Skepticism about miracles arose during the Enlightenment Age, or the Age of Reason, which dawned in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is during this era miracles naturally came to be unreasonable. The attack upon miracles was lead by the deists. Deists are those who believe in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, hence rejecting the supernatural revelation. Therefore they argued about the impossibility of miracles. The most influential opposing philosophers of this era were the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza and the Scottish skeptic David Hume. During this era, we know that Sir Isaac Newton’s physics was the backdrop for these philosophers. Newton’s worldview can be summarized with the finite laws of mechanics. The world was this great machine that God created to be self-autonomous. It became persuasive because the mechanistic paradigm is compelling by its simplicity, coherence and apparent completeness. In 1687, Newton published his book the Principia Mathematica, which laid the foundations for physics for the next three hundred years. Theologians followed Newton’s ideology by taking on a deterministic theological path, the world became this deterministic machine operating according to Newton’s laws of motion. 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, it’s springs and its weights.”
Let’s get to the clever deception that the devil introduced into the church. Isn’t it funny that it’s always done through trusted people and sources? These philosophers brought great value to humanity and by no means were considered wolves in the society of their time. They took significant risks in publishing their work, sometimes even afraid for their own life. They did their best to perceive God and reality in the best light possible. But even the smartest and the brightest of us can be led astray. Let us look at Spinoza’s argument first, followed by Hume’s later. In 1670 Spinoza’s work, Theologico-Political Treatise was anonymously published by Jan Rieuwertsz in Amsterdam and became one of the most controversial texts of the early modern period. Spinoza wanted to supersede religion by arguing that the goal of theology is salvation while philosophy aims at understanding the rational truth. He argued that scripture does not teach philosophy and thus cannot be made to conform with it or else we have to distort scripture. Hence he states the following on the backdrop of Isaac Newton’s physics “miracles are impossible because they violate the unchangeable order of nature.” Since God created laws of nature and laws of nature are the reflection of his own nature, it follows, that they are necessarily perfect just like God is necessarily perfect. This created a reverberation effect in the church, and theologians embraced this idea.
Gospel stories started to take on a new interpretation. Let’s look at the story from the gospel about the feeding of the four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Jesus could not do such a miracle because it was contrary to His own nature. A common literal interpretation became a delusion in light of naturalism hence a different interpretation had to be formulated. One of these interpretation states that most people would not go out into the wilderness without food and this story is really about greed and that Jesus was teaching about sharing and caring for others. Or another interpretation states that Disciples had a secret stash of bread to feed all those people. This falls right in line with how I started to think in my early life.
His second argument is that “miracles are insufficient to prove God’s existence.” For Spinoza, it follows the first argument, in order to have a “good proof” (a good argument) one would have to have a mathematical certainty to it, which means that it would be provable through physical laws. And since miracles are contrary to physical laws of nature the argument for the proof of God is non-existent. God does not exist if miracles are true. If we doubt God’s existence, then we question the most fundamental truth of our faith. The existence of God is a core belief of Christianity. If believing miracles is correlated to not believe in the core claim of Christianity, which is the existence of God, then it is clear that the subject of miracles is of no importance. As years and decades would go by, and influence took hold of church and laity, I can see the fear in peoples eyes being labeled as unreasonable delusional fools. No one wants to be an outcast. It is a no-brainer, one would rather believe in the existence of God rather than in miracles. Many would not even want to be associated with the idea of miracles and just stay clear of that subject altogether. Cessationism may not completely fall in line with Spinoza philosophy, but it does not have to. The big question people are trying to answer is where is the supernatural or why did the Huguenots prophesy falsely if they were from God? And at the same time how does this fit with recently discovered physical laws by Isaac Newton?
Let us now look at another very influential Christian philosopher David Hume and his arguments. Hume didn’t argue that miracles are impossible. He argued that we would never be rationally justified in believing a miraculous event. Basically, he claimed that our feelings and experience are the culprits in this misunderstanding. This argument is presented in his essay “Of Miracles” which was published in 1738. The essay consists of two parts, which are the two arguments. Let’s look at the first part.
Let’s say a dead man was revived back to life and a witness gives you his testimony about this event. There are a few thought that would go through your mind. Is this person trying to deceive you, second, has he been deceived or thirdly, this miracle did indeed happen. Since you’re not a witness of the miraculous event, you can only appeal to the evidence that is available to you. Hume argues that we ought to give the preference to evidence that is grounded in the greatest number of past observations or experiences. It follows that miraculous events are equated to probabilities of natural order in our mind. What Hume gives us here is a statistical model of how to determine the truth. This is his principle argument. The degree of your belief should be proportional to the probability of evidence. If the probability is very, very high, then you should believe in it very strongly. But if the evidence just barely makes it more probable, let’s say 51% to 49% – then you should be very skeptical or very reserved believing such a testimony. Since we do not hear of people being revived from the dead, even if prayed for by the holiest of people, the probability of such an act should form a very skeptical belief in your mind. There is no justification for believing such an event. If you believe in it, then it’s not based on reason but on something else such as emotions or superstitious delusion.
In the second part of his essay he continues. He goes into how we employ passion and heated imagination to disturb our reason and that it is addressing itself entirely to the fancy of the affections, which captivates our willing hearts, and subdues our understanding. There are faculties in our mind that override the need for a reasonable response. This is true, we employ such tactics all the time, even for noble causes. I am guessing he is trying to use reason to explain to us why we believe in supernatural. Convincing or not, he gets to the point and argues that there is no amount of evidence that is good enough to ever create a reasonable argument. He states that there will always be a type of counter-evidence that shows otherwise. With a backdrop of Isaac Newton’s physics, he argues there is this equally full proof, which is the unchangeable laws of nature, which are violated by the miracle in question. Using his statistical model this only puts us on the line of 50/50 argument, this is in the case of us having complete proof of a miraculous event. With no surprise, we are left here with skepticism at best. This is what happened to me. I became a skeptic. According to Hume, the rest is based on our emotions and passion-driven motives. That’s sho exactly how I started to think as well. Hume’s last remarks are surprising because that’s not what I did. I became a naturalist, but he still held on to his faith even if it was unreasonable. He states that reason is insufficient to convince us of Christian faith, basically, our holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason. I can see the fear and danger of this position. One is driven by mere emotion to want a miracle to happen. But If you really want to stand on the side of truth, you would follow the path I took in forming my beliefs.
Let’s go back to my college years. I did not know where most of the traditions came from and I did not care to check the sources. Little did I know that Spinoza’s and Hume’s arguments were refuted a long time ago but the influence of it reached even me at the end of the 20th century. It has reached all of us in many different forms, from rejecting all miraculous altogether, to creating a God into this impersonal force or creating a view such as Cessationism. We are still under the influence of these great men today who made big mistakes. Now let me take some time and breakdown each claim and show you where they fall short.