« PreviousContinue »
But since it is an objection which stands in the very threshold of our argument, and, if admitted, is a bar to every proof, and to all future reasoning upon the subject, it may be necessary, before we proceed farther, to examine the principle upon which it professes to be founded: which principle is concisely this, that it is contrary to experience that a miracle should be true, but not contrary to experience that testimony should be false.
Now there appears a small ambiguity in the term perience," and in the phrases “ contrary to experience," or “contradicting experience,” which it may be necessary to remove in the first place. Strictly speaking, the narrative of a fact is then only contrary to experience, when the fact is related to have existed at a time and place, at which time and place we being present, did not perceive it to exist ; as if it should be asserted, that in a particular room, and at a particular hour of a certain day, a man was raised from the dead, in which room, and at the time specified, we being present and looking on perceived no such event to have taken place. Here the assertion is contrary to experience properly so called ; and this is a contrariety which no evidence can surmount. It matters nothing, whether the fact be of a miraculous nature or
But although this be the experience, and the contrariety, which Archbishop Tillotson alleged in the quotation with which Mr. Hume opens his essay, it is certainly not that experience, nor that contrariety, which Mr. Hume himself intended to object. And, short of this, I know no intelligible signification which can be affixed to the term
contrary to experience,” but one, viz. that of not having ourselves experienced any thing similar to the thing related, or such things not being generally experienced by others. I say “not generally,” for to state concerning the fact in question, that no such thing was ever experienced, or
that universal experience is against it, is to assume the subject of the controversy.
Now the improbability which arises from the want (for this properly is a want, not a contradiction) of experience, is only equal to the probability there is, that, if the thing were true, we should experience things similar to it, or that such things would be generally experienced. Suppose it then to be true that miracles were wrought upon the first promulgation of Christianity, when nothing but miracles could decide its authority, is it certain that such miracles would be repeated so often, and in so many places, as to become objects of general experience ? Is it a probability approaching to certainty? Is it a probability of any great strength or force ? Is it such as no evidence can encounter? And yet this probability is the exact converse, and therefore the exact measure of the improbability which arises from the want of experience, and which Mr. Hume represents as invincible by human testimony.
It is not like alleging a new law of nature, or a new 'experiment in natural philosophy, because, when these are related, it is expected that, under the same circumstances, the same effect will follow universally ; and in proportion as this expectation is justly entertained, the want of a corresponding experience negatives the history. But to expect concerning a miracle that it should succeed upon repetition, is to expect that which would make it cease to be a miracle, which is contrary to its nature as such, and would totally destroy the use and purpose for which it was wrought.
The force of experience as an objection to miracles is founded in the presumption, either that the course of nature is invariable, or that, if it be ever varied, variations will be frequent and general. Has the necessity of this alternative been demonstrated ? Permit us to call the
course of nature the agency of an intelligent being, and is there any good reason for judging this state of the case to be probable ? Ought we not rather to expect, that such a Being, upon occasions of peculiar importance, may interrupt the order which he had appointed, yet, that such occasions should return seldom ; that these interruptions consequently should be confined to the experience of a few; that the want of it, therefore, in many, should be matter neither of surprise nor objection?
But as a continuation of the argument from experience it is said, that, when we advance accounts of miracles, we assign effects without causes, or we attribute effects to causes inadequate to the purpose, or to causes of the operation of which we have no experience. Of what causes, we may ask, and of what effects does the objection speak? If it be answered that, when we ascribe the cure of the palsy to a touch, of blindness to the anointing of the eyes with clay, or the raising of the dead to a word, we lay ourselves open to this imputation; we reply, that we ascribe no such effects to such causes. We perceive no virtue or energy in these things more than in other things of the same kind. They are merely signs to connect the miracle with its end. The effect we ascribe simply to the volition of the Deity; of whose existence and power, not to say of whose presence and agency, we have previous and independent proof. We have therefore all we seek for in the works of rational agents, a sufficient power and an adequate motive. In a word, once believe that there is a God, and miracles are not incredible.
Mr. Hume states the case of miracles to be a contest of opposite improbabilities, that is to say, a question whether it be more improbable that the miracle should be true, or the testimony false ; and this I think a fair account of the controversy. But herein I remark a want of argumenta
tive justice, that, in describing the improbability of miracles, he suppresses all those circumstances of extenuation, which result from our knowledge of the existence, power, and disposition of the Deity, his concern in the creation, the end answered by the miracle, the importance of that end, and its subserviency to the plan pursued in the works of nature. As Mr. Hume has represented the question, miracles are alike incredible to him who is previously assured of the constant agency of a Divine Being, and to him who believes that no such being exists in the universe. They are equally incredible, whether related to have been wrought upon occasions the most deserving, and for purposes the most beneficial, or for no assignable end whatever, or for an end confessedly trilling or pernicious. This surely cannot be a correct statement. In adjusting also the other side of the balance, the strength and weight of testimony, this author has provided an answer to every possible accumulation of historical proof by telling us, that we are not obliged to explain how the story or the evidence
Now I think that we are obliged; not, perhaps, to show by positive accounts how it did, but by a probable hypothesis how it might, so happen. The existence of the testimony is a phenomenon. The truth of the fact solves the phenomenon. If we reject this solution, we ought to have some other to rest in: and none even by our adversaries can be admitted, which is not consistent with the principles that regulate human affairs and human conduct at pres sent, or which makes men then to have been a different kind of beings from what they are now.
But the short consideration 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 pro
duce 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 governour 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 were 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, burnt, 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 sceptick in the world who would not believe them ; or who would defend such incredulity.
Instances of spurious miracles supported by strong apparent testimony undoubtedly demand examination. Mr. Hume has endeavoured to fortify his argument by some examples of this kind. I hope in a proper place to show that none of them reach the strength or circumstances of the Christian evidence. In these, however, consists the weight of his objection. In the principle itself I am persuaded there is none.