Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 16

Is a Miracle Opposed to Reason?

page break

Is a Miracle Opposed to Reason?

I DO not propose to offer any arguments in support of the reality of the miracles recorded in the Bible. The divine authority of the Bible, and the consequent truthfulness of the sacred narrative, rests on its own proper evidence. Those who believe in the divine authority of the Bible accept all its statements. In making this broad assertion, I do not mean to imply that errors have not, through the carelessness of copyists, crept into ancient manuscripts, and that there is not in some instances a difficulty in determining the true reading. Errors, or imaginary errors, of this class are acknowledged by all to be fairly open to candid criticism. The correction of these must be left to scholars and learned men. But it must be borne in mind that the question of miracles is very slightly if at all affected by various readings. Those who do not acknowledge the divine authority of the Bible cannot, of course, be expected to believe the scripture miracles. Evidently the first step to be taken in reference to such persons is to convince them that the Bible is the Word of God. When convinced of this, they can hardly fail to see that miracles are an inseparable part of the Christian religion. It is, however, no part of my present object to enter into an investigation of the evidences on which Christians rely for their belief in the divine authority of Holy Scripture.

What I propose is to endeavour to show that the objection commonly advanced by persons laying page 5 claim to some intellectual superiority over their neighbours against miracles—that they are repugnant to reason—is untenable. I state the matter thus baldly and abruptly, because I wish to bring it before those who may read what I am about to say, divested of all extraneous matter, and of all that is calculated to confuse or prejudice the mind. I purposely leave out of consideration all collateral questions—all questions of greater or lesser probability. I wish to raise the simple issue—Is a miracle, as such, incredible, or, in other words, impossible?

Much confusion of thought on the subject of miracles has been occasioned by ambiguous statements made in reference to them by those who thoroughly believe in them. We read of higher laws superseding lower laws. And other expedients of the same kind are proposed to obviate objections supposed to rest on scientific or intellectual grounds. I wish, therefore, to make my own meaning perfectly clear. I contend that a miracle, that is to say, a visible interruption or suspension of the order of nature for a providential purpose, is neither incredible nor repugnant to reason. I have preferred the words, interruption or suspension, to violation, sometimes used, merely because this word usually involves the notion of injury. I have used order of nature in preference to the more common expression, laws of nature, because the latter involves an ambiguity. Strictly speaking, law implies a law-giver, and an agent whose actions should be regulated by it. When applied to nature, law can only have a figurative meaning. Laws of nature can express nothing more than observed facts in their highest generalisation. If used in this restricted sense, the expression becomes equivalent to order of nature, and is perfectly admissible. It is objected that a miracle as above defined ought not to be accepted page 6 as true; that inductive science having shown that the order of nature is uniform and invariable, any interruption of it is impossible; in fact, that such an interruption is repugnant to reason. Now, it will be necessary, before I proceed, to fix the precise meaning to be attached to the word, reason. Few things are more remarkable than the readiness with which most persons, when they meet with an alleged fact or an argument which they are unable to answer or refute, avail themselves of the stock phrase, that it is contrary to reason. And yet not one in a hundred will give a rational explanation of what he means by reason, or indicate in any intelligible manner wherein the contrariety consists. If reason be used in its only legitimate sense, as the faculty by which men reason, that is, carry on the reasoning process, it is absurd to say than anything can be contrary or repugnant to this. What certainly might be shown is, that there is a flaw in the process, that some step is illogical; but the process itself could not possibly be contradictory to anything. I take it for granted that nobody will venture to contend that reason implies a repertory of all knowledge, and that every possible fact ought to find its counterpart or representative there. Contrary to reason, then, must be intended to mean contrary to facts, the truth of which has been established by means of a process of reasoning.

