Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion




THE argument of those who assert the possibility and reality of miracles generally takes the shape of an attack, more or less direct, upon our knowledge of the order of nature. To establish an exception they contest the rule. "Whatever difficulty there is in believing in miracles in general," he says, "arises from the circumstance that they are in contradiction to or unlike the order of nature. To estimate the force of this difficulty, then, we must first understand what kind of belief it is which we have in the order of nature; for the weight of the objection to the miraculous must depend on the nature of the belief to which the miraculous is opposed." [33:1] Dr. Mozley defines the meaning of the phrase, "order of nature," as the connection of that part of the order of nature of which we are ignorant with that part of which we know, the former being expected to be such and such, because the latter is. But how do we justify this expectation of likeness[33:2] We cannot do so, he affirms, and all our arguments are mere statements of the belief itself, and not reasons to account for it. It may be said, e.g., that when a fact of nature has gone on repeating itself a certain time, such repetition shows that there is a permanent cause at work, and that a permanent cause produces permanently recurring effects. But what is there, he inquires, to show the existence of a permanent cause? Nothing. The effects which have taken place show a cause at work to the extent of these effects, but not further. That this cause is of a more permanent nature we have no evidence. Why, then, do we expect the further continuance of these effects? [33:3] We can only say: because we believe the future will be like the past. After a physical phenomenon has even occurred every day for years we have nothing but the past repetition to justify our certain expectation of its future repetition. [33:4] Do we think it giving a reason for our confidence in the future to say that, though no man has had experience of what is future, every man has had experience of what was future? It is true, he admits, that what is future becomes at every step of our advance what was future, but that which is now still future is not the least altered by that circumstance; it is as invisible, as unknown, and as unexplored as if it were the very beginning and the very starting-point of nature. At this starting-point of nature what would a man know of its future course? Nothing. At this moment he knows no more. [34:1] What ground of reason, then, can we assign for our expectation that any part of the course of nature will the next moment be like what it has been up to this moment -- i.e., for our belief in the uniformity of nature? None. It is without a reason. It rests upon no rational ground, and can be traced to no rational principle. [34:2] The belief in the order of nature being thus an "unintelligent impulse" of which we cannot give any rational account, Dr. Mozley concludes, the ground is gone upon which it could be maintained that miracles, is opposed to the order of nature, were opposed to reason. A miracle, then, in being opposed to our experience is not only not opposed to necessary reasoning, but to any reasoning. [34:3] We need not further follow the Bampton Lecturer, as, with clearness and ability, he applies this reasoning to the argument of "Experience," until he pauses triumphantly to exclaim: "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." [34:4]

We need not here enter upon any abstract argument regarding the permanence of cause: it will be sufficient to deal with these objections in a simpler and more direct way. Dr. Mozley, of course, acknowledges that the principle of the argument from experience is that "which makes human life practicable; which utilises all our knowledge; which makes the past anything more than an irrelevant picture to us; for of what use is the experience of the past to us unless we believe the future will be like it?" [34:5] Our knowledge in all things is relative, and there are sharp and narrow limits to human thought. It is, therefore, evident that, in the absence of absolute knowledge, our belief must be accorded to that of which we have more full cognizance, rather than to that which is contradicted by all that we do know. It may be "irrational" to feel entire confidence that the sun will "rise" tomorrow, or that the moon will continue to wax and wane as in the past, but we shall without doubt retain this belief, and reject any assertion, however positive, that the earth will stand still tomorrow, or that it did so some thousands of years ago. Evidence must take its relative place in the finite scale of knowledge and thought, and if we do not absolutely know anything, so long as one thing is more fully established than another, we must hold to that which rests upon the more certain basis. Our belief in the invariability of the order of nature, therefore, being based upon more certain grounds than any other human opinion, we must of necessity refuse credence to a statement supported by infinitely less complete testimony, and contradicted by universal experience, that phenomena subversive of that order occurred many years ago, or we must cease to believe anything at all. If belief based upon unvarying experience be irrational, how much more irrational must belief be which is opposed to that experience. According to Dr. Mozley, it is quite irrational to believe that a stone dropped from the hand, for instance, will fall to the ground. It is true that all the stones we ourselves have ever dropped, or seen dropped, have so fallen, and equally true that all stones so dropped as far back as historic records, and those still more authentic and ancient records of earth's crust itself, go, have done the same; but that, he contends, does not justify our belief, upon any grounds of reason, that the next stone we drop will do so. If we be told, however, that upon one occasion a stone so dropped, instead of falling to the ground, rose up into the air and continued there, we have only two courses open to us: either to disbelieve the fact, and attribute the statement to error of observation, or to reduce the past to a mere irrelevant picture, and the mind to a blank page equally devoid of all belief and of all intelligent reasoning.

