Skeptical Approaches to Miracles – part 3

There are a number of philosophical and epistemological objections to miracles. The first philosophical critique of miracles that I will consider comes from Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was given the Hebrew name “Baruch” at birth, but began using the equivalent Latin name “Benedict” after he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656, on the charge of atheism. Spinoza believed in God, but his conception of God was not that of traditional theism. His concept of God is closer to pantheism, with some significant qualifications.

His primary philosophical work is Ethics Demonstrated in a Geometrical Manner (completed 1675, first published 1677). Spinoza was influenced by Descartes, particularly in the aim of constructing a philosophical system by logical inferences from a foundation of clear definitions and self-evident axioms, in imitation of Euclidean geometry. Ethics is not an easy read, and I won’t pretend to have read more than a few selected excerpts from it.

Spinoza’s discussion of miracles is mostly to be found in another book: Theological-Political Treatise (hereafter: TPT). This is an easier read that Spinoza’s Ethics. It does not attempt to present his thinking in the “Geometrical Manner”. Here is the blurb from the back cover of my copy of the book:

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (1670) is one of the most important philosophical works of the early modern period. In it Spinoza discusses at length the historical circumstances of the composition and transmission of the Bible, demonstrating the fallibility of both its authors and its interpreters. He argues that free inquiry is not only consistent with the security and prosperity of a state but actually essential to them, and that such freedom flourishes best in a democratic and republican state in which individuals are left free while religious organizations are subordinated to the secular power. His Treatise has profoundly influenced the subsequent history of political thought. Enlightenment “clandestine” or radical philosophy, Bible hermeneutics, and textual criticism more generally.
I plan to generally follow Norman Geisler’s historical survey of objections to miracles, in his book Miracles and the Modern Mind (Baker Book House, 1992, hereafter: MMM). Here is how Geisler summarizes Spinoza’s argument against miracles (MMM, p15):

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.

Geisler raises four objections to this argument (MMM, p.21):

* Spinoza’s argument begs the question.
* Spinoza’s determinism is self-defeating.
* Scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe supports belief in miracles.
* Scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe shows that Spinoza’s pantheism is mistaken.
Does Geisler accurately summarize Spinoza’s view of miracles? Are Geisler’s objections correct and compelling?

To be continued…

About Bradley Bowen
  • David B. Ellis

    I can’t comment on the accuracy of Geslers account of Spinoza’s position but as to his objections at the end:

    Scientific evidence for the Big Bang isn’t evidence of a miracle. That assumes the cause was something supernatural and we have absolutely no evidence, at this point, of that.

    And I don’t see how the Big Bang would be evidence against Pantheism. Unless you make further assumptions that don’t appear warranted.

  • Roland Tignor

    George Muller was a man of prayer/miracles.
    When he died the Bristol Times in England said he was a man of miracles. He had thousands of prayers answered by only praying to God in his closet at his house without telling anyone of his needs. There are still people alive who George was taking care of in his orphanage that can attest to this.
    There is a documentary out on his miracle life.