Spinoza on Miracles

We recently discussed the fact that autistic people are more likely to reject libertarian free will, with Baruch Spinoza being a key example.

Conceptually, ideas about free will and ideas about miracles are inextricably linked. And when it comes to miracles, Spinoza is again a key example:

In like manner miracles were called works of G-D, as being especially marvellous; though in reality, of course, all natural events are the works of G-D, and take place solely by His power.

According to Spinoza, it is incoherent to talk about miracles being “violations of the laws of nature”. It’s literally nonsense. About 100 years after Spinoza, Hume tried to explicitly equate these two contradictory things, and philosophers and theologians have been debating ever since. If only more of them had Asperger’s like Spinoza, we could stop wasting our time on this stupidity. Aspies are allergic to contradiction, and Spinoza pointed out that scriptures and reason are both non-contradictory on this matter:

Further, in order to ascertain, whether it could be concluded from Scripture, that the human understanding is naturally corrupt, I inquired whether the Universal Religion, the Divine Law revealed through the Prophets and Apostles to the whole human race, differs from that which is taught by the light of natural reason, whether miracles can take place in violation of the laws of Nature, and if so, whether they imply the existence of G-D more surely and clearly than events, which we understand plainly and distinctly through their immediate natural causes.

Now, as in the whole course of my investigation I found nothing taught expressly by Scripture, which does not agree with our understanding, or which is repugnant thereto, and as I saw that the prophets taught nothing, which is not very simple and easily to be grasped by all, and further, that they clothed their teaching in the style, and confirmed it with the reasons, which would most deeply move the mind of the masses to devotion towards G-D, I became thoroughly convinced, that the Bible leaves reason absolutely free…

Spinoza realized that he needed to bite the bullet and define “miracle” as something that was merely extraordinarily unusual that would point toward God, and charmingly observed:

As, then, unusual natural phenomena are called works of G-D, and trees of unusual size are called trees of God, we cannot wonder that very strong and tall men, though impious robbers and whore mongers, are in Genesis called sons of G-D. This reference of things wonderful to God was not peculiar to the Jews. Pharaoh, on hearing the interpretation of his dream, exclaimed that the mind of the gods was in Joseph.

Most theologians seem content to argue that Hume’s definition of “miracle” is wrong, and leave it at that. Few seem eager to bite the bullet and follow things through to the obvious conclusion. That’s what’s so fun about Aspies — they don’t mind stating the obvious. From the comments to the earlier article on Spinoza:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome (though self diagnosed). I absolutely do not believe people have free will, in any sense. After reading the wikipedia entry on compatibilism I feel that compatibilism is just saying “we don’t have free will but lets pretend anyway”.


Much energy is expended championing Hume’s question-begging and inherently contradictory definition of “miracle”, for obvious reasons. I think that’s a waste of time, and detracts from the more interesting question — if theists bite the bullet and toss out Hume’s incoherent definition, what are the implications for faith?

False Memories

Earlier this week, we ate matzah and told the story of Haggadah. Today, we attended Easter services, where we affirmed the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

Unique among world religions, Christianity and Judaism are obsessed with history. Jewish fathers are commanded to tell Haggadah to their children, and the story is meant to be taken as actual historical fact. Christ’s resurrection is the central historical fact of the Christian faith. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, the entire Christian faith falls apart. These historical events define the collective identity: By definition, Jews are the people who remember that we were delivered from Egypt, and Christians are people who remember that Christ died for our sins and rose again.

Is Your Life a Lie?

This raises a very interesting issue. Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers. If you suddenly developed complete amnesia, relocated to a place where nobody knew you, and had your brain loaded up with detailed false memories; you would, for all practical purposes, be a different person. If people from your old life somehow managed to find you, and tried to convince you that your new identity was a sham, you would no more believe them than if they accused you of being Napoleon.

Such involuntary identity swaps are quite rare for individuals. Slightly more common are individual identity swaps that begin as fraud, but become indistinguishable from truth in the mind of the impostors. When the authorities first accused Clark Rockefeller of being Christian Gerhartsreiter, he probably thought they were the crazy ones.