It is important, then, that it should be made quite clear what is meant by a miracle being contradictory to reason; it will not do to leave this question in any state of doubt or ambiguity. A miracle cannot be contradictory to an intuition of reason, for the mind can only have one intuition at a time, and there can be no contradiction between successive intuitions. For instance, I had an intuition of a house, a moment after I had an intuition of a tree; but there was no page 7 repugnancy between these intuitions, one was as real as the other. But this is not all. A miracle, as already defined, is much more than an intuition, and cannot possibly be contradictory to what belongs to a different class or category. A miracle, then, I suppose, must by the objectors be deemed contradictory to a deduction of reason—to the result, that is, of a process or chain of reasoning. But the validity of a conclusion, assuming the reasoning to be legitimate, must always entirely depend on the facts that constitute the premises; and these are only obtainable either by observation and experience, or through testimony. But it is evident that knowledge so acquired can lay no claim whatever to be an absolute truth of reason, and, as such, preclude the possibility of the reality of a miracle to which it is, or is assumed to be, repugnant.

There are, however, as is generally admitted, certain necessary truths of reason. Are miracles contradictory to these, or any one of them? If they are, there can be no possible ground on which any rational being can defend them. To contradict a necessary truth of reason, would be to stultify reason, to render all use of reason impossible. That miracles are absolutely contradictory to necessary truths of the reason, and therefore impossible, has been boldly, though somewhat rashly, asserted and maintained by objectors. A great modern writer on science has said—"No amount of attestation of innumerable and honest witnesses could ever convince any-one versed in mathematical and mechanical science that a person had squared the circle," &c. It is strange that a really great thinker and able writer should have been guilty of such an unaccountable blunder as that involved in these words. Every thinker, one might have supposed, would have been aware that the question involved in squaring the page 8 circle was a purely intellectual one connected with abstract truth; to talk, therefore, of the "attestation of innumerable and honest witnesses" in reference to it is pure nonsense. It would almost appear that scientific disbelievers in miracles are incapable of maintaining their usual mental equilibrium where a question concerning miracles is concerned.

The only necessary truths of which the human reason is cognisant are the proper axioms of geometry. These are not dependent for their recognition as necessary truths on anything external to the mind, that is, on any observed outward fact. Their validity as necessary truths depends on the power the mind possesses of constructing for itself the objects to which they refer, without recourse to any extraneous matter. The axioms of geometry are the result of the imagination of possible objects, corresponding to actual notions. They are simple modifications of space, itself an essential condition of thought or form of the human intellect. For obvious reasons, I feel I must touch only very briefly on this subject. However necessary to my argument, it is not an aspect of the question which the general reader would care to have expanded. But the proof of the view here maintained was established nearly a century ago by Kant in his masterly Critique of the Pure Reason. If such axioms are the only necessary truths of the reason (together perhaps with conclusions legitimately drawn from them), it might be thought scarcely needful to show that inferences from observed facts, or, in other words, the results of inductive science, cannot establish a claim to be such, even though exalted and magnified by the high-sounding title of invariable and immutable laws.* But this subject must be considered.

* Note A, Appendix.

page 9

It seems to be very usually taken for granted, and asserted most positively, that the order of nature is absolutely invariable and immutable, and that this being established by reason, any interruption of it is impossible. It will, therefore, be advisable to inquire carefully into the ground of this conviction so very generally entertained. Has this conviction any foundation in reason? The only answer to be given is, that it has no foundation in reason. By no process of reason can it be shown that the order of nature is immutable. That man does believe in the immutability of nature is certain; he has no doubt whatever upon the subject; he acts upon this belief every day of his life. Everything he undertakes rests on his belief that the future will be like the past. His whole conduct is guided by this conviction. He is perfectly justified in so doing; as a practical principle to guide him in life, he may place the most implicit confidence and undoubting reliance on it. But if, leaving the practical aspect of the subject, it is asked what reason can be given for our conviction that the future will resemble the past, we have no answer to give. All we can say is, that previous past recurrence of facts leads to the expectation of a similar recurrence in the future. This is quite true. But an expectation—a mere blind expectation—is not a rational answer; it is not a rational solution of the difficulty; such an expectation rests on no ground of reason, and cannot satisfy the requirements of reason. That the sun has risen every day throughout past ages leads to the expectation that it will rise to-morrow, and we all act on this belief and expectation. But if a reason is asked for this expectation, what reason can be given? None. Turn and revolve it in our minds as we may, and think of it under every conceivable aspect, still we can perceive no conceivable connection between page 10 the premises—the sun has risen for a million successive days, and this—the sun will rise to-morrow. We believe it, we expect it, and we act upon the belief and expectation. But it is not a truth of reason.