The Argument from Experience
Dr. Mozley's argument, however, is fatal to his own cause. It is admitted that miracles, "or visible suspensions of the order of nature," [35:1] cannot have any evidential force unless they be supernatural, and out of the natural sequence of ordinary phenomena. Now, unless there be an actual order of nature, how can there be any exception to it? If our belief in it be not based upon any ground of reason -- as he maintains, in order to assert that miracles or visible suspensions of that order are not contrary to reason - how can it be asserted that miracles are supernatural? If we have no rational ground for believing that the future will be like the past, what rational ground can we have for thinking that anything which happens is exceptional, and out of the common course of nature? Because it has not happened before? That is no reason whatever; because, according to his contention, the fact that a thing has happened ten millions of times is no rational. justification of our expectation that it will happen again. If the reverse of that which had happened previously took place on the ten million and first time, we should, therefore, have no rational ground for surprise, and no reason for affirming that it did not occur in the most natural manner. Because we cannot explain its cause? We cannot explain the cause of anything. Our belief that there is any permanent cause is, according to him, a mere unintelligent impulse; we can only say that there is a cause sufficient to produce an isolated effect, but we do not know the nature of that cause, and it is a mere irrational instinct to suppose that any cause produces continuous effects, or is more than momentary. A miracle, consequently, becomes a mere isolated effect from an unknown cause, in the midst of other merely isolated phenomena from unknown causes, and it is as irrational to wonder at the occurrence of what is new as to expect the recurrence of what is old. In fact, an order of nature is at once necessary, and fatal, to miracles. If there be no order of nature, miracles cannot be considered supernatural occurrences, and have no evidential value if there be an order of nature, the evidence for its immutability must consequently exceed the evidence for these isolated deviations from it. If we are unable rationally to form expectations of the future from unvarying experience in the past, it is still more irrational to call that supernatural which is merely different from our past experience. Take, for instance, the case of supposed exemption from the action of the law of gravitation, which Archbishop Trench calls "a lost prerogative of our race": [36:1] we cannot, according to Dr. Mozley, rationally affirm that next week we may not be able to walk on the sea, or ascend bodily into the air. To deny this because we have not hitherto been able to do so is unreasonable -- for, he maintains, it is a mere irrational impulse which expects that which has hitherto happened, when we have made such attempts, to happen again next week. If we cannot rationally deny the possibility, however, that we may be able at some future time to walk on the sea or ascend into the air, the statement that these phenomena have already occurred loses all its force, and such occurrences cease to be in any way supernatural. If, on the other hand, it would be irrational to affirm that we may next week become exempt from the operation of the law of gravitation, it can only be so by the admission that unvarying experience forbids the entertainment of such a hypothesis, and in that case it equally forbids belief in the statement that such acts ever actually took place. If we deny the future possibility on any ground of reason, we admit that we have grounds of reason for expecting the future to be like the past, and therefore contradict Dr. Mozley's conclusion; and if we cannot deny it upon any ground of reason, we extinguish the claim of such Occurrences in the past to any supernatural character. 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.

Anthropomorphic Divinity
Throughout the whole of his argument against the rationality of belief in the order of nature, the rigorous precision which Dr. Mozley unrelentingly demands from his antagonists is remarkable. They are not permitted to deviate by a hair's breadth from the line of strict logic, and the most absolute exactness of demonstration is required. Anything like an assumption or argument from analogy is excluded; induction is allowed to add no reason to bare and isolated facts and the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow morning is, with pitiless severity, written down as mere unintelligent impulse. Belief in the return of day, based upon the unvarying experience of all past time, is declared to be without any ground of reason. We find anything but fault with strictness of argument but it is fair that equal precision should be observed by those who assert miracles, and that assumption and inaccuracy should be excluded. Hitherto, as we have frequently pointed out, we have met with very little, or nothing, but assumption in support of miracles; but, encouraged by the inflexible spirit of Dr. Mozley's attack upon the argument from experience, we may look for similar precision from himself.

Proceeding, however, from his argument against the rationality of belief in the order of nature to his more direct argument for miracles, we are astonished to find a total abandonment of the rigorous exactness imposed upon his antagonists, and a complete relapse into assumptions. Dr. Mozley does not conceal the fact. "The peculiarity of the argument of miracles," he frankly admits, is that it begins and ends with an assumption; I mean relatively to that argument." [37:1] Such an argument is no argument at all; it is a mere petitio principii, incapable of proving anything. The nature of the assumptions obviously does not in the slightest degree affect this conclusion. It is true that the statement of the particular assumptions may constitute an appeal to belief otherwise derived, and evolve feelings which may render the calm exercise of judgment more difficult; but the fact remains absolute, that an argument which -- "begins and ends with an assumption" is totally impotent. It remains an assumption, and is not an argument at all.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate and disqualifying "peculiarity," we may examine the argument. It is as follows: We assume the existence of a Personal Deity prior to the proof of miracles in the religious sense; but with this assumption the question of miracles is at an end, because such a Being has necessarily the power to suspend those laws of nature which He has Himself enacted." [38:1] The "question of miracles," which Dr. Mozley here asserts to be at an end on the assumption of a "Personal Deity," is, of course, merely that of the possibility of miracles; but it is obvious that, even with the precise definition of Deity which is assumed, instead of the real "question" being at an end, it only commences. The power to suspend the laws of nature being assumed, the will to suspend them has to be demonstrated as also the actual occurrence of any such assumed suspension, which is contrary to reason, The subject is, moreover, complicated by the occurrence of Satanic as well as Divine suspensions of the order of nature, and by the necessity of assuming a Personal Devil as well as a personal Deity, and his power to usurp that control over the laws of nature which is assumed as the prerogative of the Deity, and to suspend them in direct opposition to God. Even Newman has recognised this, and, in a passage already quoted, he says: "For the cogency of the argument from miracles depends on the assumption that interruptions in the course of nature must ultimately proceed from God; which is not true if they may be effected by other beings without His sanction." [38:2] The first assumption, in fact, leads to nothing but assumptions connected with the unseen, unknown, and supernatural, which are beyond the limits of reason.

