Doctrine of Creation (Part 15)

December 09, 2012     Time: 00:35:02

We have been talking about the problem of miracles and last time we described the 19th century collapse of the belief in miracles. First, skepticism with regard to the miraculous nature of the events of the Gospels and then, secondly, skepticism with respect to the very historicity of those events themselves. In the 19th century, miracles ceased to be believable for modern biblical critics. Strauss, you will remember, was able to proceed in his investigation of the life of Jesus on the presupposition that miracles are impossible. He regarded this as an assumption that did not require any proof; it was just an accepted datum of biblical studies that miracles do not occur.

18th Century Crucible – The Attack on Miracles

Why did this come about? What are the roots of this 19th century collapse? Well, it is what I call the 18th century crucible of the discussion with regard to miracles. The skepticism of modernity with respect to miracles arose during the so-called Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, which dawned in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Thereafter, for most of the intelligentsia, miracles simply came to be unbelievable. The attack upon miracles was lead by the so-called deists. Deists were not atheists by any means. They accepted the existence of God and his conservation of the world in being as well as his general revelation to mankind in nature. But they strenuously denied that God had revealed himself in any special way to mankind and, in particular, they denied that he had revealed himself through miraculous acts in human history. Therefore they were very exercised to demonstrate the impossibility of the occurrence of a miracle or, minimally, the impossibility of identifying any event as a miracle.

The Newtonian World Machine

I want to look at some of the principle arguments that were employed in the debate over deism during the 18th century. The most important philosophical opponents of miracles during this time were the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza and the Scottish skeptic David Hume about whom I will say something in a moment. Although these were the most important philosophical opponents of miracles, the whole debate was really being waged against the backdrop of a view of the world which was the vestige of Sir Isaac Newton’s physics. In 1687, Newton published his physics in his book the Principia Mathematica and thereby laid the foundations for physics for the next three hundred years. In the Principia, Isaac Newton formulates his famous three laws of motion and then together with various definitions he is able to deduce from these laws of motions various theorems and corollaries of his physics. By regarding the world as simply the sum of masses and motions and impersonal forces, Newton’s Principia seemed to eliminate the need for God in the world and particularly any providential action by God. It gave rise to a view of the world that has been appropriately characterized as the Newtonian World Machine. The world came to be regarded as a sort of great machine that had been made by God and set in operation. This model of explanation that Newton gave was enthusiastically received as the paradigm for explanation in all fields.[1] This undoubtedly reached its height with the claim of Pierre-Simon de Laplace that a supreme intelligence, endowed with Newton’s Principia and knowing the present position and velocity of every particle in the universe, could deduce the exact state of the universe at any other time in history, past or present, because the world was a deterministic machine operating according to Newton’s laws of motion. When the Emperor Napoleon asked of Laplace “Where is God in your system?” Laplace famously replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” There is a world of significance in that reply. Given the deist conception of the world as a sort of machine created by God and then set in motion under its own laws of matter and the forces that operate in it, it seemed that God would not interfere in the operation of this machine that he had created. He would simply be the clockmaker God who created this mechanism and then let it run.

In fact, this harmoniously functioning World Machine was actually taken to be the best evidence that God exists. For example, the 18th century French philosopher Diderot said the following, “Thanks to the works of these great men, the world is no longer a God, it is a machine with its wheels, its cords, its pulleys, its springs and its weights.”[2] Here, Diderot thinks of the world in terms of this great clock that has been built by God and which furnishes evidence of his existence. It was equally thought that it was simply incredible to imagine that God would interfere in the functioning of this fantastic, beautiful machine that he had made. So Diderot’s French contemporary Voltaire said that it was absurd and insulting to God to think that he would interrupt the operations of what Voltaire called “this immense machine” since he had designed it from the beginning to operate according to his divinely decreed, immutable laws. So God would not be mucking about in this fantastic and harmoniously functioning machine that he had made. For these 18th century Newtonians, miracles, as we see from Voltaire, could only be described as violations of the laws of nature. Therefore, they were impossible; you could not have God violate the laws of nature. It is against this backdrop of this Newtonian World Machine that the controversy over miracles was played out.


Question: This is what philosophers would call the causal closure of the physical world or the world being a closed system under physics. I think a lot of the philosophers of the mind use this as an argument for Physicalism.

Answer: Yes. The world has no transcendent causes operating in it. The only causes that operate in the physical world are immanent causes. So, yes, that is exactly right; that is the product of this sort of Newtonian view of the world.

Question: A lot of times people put arguments forth even though they don’t believe in it to prove another point. Out of these people, like Voltaire, it sounds like he was a believer in God, but was he?

