October 13, 2009

Leibniz's Theistic Case Against Humean Miracles

Most of the recent philosophical literature on miracles focuses on Hume's argument against belief in miracles in EHU 10. There, Hume asserts that all miracles are "violation[s] of the laws of nature" (10.12) and argues that we could never be justified in believing in such events. Call these Law-Breaking Events (LBEs). As Hume recognizes, being an LBE cannot be sufficient for being a miracle; miracles must have the right kind of theological/religious significance. Hume thus gives in a footnote a more precise definition: "A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" (10.12n23). The recent literature focuses on whether this definition is coherent, whether we should believe that such events have occurred, and whether they can be evidence for the existence of God or for a particular religion.

However, before Hume's famous argument was ever written, Leibniz had argued that classical theists should not believe that LBEs occur. In this post I will summarize three of Leibniz's arguments for this claim. Leibniz has an alternative account of miracles, but I won't discuss it here. (My view of miracles and my interpretation of Leibniz's view of miracles are still roughly in line with what I wrote on the subject a few years ago, though I wouldn't express myself quite the same way today.) If Leibniz's arguments succeed but his account of miracles fails, then he has gotten traditional religious belief into some trouble. If, on the other hand, both succeed, then Hume's argument attacks a strawman.

The argument from descriptivism (Discourse on Metaphysics 6). Leibniz's first argument is one that is well-known in the recent literature, and one to which Hume would have been sympathetic: if a descriptivist (aka 'Humean' or 'regularity') account of natural laws is correct, then the concept of an LBE (and so the concept of a Humean miracle) is incoherent. Leibniz's section title is "God does nothing which is not orderly and it is not even possible to imagine events that are not regular" (tr. Ariew and Garber). Why are irregularities unimaginable? Because it is always possible (in principle) that there should be a statement which entails all and only the events which occur, even if the statement is an unwieldy (possibly infinite) conjunction. Leibniz claims that that statement is the real law (the things we call laws being mere 'subordinate maxims') and it obviously doesn't have any exceptions, hence there are no LBEs.

Of course, one could solve this problem by adopting the governing conception of laws. Some people (like the early modern occasionalists and some present-day nominalists) have thought that governing laws were too God-like for comfort. Also, we might think it odd to suppose that the governing conception is built into the concept of miracle, since it appears to be a pretty substantive (and controversial) metaphysical claim.

The argument from divine rationality (Theodicy 337). According to this argument, the occurrence of LBEs in a theistic universe would show that God is less than perfectly rational. As Leibniz puts it "the wise mind always acts according to principles; always according to rules, and never according to exceptions" (tr. Huggard). (There follows a discussion of the possibility of multiple conflicting principles, but I'm going to ignore that today.) Another way of thinking about this is to say that it's not as if God created the sort of universe in which the Red Sea doesn't part when Moses raises his staff, then later decided to part the Red Sea anyway. If that was the case, then God would be changing his mind and/or acting erratically. Rather, if the parting of the Red Sea occurred then the classical theist (I take it that being a classical theist involves belief in divine atemporality, and so divine knowledge of future contingents) should say that God intended it all along and created the world with that intention in mind. If God is perfectly rational, this should be a principled intention as opposed to an arbitrary one, and if God is perfectly wise then he shouldn't have to temporarily repeal the laws that he has willed in order to accomplish his purposes. As such, the classical theist should hold that no LBEs occur.

The argument from divine benevolence (New Essays 65-66). The idea of this argument is that it would not be very nice of God to confront us with a lot of in principle incomprehensible events. (Note: Leibniz seems to rely on this sort of reasoning pretty frequently - see James D. Madden, "Leibniz on Teleology and the Intelligibility of Nature" Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (2004) - but I haven't been able to find a text that makes it explicitly; if you know of one please let me know.) Perhaps we are confronted with inexplicable or only partially explicable events (Leibniz's account of miracles involves events that are only partially explicable) now and then, or perhaps some events are explicable only in principle and not in practice, but surely God would not have made rational creatures and then put them in a world where reason did little good! Leibniz describes a theory on which (law breaking) miracles occur frequently as "an irrational system which maintains not only that there are qualities which we do not understand - of which there are only too many - but further that there are some which could not be comprehended by the greatest intellect if God gave it every possible opportunity." This would be "without rhyme or reason" so that "this idle hypothesis would destroy not only our philosophy which seeks reasons but also the divine wisdom which provides them" (NE 66, tr. Remnant and Bennett). Leibniz supposes that the God of classical theism simply wouldn't do this to us. Therefore, the classical theist should deny that there are LBEs.

Posted by Kenny at October 13, 2009 5:57 PM
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I knew there was a better citation for the argument from benevolence!

Gregory Brown discusses this argument in sect. 2 of his "Miracles in the Best of all Possible Worlds" which appeared in History of Philosophy Quarterly in 1995. He cites the following passage from Leibniz's "Specimen of Discoveries" (not to be confused with the Specimen Dynamicum):

It is clear that minds are the most important part of the universe and that everything was established for their sake; that is, in choosing the order of things, the greatest account was taken of them, all things being arranged in such a way that they appear the more beautiful the more they are understood. So it must be held certain that God has taken the greatest account of justice, and that just as he sought the perfection of all things, so he sought the happiness of minds.
Posted by: Kenny at October 15, 2009 6:39 PM

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