Dr. Mozley is well aware that his assumption of a "Personal Deity" is not susceptible of proof; [38:3] indeed, this is admitted in the statement that the definition is an "assumption." He quotes the obvious reply which may be made regarding this assumption: "Everybody must collect from the harmony of the physical universe the existence of a God, but in acknowledging a God we do not thereby acknowledge this peculiar doctrinal conception of a God. We see in the structure of nature a mind -- a universal mind -- but still a mind which only operates and expresses itself by law. Nature only does and only can inform us of mind in nature, the partner and correlative of organised matter. Nature, therefore, can speak to the existence of a God in this sense, and can speak to the omnipotence of God in a sense coinciding with the actual facts of nature; but in no other sense does nature witness to the existence of an Omnipotent Supreme Being. Of a universal mind out of nature, nature says nothing, and of an Omnipotence which does not possess an inherent limit in nature, she says nothing either. And, therefore, that conception of a Supreme Being which represents him as a Spirit independent of the physical universe, and able from a standing-place external to nature to interrupt its order, is a conception of God for which we must go elsewhere. That conception is obtained from revelation, which is asserted to be proved by miracles. But that being the case, this doctrine of Theism rests itself upon miracles, and, therefore, miracles cannot rest upon this doctrine of Theism." [39:1] With his usual fairness, Dr. Mozley, while questioning the correctness of the premiss of this argument, admits that, if established, the consequence stated would follow, "and more, for miracles, being thrown back upon the same ground on which Theism is, the whole evidence of revelation becomes a vicious circle, and the fabric is left suspended in space, revelation resting on miracles, and miracles resting on revelation." [39:2] He not only recognises, however, that the conception of a "Personal" Deity cannot be proved, but he distinctly confesses that it was obtained from revelation, [39:3] and from nowhere else, and these necessary admissions obviously establish the correctness of the premiss, and involve the consequence pointed out, that the evidence of revelation is a mere vicious circle. Dr. Mozley attempts to argue that, although the idea was first obtained through this channel, "the truth once possessed is seen to rest upon grounds of natural reason." [39:4] The argument by which he seeks to show that the conception is seen to rest upon grounds of natural reason is: "We naturally attribute to the design of a Personal Being a contrivance which is directed to the existence of a Personal Being... From personality at one end I infer personality at the other." Dr. Mozley's own sense of the weakness of his argument, however, and his natural honesty of mind oblige him continually to confess the absence of evidence. A few paragraphs further on he admits: ìNot, however, that the existence of a God is so clearly seen by reason as to dispense with faith"; [39:5] but he endeavours to convince us that faith is reason, only reason acting under peculiar circumstances: when reason draws conclusions which are not backed by experience, reason is then called faith. [39:6] The issue of the argument, he contends, is so amazing that if we do not tremble for its safety it must be on account of a practical principle, which makes us confide and trust in reasons, and that principle is faith. We are not aware that conviction can be arrived at regarding any matter otherwise than by confidence in the correctness of the reasons, and what Dr. Mozley really means by faith here is confidence and trust in a conclusion for which there are no reasons.

It is almost incredible that the same person who had just been denying grounds of reason to conclusions from unvarying experience, and excluding from them the results of inductive reasoning -- who had denounced as unintelligent impulse and irrational instinct the faith that the sun, which has risen without fall every morning since time began, will rise again tomorrow, could thus argue. In fact, from the very commencement of the direct plea for miracles calm logical reasoning is abandoned, and the argument becomes entirely ad hominem. Mere feeling is substituted for thought and, in the inability to be precise and logical, the lecturer appeals to the generally prevailing inaccuracy of thought. [40:1] "Faith, then," he concludes, "is unverified reason; reason which has not yet received the verification of the final test, but is still expectant." In science this, at the best, would be called mere "hypothesis," but accuracy can scarcely be expected where the argument continues: "Indeed, does not our heart bear witness to the fact that to believe in a God" -- i.e., a Personal God -- "is an exercise of faith?" etc. [40:2]

The deduction which is drawn from the assumption of a "Personal Deity" is, as we have seen, merely, the possibility of miracles. "Paley's criticism," said the late Dean of St. Paul's, "is, after all, the true one - 'once believe that there is a God, and miracles are not incredible.'" [40:3] The assumption, therefore, although of vital importance in the event of its rejection, does not very materially advance the cause of miracles if established. We have already seen that the assumption is avowedly incapable of proof, but it may be well to examine it a little more closely in connection with the inferences supposed to be derivable from it.