Answer: I think so.

Followup: Was he a Christian?[3]

Answer: No, I would say that the deists in rejecting miracles and special revelation would not accept specific revealed religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Theirs was simply the God of nature – the God of general revelation who had created the world. But I think they were very sincere about that and, as I say, for many of them this Newtonian World Machine was really the best evidence for God’s existence. The design argument was very popular. So I think they were sincere theists. They just didn’t believe in any sort of special revelation of God.

Followup: How about Newton and Laplace?

Answer: Now, Newton was different. Newton believed in miracles. He was at least a confessing Christian. He seems to have been a Unitarian, unfortunately. He didn’t believe in the Trinity but he did so on biblical grounds. He wrote massive amounts of commentaries on the Bible as well as his own physical, scientific work. These theological commentaries are now becoming more and more interesting to historians of science because it was very important to Newton. So Newton did believe in miracles; it wasn’t Newton who thought that God could not act miraculously in the universe. This is, again, a lesson in the consequence of ideas. Very often ideas will have consequences that are unintended by the original person who broached them. That is certainly the case with this skepticism about miracles that flowed out of Newton’s physics. It wasn’t characteristic of Newton himself.

Followup: So Newton believed in the Scriptures and the deity of Christ?

Answer: I wouldn’t say he believed in the deity of Christ. As I say, he was a Unitarian – he wasn’t a Trinitarian. But he believed in the Scriptures as he interpreted them and he certainly did believe in miracles. He thought that God did intervene periodically to adjust the machine and to work in the world.

Followup: And Laplace?

Answer: I don’t know about Laplace’s personal beliefs. What he said to Napoleon doesn’t exclude God or even miracles. It is merely to say you don’t have need of God as a hypothesis in a scientific theory. I think a good many Christian scientists would say the same thing. When they put on their white lab coat then they don’t need to appeal to God in order to do their science effectively. Really, that is all that Laplace said to Napoleon but there is a world of significance in that because it seemed to imply that God was superfluous and that you don’t need him anymore. It did give rise to this sort of view of miracles as being impossible.

Benedict de Spinoza

Let’s now move to Benedict de Spinoza and specifically we want to say a word about a treatise that he wrote called the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, or Theologico-Political Treatise, published actually prior to Newton’s Principia in 1670. I think two of the arguments that Spinoza gives against the possibility and evidential value of miracles are particularly noteworthy.

His first argument is that miracles are impossible because they violate the unchangeable order of nature. He says nothing happens contrary to the eternal and unchangeable order of nature. What is his argument for this? Well, he says everything that God wills is characterized by eternal necessity and truth. The reason for that is that there is no difference between God’s understanding and his will. God’s understanding of something is the same as his willing something. Therefore, to say that God knows a thing is the same as to say that God wills that thing. So the same necessity that characterizes God’s knowledge also characterizes his will. It is evident here that Spinoza is presupposing some sort of doctrine of divine simplicity – that God cannot have knowledge and will that are distinct but that God is a simple being and all his attributes therefore coalesce and they are all the same. So his knowledge and his will have the same sort of eternal necessity and unchangeability.[4] Since God is the Creator and has created the laws of nature it follows, he says, that the laws of nature flow from the necessity and the perfection of God’s nature; they are reflections of his own nature. So if some event were to occur that was contrary to the laws of nature, it would be contrary to God’s own nature. Nature would be in conflict with God’s divine will and knowledge and that is obviously impossible. So to say that God does something that is contrary to the laws of nature is to say he does something contrary to his own nature which is absurd. Therefore, miracles are impossible. That is the basic objection that Spinoza offers. God cannot act contrary to his own nature, the laws of nature are necessary expressions of God’s nature, and therefore God cannot act contrary to the laws of nature. So miracles, which are assumed to be violations of nature’s laws, are impossible.

The second argument of Spinoza against miracles that I want to highlight is that miracles are insufficient to prove God’s existence. Even if miracles occurred, Spinoza says they are insufficient to prove God’s existence. He says that a proof of God’s existence must be absolutely certain. For Spinoza, a proof of God, in order to be a good proof (a good argument) has to have a sort of mathematical certainty to it. He says the way we prove and know that God exists is by the unchangeable order of nature. If you admit miracles, he says, then you break the laws of nature and thus you create doubts about the existence of God. So, he says, miracles would actually foster atheism! If you believe in miracles then you are actually going to foster atheism because you will undermine people’s confidence in the necessity of the laws of nature and thereby the evidence of God’s existence.