"When it is asked," says the philosopher Hume, "what is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning the relation of cause and effect, it may be replied in one word, 'experience.' But if we ask, 'what is the foundation of all conclusions from experience?' this implies a new question, which may be of more difficult solution. . . . . Experience can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time which fell under its cognisance; but why should this experience be extended to future times and other objects? It must be acknowledged that here is a consequence drawn by the mind, that there is a certain step taken, a process of thought and an inference which wants to be explained. . . . . All inferences from experience suppose as their foundation that the future will resemble the past; it is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance. Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular, that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not that for the future it will continue so. As an agent, I am quite satisfied on the point; but as a philosopher I want to learn the foundation of this inference. No reading, no inquiry, has yet been able to remove my difficulty."—(Enquiry, &c., § iv.)

Mr. Mill practically admits the same truth. "This assumption with regard to the course of nature, and the order of the universe is involved in every case of induction."—(Logic, vol. i., p. 316.) "The belief we entertain in the universality through- page 11 out nature of the law of cause and effect is itself an instance of induction; we arrive at this universal law by generalisation from many laws of inferior generality."—(Vol. ii., p. 97.)

Canon Mozley in his unanswered and unanswerable Bampton Lectures, observes in connection with these admissions made by these philosophers: "Thus step by step has philosophy loosened the connection of the order of nature with the ground of reason, befriending in exact proportion as it has done this, the principle of miracles. In the argument against miracles, the first objection is that they are against law; and this is answered by saying Chat we know nothing in nature of law in the sense in which it prevents miracles. Law can only prevent miracles by compelling and making necessary the succession of nature, i.e., in the sense of causation; but science has herself proclaimed the truth, that we see no causes in nature, that the whole chain of physical succession is, to the eye of reason, a rope of sand, consisting of antecedents and consequents, but without a rational link or trace of necessary connection between them. We only know of law in nature in the sense of recurrences in nature, classes of facts, like facts in nature—a chain of which, the junction not being reducible to reason, the interruption is not against reason. The claim of law settled, the next objection in the argument against miracles is, that they are against experience; because we expect facts like to those of our experience, and miracles are unlike ones. The weight, then, of the objection of unlikeness to experience, depends on the reason which can be produced for the expectation of likeness; and to this call philosophy has replied by the summary confession that we have no reason. Philosophy, then, could not have overthrown more thoroughly than it has done, page 12 the order of nature as a necessary course of things, or cleared the ground more effectually for the principle of miracles."—(Lectures on Miracles, p. 50.)

It seems almost unaccountable that writers who profess to deal with questions most intimately connected with the profound subjects involved in the preceding extracts, should either be ignorant of them, or purposely ignore them. Many opponents of the possibility of miracles on the ground of their repugnancy to the inductive principle and the laws of nature, seem, if we may judge from their bold unqualified assertions, to be hardly aware that their information is not abreast of modern scientific thought on this subject. Few philosophical thinkers of the present day would venture to maintain that induction did more than establish a general or universal law; they would not contend that a universal proposition could be proved. An able writer, while reviewing a late edition of Hume's works, says in reference to induction—"It does not warrant a universal affirmation. No doubt there are a great many affirmations which we practically find it worth while to treat as universal; but that is a different matter, and we look back thankfully to Hume as the master who clearly pointed out the difference. The ground of all scientific affirmation is the supposition that the future resembles the past—in modern language, the uniformity of nature. Now this is itself an assumption incapable of proof. We make it because we find . . . that it enables us to to guide our conduct in life and get what we want."—(Sat. Review, Nov. 7, 1874.) Some of the writers I am referring to do not seem to know that this very fact—that "the uniformity of nature is an assumption incapable of proof'—has actually been converted by sceptical controversialists, in their present straits, with a versatility and facility for changing their front which is remarkable, page 13 into an argument against the possibility of miracles. "Mr. Ruskin maintains that the uniformity of nature not being established, the most startling apparent departures from it would be attended by no evidential effect."—(Illustrated London News, March 15, 1878.)