In his Bampton Lectures on "The Limit of Religious Thought" delivered in 1858, Dr. Mansel, the very able editor and disciple of Sir William Hamilton, discussed this subject with great minuteness, and although we cannot pretend here to follow him through the whole of his singular argument -- a theological application of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy -- we must sufficiently represent it. Dr. Mansel argues: "We are absolutely incapable of conceiving or proving the existence of God as he is; and so far is human reason from being able to construct a theology independent of revelation that it cannot even read the alphabet out of which that theology must be formed. [41:1] We are compelled by the constitution of our minds to believe in the existence of an Absolute and Infinite Being; but the instant we attempt to analyse we are involved in inextricable confusion. Our moral consciousness demands that we should conceive him as a Personality, but personality, as we conceive it, is essentially a limitation; to speak of an Absolute and Infinite Person is simply to use language to which no mode of human thought can possibly attach itself. [41:2] This amounts simply to an admission that our knowledge of God does not satisfy the conditions of speculative philosophy, and is incapable of reduction to an ultimate and absolute truth. [41:3] It is, therefore, reasonable that we should expect to find that the revealed manifestation of the Divine nature and attributes should likewise carry the marks of subordination to some higher truth, of which it indicates the existence, but does not make known the substance; and that our apprehension of the revealed Deity should involve mysteries inscrutable, and doubts insoluble by our present faculties, while at the same time it inculcates the true spirit in which doubt should be dealt with, by warning us that our knowledge of God, though revealed by himself, is revealed in relation to human faculties, and subject to the limitations and imperfections inseparable from the constitution of the human mind. [41:4] We need not, of course, point out that the reality of revelation is here assumed. Elsewhere, Dr. Mansel maintains that philosophy, by its own incongruities, has no claim to be accepted as a competent witness; and, on the other hand, human personality cannot be assumed as an exact copy of the Divine, but only as that which is most nearly analogous to it among finite things.[41:5] As we are, therefore, incapable on the one hand of a clear conception of the Divine Being, and have only analogy to guide us in conceiving his attributes, we have no criterion of religious truth or falsehood, enabling us to judge of the ways of God, represented by revelation, [42:1] and have no right to judge of his justice, or mercy, or goodness, by the standard of human morality.

It is impossible to conceive an argument more vicious, or more obviously warped to favour already accepted conclusions of Revelation:- As finite beings, we are not only incapable of proving the existence of God, but even of conceiving him as he is; therefore we may conceive him as he is not. To attribute personality to him is a limitation totally incompatible with the idea of an Absolute and Infinite Being, in which "we are compelled by the constitution of our minds to believe"; and to speak of him as a personality is "to use language to which no mode of human thought can possibly attach itself"; but, nevertheless, to satisfy supposed demands of our moral consciousness, we are to conceive him as a personality. Although we must define the Supreme Being as a personality, to satisfy our moral consciousness, we must not, we are told, make the same moral consciousness the criterion of the attributes of that personality. We must not suppose him to be endowed, for instance, with the perfection of morality according to our ideas of it; but, on the contrary, we must hold that his moral perfections are at best only analogous, and often contradictory, to our standard of morality. [42:2] As soon as we conceive a Personal Deity to satisfy our moral consciousness, we have to abandon the personality which satisfies that consciousness, in order to accept the characteristics of a supposed revelation, to reconcile certain statements of which we must admit that we have no criterion of truth or falsehood enabling us to judge of the ways of God.

Now, in reference to the assumption of a Personal Deity as a preliminary to the proof of miracles, it must be clearly remembered that the contents of the revelation which miracles are to authenticate cannot have any weight. Antecedently, then, it is admitted that personality is a limitation which is absolutely excluded by the ideas of the Deity which, it is asserted, the constitution of our minds compels us to form. It cannot, therefore, be rationally assumed. To admit that such a conception is false, and then to base conclusions upon it as though it were true, is inadmissible. It is child's play to satisfy our feeling and imagination by the conscious sacrifice of our reason. Moreover, Dr. Mansel admits that the conception of a Personal Deity is really derived from the revelation, which has to be rendered credible by miracles; therefore the consequence already pointed out ensues, that the assumption cannot be used to prove miracles. "It must be allowed that it is not through reasoning that men obtain the first intimation of their relation to the Deity; and that, had they been left to the guidance of their intellectual faculties alone, it is possible that no such intimation might have taken place; or, at best, that it would have been but as one guess, out of many equally plausible and equally natural." [43:1] The vicious circle of the argument is here again apparent, and the singular reasoning by which Dr. Mansel seeks to drive us into acceptance of revelation is really the strongest argument against it. The impossibility of conceiving God as he is, [43:2] which is insisted upon, instead of being a reason for assuming his personality, or for accepting Jewish conceptions of him, totally excludes such an assumption.

