November 4, 2009

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

"A Leibnizian Theory of Miracles"

I have posted a new paper draft to my writings page entitled "A Leibnizian Theory of Miracles". The aim of the paper is to defend a conception of miracles on which no violation, suspension, or circumvention of the laws of nature is required. Comments are welcome.

Posted by Kenny at November 4, 2009 11:10 AM
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A very interesting paper, Kenny! I learned quite a bit. Specifically, I really liked the definition of miracles as an event for which the efficient cause is not known but some aspect of the final is known.

My initial thought, however, is that perhaps Leibniz is being a bit nit-picky with the distinction which you termed absolute vs. relative miracles. It would seem to be no less perfect of God to cause the miracle himself rather than for his angels to do so. Moreover, wouldn't he have to act anyway in order to make his will known to the angel who carries it out?

In short, it would be interesting to know what you think is the purpose of the absolute / relative distinction.

Posted by: Louis Tourtellotte at November 4, 2009 1:51 PM

Hi Louis,

Thanks for stopping by. I should note, by the way, that the Leibnizian theory I advocate is inconsistent with my understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine on this subject, as represented in The Catholic Encyclopedia and in the actual procedures used in examining candidates for sainthood. However, I could be misunderstanding the RCC position (the authoritative document on that subject is the fourth volume of a work by Pope Benedict XIV which was published in 1738 and has never been translated into English; I haven't read it).

On your specific question: Leibniz picks up the absolute-relative distinction from the tradition. It appears in Aquinas (I give the citation to SCG in a footnote), and Malebranche also discusses it. The difference is important because relative miracles don't cause the same kind of problems absolute miracles do. The reason for this is that a relative miracle has a finite efficient cause (unknown to us). If it is performed by an angel (the definition doesn't actually require this), it is possible for the angel to come to know God's will by some means that is in the ordinary course of nature for angels, and then act as angels ordinarily act, and bring about the event.

The important thing is that in relative miracles all the events follow from the laws of nature. It's just that they either follow from deeper laws than the ones humans can discover or they follow from the laws in non-obvious ways.

Posted by: Kenny at November 4, 2009 6:06 PM

Thanks for those very useful references, Kenny. I must confess that I didn't read your paper closely enough, since I didn't notice those Catholic Encyclopedia and Aquinas footnotes. I did wonder to what extent this account of miracles is coherent with Catholic theology.

Without reading the Catholic Encyclopedia article, one thing that did strike me about this account of miracles (that I didn't mention before because I didn't know if it mattered) is that, in a sense, I think that the ideas of miracles as a violation of the laws of nature and miracles as not such a violation could be made to be coherent, depending on what we mean by "violating a law of nature." Specifically, let's say God did intervene somehow. For instance, let's say by some means someone survived a gun shot wound to the head that would not have otherwise been survivable. Well in a certain sense, a law of nature was violated in that the gun shot victim should have died. On the other hand, God may have effected the miracle without in any way causing some material thing to function in a way that it would not ordinarily function. For instance, perhaps the miracle was caused by the spontaneous generation of some chemical which caused such and such which caused something else, etc., such that the man was healed when he would not have ordinarily been so. I know that this example is unacceptable to Leibniz, but I only mention it to indicate that perhaps the dichotomy between "violation of nature" and "coherent with the laws of nature" need not be mutually exclusive, depending on what we mean exactly.

Also, I think the (possibly) false dichotomy might be present in the consideration of relative miracles. For instance, it's interesting that Leibniz would categorize the nature of angels as part of "nature." We might be able to say that relative miracles do not violate the laws of nature, if we consider angels part of nature, but if we consider angels part of "supernature" then we might construe their actions as violations of nature. I guess what I'm saying, in short, is that, from what I know, the Leibnizian account is probably not inconsistent with Catholic doctrine.

Posted by: Louis Tourtellotte at November 4, 2009 6:56 PM

Your example seems to me to be an example of a relative miracle. Another way Leibniz talks about relative miracles is as violations of "subordinate maxims" - that is, generalizations we make that are not really fundamental governing laws of nature. For instance, we make generalizations like 'people who are shot in the head from close range die'; it would be relatively miraculous if this generalization was violated (unless we were able to discover an efficient causal rule describing the exceptions).

The rationality argument I discuss in my paper is supposed to show that the general order is a genuine law of nature. Did you find any particular part of that argument unconvincing? It seems to me that if that argument succeeds, then there there is no middle ground in which an event can fail to cohere with the laws of nature, but not actually violate them.

It is true that Leibniz does sometimes contrast 'laws of nature' with 'laws of grace', but not all final causal laws are laws of grace. (These are the additional levels of pre-established harmony I ignore in the paper - see footnote 17.) One could still develop a theory similar to my Leibnizian account (and you might even try to pin it on Leibniz based on some of his other remarks) on which there are certain laws of 'supernature' which sometimes override the laws of nature. I think this is a reasonable view and a reasonable interpretation of Leibniz, but I don't think it's the same as the view I am advocating. On my view, there is no fundamental distinction to be made between the different types of efficient causal laws. We can distinguish between those we can understand and those we can't, and we can draw other sorts of distinctions, but none of these maps onto any objective difference. I believe Leibniz's actual view is that the only law that governs is the 'individual law of the series' of an individual monad; the other laws are generalizations over these. However, I don't myself belief in monads or Leibnizian determinism. Also, I am a descriptivist about natural laws. So my actual view is that laws are just generalizations, but there are different kinds of generalizations: efficient causal generalizations and final causal generalizations. In some cases, we can't fit an event into a particular sort of generalization, but we can fit it into another sort. That's what's going on with miracles.

Posted by: Kenny at November 4, 2009 8:03 PM

You're quick with the posting, Kenny! Allow me to get back to you in a few days...

Posted by: Louis Tourtellotte at November 8, 2009 1:12 PM

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