The author of Supernatural Religion is one of the most remarkable instances of the versatility and levity just mentioned. After having based an elaborate argument for the destruction of miracles on repeated assertions as to the invariable uniformity of nature, he seems to manifest some uneasy misgivings as to whether he is not lagging behind the scientific thought of the day. But before we proceed, it may be well to see what he says as to the laws of nature. "Suspensions of the order of nature, which are also contrary to reason"—(p. 81.) "It is brought into existence by the operation of immutable physical laws"—(p. 27.) "There is no instance producible, or even logically conceivable, of any power whose effects are opposed to the ultimate riding of the laws of nature. The occurrence of anything opposed to those laws is incredible"—(p. 28.) "Our highest attainable conception of infinite wisdom and power is based upon the universality of law, and inexorably excludes, as unworthy and an-thropomorphic, any idea of its fitful suspension"—(p. 29.) "Throughout the whole inquiry into the question of miracles, we meet with nothing from theologians but mere assumptions, against which the invariability of the known order of nature steadily opposes itself"—(p. 23.) Christianity "is emphatically contradicted by the glorious perfection and invariability of the order of nature"—(p. 31.) "Universality and invariability of law . . . exclude the idea of interruption or occasional suspension of law for any purpose whatever"—(p. 33.) Having made page 14 these assertions, which seem to indicate with tolerable clearness what his real convictions are, he goes on to say—"Any argument which could destroy faith in the order of nature would be equally destructive to miracles. If we have no right to believe in a rule, there can be no right to speak of exceptions. The result in any case is this—that whether the principle of the order of nature be established or refuted, the supernatural pretensions of miracles are disallowed"—(p. 39.)

Here, then, the writer, feeling the ground to be slipping away from under his feet—feeling convinced that the invariability of the laws of nature, as a universal proposition, could no longer be maintained—feeling that this was a worn-out weapon which must henceforth, in controversy with educated men, be discarded and cast away, with inconceivable levity coolly says—"If we have no right to believe in the rule, there can be no right to speak of exceptions." His argument seems to be this—a determined sceptic must not believe in miracles. The immutability of the order of nature has hitherto seemed a good argument against them. We are now driven to admit that this is no longer philosophically tenable. Never mind; the mutability of the laws of nature will suit the sceptic just as well, in fact, better, because then an interruption of the uniformity of that which has no such characteristic, becomes impossible, and consequently no evidence can be given of a divine intervention.

But the writer seems to have completely lost sight of the subject he has undertaken to deal with. Dr. Mozley's position which he professed to refute was this—"That miracles, or visible suspensions of the order of nature for a providential purpose are not in contradiction to reason." But instead of attempting fairly to grapple with this proposition and refute page 15 it, he contents himself with recording the very obvious platitude that men are quite right in exercising "faith in the order of nature;" that any argument that should "destroy" this would be a great calamity. Dr. Mozley does not only admit this, but argues at great length to show that all men daily act on this faith. What the writer ought to have done, if his reasoning was to accomplish anything, was to shew that Dr. Mozley's argument is not conclusive against the assumption, that the order of nature, or invariable law, is a truth established on grounds of reason, which he never attempts to do. It would seem almost incredible that this writer should be unable to perceive the distinction maintained by Dr. Mozley, namely, that to believe in a fact, as all men do in reference to the order and stability of nature, is something quite different from assuming its necessity as an absolute truth of reason. Dean Mansel says—"My belief in the continuance of the observed order of natural phenomena may be perhaps explained by some law of my mental constitution; but as thus explained, it is a law of mind and not of matter." Even this understates the case, for a law of matter is not a necessary truth of reason.