This "great religious assumption" is not suggested by any antecedent considerations, but is required to account for miracles, and is derived from the very revelation which miracles are to attest. "In nature and from nature," to quote words of Professor Baden Powell, "by science and by reason, we neither have, nor can possibly have, any evidence of a Deity working miracles; for that we must go out of nature and beyond science. If we could have any such evidence from nature, it could only prove extraordinary natural effects, which would not be miracles in the old theological sense, as isolated, unrelated, and uncaused; whereas no physical fact can be conceived as unique, or without analogy and relation to others, and to the whole system of natural causes." [43:3]

Dr. Mansel "does not hesitate" to affirm with Sir William Hamilton, "that the class of phenomena which requires that kindof cause we denominate a Deity is exclusively given in the phenomena of mind; that the phenomena of matter, taken by themselves, do not warrant any inference to the existence of a God." [44:1] After declaring a Supreme Being, from every point of view, inconceivable by our finite minds, it is singular to find him thrusting upon us, in consequence, a conception of that Being which almost makes us exclaim with Bacon: "It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such an opinion as is unworthy of him; for the one is unbelief the other is contumely." [44:2] Dr. Mansel asks: "Is matter or mind the truer image of God?" [44:3] But both matter and mind unite in repudiating so unworthy a conception of a God, and in rejecting the idea of suspensions of law. In the words of Spinoza: "From miracles we can neither infer the nature, the existence, nor the providence of God, but, on the contrary, these may be much better com prehended from the fixed and immutable order of nature." [44:4] Indeed, as he adds, miracles, as contrary to the order of nature, would rather lead us to doubt the existence of God. [44:5]

Six centuries before our era a noble thinker, Xenophanes of Colophon, whose pure mind soared far above the base anthropomorphic mythologies of Homer and Hesiod, and anticipated some of the highest results of the Platonic philosophy, finely said:

There is one God supreme over all gods, diviner than mortals,
Whose form is not like unto man's, and as unlike his nature;

But vain mortals imagine that gods, like themselves, are begotten
With human sensations, and voice, and corporeal members; [44:6]

So if oxen or lions had hands, and could work in man's fashion,
And trace out with chisel or brush their conception of Godhead,
Then would horses depict gods like horses, and oxen like oxen,
Each kind the Divine with its own form and nature endowing."

He illustrates this profound observation by pointing out that the Ethiopians represent their deities as black, with flat noses, while the Thracians make them blue-eyed, with ruddy complexions; and, similarly, the Medes and the Persians and Egyptians portray their gods like themselves. The Jewish idea of God was equally anthropomorphic; but their highest conception was certainly that which the least resembled themselves, and which described the Almighty as "without variableness or shadow of turning," and as giving a law to the universe which shall not be broken.

Hume's Argument From Experience
None of the arguments with which we have yet met have succeeded in making miracles in the least degree antecedently credible. On the contrary, they have been based upon mere assumptions incapable of proof and devoid of probability. On the other hand, there are the strongest reasons for affirming that such phenomena are antecedently incredible. Dr. Mozley's attack, which we discussed in the first part of this chapter, and which, of course, was chiefly based upon Hume's celebrated argument, never seriously grappled with the doctrine at all. The principle which opposes itself to belief in miracles is very simple. Our belief in the invariability of that sequence of phenomena which we call the order of nature is based upon universal experience, and it would, therefore, require an extraordinary amount of evidence to prove the truth of any allegation of miracles, or violations of that order. Where a preponderance of evidence in support of such allegations cannot be produced, reason and experience concur in attributing the ascription of miraculous character to any occurrences said to have been witnessed, to imperfect observation, mistaken inference, or some other of the numerous sources of error. Any allegation of the interference of a new and supernatural agent, upon such an occasion, to account for results in contradiction of the known sequence of cause and effect is excluded by the very same principle, for, invariable experience being as opposed to the assertion that such interference ever takes place as it is to the occurrence of miraculous phenomena, the allegation is necessarily disbelieved.

Apologists find it much more convenient to evade the simple but effective arguments of Hume than to answer them, and where it is possible they dismiss them with a sneer, and hasten on to less dangerous ground. For instance, Dr. Farrar, arguing the antecedent credibility of the miraculous, makes the following remarks: "Now, as regards the inadequacy of testimony to establish a miracle, modern scepticism has not advanced one single step beyond the blank assertion. And it is astonishing that this assertion should still be considered cogent, when its logical consistency has been shattered to pieces by a host of writers, as well sceptical as Christian (Mill's Logic, ii., 157-160). For, as the greatest of our living logicians has remarked, the supposed recondite and dangerous formula of Hume - that it is more probable that testimony should be mistaken than that miracles should be true -- reduces itself to the very harmless proposition that anything is incredible which is contrary to a complete induction. It is, in fact, a flagrant petitio principii, used to support a wholly unphilosophical assertion." [46:1] It is much more astonishing that so able a man as Dr. Farrar could so misunderstand Hume's argument, and so misinterpret and misstate Mill's remarks upon it. So far from shattering to pieces the logical consistency of Hume's reasoning, Mill substantially confirms it, and pertinently remarks that "it speaks ill for the state of philosophical speculation on such subjects" that so simple and evident a doctrine should have been accounted a dangerous heresy. It is, in fact, a statement of a truth which should have been universally recognised, and would have been so but for its unwelcome and destructive bearing upon popular theology.

