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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39


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When an author has the fortune to be attacked by every succeeding writer upon the same subject for upwards of a century, and when his opinions, so far from being crushed out, become more widely spread by each "refutation," it induces a supicion that "sophisms" so constantly refuted may be truisms after all. This has been notably the case with the essay here reprinted. Since its first publication in 1748 it has been the bête noire of Christian controversialists. Campbell, Paley, De Quincey, Chalmers, Whately, Babbage, Mansel, Mozley, and a shoal of ministerial minnows sailing in the wake of these theological Tritons, have felt it incumbent upon them to refute the "sophisms" of the sceptic Hume. Yet no one will say that unbelief in the miraculous is upon the decline. On the contrary, never were Christians less anxious to insist upon the supernatural elements of their religion, and never more willing to seek reconcilements with science; never were there so many trained minds with perfect confidence that the uniformity of nature has never been disturbed by coups d'état célestes.

In truth, Hume's argument, though so constantly assailed, has never been refuted at all. It has been misapprehended and evaded, but it remains as unanswerable as that of Archbishop Tillotson against the real presence. And this, because in point of fact—the terms being rightly understood—it is a truism. John Stuart Mill well says : "Hume's celebrated principle that nothing is credible which is contradictory to experience, or at variance with laws of nature, is merely this very plain and harmless proposition, that whatever is contradictory to a complete induction is incredible. That such a maxim as this should either be accounted a dangerous heresy, or mistaken for a great and recondite truth, speaks ill for the state of philosophical speculation on such subjects." ("System of Logic," book 3, chap, xxv., sec. 2.)

Few essays so brief, for it must be borne in mind that the first part contains the argument complete in itself, have been so persistently misunderstood. The whole school of Christian-evidence writers have either argued as it were an à priori. argument against the possibility of miracles, or as if it were an argument against testimony being received for wonders; whereas it is neither the one nor the other. Principal Campbell, as Mill points out,* considered it a complete answer to Hume's doctrine (that things are incredible which are contrary to the uniform course of experience) that we do not disbelieve,

* "Logic." See the "Three Essays," p. 217.

page 2 merely because the chances were against them, things in strict conformity to the uniform course of experience. Yet no one would call an unusual combination which was found by experience to occur among the whole number of possible cases a miracle, save in the popular, indefinite style of speech which is totally unfit for theological, and still more for logical, purposes. And here lies the gist of the whole misunderstanding. Everyone knows that both etymologically and popularly the word miracle is equivalent simply to a wonder. But Hume's argument is not directed against the occurrence of wonders, prodigies or unprecedented events; though it offers a criterion by which the value of their evidence can be judged. He was not such a simpleton as to contend, or intend, that no testimony could be sufficient to add to our knowledge of the laws of nature. His argument is based on the theological definition of miracles as infractions of the laws of nature by a supernatural being or beings exterior to those laws.

The essay has done much to modify the views of theologians, and they have since its time done their best to class their miracles under "unknown laws." Yet Canon Mozley, certainly the ablest late defender of miracles, admits that "their evidential value depends entirely upon their deviating from the order of nature." A miracle in the theological sense denotes not simply the counteraction of one natural law by another, which is not opposed to experience, but the suppression of the law of uniformity of cause and effect, which experience shows to be universal, and in which all other laws are included.* As Hume puts it, unless there were an uniform experience against any miraculous event, "the event would not merit that appellation." If, by some unknown law, persons could, under given conditions, be raised from the dead, such facts, however wonderful, would take their place in the vast scheme of nature, and no more be properly entitled supernatural than any other. But such an event is classed as a miracle, as our essayist says, "because it has never been observed in any age or country."

The instance of the King of Siam rejecting accounts of ice has often, foolishly enough, been emoted against Hume by opponents who failed to notice the distinction between a discovery of the laws of nature and their suspension. If we could be taken to a region where the dead rise at command with the same certainty that water freezes when the temperature is below a certain point the fact would be indubitable, but the miracle would be gone. We cannot admit a proposition as a law of nature and yet believe a fact in contradiction to it. We must disbelieve the alleged fact, or believe that we are

* See Mill's "Essay on Theism," p. 222.

page 3 mistaken in admitting the supposed law. In gaining the fact the miracle is lost; because to this, the supernatural nature of the fact, all testimony is incompetent. Mr. W. R. Greg pointed out that* the assertion of a miracle being performed involves three elements, a fact and two inferences. It predicates, first, that such an event took place; second, that it was brought about by the act and will of the individual to whom it is attributed; third, that it could not have been produced by natural means. The fact may have been correctly observed, and yet either or both of the inferences be unwarranted; or either inference may be rendered unsound by the slightest deviation from accuracy in the observation or statement of the fact. Nay, any new discovery in science may show that the inference which has hitherto appeared quite irrefragable, was, in fact, wholly unwarranted and incorrect.

