Miracles: A Comparison between George Berkeley and Baruch Spinoza

 

It has long been the position of the Abrahamic faith, and especially Catholicism, that the history of man has seen numerous miracles—divine intervention in the physical world.[1] George Berkeley positions himself in agreement with the claim that God has in fact intervened in ordinary physical series of things, whereas Spinoza rejects this notion, appealing to God’s substantive relationship to Nature. Comparatively, not only does Berkeley provide a strong objection to his own position, but Spinoza’s stance on miracles remains far less susceptible to attack and provides meaningful benefits.

First, Berkeley argues in Part 1 of the Principles of Human Knowledge that, on the whole, the “Laws of Nature” are “certain general laws that run through the whole chain of natural effects”.[2] These Laws of Nature are not necessary for any specific effect to be produced, but they are necessary in order to present a “constant, regular way” for our world to appear.2 In other words, the universe has a uniformity, constructed by God. Berkeley importantly notes that the actions of God, or creations of God, come prior to the actions and motions we perceive in the world: “…it is necessary that those actions of the watchmaker [(God)], whereby he makes the movements and rightly adjusts them, precede the production of the aforesaid motions…”.2 Thus, if there need be a case in which God must “display his overruling power in producing some appearance out of the ordinary series of things,” he can, by his preceding of the Laws of Nature, and may, given some necessity of disrupting the regular way of things, do so.[3] Berkeley continues, pointing out that miracles must be “seldom,” so as to ensure “proper…surprise and awe [in] men,” lest they no longer produce that surprise, one of the qualities of a miracle.[4] Similarly, God chooses to traditionally convince us of his existence by appealing to our reasoning about the Laws of Nature, whereby we formulate explanations of various phenomena and learn of His attributes, rather than being astonished “into a belief of his being by anomalous and surprising events.”2,4 In sum, Berkeley believes that miracles are of God’s doing, but are infrequent so as to retain their significance and retain our reasoned approach to the world and God.

In contrast, Baruch Spinoza starkly adopts the position that there no miracles in the world. This first requires a quick summary of Spinoza’s conception of God and Nature. In the interest of space in this paper, I will omit some of the proof and jump ahead to the conclusion. Consider a “substance,” or “what is in itself and is conceived through itself”.[5] Per this definition, a substance cannot share an attribute (“what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence”) with another substance.[6] Since God possesses all possible attributes, Spinoza concludes through a series of propositions that God is infinite, exists necessarily, and is the sole substance of the universe.[7] In turn, Nature, and the Laws of Nature, inhere in God— “God, or Nature.”7 Recall the conception of miracles as divine intervention in the physical world. For this to happen would require that God intervenes with His own essence. Or, in other words, a miracle would entail God, or Nature, acting against itself.7 It simply cannot be the case that there could be a departure from the ordinary series of things. For Spinoza, “nothing ever happens that does not follow from [His] laws.”[8] Any attempt to appeal to miracles is simply ignorance of the necessity of the causal occurrences of Nature, and a regression towards superstition, “the bitter enemy of all true knowledge and true morality.”7,[9]

Overall, Berkeley’s view is far weaker. Early into his section on miracles, he provides a cogent challenge to his view that is only meant to be rhetorical:

“…and how comes it to pass, that whenever there is any fault in the going of a watch, there is some corresponding disorder to be found in the movements, which being mended by a skillful hand, all is right again? The like may be said of all the clockwork of Nature, great part whereof is so wonderfully fine and subtle…how upon our principles [can] any tolerable account be given?”[10]

Berkeley claims to provide a tolerable account, as explained in the summary in my second paragraph, but fails to address how serious of an affront this would be to God. God, being omniscient and omnipotent, ought to have already designed a perfect system of the Laws of Nature, one that Berkeley readily admits has “so much harmony and contrivance in [its] make, and [is] such plain indication of wisdom and beneficence in [the] Author.”[11] Yet there still remains, Berkeley insists, a case in which God suspends the Laws of Nature and imparts disharmony, so as to modify ordinary physical occurrences. If wisdom and beneficence follow from the harmony and contrivance of the Laws of Nature, would it not be the case that foolishness and maleficence follow from the incongruity and disorganization of miracles? Or, if not total opposites, at least something lesser than the seemingly perfect consequences of a knowable, consistent universe? This places Berkeley in a tricky—and nearly blasphemous—situation that he doesn’t do enough work to excuse himself from. He argues that miracles are occasionally necessary to convince men of the Divine Being, but does nothing of the sort to demonstrate how often, under what conditions, or why this would be necessary. Surely Berkeley would agree that man has been granted free will, and if they choose not to acknowledge the greatness that is God, it is their choice, and there needn’t be a change in the general rules of Nature to convince them. Thus, he has presented a serious offense to the nature of God, and done very little provide justification for it.

On the other hand, Spinoza’s understanding of miracles is logical, consistent with a proper conception of God, and fruitful for epistemological and scientific endeavors. As explained before, if God is to be conceived as an all-powerful and all-knowing being, one that embodies all that is Nature and the Laws of Nature, it would be an absurd claim to suggest that He could or would need to violate his own essence. If there are Laws of Nature, then, by the very meaning of a law, an absolute and unchanging system or rule, it must be necessary that these laws remain laws. Even if one doesn’t accept that Nature is to be understood as one and the same with God, but that they are distinct, a la the traditional western anthropomorphic conception of God, it would still hold true that His creation of the universe and its laws is not one that requires modification. A miracle is definitionally a modification to the physical series of events in Nature, and a clear attack on the sanctity of God’s universal design.

Spinoza’s position is also more reasonable for its pragmatic takeaway; it pushes us further away from superstitious and dogmatic understandings of the world, and closer to rational, scientific ones. Just as Berkeley admitted that God generally appeals to man’s reason, so too is applying Spinoza’s framework of understanding the Laws of Nature as a means of understanding God an appeal to Him. Simply witnessing an event that is not yet understood by us is not sufficient to label it as a miracle. Instead, properly attempting to understand an event’s cause and effect under the scientific framework of the Laws of Nature will in fact get us closer to knowing God’s essence. In a strange way, science becomes religion, and vice versa. Adopting Spinoza’s argument has the potential to allow for greater cooperation between theists and atheists, as both would be driven in the pursuit of science, albeit for different higher goods (the theist for glorification of God and the atheist for knowledge).

In conclusion, when comparing the two stances on intervention in ordinary physical occurrences, Spinoza comes out ahead. His position is more reasonable and pragmatic for how we interact with the world and others. Berkeley offers an unfinished, ill-conceived argument with a near heretical conclusion.

[1] http://catholicism.org/category/miracles-and-apparitions

[2] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, S62, Pg. 51

[3] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, S63, Pg. 51

[4] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, S63, Pg. 52

[5] Spinoza, Ethics, Pg. 1, D3

[6] Spinoza, Ethics, Pg. 1, D4

[7] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/ Section 2.1, God or Nature

[8] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chap. 6, G III.83/S 73

[9] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, section 1, chap. 2, sentence 6

[10] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, S60, pg. 50

[11] Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, S63, pg. 52

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