Mill's Remarks Upon Hume
Mill states the evident principle: "If an alleged fact be in contradiction, not to any number of approximate generalisations, but to a completed generalisation grounded on a rigorous induction, it is said to be impossible, and is to be disbelieved totally." Mill continues: "This last principle, simple and evident as it appears, is the doctrine which, on the occasion of an attempt to apply it to the question of the credibility of miracles, excited so violent a controversy. Hume's celebrated doctrine, 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." [46:2] He then proceeds to meet possible objections: "But does not (it may be asked) the very statement of the proposition imply a contradiction? An alleged fact, according to this theory, is not to be believed if it contradict a complete induction. But it is essential to the completeness of an induction that it should not contradict any known fact. Is it not, then, a petitio principii to say that the fact ought to be disbelieved because the induction to it is complete? How can we have a right to declare the induction complete, while facts, supported by credible evidence, present themselves in opposition to it? I answer, we have that right whenever the scientific canons of induction give it to us; that is, whenever the induction can be complete. We have it, for example, in a case of causation in which there has been an experimentum crucis." It will be remarked that Dr. Farrar adopts Mill's phraseology in one of the above questions to affirm the reverse of his opinion. Mill decides that the proposition is not a petitio principii; Dr Farrar says, in continuation of his reference to Mill, that it is a flagrant petitio principii. Mill proceeds to prove his statement, and he naturally argues that, if observations or experiments have been repeated so often, and by so many persons, as to exclude all supposition of error in the observer, a law of nature is established; and so long as this law is received as such, the assertion that on any particular occasion the cause A took place, and yet the effect B did not follow, without any counteracting cause, must be disbelieved. In fact, as he winds up this part of the argument by saying: "We cannot admit a proposition as a law of nature, and yet believe a fact in real contradiction to it. We must disbelieve the alleged fact, or believe that we were mistaken in admitting the supposed law." [47:1] Mill points out, however, that, in order that any alleged fact should be contradictory to a law of causation, the allegation must be not simply that the cause existed without being followed by the effect, but that this happened in the absence of any adequate counteracting cause. "Now, in the case of an alleged miracle, the assertion is the exact opposite of this. It is, that the effect was defeated, not in the absence, but in consequence of a counteracting cause -- namely, a direct interposition of an act of the will of some being who has power over nature; and in particular of a Being whose will, being assumed to have endowed all the causes with the powers by which they produce their effects, may well be supposed able to counteract them." [47:2] A miracle, then, is no contradiction to the law of cause and effect; it is merely a new effect supposed to be introduced by the introduction of a new cause; "of the adequacy of that cause, if present[47:3] there can be no doubt; and the only antecedent improbability which can be ascribed to the miracle is the improbability that any such cause existed." Mill then continues, resuming his criticism on Hume's argument: "All, therefore, which Hume has made out, and this he must be considered to have made out, is that (at least in the imperfect state of our knowledge of natural agencies, which leaves it always possible that some of the physical antecedents may have been hidden from us) no evidence can prove a miracle to any one 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." Mill proceeds to enlarge on this conclusion. "If we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence. The miracle itself, considered merely as an extraordinary fact, may be satisfactorily certified by our senses or by testimony; but nothing can ever prove that it is a miracle. There is still another possible hypothesis, that of its being the result of some unknown natural cause; and this possibility cannot be so completely shut out as to leave no alternative but that of admitting the existence and intervention of a being superior to nature. Those, however, who already believe in such a being have two hypotheses to choose from, a supernatural and an unknown natural agency; and they have to judge which of the two is the most probable in the particular case. In forming this judgment, an important element of the question will be the conformity of the result to the laws of the supposed agent; that is, to the character of the Deity as they conceive it. But, with the knowledge which we now possess of the general uniformity of the course of nature, religion, following in the wake of science, has been compelled to acknowledge the government of the universe as being on the whole carried on by general laws, and not by special interpositions. To whoever holds this belief, there is a general presumption against any supposition of divine agency not operating through general laws, or, in other words, there is an antecedent improbability in every miracle which, in order to outweigh it, requires an extraordinary strength of antecedent probability derived from the special circumstances of the case." [48:1] Mill rightly considers that it is not more difficult to estimate this than in the case of other probabilities. "We are seldom, therefore, without the means (when the circumstances of the case are at all known to us) of judging how far it is likely that such a cause should have existed at that time and place without manifesting its presence by some other marks, and (in the case of an unknown cause) without having hitherto manifested its existence in my other instance. According as this circumstance, or the falsity of the testimony, appears more improbable, that is conflicts with an approximate generalisation of a higher order, we believe the testimony, or disbelieve it: with a stronger or weaker degree of conviction, according to the preponderance: at least until we have sifted the matter further." [48:2] This is precisely Hume's argument weakened by the introduction of reservations which have no cogency.

