Miracles, God, and Natural Law
Theology, Science, and Pantheism in Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
I. That nature cannot be contravened, but that she preserves a fixed and immutable order, and at the same time I will explain what is meant by a miracle.…
Our first point is easily proved from what we showed in Chap. IV. about Divine law—namely, that all that God wishes or determines involves eternal necessity, and truth, for we demonstrated that God's understanding is identical with His will, and that it is the same thing to say that God wills a thing, as to say, that He understands it; hence, as it follows necessarily, from the Divine nature and perfection that God understands a thing as it is, it follows no less necessarily that He wills it as it is. Now, as nothing is necessarily true save only by, Divine decree, it is plain that the universal laws of nature are decrees of God following from the necessity and perfection of the Divine nature. Hence, any event happening in nature which contravened nature’s universal laws, would necessarily also contravene the Divine decree, nature, and understanding; or if anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature—an evident absurdity. One might easily show from the same premises that the power and efficiency, of nature are in themselves the Divine power and efficiency, and that the Divine power is the very essence of God, but this I gladly pass over for the present.
Nothing, then, comes to pass in nature (N.B. I do not mean here by “nature,” merely matter and its modifications, but infinite other things besides matter.) in contravention to her universal laws, nay, everything agrees with them and follows from them, for whatsoever comes to pass, comes to pass by the will and eternal decree of God; that is, as we have just pointed out, whatever comes to pass, comes to pass according to laws and rules which involve eternal necessity and truth; nature, therefore, always observes laws and rules which involve eternal necessity, and truth, although they may not all be known to us, and therefore she keeps a fixed and mutable order. Nor is there any sound reason for limiting the power and efficacy of nature, and asserting that her laws are fit for certain purposes, but not for all; for as the efficacy, and power of nature, are the very, efficacy and power of God, and as the laws and rules of nature are the decrees of God, it is in every way to be believed that the power of nature is infinite, and that her laws are broad enough to embrace everything conceived by, the Divine intellect; the only alternative is to assert that God has created nature so weak, and has ordained for her laws so barren, that He is repeatedly compelled to come afresh to her aid if He wishes that she should be preserved, and that things should happen as He desires: a conclusion, in My opinion, very far removed from reason. Further, as nothing happens in nature which does not follow from her laws, and as her laws embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect, and lastly, as nature preserves a fixed and immutable order; it most clearly follows that miracles are only intelligible as in relation to human opinions, and merely mean events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence, either by us, or at any rate, by the writer and narrator of the miracle.
—Benedictus de Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670
Of Spinoza’s four major claims in his sixth chapter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, “On Miracles,” the first is “that nature cannot be contravened, but that she preserves a fixed and immutable order.”. He shows this persuasively in a two-paragraph passage early in the chapter. These paragraphs, however, reveal far more about Spinoza’s thought than he claims they do. In addition to explaining the stability of natural law, Spinoza alludes to his pantheistic theology and mounts a powerful defense of the naturalistic methods of science.
Spinoza’s arguments are based heavily on those he has already made in his chapter “Of the Divine Law,” such as that “the will and understanding of God are in reality one and the same.” He accepts that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, but argues that omnipotence and omniscience are really two ways of perceiving one attribute. Because God knows all and controls all, he must will all that he understands; put another way, everything is the result of the will of God.
Furthermore, Spinoza asserted earlier that the will of God is “eternal and necessary truth,” entirely independent of time and space. The knowledge of God is an unchanging knowledge of Platonic ideal forms (Spinoza uses the triangle as an example), so God’s will is also constant and eternal. This much of Spinoza’s thought is clear before he addresses the subjects of nature and miracles.
Spinoza’s explanation of nature thus starts with the claim that “the universal laws of nature are decrees of God.” This is necessarily true because God must know how nature works, and thus must will it to work the way it does. Furthermore, since God’s will is constant the laws of nature must be too.
Spinoza is easily able to prove that miracles—if defined as actions of God that violate the laws of nature—are impossible, because they would involve God acting “against His own nature.” The argument behind this claim is simple: Nature’s constancy is a result of God’s constancy, so if God interrupted natural law, he would himself be acting inconsistently. This is “an evident absurdity,” because God’s very nature is unchanging.
This argument, advanced by Spinoza to support the claim that miracles are merely phenomena that observers don’t understand, is also a powerful theological defense of science. If nature is truly consistent, then experiments can be replicated, and theories based on observations from one time and place can be applied in other times and places as well. If, conversely, nature were inconsistent, it would be impossible to learn from it. This defense of science, interestingly, does not come entirely unheralded: Spinoza stated at the beginning of the chapter that one of the reasons “the masses” believe in miracles is “for the sake of opposing the students of science.” Spinoza himself was not sympathetic with this opposition to science, and his next paragraph reveals more of his thought on the subject.
Having shown that nature is in fact perfectly consistent, Spinoza moves on to demolish a common argument against this claim. This is the argument that nature’s “laws are fit for certain purposes, but not for all.” (This is today often called the “God of the gaps argument” because it claims that some phenomena, those not the result of natural law, are the result of qualitatively different acts of God, or miracles.) Here too Spinoza defends the methods of science. Were natural law not in fact the source of all phenomena in the world, the naturalistic explanations used by science would not be able to account for the supernatural phenomena that would also exist. Since, however, “the laws and rules of nature are the decrees of God,” nature has all of God’s power supporting it, and “the power of nature is infinite.” There is nothing that nature cannot do, and thus nothing that cannot be explained naturalistically.
It is when defending naturalistic science, then, that Spinoza’s unusual theology is most clear. The equations of God’s will with natural law and of God’s power with the power of nature are the bases for Spinoza’s pantheism. Spinoza concludes this passage by explaining that miracles are “events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence,” but he seems to have argued for another, parallel definition of miracles all along. This secondary definition is one that has now become cliche, the claim that everything is a creation of God and thus that everything is a miracle.
It is important to note, however, that while Spinoza claims that natural law is perfectly constant, he also claims that it does not seem perfectly constant. This is only because we do not fully understand nature. There is an implicit contrast between scientific law, which is our understanding of nature, and natural law, which is how nature really works.
It is also interesting that Spinoza’s pantheism results in nature having infinite power. This is not a necessary component of a philosophical basis for science, as science does not require that the power of natural law be infinite, but merely sufficient to account for observed phenomena. Spinoza’s omnipotent nature of course serves this role, but it’s pantheistic nature goes far beyond that required of it by science.
Spinoza has thus provided a number of powerful theological arguments for key aspects of the Enlightenment project. He has set science upon a stable ground, argued for a sociological understanding of miracles, and, in a sense, removed God from nature. He has done this in what is perhaps the most surprising way possible, though: by embracing the role of God in nature to an extreme. Pantheism is therefore the thinly veiled central idea in this passage, and it is essential to all of Spinoza’s claims about nature.
- Benedict de Spinoza, Works of Spinoza volume 1, translated by R.H.M. Elwes (1883).