 239):

“Whatever has the possibility not to exist is currently caused to exist by another.”

“There cannot be an infinite regress of current causes of existence.”

So, if the IOM argument is to be rejected because one or more of the premises of the argument is not based upon “the firm ground of empirical observation,” then we must also reject Geisler’s favorite argument for the existence of God, for the very same reason.