Hume's Argument Regarding Miracles
We have wished to avoid interrupting Mill's train of reasoning by any remarks of our own, and have, therefore, deferred till now the following observations regarding his criticism on Hume's argument.

In reducing Hume's celebrated doctrine to the very plain proposition, that whatever is contradictory to a complete induction is incredible, Mill in no way diminishes its potency against miracles; and he does not call that proposition "harmless" in reference to its bearing on miracles, as Dr. Farrar evidently supposes, but merely in opposition to the character of a recondite and "dangerous heresy" assigned by dismayed theologians to so obvious and simple a principle. The proposition, however, whilst it reduces Hume's doctrine in the abstract to more technical terms, does not altogether represent his argument. Without asserting that experience is an absolutely infallible guide, Hume maintains that -- "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases he proceeds with more caution; he weighs the opposite experiments; he considers which side de is supported by the greater number of experiments; to that side he inclines with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgment, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence proportioned to the superiority." [49:1] After elaborating this proposition, Hume continues: "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or, in other words, a miracle, to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happened in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man seemingly in good health should die on a sudden; because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be an uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof which is superior. The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention): 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony, be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force which remains after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and, according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion." [50:1]

The ground upon which Mill admits that a miracle may not be contradictory to complete induction is that it is not an assertion that a certain cause was not followed by a certain effect, but an allegation of the interference of an adequate counteracting cause. This does not, however, by his own showing, remove a miracle from the action of Hume's principle, but simply modifies the nature of the antecedent improbability. Mill qualifies his admission regarding the effect of the alleged counteracting cause by the all-important words, "if present"; for, in order to be valid, the reality of the alleged counteracting cause must be established, which is impossible, therefore the allegations fall to the ground.

In admitting that Hume has made out that no evidence can prove a miracle to any one who does not previously believe in a being of supernatural power willing to work miracles, Mill concedes everything to Hume, for his only limitation is based upon a supposition of mere personal belief in something which is not capable of proof, and which belief, therefore, is not more valid than any other purely imaginary hypothesis. The belief may seem substantial to the individual entertaining it, but, not being capable of proof, it cannot have weight with others, or in any way affect the value of evidence in the abstract.

The assumption of a Personal Deity working miracles is excluded by Hume's argument, and, although Mill apparently overlooks the fact, Hume has not only anticipated but refuted the reasoning which is based upon it. In the succeeding chapter on a Particular Providence and a Future State he directly disposes of such an assumption, but he does so with equal effect also in the essay which we are discussing. Taking an imaginary miracle as an illustration, he argues: "Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed be in this case Almighty, it does not upon that account become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles than in that concerning any other matter of fact, this must diminish very much the authority, of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution never. to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered." [51:1] A person who believes anything contradictory to a complete induction merely on the strength of an assumption which is incapable of proof is simply credulous; but such an assumption cannot affect the real evidence for that thing.

Paley's Argument against Hume
The argument of Paley against Hume is an illustration of the reasoning suggested by Mill. Paley alleges the interposition of a Personal Deity in explanation of miracles, but he protests that he does not assume the attributes of the Deity or the existence of a future state in order to prove their reality. "That reality," he admits, "always must be proved by evidence. We assert only that in miracles adduced in support of revelation there is not such antecedent improbability as no testimony can surmount." His argument culminates in the short statement: "In a word, once believe that there is a God [i.e., a Personal God, working miracles], and miracles are not incredible." [51:2] We have already quoted Hume's refutation of this reasoning, and we may at once proceed to the final argument by which Paley endeavours to overthrow Hume's doctrine, and upon which he mainly rests his case.

ìBut the short consideration," he says, "which, independently of every other, convinces me that there is no solid foundation in Mr. Hume's conclusion is the following: When a theorem is proposed to a mathematician, the first thing he does with it is to try it upon a simple case, and if it produces a false result he is sure that there must be some mistake in the demonstration. Now, to proceed in this way with what may be called Mr. Hume's theorem. If twelve men, whose probity and good sense I had long known, should seriously and circumstantially relate to me an account of a miracle wrought before their eyes, and in which it was impossible that they, should be deceived; if the governor of the country, hearing a rumour of this account, should call these men into his presence, and offer them a short proposal, either to confess the imposture or submit to be tied up to a gibbet; if they should refuse with one voice to acknowledge that there existed any falsehood or imposture in the case; if this threat was communicated to them separately, yet with no different effect; if it was at last executed; if I myself saw them, one after another, consenting to be racked, burned, or strangled, rather than give up the truth of their account -- still, if Mr. Hume's rule be my guide, I am not to believe them. Now, I undertake to say that there exists not a sceptic in the world who would not believe them, or who would defend such incredulity." [52:1]

It is obvious that this reasoning, besides being purely hypothetical, is utterly without cogency against Hume's doctrine. The evidence of the twelve men simply amounts to a statement that they saw, or fancied that they saw, a certain occurrence in contradiction to the law; but that which they actually saw was an external phenomenon, the real nature of which is a mere inference, and an inference which, from the necessarily isolated position of the miraculous phenomenon, is neither supported by other instances capable of forming a complete counter induction, nor by analogies within the order of nature. [52:2] The bare inference from an occurrence supposed to have been witnessed by twelve men is all that is opposed to the law of nature, which is based upon a complete induction, and it is, therefore, incredible.