The author of Supernatural Religion in his at-tempts to discredit the reality of miracles, without professing himself to be an atheist, frequently denounces the "assumption" of the existence of a "personal God." He says—"Dr. Mozley is well aware that his assumption of a deity is not susceptible of proof." He objects to this "assumption" passim. This must strike a thoughtful reader as a very novel mode of opposing miracles. Does he for a moment suppose that any supporter of the reality of miracles would waste one further thought on their defence, or that any meaning whatever could be attached to them from a Christian's point of view page 16 unless he believed in a personal God? Or does he imagine that any believer would enter into a serious discussion about miracles with an avowed atheist? On the ground of the "assumption" referred to, he disparages the works of Butler and Mansel and Mozley. Does he think that any one of these great writers addressed his arguments on miracles to atheists? Both James Mill and J. S. Mill admitted that the argument of Butler's Analogy as addressed to the deist was complete; they, as atheists, rejected it. But what is the meaning of calling this belief in a personal God an "assumption"? Or what is meant by the assertion that such a belief "is not susceptible of proof"? Man cannot be more conscious of his own personal existence than he is of the existence of God.* His assurance as to the existence of an external material world is not so certain. "The belief in conscious life in other than his own individual life, and consequently in a real world common to his life and others ... is now deeply rooted in every man's mental organism. We frankly concede that it is impossible by mere force of logic to prove to any one that there is anything real out-side his own mind."—(Sat. Review, Oct. 31, 1874). Readers not accustomed to reflect on the laws of thought, should be exceedingly cautious in dealing with these subjects, and should bear in mind that when it is admitted that we cannot "prove" the existence of a personal God, this admission is made just in the same sense, and in no other, in which it is admitted that we cannot "prove" our own existence or that of an external world. If any one should dispute this, it would be interesting to see how he would set about the task of defending the ground he maintained.

An objection to a miracle urged by Voltaire, and

* Note B, Appendix.

page 17 since frequently repeated by others, may require a passing notice. It can scarcely be said to lay claim to any basis in reason, but it evidently appears to some persons to have such a basis. The objection is, that according to human conception of a perfect machine, that will be deemed most perfect which requires least guidance and superintendence from the mechanist who designed and made it—that the need of divine interference with the order of nature, implied in a miracle, would manifest imperfection either in the design or the performance of the works of creation, and would therefore be derogatory to the wisdom of God. It is strange that those who advance this argument seem to have altogether missed the purpose for which miracles are alleged to have been wrought. I certainly am not aware that any believer in miracles ever imagined that a miracle was performed for the purpose of rectifying some imperfection or supplying some deficiency in nature. It is not easy to understand how such an extraordinary misconception could have arisen on this subject—a misconception not very creditable to professed thinkers. A miracle, according to its definition, is alleged to have been wrought for a providential purpose—for the sake of the moral beings who inhabit the earth. Nature, that is the material world, needed no remedial measures. No believer ever defended miracles on the ground that it did. It was rather man who had abused the freedom given him, who required a remedy. Of the works of nature it is written, "God gave them a law which cannot be broken." But He, while

—"Binding nature fast in fate,

Left free the human will."

It was in connection with human redemption that miracles became necessary. In elucidation of this truth, I will venture to cite (having never seen the page 18 passage cited) some weighty words of that great genius, Bacon:—"I believe . . . that at the first, the soul of man was not produced by heaven or earth, but was breathed immediately from God; so that the ways and proceedings of God with spirits are not included in nature, that is in the laws of heaven and earth, but are reserved to the law of His secret will and grace; wherein God worketh still and resteth not from the work of redemption, as He rested from the work of creation, but continueth working till the end of the world; what time that work also shall be accomplished, and an eternal Sabbath shall ensue. Likewise, that whensoever God doth transcend the laws of nature by miracles, which may ever seem as new creations, He never cometh to that point or pass but in regard of the work of redemption, which is the greater, and whereto all God's signs and miracles do refer."—(Bacon's Works. Montagu. Vol. vii., p. 13.)*

I have said above that the objection referred to can scarcely be allowed to lay claim to any basis in reason. If any pretence to such a basis is made, it must be on the assumption that man has an absolute knowledge of the Divine Nature and attributes, and is quite competent to determine a priori how the Almighty ought to have created the world and all it contains. Only on such a presumptuous hypothesis could man be entitled to pronounce on the right of the Supreme Being to exercise again on earth creative power. For it is clear for reasons already given, that no observed facts or accumulated experiences could lead up to such a generalisation as would authorise man to criticise God's mode of procedure in governing the world. The conditions under which alone human thought is possible, namely, the forms of time and space, and the cate-

* Note C, Appendix.

page 19 gories, preclude such a conception of the infinite nature of God as would justify the assumption referred to.

