What was Spinoza's take on miracles: what are they are why think they do occur? I'm asking because I want to find out and this could, conceivably, be the easiest way. I've read a chapter or two of something by him, and backed off because it seemed to work and didn't want to be brainwashed by 'God'. I was going to read about Hume's On Miracles but just got bogged down in something else.
See : Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (1670), Ch.6 : On miracles.
I will show:
(1) that nothing happens contrary to nature, but nature maintains an eternal, fixed and immutable order, and at the same time demonstrate what should be understood by the term ‘miracle’
(2) that from miracles we cannot know about either the essence or the existence or the providence of God, but rather that all three are much better grasped from the fixed and unchangeable order of nature.
(3) I will show from some examples in the Bible that by the decrees, volitions and providence of God, Scripture itself means nothing other than the order of nature which necessarily follows from his eternal law.
(4) Finally, I will discuss the method required for [correctly] interpreting the miracles narrated in the Bible and what we should particularly notice in such miracle narratives. These are the chief points in the argument of this chapter, and I think that they are also very relevant to the aim of the work as a whole.
According to Spinoza, miracles are useful in producing veneration and in consolidating and maintaining political power :
The common people therefore call unusual works of nature miracles or works of God and do not want to know the natural causes of things, partly from devotion and partly from zeal to oppose those who pursue natural philosophy. [...] They also wanted to show that the whole of nature was directed by the governance of the God whom they adored solely for their own bene¢t. People have always been so drawn to this idea that to this day they have not ceased to invent miracles, in order to foment the belief that they are dearer to God than others and are the ultimate reason for God’s creation and continual governance of all things.
Spinoza's position on miracles is captured in the following commentary offered by Warren Zev Harvey. I would not normally use an extended quotation but the issues are complex and can be compressed only up to a point. Maimonides* (1138-1204), as you probably know but I'll just add, was a Jewish philosopher and a very considerable influence on Jewish medieval philosophy and beyond.
DEUS SIVE NATURA
'God or Nature' is a phrase derivable from Ethica, IV Preface and Demonstration IV.4 (Deus, seu Naturam appellamus and Dei, sive Naturae [God, otherwise called Nature]. If you fear being 'brainwashed by 'God'', there's an easy precaution in the case of Spinoza. Whenever he writes 'God', except when quoting Scripture where he's stuck with the name, or when he uses the formula 'God or Nature', you can read 'Nature' instead of 'God'. There is a totality, an interconnected system, which we can refer to equally as God or Nature.
Spinoza begins his discussion "Of Miracles" with a typically Maimonidean* observation. Although the intelligent individual sees the presence of God in the fixed order of Nature, the multitude see God's presence in its supposed disruption or violation, especially when those imagined aberrations are to their benefit, and they call such allegedly supernatural phenomena "miracles." Maimonides had scoffed at the masses who believe that babies are supernaturally conceived by the work of a gigantic fiery angel who enters the mother's womb, while in fact the true "angels" responsible for birth are the nmatural biological forces.
Next Spinoza proposes a fascinating historical explanation for the origin of the belief in supernatural miracles. According to his conjecture, the belief in supernatural miracles was originally a polemical response to idolatry. The ancient Israelites saw that the pagans worshipped visible gods, such as the sun, the moon, the earth, or the air, and in order to prove that such gods were not truly powerful but dominated by the invisible God, they told stories about divine miracles interfering with their actions. In addition, notes Spinoza, these stories of supernatural miracles reinforced the fantasy of anthropocentrism.
Spinoza now announces that he intends to show four things: (I) nothing happens contrary to Nature, and the word "miracle" must be defined accordingly; (II) God is known not through miracles, but through the fixed order of Nature; (III) the will of God is nothing but the order of Nature; and (IV) biblical miracles should be interpreted in accordance with a particular method.
I. NOTHING IS CONTRARY TO NATURE
Since the laws of Nature are eternal divine decrees, Spinoza argues, their contravention would amount to the contravention of eternal divine decrees. As he puts it, it would amount to God's acting "against His own nature" and "nothing is more absurd." The word "miracle," according to Spinoza, designates a wondrous event that one is unable to explain by reason on the basis of the laws of Nature. Since all events, in theory, can be thus explained, a miracle is always relative to the opinions of the speaker or speakers (ad hominum opiniones). Thus, the prolongation of daylight at Gibeon was a miracle in the eyes of Joshua and the Israelites, but, had Spinoza been there, he would not have considered it as such.
II. GOD IS NOT KNOWN BY MIRACLES
It is clear, argues Spinoza, that God cannot be known through miracles. God is known only by means of "clear and distinct" premises, but miracles are events that are not understood and thus cannot be the basis of true knowledge. If anything, remarks Spinoza wryly, miracles, understood as contravening the laws of Nature, would lead one to doubt the existence of God. Belief in such miracles, he repeats, "would make us doubt everything and lead us to atheism."
The proposition that miracles cannot establish true belief may, according to Spinoza, be derived from Scripture. For example, Deuteronomy 13:2-5 speaks of false prophets who perform miracles and are put to death for their false prophecy. From here, observes Spinoza, one learns that miracles do not prove the truth of a prophet's words. This observation is in line with Maimonides's dictum, "One who believes by virtue of signs has defective knowledge, for the sign could have been performed by trickery or magic."
