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In this paper, I draw out a tension between miracles, prophecy, and Spinoza's assertions about Moses in the Theological-Political Treatise (TTP). The three seem to constitute an inconsistent triad. Spinoza's account of miracles requires a naturalistic interpretation of all events. This categorical claim must therefore apply to prophecy; specifically, Moses' hearing God's voice in a manner which does not seem to invoke the imagination or natural phenomena. Thus, Spinoza seemingly cannot maintain both Moses' exalted status and his account of miracles. I consider some possible solutions, but find that they are either untrue to Spinoza's position, or would undercut his categorical argument against miracles. I therefore conclude that Spinoza leaves an unresolved tension in the TTP.
In his Theological-Political Treatise (TTP), Benedict/Baruch Spinoza, as part of his argument in favor of religious tolerance and democracy, called for a reduction of the domain of religion to that of mere moral truths. In order to accomplish this, Spinoza needed to strip religion of much of its metaphysical baggage. To this end, he proffered a categorical argument against the possibility of any miraculous occurrence as traditionally understood. This argument, outlined in Section I below, requires a naturalistic interpretation of all miraculous phenomena, implying the conclusion that all those who claim to have witnessed the miraculous are wrong. They must therefore be ignorant, lying, or delusional.
Such a position, of course, has unpleasant consequences to the traditional theist, but on the surface Spinoza seems perfectly willing to accept them. Specifically, his argument against miracles entails a naturalistic reading of the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. For the most part, Spinoza seems to endorse such a reading of Scripture in the TTP. However, in this paper, I will argue that this requirement for a categorical, naturalistic reading of the Scriptures creates a tension within the TTP.1 As I will outline in Section II, Spinoza's argument requires a naturalistic interpretation of prophecy, but he doesn't seem entirely committed to such a position, especially given the significance he wishes to ascribe to the giving of the Law to Moses. Having drawn out this tension in Section III, I will then discuss some possible solutions to the problem. I ultimately find that none seem adequate in allowing Spinoza to maintain the Jewish tenet that Moses was the only prophet to actually hear the ‘voice of God’ while still preserving his argument against miracles. The conclusion I defend is that, for Spinoza, the tension in the TTP between his account of miracles, prophecy, and Moses remains unresolved.
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Spinoza's complete account of miracles as a thread in his philosophical corpus goes beyond the scope of this discussion. Therefore this section will deal primarily with Spinoza's account of miracles as it is presented in the TTP, with his other works being used only in a supplementary capacity. Having thus situated ourselves, let us take up Spinoza's argument against miracles in Chapter Six of the TTP.2
To begin his argument, it is requisite for Spinoza to clarify the subject of his discourse. We first get a bifurcation between two different conceptions of ‘miracle’, the vulgar, common notion and the notion that he wishes to argue in favor of, which I will call ‘Spinozistic miracles’. The vulgar, who ‘prefer to remain in ignorance of natural causes’ (TTP 71) endorse a position similar to Hume's, in that a miracle would be anything contrary to the universal laws of Nature.3 Thus we may say that the vulgar hold a metaphysical conception of the miraculous, whereas Spinoza wishes to move this to a mere epistemic/doxastic assertion, i.e., ‘… that the word miracle can be understood only with respect to men's beliefs, and means simply an event whose natural cause we … cannot explain by comparison with any other normal event.’(TTP 73) By invoking the word ‘miracle’, Spinoza holds that we are merely describing a phenomenon, ‘… whose cause cannot be explained on scientific principles known to us by the natural light of reason.’(TTP 73)4 Spinoza would therefore have a miracle defined negatively as an event which goes beyond current human comprehension,5 specifically, as that which goes beyond the current explanatory power of science. In this way, Spinoza endorses a naturalistic account of miracles.6 Now we must inquire as to how he argued for such a strong conclusion.
