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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 16

A Few Remarks in Answer to "Zetalethes."

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A Few Remarks in Answer to "Zetalethes."

Zetalethes has published a criticism on my small pamphlet, entitled—"A Reply to the Question, is a Miracle opposed to Reason?" In the few observations I am about to make I have no intention of either adding to, or retracting anything I have said; nor even of either qualifying or enforcing any argument I have used. I merely wish to show that my meaning has been unaccountably missed, and that in several instances a construction has been put upon my language which it was not intended to convey, and of which I think it does not admit. I shall, therefore, confine myself to commenting upon those parts of my critic's reply in which he most obviously seems to have misunderstood me. I shall not follow him into any consideration of the theories of Compte and Lubbock, which have no tendency to establish the only point which would be fatal to my position, namely, that the immutability of the order of nature admits of demonstration, and is a necessary truth of reason. I am, so far at least as my present argument is concerned, altogether indifferent as to any collateral issues.

I most assuredly thought, when I defined a miracle in the sense I intended to use it, as "a visible suspension of the order of nature for a providential purpose," that my definition would be intelligible enough to any well-informed person. I had no suspicion that I should be misunderstood to imply that this referred to any but a divine action. I took it for granted that I should be understood to mean that this providential interference had reference to the page 4 act of God who watches over his moral creatures. I candidly confess that I thought it wholly unnecessary for the information of anyone at all likely to read my pamphlet, that I should insert the words 'by Almighty God' between the words "suspension of the laws of nature" and "for a providential purpose." Indeed, a miracle, as distinguished from a marvel, involves the notion of God's action. It was therefore with some surprise that I read—"By the Bishop's own terms of combat any person has a complete right to deny, for argument's sake, the assumption of a personal God"—(p. 7); that is to say, deny that which is involved in the very idea of a miracle. Surely I was perfectly justified in saying, that the denial of that which was essential to the very idea of a miracle, would be to leave only a meaningless residium about which no one would care to argue.

At page 20 there is a passage that I am obliged to cite at length, lest I should be supposed to have misrepresented the writer. "I shall now make certain incidental criticisms on detached portions of the pamphlet. On pages 10, 15, 21, appears a fallacy that colours the whole throughout. Hume is quoted (p. 10.) to show that there is a mental process in inductive inference, and on page 15, Dean Mansel tells us 'that our belief in the constancy of natural order is explained by a law of our mental constitution, and that it is a law of mind and not of matter.' Again, on page 21, the Bishop is angry with the physicists and physiologists for their ignorance of mental science. Now, in the first place, who denies that there is a step taken by the mind in the inductive process; in what operation of logic is not that involved? Next, it is not true that our belief in the constancy of natural order is a law of mind and not of matter." I think this is one of the most remarkable specimens of criticism that has page 5 ever come under my observation. The writer has certainly not taken the trouble to understand the very plain words of Hume, usually deemed a lucid writer. What he is cited by me to show, is, that there is no legitimate chain of reasoning connecting the conclusion with the premises in inductive inference. His words are—"It must be acknowledged that there is a consequence drawn by the mind, that there is a step taken, a process of thought, and an inference which wants to be explained;—as a philosopher I want to learn the foundation of this inference." Hume, in fact, contemptuously repudiates the claim of the inductive process to satisfy the requirements of reason. When, therefore, the writer goes on to ask, "Who denies that there is a step taken by the mind in the inductive process?" I am fairly puzzled, because this was the very thing that Hume did deny. It was on account of his denial of this assumption that his testimony was adduced by me. Has the writer, then, been all along criticising my argument without knowing what it really is? What I have asserted, and proved (so far as this can be proved by the candid admission of opponents of miracles, such as Hume, Kant, and Mill,) is that there is no legitimate inference in the inductive process, that the so-called inductive reasoner has jumped to his conclusion. But this evidently is an aspect of the subject with which my learned critic is not very familiar.

Notwithstanding what I have just said, I am not quite satisfied that I have rightly understood my critic. Can he possibly mean, when he says that "there is a step taken," that an inference has been legitimately drawn in spite of a missing link in the chain of reasoning? If this is what he means, then he has conceded my point, and my argument is established. He goes on to ask "in what operation of logic is not this involved If he really intends page 6 to say, that there is a missing link in every operation of logic or process of reasoning, I can only protest against such an absurdity. But it is obvious to remark, that if this be really the case no possible beneficial result could be derived from any argument whatever. This would seem to be a somewhat unexpected conclusion for a professed "rationalist" to acquiesce in. If he intended to convey, that in ordinary processes of reasoning it was very usual to omit certain links, which, being admitted on all hands, it was desirable for the sake of brevity to suppress, no one would dispute that. But the question now in dispute is the link which involves the main issue of the controversy. To say that this may be dispensed with is absurd.