Paley's Simple Case
If we examine Paley's "simple case" a little more closely, however, we find that not only is it utterly inadmissible as a hypothesis, but that as an illustration of the case of Gospel miracles it is completely devoid of relevancy and argumentative force. The only point which gives a momentary value to the supposed instance is the condition attached to the account of the miracle related by the twelve men, that not only was it wrought before their eyes, but that it was one "in which it was impossible that they should be deceived." Now, this qualification of infallibility on the part of the twelve witnesses is as incredible as the miracle which they are supposed to attest. The existence of twelve men incapable of error or mistake is as opposed to experience as the hypothesis of a miracle in which it is impossible for the twelve men to be deceived is contradictory to reason. The exclusion of all error in the observation of the actual occurrence and its antecedents and consequences, whose united sum constitutes the miracle, is an assumption which deprives the argument of all potency. On the other hand, the moment the possibility of error is admitted the reasoning breaks down, for the probability of error on the part of the observers, either as regards the external phenomena or the inferences drawn from them, being so infinitely greater than the probability of mistake in the complete induction, we must unquestionably reject the testimony of the twelve men.

It need scarcely be said that the assertion of liability to error on the part of the observers by no means involves any insinuation of wilful "falsehood or imposture in the case." It is quite intelligible that twelve men might witness an occurrence which might seem to them and others miraculous -- but which was susceptible of a perfectly natural explanation -- and truthfully relate what they believed to have seen, and that they might, therefore, refuse "with one voice to acknowledge that there existed any falsehood or imposture in the case," even although the alternative might be death on a gibbet. This, however, would in no way affect the character of the actual occurrence. It would not convert a natural, though by them inexplicable, phenomenon into a miracle. Their constancy in adhering to the account they had given would merely bear upon the truth of their own statements, and the fact of seeing them "one after another consenting to be racked, burned, or strangled, rather than give up the truth of their account," would not in the least justify our believing in a miracle. Even martyrdom cannot transform imaginations into facts. The truth of a narrative is no guarantee for the correctness of an inference.

As regards the applicability of Paley's illustration to the Gospel miracles, the failure of his analogy is complete. We shall presently see the condition of the people amongst whom these miracles are supposed to have occurred, and that, so far from the nature of the phenomena and the character of the witnesses supporting the inference that it was impossible that the observers could have been deceived, there is every reason for concluding with certainty that their ignorance of natural laws, their proneness to superstition, their love of the marvellous, and their extreme religious excitement, rendered them peculiarly liable to incorrectness in the observation of the phenomena, and to error in the inferences drawn from them. We shall likewise see that we have no serious and circumstantial accounts of those miracles from eye-witnesses of whose probity and good sense we have any knowledge, but that, on the contrary, the narratives of them which we possess were composed by unknown persons, who were not eyewitnesses at all, but wrote very long after the events related, and in that mythic period "in which reality melted into fable, and invention unconsciously trespassed on the province of history." The proposition, "That there is satisfactory evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of these accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct," is made by Paley the argument of the first nine chapters of his work, as the converse of the proposition, that similar attestation of other miracles cannot be produced, is of the following two. This shows the importance which he attaches to the point; but, notwithstanding, even if he could substantiate this statement, the cause of miracles would not be one whit advanced.

We have freely quoted these arguments in order to illustrate the real position of miracles and no one who has seriously considered the matter can doubt the necessity for very extraordinary evidence, even to render the report of such phenomena worthy of a moment's attention. The argument for miracles, however, has hitherto proceeded upon the merest assumption, and, as we shall further see, the utmost that they can do who support miracles, under the fatal disadvantage of being contradictory to uniform experience, is to refer to the alleged contemporaneous nature of the evidence for their occurrence, and to the character of the supposed witnesses. Mill has ably shown the serious misapprehension of so many writers against Hume's Essay on Miracles which has led them to what he calls "the extraordinary conclusion that nothing supported by credible testimony ought ever to be disbelieved." [54:1] In regard to historical facts, not contradictory to all experience, simple and impartial testimony may be sufficient to warrant belief; but even such qualities as these can go but a very small way towards establishing the reality of an occurrence which is opposed to complete induction. [54:2] It is admitted that the evidence requisite to establish the reality of a supernatural Divine revelation of doctrines beyond human reason, and comprising in its very essence such stupendous miracles as the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension, must be miraculous. The evidence for the miraculous evidence, which is scarcely less astounding than the contents of the revelation itself, must, logically, be miraculous also, for it is not a whit more easy to prove the reality of an evidential miracle than of a dogmatic miracle. It is evident that the resurrection of Lazarus, for instance, is as contradictory to complete induction as the resurrection of Jesus. Both the supernatural religion, therefore, and its supernatural evidence labour under the fatal disability of being antecedently incredible.

Previous Section      Contents      Home      Top of page      Next section >
HTML © 2002 -