Regardless of whether Spinoza was the first to argue against the occurrence of miracles traditionally understood,7 he was certainly the first to argue categorically against their possibility. Instead of arguing for a naturalistic explanation against the miraculous occurrence of individual phenomena, Spinoza argues for such an interpretation against the possibility of any miracle. He accomplishes this by first invoking a previously established principle that Nature and God are not distinct entities. Indeed the central assumption made by those that endorse the common notion of a miracle is that the vulgar assume that God and Nature are discrete powers. (TTP 71) Given that this is not the case (and Spinoza argues for their identity in both Chapter Four of the TTP and Ip14–16 of the Ethics), it follows that what is commanded by Nature is actually a form of divine decree. The vulgar conception of a miracle represents an occurrence of a violation of such a law. A miraculous phenomenon would then entail God's contradicting his own decrees,8 which would be absurd.9 Given the natural order of the world, we must therefore conclude that the vulgar notion of miracles cannot be instantiated. As Raymond Martin rightly pointed out, ‘[Spinoza] argued that miracles cannot occur not because there is no God, but because there is one.’10
Spinoza's account in the TTP has a further important consequence, also argued for in Chapter Six, that miracles, in either sense of the word, ‘… cannot provide us with any understanding either of God's essence or his existence or his providence, and that on the contrary, these are far better apprehended from the fixed and immutable order of Nature.’ (TTP 74) Spinoza offers the following argument as a demonstration of this: God's existence is not self-evident, as it is possible not to have a clear and distinct idea of God.11 It must therefore be inferred from axiomatic truths which are self-evident. Thus, such axiomatic truths are epistemically prior to the existence of God. (Parkinson 153) If we allow these axioms (which are given to us through Nature) to be doubted due to Godly interference, we undercut the very way by which we may come to know God. Since, epistemically, the laws of Nature trump knowledge of the existence of God, ‘It is therefore far from being the case that miracles … prove for us God's existence; on the contrary, they cast doubt on it. …’ (TTP 74)12
We see from this argument that Spinoza's account of miracles has an interesting consequence in that, were an actual miracle (in the vulgar sense) to occur, it would weigh against the existence of God, as outlined by Spinoza.13 Such an occurrence would imply that there are no ‘necessary and eternal’ laws of Nature and therefore detract from the possibility of an immutable designing mind. Spinoza's ultimate conclusion about what we can know from the common notion of miracles is that, ‘… it is only those works of Nature which we clearly and distinctly understand that afford us a higher knowledge of God. …’ (TTP 75)
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As we have seen, Spinoza's argument for the impossibility of miracles necessitates his categorical denial of the veracity of any professed observation of a miracle. This leaves him in a peculiar position if he wants to place value upon the words of someone who has alleged to have witnessed one. It is very clear for Spinoza that the person in question did not actually witness a miracle in the vulgar sense; i.e. she did not witness a violation of a law of Nature. Thus, either the event was a Spinozistic miracle or there simply was no such event.
When someone claims to have seen a miracle, there seem to be only three possibilities given the Spinozistic framework: it could have been a Spinozistic miracle; the event simply a phenomenon inexplicable at present with the witness ignorant of the natural causes involved.14 If this is not the case, then we must concede that there was no such event and that the claimant is either delusional, or she is lying.15 But dismissing those who profess to have witnessed miracles as either ignorant, delusional, or liars would not seem palatable to someone who wishes to put any weight whatsoever onto the teachings of Scripture. But at least in the TTP, Spinoza is such a person. Although Spinoza assigns to Scripture a much more limited role than most, as, ‘… Scripture teaches only piety, not philosophy …’ (TTP 165), he nevertheless does assign value to the writings of Holy Scripture.16 Therefore, in denying miracles and endorsing a naturalistic reading of Scripture, Spinoza is forced to accept that either the writers of the Scriptures or the figures involved in the Scriptural stories (or both) were ignorant, delusional, or lying.
Superficially, this seems to be a consequence that Spinoza is perfectly willing to accept. He describes and endorses a method by which we might go about actuating a naturalized interpretation of the Scriptures. Steven Smith makes explicit the implications of Spinoza's position on miracles as follows:
First, it implies that we should attempt to explain the content of Scripture by means of strictly natural causes ….Second, Spinoza's method of reading implies not merely that Scripture is a natural phenomenon controlled by natural laws but that it is a purely historical document whose meaning needs to be uncovered ….17
Spinoza's position requires that we strip supernatural content from Scripture's stories and events.
Given the account outlined above, Spinoza has to explain both the content and the transcription of these miraculous aspects of Scripture in a naturalistic way. In other words, he must explain them in terms of ignorance, lying, or delusion. For the most part, he endorses ignorance and lying, which lead to two distinct explanations: Either the witness testified to a miracle because she was ignorant of the scientific explanation18 or the miracle was intentionally fabricated. In the case of the latter, it might have been intended as a parable rather than as a historical account or it might simply have been done for pragmatic reasons.
Spinoza seems to prefer the former in the TTP. He tends to explain the miracles found in the narratives as natural phenomena that were simply inexplicable during the time of their occurrence. For instance, he states,
As to the many passages in Scripture to the effect that God wrought wonders … it does not follow therefrom that miracles really conveyed this; it only follows that the beliefs of the Jews were such that they could be readily convinced by these miracles. (TTP 77)
From there, Spinoza proceeds to list many examples meant to demonstrate how natural causes could have accounted for Scriptural miracles such as the events described in Exodus leading up to the release of the Jews from Egypt, the flood in Genesis, etc.19 Spinoza concludes that, ‘… although the circumstances attendant on miracles and the natural causes of miracles are not narrated always and in full, the miracles did not occur without them.’(TTP 79–80) Here he seems to indicate that any miraculous occurrences in the Scriptures not inserted via the method of fabrication (see below) should be considered as Spinozistic miracles. Such events seem miraculous to us only because a detailed account of the natural causes has been omitted.