There is an argument occasionally relied upon that I must not be supposed to have ignored, although it has been implicitly answered in what has been already said, I allude to what is usually called "the correlation of forces." It is contended that the actual forces of nature are so correlated and mutually inter-dependent, that no intervention of any power can be conceived which would not utterly disturb and subvert the whole equilibrium of nature. But surely such a miraculous intervention as that implied for the purpose of suspending and interrupting some law or laws of nature, could as certainly provide against the supposed collateral and consequent disturbances arising out of that intervention, as affect the direct and primary object which constituted the miracle. If the one has been shown not to be repugnant to reason, it is perfectly clear no valid argument can be established against the other. And here, it may be remarked, that such an interference with the equilibrium of nature is not even beyond the province and power of man's free will and actions. Let me illustrate what I mean by a local circumstance. A Forestry Statute was recently enacted by the Legislature of this country on the express ground that without it man might wilfully destroy the forests, and thereby lessen the rain-fall, and thus alter and possibly permanently injure the climate of this country. But according to the principle of immutable law, what would this be but a disturbance of the atmospheric status over the whole earth?

I conclude with repeating what I began by saying, that it is no part of ray present object to enter into the consideration of any questions connected page 20 with the evidence on which the miracles recorded in Holy Scripture are accepted and believed by Christians. That would have led far beyond my present scope or purpose. I desire to guard myself from any misunderstanding on this head. If a miracle had never been wrought, or even pretended, my argument would remain substantially the same; "the scientific question relates to the possibility of supernatural occurrences at all." What I have endeavoured to maintain is, that a miracle, that is to say, a visible interruption or suspension of the order of nature for a providential purpose, is neither incredible nor repugnant to reason. The task that I set before me though a difficult, was a very limited one; it was to obtain an answer to the question—"Is a miracle repugnant to reason?" I have briefly endeavored to show that it cannot be contradictory to any intuition of reason, which is concerned only with individual objects; nor to any necessary truths of reason, because these are only necessarily true within the mind itself; nor to any deduction of reason from observed facts, because the mind possesses no absolute criterion of the conformity of intellectual notions to such observed facts. I have further striven to make it clear that the invariability of the order or laws of nature, although a practical regulative truth, cannot be converted into, and established as, a universal proposition, in the sense of a truth of geometry, so that its denial should involve either a contradiction or an obvious absurdity. I have incidentally pointed out that some of the greatest modern thinkers support these views.

I would here as it were parenthetically remark, that I have not thought it needful to consider Schelling's claim for the absolute truth of that which he imagines is grasped by the "intellectual intuition" out of ordinary consciousness. This has indeed page 21 been accepted by some English writers; but the acute criticism of this doctrine by Sir William Hamilton—that, even if true, it could be made no use of in argument but by means of ordinary consciousness and ordinary reasoning—with which by the hypothesis it could have no connection—is decisive as to the impossibility of its being made available as a criterion or test of the truth of any concrete subject-matter.

I have no confidence in the potency of arguments such as I have used, even though advanced with ten-fold the ability to which I could lay any claim, to draw any human heart from scepticism to believe in the Christian religion, and therefore in miracles. All that I have ventured to hope I might do in these few pages is, to guard the young and unwary against being led away from the faith of the Gospel by the positive assertions, made with such astonishing audacity by many modern writers, as to the contradiction they allege exists between miracles and the human reason. The arrogant manner in which physicists and physiologists, whose writings make patent their very imperfect acquaintance with mental science, practically assert their own infallibility on psychological and metaphysical questions, although it may appear almost ludicrous to some persons, not unfrequently staggers the young, and too often leads them to acquiesce in their dogmatical assertions. My object has simply been to show that the positive statements referred to are not altogether trustworthy. If through the blessing of God, what I have written should produce even this effect in the mind of any one of my readers, "I commend him to God and the Word of His grace" for His thorough confirmation in the faith.