But it has been said : Assume a supernatural power and the antecedent improbability of supernatural visitations is removed. Paley says, "In a word, once believe that there is a God, and miracles are not incredible." To this assertion Mill has been thought to lend his authority. He endorses Hume's argument only as substantiating that "no evidence can prove a miracle to anyone who did not previously believe the existence of a being or beings with supernatural power; or who believes himself to have full proof that the character of the Being whom he recognises, is inconsistent with his having seen fit to interfere on the occasion in question." Now this statement is inadequate. The existence of God, if He be the Supreme Cause of the order of the universe, is rather an additional difficulty to those who think that order was created by Him and subsequently disturbed. The argument against miracles rests on our experience of the order of nature; and is, therefore, equally valid whether a cause of that order be assumed or not. For the only test of the will or way of working of such a cause is to be found within the order itself. Any interference with that order still has to be proved by testimony; and the question remains whether it is more credible that men have been deceived, or that the laws of nature have been disturbed?

This last is the aspect of the argument which comes home to the popular mind. Every individual has experience that men lie and make mistakes; none that miracles occur. Experiment upon experiment; the records of generation after

* "Creed of Christendom," vol. ii., p. 136.

Evidences of Christianity. "Preparatory Considerations."

"System of Logic," Bk. 3, ch. xxv., sec. 2. Dr. Farrar's abuse of Mill's reasoning is well exposed by the author of "Supernatural Religion," Pt. 1, ch. iii.

page 4 generation; the very stability of our life depends upon and confirms the belief in the uniformity of law. "In the case of miracles, then," says Professor Tyndall, "it behoves us to understand the weight of the negative before we assign a value to the positive; to comprehend the protest of nature before we attempt to measure with it the assertions of men."*

Paley's supposition of "twelve men whose probity and good sense I had well known," who should be ready, one after another, to be racked, burnt or strangled, rather than give up the assertion that they had witnessed miracles, does not even meet the ease. For how could it be shown that it was impossible for these twelve men to be deceived? Twelve infallible men would be as incredible as any miracle they were supposed to assert. Paley's reference is simply a disingenuous attempt to imply that twelve good witnesses testified to the Christian miracles at the time and in the place where they are said to have occurred, and that they suffered on this account. Whereas not one single original witness is known; nor can even any early Christian be proved to have suffered for his belief in miracles.

Professor Huxley, who, in his admirable little book on Hume, very captiously, as it seems to me, takes exception to Hume's defining miracles in their theological sense, agrees that his arguments on the matter of testimony resolve themselves into a simple statement of the dictates of common-sense, which may be expressed in this canon: the more a statement of fact conflicts with previous experience, the more complete must be the evidence which is to justify us in believing it. It is upon this principle that everyone carries on the business of common life. "If," continues the Professor, "a man tells me he saw a piebald horse in Piccadilly, I believe him without hesitation. The thing itself is likely enough, and there is no imaginable motive for his deceiving me. But if the same person tells me he observed a zebra there, I might hesitate a little about accepting his testimony, unless I were well satisfied, not only as to his previous acquaintance with zebras, but as to his powers and opportunities of observation in the present case. If, however, my informant assured me that he beheld a centaur trotting down that famous thoroughfare, I should emphatically decline to credit his statement; and this even if he were the most saintly of men, and ready to suffer martyrdom in support of his belief. In such a case I could, of course, entertain no doubt of the good faith of the witness; it would be only his competency, which, unfortunately,

* "Fragments of Science," "On Miracles and Special Providence,"' vol. ii., p. 33. 1879.

page 5 has very little to do with good faith or intensity of conviction, which I should presume to call in question."*

The sceptic being securely entrenched in the first part of the essay, the second carries the war into the super naturalists' camp. With the confidence of a thorough student of human nature and historian, Hume gives his conviction that there is not in all history an wholly trustworthy testimony to miraculous events. Huxley says on this passage (page 10 of this edition) :—"These are grave assertions, but they are least likely to be challenged by those who have made it their business to weigh evidence and to give their decision under a due sense of the moral responsibility which they incur in so doing."

Miracles are only alleged to have happened among people devoid of scientific information and critical spirit. The learned author of "Supernatural Religion," in his chapter on "The Age of Miracles," gives abundant proof that the miracles now credited arose in a time of the grossest superstition, among a people believing in the every-day operations of angels and demons, full of religious excitement, and prone to exaggeration. In an age of science, where no one expects miracles, they do not occur, and most are ready to take as evidence of superstition the belief in any others than those in faith of which they have themselves been reared. The same silent process which has destroyed the belief in fairies and witchcraft has undermined all other supernatural beliefs, and they only await the application of criticism to be levelled with the dust. It is true the universe remains a mystery. In one sense every atom is a miracle. It is so because man's faculties are finite and the relations of nature infinite. But the mystery of nature affords no ground for belief in miraculous events, the only testimony tor which has been handed down from superstitious and ill-informed ancestors. It is rather a reason for abiding by the only light we have—the light which comes from reason and observation. The part of a wise man is to study and investigate, and "proportion his belief to the evidence."

There being slight variations in the various editions of the Essay, the present text has been carefully compared with all those in the library of the British Museum.

* "English Men of Letters : Hume," p. 134.