Having detailed his primary account of naturalistic explanations for the Scriptures, Spinoza offers the following axiom: ‘If anything be found in Scripture which can be conclusively proved to contravene the laws of Nature … we have to believe that this was inserted … by sacrilegious men.’(TTP 80) Here Spinoza seems to grant primacy to Spinozistic miracles over lying; a move seemingly based solely on the Principle of Charity.20 The rule appears to be that we understand the occurrences of the Scriptures via natural causes as far as we can. Then, only in the event that such an account is impossible do we naturalize it by assuming that the author imbedded an unsubstantiated account into the text. This axiom provides us with a two-step method through which we may naturalize all Scriptural miracles, as they all should be treated as either cases of ignorance or fabrication. Spinoza concludes: ‘… no one, by misinterpreting some miracle, should heedlessly come to think that he has found something in Scripture contrary to the light of Nature.’ (TTP 80–81)
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As presented, there are some objections to Spinoza's system, but it appears coherent. One possible worry that may be raised, however, is that of internal inconsistency when taking into account Spinoza's treatment of certain individuals in the TTP, particularly the figures of Moses and Jesus.21 Spinoza considered Moses to be a prophet who had witnessed (and potentially recorded) a number of miracles and, more importantly for this discourse, heard the voice of God. However, while the miracles purportedly witnessed or performed by Moses might be naturalized via the method outlined above, this seems much more difficult for Spinoza's views of the giving of the Law (i.e. when Moses was supposed to have actually heard the voice of God).
Before elaborating this worry in more detail, it is important to briefly outline the Spinozistic view on prophecy. Unsurprisingly, Spinoza takes a naturalistic interpretation of prophecy or revelation as well. He defines it as, ‘… sure knowledge of some matter revealed by God to man.’ (TTP 9) However, ‘… natural knowledge can be called prophecy, for the knowledge that we acquire by the natural light of reason depends solely on knowledge of God and of his eternal decrees.’ (TTP 9) We should therefore call all cases of natural knowledge prophetic. It follows that not all cases of ‘God telling someone’ something in the Scriptures are genuine cases of ‘supernatural knowledge’. Genuine cases only occur when context makes it explicit. (TTP 10)
Spinoza points out that such revelatory communication can come via the media of symbols and omens, visions and images, dreams, or an actual voice sent by God.22 In all but possibly the last case, the imagination of the prophet plays a key role in interpretation, extrapolation, etc. ‘… God's revelations were received only with the aid of the imaginative faculty ….’ (TTP 14) Spinoza goes so far as to claim that the gift of prophecy depends solely on the imagination.23 This partially motivates his claim that prophetic knowledge, ‘… is completely distinct from natural knowledge ….’ (TTP 6)
It therefore seems that Spinoza's account of prophecy would have little difficulty in being construed in the naturalistic way that his account of miracles would require. God (or Nature) leaves certain signs or images, much like Heraclitus' oracle who ‘neither indicates clearly nor conceals but gives a sign.’24 Then the prophet, as a person born with a superior imagination, uses his faculty to interpret them in order to derive moral truths which are ultimately, ‘… only very simple doctrines easily comprehensible by all ….’ (TTP 6) In this scenario, there seems to be no strong impetus to invoke the miraculous. Such signs as this process requires could clearly come about via the normal progression of the universe, as dictated by the laws of Nature. It only takes a person of superior imagination to come along and interpret the omens properly. While a superior imagination of the magnitude Spinoza's system demands may certainly be rare, there seems to be no more reason to call it supernatural than to call the intellect of a person born with an intelligence quotient of over two-hundred miraculous. Thus, in these largely interpretive and imaginative cases of supernatural knowledge, there seems to be no tension with Spinoza's account of miracles. By adopting his position on prophecy, we do not commit ourselves to claiming that God had any post-creation activity or causal efficacy, as all that prophecy and revelation require clearly could have come about merely by the universe running about its normal course.
However, this issue quickly becomes clouded when we consider the Spinozistic conception of unique prophets such as Moses and Jesus. Spinoza claims that Jesus spoke to God ‘mind to mind’ and that Moses spoke to him ‘face to face’.25 Though Spinoza later implies that Moses still used his imaginative faculties, such uses by Moses seem limited to the interpretation of the laws in order to provide a useful set of guidelines for the state of Israel, not in the receiving of the Law itself. Spinoza claims that, when talking to Moses, ‘… God employed a real voice …’ (TTP 11, emphasis mine) as opposed to the voice of God heard by Samuel, which Spinoza maintained was only an imaginary version of the voice of God. We see that Spinoza seems committed to Moses having heard the voice of God, not in a dream or a sign, etc., but in a real and direct manner, and it is here that we begin to see a tension with Spinoza's previously described account of miracles. With Moses, we have an instance of God taking direct action; that is, being the immediate cause of an event, in this case, the words heard by Moses. Let us now consider this tension to determine how problematic it is for Spinoza's argument and whether there is an obvious way by which the worry may be discharged.
