Lecture Review: Miracles and Belief

St John’s has a weekly lecture on Wednesday afternoons for the summer semester. Today’s lecture was given by Mr. Joseph Cohen, a long time tutor in Annapolis, and was titled On Miracles and Beliefs: Spinoza, Hume, et. al. At the beginning of the lecture he mentioned that he ought to say who the “et. al.” were: C S Lewis and Francis Collins (geneticist and author of The Language of God (2006); I’m looking at a picture of his book, and the NYT blurb on the cover is making me a bit wary: “it lets non-churchgoers consider spiritual questions without feeling awkward.” Heaven forbid we should feel awkward!). He proceeded by outlining what each of these people had to say about belief and miracles, and then offering a few concluding remarks, followed by questions. I wasn’t entirely certain what Mr Cohen was trying to do in the lecture. He said that a while back he was teaching a tutorial over at Annapolis, and had the students reading an article of Spinoza’s on miracles (or the lack thereof). Things were lively and heated, with some students finding Spinoza’s take on nature and God to be rather threatening. That’s how he decided to prepare this lecture.

His guiding question (mentioned at the end) seemed to be something along the lines of: in what way might it be possible to harmonize the truth claims of science and religion? Toward that end he appeared to be drawing a contrast between Hume and Spinoza, on the one hand, and Lewis and Collins on the other. Most of the lecture consisted in Mr. Cohen describing what each of these men had said about miracles and their relation to belief. Briefly: Spinoza described God as being nearly synonymous with Nature, and as the definition of miracle is that God should act in a way that is contrary to or suspends the normal course of nature, they are not possible in his philosophy. Hume, in his Essay on Miracles (which may or may not be in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; so far as I can see it is) argued that, starting from rational foundations, we could not, with any certainty, know a miracle to be such and not some kind of delusion, overactive imagination, ignorance of the true operations of nature, or such like; he also said that mere belief in Christianity was a continual miracle, but it’s hard to tell if he’s being sarcastic or not.

Lewis acknowledged the impossibility of demonstrating miracles to be such on rational grounds to someone with a naturalistic worldview, but claimed that one could just as rationally hold a supernaturalist worldview, in which miracles make sense. To do that we must posit two realms of existence, nature and super-nature; we could even say that intelligence lies in some way in the realm of the latter, and that each time human intelligence effects action in the natural realm it is in some sense a miracle; Christianity, centered around the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus, requires that miracles be both possible and actual. Collins is deeply influenced by Lewis, and in his recent book details his conversion from atheism to Christianity. He is both a highly respectable scientist, as leader of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Institute of Health, and a fairly traditional Christian. He also posits a split between nature and super-nature, in much the same way as Lewis, and describes a fairly wide gap between how we can know as scientists and how we can know as believers, though his work and faith do overlap insomuch as he finds in the discoveries of genetics reason for awe and worship.

Collins’ book sounds fairly good, going from the first few pages and Mr Cohen’s description, and I might recommend it to anyone wondering how people can combine modern science with Christianity. As for the other works: of course they’re important, and we may have an obligation to be familiar with as many important works as possible, but I only read Hume and Spinoza under duress. Lewis’ book, Miracles I’ve read, and it’s alright: clear, persuasive in a certain fashion, and well written, but I’m not his audience. Anyway, Mr Cohen wanted to object to the manner in which Collins is attempting to reconcile faith and science, though I’m unclear what exactly that objection was. It seemed to be that, first, it’s not really a reconciliation if they are still in strictly separate realms of existence, the way it is unsatisfactory that people be “separate but equal,” yet never interact. Besides, they are not equal because his science is very certain and reproducible, whereas religion is about faith and the personal, somewhat private quest for the divine. In other words, religious belief is at a disadvantage without admitting that to be the case. At least Spinoza reconciled God and nature in a way that was substantial, though perhaps at the high cost of conflating them. It reminded me a little of an article by Jacob Klein I read last semester for preceptorial, where he found it troubling that science and philosophy are divided such that even philosophic scientists proceed no differently as scientists in response to their philosophy, though the reverse might be the case. I agree to the difficulty, but don’t know what approach might be more helpful than speaking of nature and super-nature and intelligence as some kind of intermediate state. Or, rather, I suspect that the solution I would prefer would be sacramental, bringing nature more fully into the divine, but that would be going even farther away from Spinoza and Hume’s rationalism.

Mr Cohen had another objection with which I was inclined to be somewhat less sympathetic, though it might have been deserving of a little sympathy; why must these Christians insist upon the necessity of miracles?

As is often the case at St John’s, On Miracles and Beliefs: Spinoza, Huma, et. al. was a “some assembly required” lecture, wherein I would have liked Mr Cohen to have been a little clearer about what his intention was; where he was coming from, his guiding question, and where he wanted to go with it. Nonetheless, it was informative and thought provoking, so I’d give it perhaps a 3/5 — a lecture worth attending and thinking on, but not entirely clear in its’ intent.


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