With respect to this point, he also develops two sub-points that I want to highlight because I think they will be worth discussing later. First, he says, even if you grant that a miracle has occurred, it wouldn’t prove God’s existence because a lesser being might have done it. Maybe an angel or a demon – you could have a demonic miracle. So miracles would not prove God’s existence. They would just prove a higher order of supernatural beings – realities like angels and demons, for example. The second sub-point is that a so-called miracle is really just a work of nature whose cause has not yet been discovered by man. He points out that our knowledge of nature’s laws is limited and if we confront an event that we can’t explain then we should not punt to God and say, “oh it’s a miracle! God did it!” Rather, it would simply be that we are ignorant of the natural causes of that event. Our knowledge of nature’s laws is limited and therefore having some event that we can’t explain naturally doesn’t imply that God is the cause of this event as a miracle.

Those are Spinoza’s two basic objections to miracles.


Question: To me, if you define nature to be all that there is, that would include knowledge of God himself so everything he said is correct. But he defined nature to be just materialistic – a subset of the totality including God and all humanity – then you have problems.

Answer: Yeah, this is an interesting point. Because Spinoza was actually a pantheist – he didn’t think that God is distinct from the world. He thought that God was the world. But that doesn’t emerge as early as the Tractatus. That comes in a later work that Spinoza wrote called Ethics.[5] In Ethics, he does take a pantheistic view.[6] But the Tractatus is a deist work. It is a deistic perspective that assumes that God is distinct from and transcends the world. So when he talks about the laws of nature, he is not including God in the word nature as he does in his Ethics later on. In the Tractatus, you have a deist conception where nature would be the physical space-time universe which is distinct from God and created by God but, as we saw, he would think that nature’s laws flow with necessity out of the divine nature. Therefore, they are as necessary as God’s own nature so God couldn’t act contrary to the laws of nature – that would be to violate his own nature, he thought.

Question: Was Spinoza’s transition from deism to pantheism gradual? How did it come about because that is a pretty big leap?

Answer: I don’t know his personal biography well enough to know whether or not this was an evolution in his thought or whether he merely adopted the pose of a deist in the Tractatus. You have got to understand that at that time there wasn’t a freedom of thought and freedom of religion in European society. You endangered yourself by taking these sorts of heretical viewpoints. This was dangerous. And it was because he lived in Holland, which was very liberal and open, that Spinoza could write and publish as he did. But it may be that the Tractatus simply reflects a deist pose or viewpoint. So when I say it is a deist work, what I mean is that that is the stance that is taken in the work. Whether Spinoza was concealing his true opinions or whether he developed them and evolved I couldn’t say.

Question: Do you know if Spinoza spoke about the providentia ordinaria at all? Because to me that argues against his argument in that miracles cannot exist within the laws of nature.

Answer: Well, I take it that he thinks that God’s ordinary providence does govern the world but that that is in accordance with the laws of nature. God can be conceived here as the one who creates the world, conserves the world in being and regulates it by its immutable and eternal laws. But what it excludes, to use your phraseology, would be providentia extraordinaria, that is to say these interventions by God into the world system. So, this is an affirmation of ordinary providence but it is a denial of any kind of extraordinary or special providence of God in the world.

David Hume

Let’s move on to David Hume, the 18th century Scottish skeptic. Spinoza argued against the possibility of miracles but what Hume attacked was the identification of a miracle. Hume doesn’t argue that miracles are impossible but what he argues is that we would never be rationally justified in believing that some event is a miracle. Miracles cannot be identified. This is the argument presented in his famous essay Of Miracles which was published in 1738. In this work, he presents a sort of two-pronged attack upon the identification of a miracle in the form of what I call an “even if . . . but in fact” argument. What do I mean by that? Well, in the first part of the argument, he argues under certain concessions. He is going to make certain concessions even if a miracle were provable. But then in fact he is going to get rid of those concessions and argue what he really thinks is the case.[7] We can differentiate these two halves of the argument by referring to the first part as his in principle argument and the second part is his in fact argument. So “even if – but in fact” – he’ll give an in principle argument against miracles and then an in fact argument against miracles.

Let’s talk about his in principle argument about why it is, in principle, impossible to identify some event as a miracle. Hume begins by pointing out that a wise man apportions his belief to the evidence. If the evidence makes a conclusion virtually certain then we may speak of a proof in that case. And the wise man will give whole-hearted assent to that conclusion. But if the evidence only makes a conclusion more probable than not then we do not speak of a proof, we speak merely of a probability and the wise man will grant to the conclusion a degree of belief that is proportional to the probability. If the probability is very, very high then the wise man will give pretty substantial, pretty solid, belief to that conclusion. But if the evidence just barely makes it more probable than not – say 51% to 49% – then the wise man will not give such hardy assent to that conclusion but will give a very reserved and provisional sort of assent to that conclusion. Hume argues even if (this is the first part of the argument) we concede that the evidence for a miracle amounts to a full proof, it is still, in principle, impossible to identify that event as a miracle.