But let me proceed. He misquotes my extract from Dean mansel: he somewhat carelessly omits the words, "as thus explained," and also substitutes "is" for "may be," very materially altering Dean Mansel's meaning, who did not make a positive assertion. This is not exactly what might have been expected from a philosophical critic. He then asserts, that "it is not true that our belief in the constancy of natural order is a law of mind and not of matter." Let us try, without having recourse to any "handbook" of philosophy, (a class of books far more likely to mislead than to benefit anyone on such subjects,) whether Dean Hansel's meaning cannot be ascertained by some process intelligible to all who will be at the pains of thinking for a few minutes. Any simple illustration will do. There is a piece of ice; it is brought near to the fire; it melts. These external visible facts are directly presented in intuition. This may be repeated a hundred times with the same result. That is all that the facts will give us. But the mind postulates a came. Mankind have, as a matter of fact, always assumed a cause. There "may be" some law of mind compelling them to page 7 assume a cause. Mr. Mill, and many other writers of his school of thought, distinctly tell us that this cause is imaginary; that we perceive nothing but the sequence of events, and that the hypothesis of a cause, which the mind interposes, is not found in the facts, and is not needed. I contend therefore that Dean Mansel is strictly correct, and that the belief in question "may be" the result of a law of mind; but certainly the notion of cause, or law, or necessary sequence, is not given by the facts themselves.

The following passage requires some notice:—"Thus I have, grounds of reason, to which he himself has appealed, combated the Bishop's proposition. I repeat, that within the limits of the question—'Is a miracle reasonable?' anyone is at liberty to argue on rational grounds alone. After thus defining the ground the Bishop has no right whatever to go outside of it to fling any imputation. This question, as stated, is a challenge to rationalists, and when they meet it on the ground on which it is placed by the challenger, he has no right to complain."—(p. 23.) How a single word of this passage applies to anything I have written, I am wholly unable to imagine. In the first place, I have proposed no such question as—"Is a miracle reasonable?" or (as is attributed to me at page 6)—"Are miracles to be believed on grounds of reason alone?" It would never have occurred to me to write in such loose ambiguous terms. The writer has been drawing on his own imagination. He has set up a man of straw to contend with. In the next place, I "challenge" on one. It is rather those who hold the opinions I do who are challenged. We are taunted with the reiterated assertion, that miracles are repugnant to reason. This is decidedly the tone adopted by a highly lauded book, Supernatural Religion, extracts from which work I gave. I am also page 8 told a miracle is as absurd as the notion of squaring the circle. I did not come forward in the capacity of a theologian to defend miracles; I distinctly guarded myself from being supposed to do anything of the land. I accepted the challenge made by others who had appealed to reason as decisive against miracles. My position simply is—Cæsarem appellasti? ad Cæsarem ibis. When I strive to ascertain wherein the repugnancy to reason consists, I am told that a miracle implies a contravention of the uniformity of nature, that this is impossible, and therefore that it is repugnant to reason. I admit that the alleged consequence would follow if the uniformity of the order of nature could be established as a necessary truth of reason. I therefore ask to see the premises fairly stated, as well as the logical process by means of which the asserted conclusion is deduced from them. I can obtain no answer from the "rationalists." I ask for proof from reason, or in accordance with reason, and I am told I must be contented with "probability," for the writer says—"How can the Bishop, after putting the case on the ground of reason pretend to treat questions of greater or lesser probability as collateral?" Several eminent writers are quoted to prove (what nobody doubted) the probability of the immutability of the order of nature. He then says—"So far is he (Dr. Brown) from thinking the laws of natural uniformity a mere assumption, he believes, like Dr. Thomson, that the vast preponderance of probability is on its side." This, as everybody could see, is simply evading the point really at issue. I did not want to know what any man, however great his authority might be, believed to be highly probable, I asked for a logical proof from the "rationalists" of the immutability of nature, on which the argument for the impossibility of miracles is supposed to rest; but hitherto I have asked in vain. They tell me, after page 9 all their boasting and their taunts, that they have nothing to offer me but "preponderance of probability."

It certainly does appear rather too bad after this utter failure, after this ignominious retreat on his part, after confessing that he has no proof to adduce, that the writer should venture to say—"I repeat * anyone is at liberty to argue on rational grounds alone." He evidently has some misgiving as to the validity of his reasoning. After all his parade of authorities, and claim to have refuted my position; after his appeal to reason and to the inductive method, as decisive of the question under discussion, in reference to the ground on which the belief in the immutability of the order of nature rested, no one could have been prepared for the following humble appeal ad misericordiam—"Surely anyone by force of plain sense, can understand that the proper mental processes to employ in interpreting any phenomena of nature," &c.—(p. 21.) Here argument seems to be deliberately abandoned; and it is assumed that "anyone" can settle by "plain sense" (whatever in this connection that may mean,) a question which had perplexed philosophers until the subtle intellect of Hume solved the difficulty. This really is, as has been before said, an abandonment of reason and an appeal to ignorant prejudice. It sounds strange as coming from one who avows that he is dealing with the question from a rationalist's point of view.