III. THE WILL OF GOD IS THE ORDER OF NATURE
Spinoza argues here that wherever the Bible speaks of God's will, decrees, or providence, it refers to natural causes alone. Thus, God tells Samuel He will "send" Saul to him, but in fact Saul had been seeking his father's lost asses, and, at his servant's suggestion, came to Samuel to get help in finding them (I Samuel 9:3-16). Again, the Psalmist says God "changed the heart" of the Egyptians to hate the Israelites (Psalms 105:25), but their change of heart had wholly natural reasons (Exodus 1:8-10). Again, God tells Noah he will "set His bow in the cloud," but the reference is to the rainbow, which is produced by natural causes (Genesis 9:12-17). Again, the Psalmist says God sends forth His "saying" and "word," but the reference is to natural phenomena, such as the wind, the cold, or the melting of the frost and snow (Psalms 147:15, 18). Again, the Psalmist speaks of God's "messengers" and "ministers," but the reference is simply to wind and fire (Psalms 104:4).
Spinoza's argument here follows Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (II, 48), although only one of the five examples (Psalms 147:15, 18) is borrowed from that discussion. Like Maimonides, Spinoza explains that the Bible often ignores natural causes, and attributes things directly to God. Spinoza adds that the reason for this rhetorical device is the Bible's aim "to impress devotion in the soul of the vulgar," and its consequent appeal to the imagination not the intellect. In any case, Spinoza concludes, whatever is related in the Bible, even if it seems contrary to Nature, is to be understood as having in reality happened natur aliter.
Spinoza supports his argument by noting that biblical reports of miracles are often accompanied by naturalistic details. For example, the plague of boils, wrought against the Egyptians, was inaugurated by Moses' spreading ashes in the air (Exodus 9:10), and the plague of locusts was brought about by an east wind blowing all day and night (Exodus 10: 13). Similarly, the splitting of the Red Sea was caused by "a strong east wind" (Exodus 10:21; cf. 15:10). When Elisha the Prophet revived the boy thought dead, he had to lean on him several times until his flesh warmed and he opened his eyes (II Kings 4:34-35). Again, Jesus, in order to cure a blind man, spat on the ground, made mud out of the dirt and spittle, anointed his eyes with the mud, and sent him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (John 9:6-7). Summing up, Spinoza writes:
We . . . conclude absolutely that all things that are narrated in Scripture as having truly happened have, like everything else, happened necessarily in accordance with the laws of Nature; and if something is found that can be demonstrated apodictically to contravene the laws of Nature or that cannot possibly follow from them, it is plainly to be believed that it was inserted in Sacred Writ by sacrilegious persons. For whatever is contrary to Nature is contrary to reason, and what is contrary to reason is absurd, and thus should be rejected.
IV. THE METHOD OF INTERPRETING MIRACLES
Spinoza now expounds his method of interpreting biblical miracles. Beginning with a psychological observation, he states that in relating events people are almost always influenced by their own opinions. He cites the miracle at Gibeon as an example of this, and remarks that in reporting it the Israelites did not say only that there was prolonged daylight but also that the sun stood still. The claim that the sun stood still did not only serve to explain the prolonged daylight, but also was a polemic against the pagans, who worshipped the sun. Thus, the fabulous notion that the sun stood still was concocted by the Israelites not only out of scientific ignorance, but also for the sake of religious polemic. In interpreting the miracle at Gibeon, therefore, one must take into consideration both the scientific and the religious opinions of the Israelites. It will be noted that Spinoza has embellished his explanation of the miracle at Gibeon (as given in chapter two) in accordance with his new conjecture regarding the polemical origin of the belief in supernatural miracles.
The second point that Spinoza makes with respect to the method of interpreting biblical miracles is that the Bible often reports "prophetic representations" (repraesentationes propheticae) as if they were actual historical events; and thus it is crucial for the biblical interpreter to distinguish between events that are to be understood as having really happened and those that are to be understood as merely visionary or imaginary. For example, when describing the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Bible says God "descended in fire" from heaven and the mountain was "altogether on smoke" (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 5:22-24). Spinoza affirms that descriptions such as this are "surely only representations adapted to the opinions of those who handed them down to us as they were represented to them, namely, as actual matters." However, he continues, "all who are somewhat wiser than the vulgar" know that God, the summum ens, does not move, but is "absolutely infinite" and contains all perfections. Spinoza then explains that a great many things in the Bible have been adapted to the opinions of the vulgar, who follow their imagination not their intellect, and "should not be accepted as real by philosophers."
The final point that Spinoza makes regarding the interpretation of bib- lical miracles concerns idioms and metaphors. The interpreter of the biblical text must become familiar with common Hebrew idioms, and be careful not to make the error of taking metaphors literally. For example, Zachariah says regarding a future war that the day shall be "not day nor night" and "at eveningtime it shall be light" (Zechariah 14:7; cf. Isaiah 13:10). Although this may sound like a supernatural event to those who do not know Hebrew, the figure of speech here merely means that the outcome of the war shall appear doubtful during the day, but be decided in the evening. Similarly, when the Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Exodus 4:11, et al.), it means only that Pharaoh was obstinate. Again, when it says that "the windows of heaven opened" (Genesis 7:11), it means only that it rained hard. (Warren Zev Harvey, 'Spinoza on Biblical Miracles', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 74, No. 4 (October 2013), pp. 659-675: 662-6.)