So even if we admit that some miracle has evidence behind it that is so strong that it is a full proof that it has occurred, still the wise man will not believe in that miracle. Why not? Because, Hume says, standing opposed to this proof is an equally full proof for the unchangeable laws of nature which are violated by the miracle in question. So you have proof balanced against proof and as a result you are just left with agnosticism. Hume seems to imagine, as it were, a scale on which the evidence for and against a miracle is being weighed. On one side of the scale, he places the evidence in favor of a particular miracle. He is going to concede, for the sake of argument, that the evidence for that miracle is so strong that we may call it a full proof. That miracle has evidence that proves that that miracle occurred. The problem is on the other side of the scale is all the evidence of all the people of all the ages for the regularity of the laws of nature. That is also a full proof. That balances out the proof that a miracle has occurred. So he writes,

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience as can be imagined.[8]

So proof stands against proof and the scales are evenly balanced. Since the evidence doesn’t incline either way, the wise man cannot believe in a miracle; he must withhold his assent and remain in agnosticism about any supposed miracle.

In fact, Hume goes on to say, to prove that a miracle has occurred you would have to show that it would be an even greater miracle for the testimony in favor of it to be false. Otherwise, you would believe that the testimony in favor of the miracle is simply false – it would have to be a greater miracle that that evidence is false then that the miracle took place. So, for example, he takes the Resurrection as an illustration. He asks, which would be a greater miracle: that a man should rise from the dead or that the witnesses should be deceived or themselves trying to deceive?[9] He would say a resurrection is obviously a greater miracle and therefore you ought to believe that the witnesses to the miracle are either deceivers or deceived. He gives no doubt about which way he would believe. He gives the example that if all historians agreed that on January 1, 1600, Queen Elizabeth publically died and was buried and her successor installed on the throne but that a month later she reappeared, resumed the throne and ruled England for three more years, Hume said he wouldn’t have “the least inclination to believe so miraculous event.”[10] He said he would accept the most extraordinary hypothesis for her pretended death and burial rather than admit such a striking violation of the laws of nature. So even if the evidence for a miracle constitutes a full proof, he says the wise man will not believe in miracles; he will suspend judgment. That is his in principal argument.

What about his in fact argument that he goes on to present? Well, Hume says, in fact the evidence for miracles doesn’t amount to a full proof. In fact, he says, the evidence is so poor it doesn’t even amount to a probability and therefore the decisive weight lies on the side of the scale supporting the evidence for the laws of nature. That is a weight so heavy that no evidence for a miracle could ever hope to counterbalance the evidence for the regularity of nature’s laws. He gives four reasons as to why the evidence for miracles is so negligible. Let me just list these briefly. First, he says, no miracle in history is attested by a sufficient number of educated and honest men who are of such social standing that they would have a great deal to lose by lying. So he is still thinking of testimony of miracles in terms of conspiracy and deceit. Secondly, he says people crave the miraculous and they will believe absurd stories as the abundance of false miracle tales proves. Thirdly, miracles occur only among barbarous peoples. That is a good Enlightenment Englishman speaking here. Only among barbarous people do miracles occur. Finally, fourth, miracles occur in all religions; all religions have their miracle claims and therefore they cancel each other out because they support contradictory doctrines.

So, Hume concludes that miracles can never be the foundation of any system of religion. I indicated that very often these skeptics would posture as believers in order not to incur persecution. Well, Hume does this. He says, “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason.” All the while he is laughing up his sleeve while undermining the rationality of faith. He says,

. . . the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.[11]

In other words, Hume is saying miracles still happen today because it is a miracle that anybody could be stupid enough to believe in Christianity! So, that is Hume’s argument against miracles which has been terribly influential, even right down to our day. As I said, David Friedrich Strauss was able to say he had studied philosophy, he had read David Hume, and that is how he knew that miracles were impossible and unidentifiable.

So, while I am sorry to end on this note, nevertheless we have laid out the case and the challenge for us. Next time we will begin to examine critically these objections to see whether or not they really do hold water.[12]

[1] 5:07

[2] Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques, xviii.

[3] 9:58

[4] 15:00

[5] Spinoza’s Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order was published posthumously in 1677.

[6] 20:04

[7] 24:56

[8] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “Of Miracles”, Part I

[9] 30:05

[10] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “Of Miracles”, Part II

[11] Ibid.

[12] Total Running Time: 35:01 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)