The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29
Human and Circumstantial Testimony Compared
Human and Circumstantial Testimony Compared.
Suppose that a man tells you that he saw a person strike another and kill him; that is testimonial evidence of the fact of murder. But it is possible to have circumstantial evidence of the fact of murder. That is to say, you may find a man dying with a wound upon his head having exactly the form and character of the wound which is made by an axe, and with due precaution you may conclude with the utmost certainty that the man has been murdered—is dying in consequence of the violence inflicted by that implement. We are very much in the habit of considering circumstantial evidence as of less value than testimonial evidence, and it may be in many cases where the circumstances are not perfectly clear and perfectly intelligible that it is a dangerous and uncertain kind of evidence; but it must not be forgotten that in many cases it is quite as good as testimonial evidence, and that in many cases it is a great deal better than testimonial evidence. For example, take the case to which I referred just now. The circumstantial evidence is better and more convincing than the testimonial evidence, for it is impossible under the circumstances that I have mentioned to suppose that page 10 the man had met his death from any cause but the violent blow of the axe. The circumstantial evidence in favour of a murder having been committed, in that case is as complete and as convincing as evidence can be. It is evidence which is open to no doubt and no falsification. But the testimony of the witness is open to multitudinous doubts. He may have been actuated by malice. It has constantly happened that even an accurate man has declared a thing has happened in some particular way, when a careful analysis of the circumstantial evidence has shown that it did not happen in that way, but in some other way.
Now we must turn to our three hypotheses. Let me first direct your attention to what is to be said about the hypothesis of the eternity of this state of things in which we now are. What will first strike you is that that is a hypothesis which, whether true or false, is not capable of verification by evidence; for in order to secure testimony to an eternity of duration you must have an eternity of witnesses or an infinity of circumstances, and neither of these are attainable. It is utterly impossible that such evidence should be carried beyond a certain point of time, and all that could be said at most would be that there was nothing to contradict the hypothesis. But when you look, not to the testimonial evidence—which might not be good for much in this case—but to the circumstantial evidence, then you find that this hypothesis is absolutely incompatible with that circumstantial evidence, and the latter is of so plain and so simple a character that it is impossible in any way to escape from the conclusions which it forces upon us.