Things get especially interesting when the identity swap spans generations. If we weren’t there to witness the Exodus or Christ’s resurrection, we have to trust the testimony passed down to us. Imagine that you are growing up in Buenos Aires, believing that you are the grandchild of a refugee from WWII Europe. One day, you learn that your grandfather is an impostor who adopted a false identity shortly before having your father. Your grandfather was actually a Nazi war criminal known for conducting experiments on twins. What does this revelation do to your sense of identity? What if you learn that the patriarch of your nation was an impostor who stole the birthright from his twin brother, thousands of years ago? What if, like the protagonist of the film “Down In the Delta“, you learn that your family patriarch is actually a nickname for a piece of jewelry stolen violently from one of your ancestor’s slave masters?

Why Not Fake It?

Many Christians who are alive today can trace ancestry back to the Saxons, who in recent history were converted en masse to Christianity by Charlemagne, around the same time that Bulan was converting his people en masse to Judaism. It’s virtually certain that Bulan’s ancestors were not present at the Exodus — but who are we to say that his modern descendants have no right to tell Haggadah> to their children? Perhaps, like the Catholic convert to Judaism who went by the name “Moses Ashkenazi“, these recent adopters of ancient collective memories are the most zealous.

When faced with the realization that our collective memories are often adopted from others, there is a temptation to “improve” things. If Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, why can’t we likewise defraud our way through life? Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

Paul’s Twist

Paul’s commentary on the resurrection slams the door on this impulse. With Paul, as with Moses Ashkenazi, there can always be the suspicion that he was adopting a secondhand myth out of utilitarian motives. We know that Paul never knew Christ in the flesh. Instead, he based his conversion on his religious experience of a blinding light, the testimony of others, and his belief that all of creation testified to Christ. However, despite never having met Christ in the flesh, Paul felt confident enough to base his entire faith on Christ’s resurrection.

Seen through this lens, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 takes on new meaning. Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ is contingent upon his sober judgment of the historicity of the resurrection. Paul is saying that his faith in Christ convinces him that the historicity of the resurrection is beyond question. The difference is enormous.

To Paul, Christ resurrected is the only history that harmonizes with his personal experience, the testimony of his peers, and his understanding of the natural world. In other words, Christ resurrected is the only history that is consistent with Paul’s identity. If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

This is quite the opposite of Paul making a choice between two options. It is not Paul doing the choosing, but God. Paul is not soberly evaluating the evidence and deciding whether or not Christ was resurrected. Paul’s personal memories, his history with his peers, and his innate understanding of the world, render him incapable of believing otherwise. If Paul were transported by time machine to the tomb of Christ, and saw that Christ was not resurrected, Paul would undoubtedly conclude that the time machine was defective. Paul has not made a choice to become God’s son. Instead, in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, God proclaimed a decree to Paul: “You are my son; today I have become your father”.

What memory could be truer than that?

Buddha Congratulates Calvin on 500 Years

CalvinRolls We’ve recently wrapped up family visits in Toronto, Port Huron, and Princeton, and now relaxing near the beach in Pawcatuck, Connecticut.  In honor of John Calvin’s 500th birthday, my wife took this picture of a former Presbyterian church we drove past in London, Ontario.  The cement plaque in the side of the wall says that the church was established in 1910, and the large beaming statue of Buddha in the front is Vietnamese.

As my brother observed, this was a Presbyterian church, so nobody can say that the congregation were not warned.  The pastor probably warned the congregation of the imminence of God’s wrath often.  And now their building is a shrine to idolatry and sophistry.


One of the only good things to come out of economics recently is the field of “behavioral economics”, which shatters the myth of the “rational consumer”, and provides sound empirical evidence for the concept of the “totally depraved consumer”.  For most people, behavioral economics is redundant, since we already knew that people are not rational or ethical.  But for people who have been brainwashed by scientism, the field provides an invaluable tool to reacquaint them with common sense.  It uses their own tools to dismantle their fantasies.

In that spirit, check out Tyler Cowan’s post in honor of Calvin’s birthday: “John Calvin was a Behavioral Economist”.