First, we will notice that there is no explicit contradiction in Spinoza's account. This is because of the definition of a vulgar miracle Spinoza gives as something that occurs contrary to the laws of Nature. Hence, God's mere entry into the causal chain as an immediate cause rather than a mediate cause does not necessarily constitute such a violation. However, this attempted avoidance of the tension has several drawbacks. The first is that, intuitively, this solution is likely not a road on which Spinoza would be willing to travel. It seems that, in cases of similar phenomena unrelated to Moses, Spinoza would not wish to make this maneuver in allowing God's interference to count as non-miraculous. Indeed, to allow this as a solution would be to undercut Spinoza's categorical denial of miracles; as any genuine miracle could be rendered mundane in a similar manner.
Beyond the supernatural simpliciter, there are additional ways with which God as an immediate cause of an event clashes with Spinozism. One possible Spinozistic tenet for why such occurrences lead to unpleasantness is that God's decrees are, for Spinoza, eternal. Spinoza does not want to allow for a deity who changes his mind or only decrees certain things at certain times. It therefore does not seem fitting that God would, at any one point in time, begin to talk with a certain individual in a certain place unless it was the instantiation of a plan (but I will argue that even this caveat would be unsavory). While it is true that the other prophets interpreting signs does not clash with this conception, God moving humanity forward in such a drastic way certainly seems to. Spinoza makes this problem even more explicit when he claims that God is never the transitive cause of an event but always remains the immanent cause of all things. (Ethics, Ip18) Thus God ought not be the causa transiens of the sound waves reaching Moses' ear.26
Further, even if we allow God to serve as a transitive cause in this strange instance, it is far from clear that such an occurrence would not violate the laws of Nature and still contradict Spinoza's account of miracles. We would have to generously massage the laws of acoustics in order to somehow defend the claim that an immaterial being could have naturally brought about so many articulate syllables.27 Such a freak occurrence is certainly not physically impossible. We could image wind blowing through caves, trees, etc., until they sounded like genuine speech to a degree that Moses did not know the difference between it and a divine voice. But the vast improbability of such an occurrence would seem to undercut much of what Spinoza had said before in the TTP, as he did not seem to allow such extreme explanations in naturalizing other professed miracles, instead preferring the explanation of fabrication.
A significantly more damaging problem results from Spinoza telling such a naturalistic story, however. Such a bizarre phenomenon, if brought about by a natural progression, could not possibly match Spinoza's conception of the ‘voice of God’ which he describes as ‘actual words with a real voice’. (TTP 13) Instead, the event would have to be construed as merely a more complex version of a normal sign that prophets interpret on a regular basis. Yet if this is the case, it would strip Moses of the special status among prophets that Spinoza tries so desperately to maintain.28
Nor can Spinoza take a pseudo-Thomistic solution and say that God is somehow fulfilling his plan and that is why it does not violate a law of Nature and does not attain the status of a genuine miracle in the vulgar sense.29 If it is allowed that God intervenes in this way and does not violate the laws of Nature when it is part of his foreseen and long-term plan, then this route of explanation would necessarily be open to all miracles. Thus Spinoza's previous categorical argument would simply cease to apply and there would be no justification whatsoever for Spinoza's denial of the occurrence of miracles. He therefore must reject Aquinas' approach if he wishes to maintain his categorical argument against the possibility of miracles.
Having considered and rejected what I take to be the most obvious attempted solutions to the problem, there seems to be no clear, simple way for Spinoza to maintain his position on miracles and prophecy while holding Moses and Jesus as exceptions to the standard prophetic method. The three seem to constitute an inconsistent triad. Spinoza's account of miracles requires a naturalistic interpretation of all events. By subsumption this applies to prophecy; specifically, it applies to Moses' hearing God's voice in a manner that does not invoke the imagination. Therefore, given Spinoza's position on miracles, he cannot simply allow God to talk to Moses in a supernatural manner, turning God into a transitive cause. But then the only method by which Moses could hear the voice of God within the Spinozistic framework would be via some improbable conglomeration of natural phenomena. If this is the case, Spinoza is forced to accept one of two options. He must either sacrifice the key differentia that separates Moses from the rest of the prophets (as the deliverance of the Law becomes a complex sign), or he must accept a Thomistic interpretation of the event and therefore abandon his categorical argument against the possibility of miracles altogether. There seems to be no clear apparatus available to Spinoza in the TTP that would allow him to maintain all three positions simultaneously and unproblematically. Barring further possibilities, Spinoza is forced to make some substantive sacrifices if he wishes to stand by these notions as he outlined them in the TTP.30