Spinoza and Hume on Miracles


I. This is Spinoza’s argument regarding miracles: The true expression of the will of God is the laws of nature. These laws are immutable. Miracles contravene the laws of nature. Therefore, to maintain that miracles really occurred is to maintain that the will of God can be thwarted which us tantamount to atheism. What are described as miracles in the Bible and other ancient writings are in reality natural occurrences. These are thought to be unnatural because (1) We have not yet discovered their natural causes, or (2) Their reporting is due to poetic license or misunderstood turns of phrase from the Hebrew. Spinoza’s is a very clever argument indeed and concludes with the joyful observation that believers in miracles actually prove the opposite of what they set out to demonstrate. All the interest appears to be in the inference, namely a=b, if c then –b, therefore if c then –a, which as far as it goes is readily acceptable to anyone except the most hardened Pyrrhonist. However, the action really lies in the premise that God is nature or the universe and is manifest in nature’s laws among which we may count the axioms of Euclidean geometry.  Spinoza attempted to prove that premise in the First Part of his Ethics. There Spinoza begins with the proof of God’s existence that can be drawn from his status as most perfect being (A thing cannot be perfect unless it actually exists). Spinoza asserts that that argument, if it is true beyond reasonable doubt, does no more than prove the existence of the universe itself, whence the identification of God with the universe (Actually, if you want to be tough minded about it, Spinoza got no further than proving that “Something exists”, which is better than nothing.). It is noteworthy that Spinoza can easily shift gears from this heady conceptual level which he says arises from clear and distinct notions and characterizes as “geometrical”, by which he means “absolutely irrefutable”, to arguments like the one in the Appendix to the First Part where he shows how primitives could have come up with the notion of a manlike God. This latter argument is not and is not meant to be absolutely irrefutable. It is better characterized as really convincing. It is also a better answer to the gullible masses who through the long centuries of Judaism and Christianity probably never once gave thought to notions like “perfect, all powerful, necessarily existing being” that early Christian writers basically stole from classical philosophy.  Those gullible masses most likely never believed in an all-powerful God or at least never bothered themselves with what that really means. Their God isn’t all-powerful. Just really, really powerful, somewhat like the Wizard of Oz. So he can ordain the laws of nature (from which he is distinct) and then break them if he sees fit. This is of course a contemptible delusion ideally suited for Spinoza’s genetic treatment.

II. However sincere or insincere Spinoza may have been in his identification of God with the laws of nature, i.e. the immutable regularity of the universe, he was unrelenting in his scorn of an anthropomorphic God. Vintage Spinoza:  If we followed the example of the masses, we would “imagine a bodily Deity holding a royal court with a throne on the convexity of heaven, above the stars, which are believed to be not very far off from the earth.” It is much to be regretted that the majority of the American masses particularly in the slave-holding South still believe this to be a physical fact.

III. Spinoza elaborates another and much more common sense argument against miracles that would achieve great currency in the hard headed Enlightenment of the following century. Simply stated, if someone reports a miracle to you, what would be the most likely scenario: that the miracle occurred or that your witness is lying or otherwise in error? Hume would integrate his own version of Spinoza’s argument into his general theory of custom and habit and come up with a principle for assessing all historical evidence and most particularly reports of miracles. Hume’s knowledge of Spinoza appears to have been limited to Father Bayle’s highly colored account in the Dictionnaire philosophique, or at least this is the conclusion one may draw from Hume’s published comments. If that is so, Hume may safely be credited with devising his famous argument against miracles on the basis of his own native wit and not from a reading of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. This parallelism does point up how straightforward and appealing Spinoza’s style of argument could be when he wasn’t obsessed with what he believed to be strict geometrical proof. Equally noteworthy is that Hume in his chapter on miracles elides his descriptive account of how we rely on uniform past experience to form conclusions about future events (This descriptive account is a useful critical tool in Hume’s hands) and his prescriptive principle that uniform past experience should be a criterion for determining the validity of scientific statements and theories and even moral judgments. This is not the place to assess Hume’s prescriptive appeal to custom. We should only be aware that we may consistently accept Hume’s descriptive critical observations without thereby subscribing to his prescriptive dogma. By way of digression, I recommend that anyone who finds the skeptical writers to be the most entertaining of philosophers to compare Hume’s account of the Port Royal miracles with Voltaire’s rendition of the same events. In a venial deviation from his own counsel, Hume places perhaps a bit too much credence in Racine’s pious forgeries. We learn from Voltaire that the witnesses to the miracles, far from being individuals of exceptionable character and veracity, were in fact much animated by the spirit of faction and mendacity rampant in the Jansenist controversy and perhaps turned to the miracles as a way of winning public support and avoiding banishment or worse. Indeed the timing of Miss Pascal’s return from the world of the blind was not entirely consistent with being a miraculous event. No matter, Hume’s point that the weight of the evidence tips decisively against the occurrence of miracles even if reported by the most honest and upright of witnesses remains well taken.