At page 21, he apparently fails to see my object in bringing forward an argument attributed to Mr. Buskin, "that the uniformity of nature not being established, the most startling apparent departures from it would be attended by no evidential effect. He seems to think this puts me in a "dilemma." Had I thought so I need hardly have brought the passage to light. And the same may be said of the other passage quoted. The writer seems to forget, page 10 what I did not lose sight of, that I was dealing with a "simple issue;" which is the assertion, that a miracle is impossible because the laws of nature are uniform. Ruskin and other modern thinkers perceive that this "uniformity" of nature is no longer tenable. This admission is, coming from the opposite camp, important to my argument. In the estimation of my critic my argument is either "eminently uncandid or silly." Some specimens of his qualifications, as a philosophical critic, have already been adduced. I find it convenient in argument to deal with one subject at a time. When my opponents concede the question of "uniformity," I shall be prepared to deal with the other branch of the "dilemma." He proceeds, "If there were no order of nature," &c., again evading the real issue, which is, not, whether there is "no order of nature," but whether it is a truth having such a basis in reason, that its denial involved a contradiction or obvious absurdity.

Again, Mr. Mill's authority is quoted for the purpose of invalidating my argument. His words are—"The character of necessity * * attributed to mathematical truths is an illusion." I was quite aware of Mr. Mill's opinion on this subject, and therefore cautiously qualified what I said with the words—"as is generally admitted." Mr. Mill repudiates necessary truth altogether. Nevertheless the human mind recognizes a distinction between necessary and contingent truth. The writer alludes to the discovery of the planet Neptune as an evidence of the uniformity of the laws of nature. This will illustrate the distinction I maintain. Why were astronomers so highly gratified at this discovery? Was it not that additional evidence was thus obtained in confirmation of the truth of the law of gravity? But, let me ask, is any mathematician on the look out for fresh evidence to prove that two page 11 straight lines will not inclose a space, or that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles? If not, why not? Simply because these belong to a class of necessary truths, and the other does not. Of course men may shut their eyes to this distinction, as did the author to whom I referred on the subject of squaring the circle; as did also Mr. Mill, who expressed his belief that in some other world 2 and 2 might make 5. But the distinction exists, and will continue to be recognised by all who have no pet theory to prop up and maintain to which it is repugnant. Mr. Mill contends that mathematical ideas, like notions derived from physical facts, are mere generalisations from experience. Having failed, that is, to establish physics on a a basis of certitude, he endeavours to lower mathematics down to the level of contingency. But if mathematical ideas, in order to establish their truth, must, as he asserts, be verified by their agreement with the physical phenomena that suggest them, then the independent value of pure scientific truth, hitherto attributed to mathematics by the acutest intellects the world has known, must be deemed an illusion, until, at least, some greater metaphysician than Mr. Mill has proved himself to be, shall have succeeded in refuting Kant's demonstration, that a criterion of external material truth is not only impossible, but contradictory.

At page 23, there is a very strange specimen of criticism. The writer says—"Is it seriously pretended that the putting into actum new natural laws (the italics are the writer's) by the agency of human volition as, e. g., by cutting down the forests, and thus acting through second causes, is the same thing as a 'miraculous suspension and interruption of some laws of nature?' Surely the fallacy could not mislead a child." I have heard of a newly discovered law; but who ever before heard of a "new natural page 12 law?" But passing over this novel and unintelligible mode of dealing with the subject, where, in the passage referred to, have I said that "acting through second causes is the same thing" &c.? This is such an evident misrepresentation of what I did say, while merely endeavouring to "illustrate" an argument, complete in itself, but not to add to its force, that I shall leave it to the candid consideration of any reader who may take the trouble to refer to it. If the illustration affords no help, it certainly, as an illustration only, cannot weaken the argument.

I conclude, by again reminding the reader that I have been engaged only on an intellectual question. The assertion is constantly made that the immutability of the order of nature has been so absolutely proved, that a miracle, as such, is impossible. I have not now come forward to prove that a miracle is possible; but I deny the truth of the assertion that the immutability of the order of nature can be so proved, that its denial should involve either a contradiction or an obvious absurdity. Hitherto no such proof has been given. Till such proof has been given I shall continue to deem the assertion an idle boast. Reason may, or may not, be competent to the task of rendering miracles perfectly intelligible to the human mind,—a question I do not enter upon. But reason, at any rate, up to the present time has been able to refute all arguments advanced for the purpose of proving that they are impossible. This, I am aware, may by some be deemed a mere negative result. It is one, however, I venture to think, which may be productive of very important consequences.

Lyon and Blair, Printers, Lambton Quay, Wellington.