experience, by which we become acquainted with the principles of human nature, the course of events in the physical and moral world, and with the usual conformity of facts, with the reports of witnesses. It is this natural propensity to give credit to the reports of others, added to their want of acquaintance with human nature, and the usual course of events, which is the source, out of which spring the extreme credulity of children and ignorant persons, and the readiness and avidity with which they listen to marvellous tales and the most incredible fictions. Untutored in the laws of nature, they know not when those laws are represented to be violated. As subsequent reflection and observation extend our acquaintance with the objects around us, we soon begin to discover that, although for the most part, mankind according to their understandings and ability, make true reports of those things that are presented to their inspection; yet when impelled by sinister motives, and sometimes from mere wantonness and caprice are capable of deception, dissimulation, or absolute falsehood. We now begin to withhold our assent from those things in which before we should have implicitly confided, to weigh and scrutinize the evi. dence in each case, to compare the facts related with the course of our own experience, and to yield or refuse our belief according to the degree of probability. We are now to be determined in our judgment by the number and character of the witnesses to facts; by the circumstances that corroborate or invalidate the force of their testimony; by their conformity or nonconformity to what we ourselves have experienced in like cases; by the coherence, or incoherence of the different parts of their narrative; by contradictory testimony, and by all those numberless considerations which enter into things of this kind. In each case, however, we are assured, that of all those events which are embraced in the usual course of nature, there may be ample and satisfactory evidence from testimony. We are all satisfied, more

[ocr errors]

over, that it is impossible, in matters depending upon the reports of others, to attain to the same kind of certainty, as that which we obtain from demonstration, intuition, or perception; and yet that these things may be no less convincing to the understanding, than if they were those kinds of proof. If we should wait until we arrive at demonstrative or intuitive certainty, before we give our assent to the facts, that there exist at this time such cities as Rome and Constantinople, and that there once lived such men as Cicero and Aristotle, we should forever remain in doubt about these things. And yet are we less certain of these facts, because it is impossible to prove them by strict demonstration?

As far as the testimony of men goes in proof of those facts that might have taken place, according to the usual course of human experience, and the known succession of things, almost all mankind agree as to its sufficiency to prove them. Few persons are so idly sceptical as to enter tain any doubts of matters that come recommended to them by the reports of credible witnesses, and which might have taken place conformably to the ordinary course of nature. It is only about miracles, or the violations of the usual course of nature, controversies have been maintained. Mr. Hume has undertaken to prove that no human testimony is sufficient to authenticate a miracle or render it credible. As the subject naturally presents itself in this part of our speculations, we shall undertake to state this celebrated ob. jection against miracles, and from the principles of truth, and grounds of human knowledge, which we have before ex. hibited, trust we shall find no difficulty in refuting it upon those maxims of science and philosophy, upon which it professes to be founded.


Upon Miracles.

“EXPERIENCE, it is said, is our only guide, in reasoning concerning matters of fact. Experience is in some things variable, and in some things uniform. A variable experience gives rise only to probability; an uniform experience amounts to a proof. Our belief or assurance of any fact from the report of eye-witnesses, is derived from no other principle than experience; that is our observation of the veracity of human testimony, or of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. But this experience is variable, since mankind sometimes tell us the truth, and at other times, impose upun us by falsehood. Now, our experience of the established laws of nature, is uniform and invariable, since nature never deceives us. In the case, therefore, of a miracle reported by witnesses, which is acknowledged to be a violation of the established laws of nature, there is a contest between two opposite experiences; our experience of the veracity of human testimony, which is variable, and our experience of the established laws of nature, which is invariable. Now, when our variable experience of the veracity of human testimony, which inclines us to the belief of a miracle, is placed in one scale; and our invariable experience of the established laws of nature, which would lead us to reject it, is placed in the other, which scale ought to preponderate? In other words, is it not always more probable, that mankind will impose upon us by false reports, than that the established laws of nature have been violated?”

This, I conceive, is a true statement, without any abatement of its force, of this celebrated and much vaunted argument, which all the writers who have undertaken to answer it, have agreed in ascribing to Mr. Hume. Into this too ready concession in favour of Mr. Hume, they appear to me to have been incautiously betrayed, by the pompous expressions, with which that author ushers in his claims, assumes to himself the merit of a new invention, and sets off the advantages, which may be expected to result from the application of it. We shall first state his pretensions, and then see if it be not in our power to strip him of his plumes. “I flatter myself,” says he, in the commencement of his treatise, " that I have discovered an argument, which, if just, will with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.” And when writing to his friend Dr. Campbell, we find the following romantic account of the circumstances under which this hint was suggested to him, by which he seems to expect to perform miracles, while he refuses that power to all other

persons. It may, perhaps, amuse you to learn the first hint, which ' suggested to me that argument which you have so strenu

ously attacked. I was walking in the cloisters of the Jesuit's College of La Flêche, a town in which I passed two years of my youth, and engaged in a conversation with a Jesuit of some parts and learning, who was relating to me, and urging some nonsensical miracle performed in their convent, when I was tempted to dispute against him; and as my head was full of the topics of my Treatise of Human Nature, which I was at this time composing, this argument immediately occurred to me, and I thought it very much gravelled my companion; but at last, he observed to me, that it was impossible for that argument to have any solidi

[ocr errors]

ty, because it operated equally against the Gospel as the Catholic miracles, which observation I thought proper to admit as a sufficient answer. I believe that you will allow, that the freedom at least of this reasoning makes it somewhat extraordinary, to have been the produce of a convent of Jesuits, though you may think the sophistry of it, savours plainly of the place of its birth.”

Such are the pretensions of Mr. Hume. Let us now ascertain, whether they are as unquestionable as he would have us believe. It is evident from his frequent references to the works of Mr. Locke, and more especially, to those which are metaphysical, that he had read the Treatise upon Human Understanding, although it is equally certain, that, as was the case with the evidences of christianity, he had never taken the pains completely to understand it. Hear, then, the language of Mr. Locke on this very topic, when treating of the degrees of assent in the last part of his second volume. “ Thus far the matter goes easy enough,” says Mr. Locke, “and probability upon such grounds carries so much evidence with it, that it naturally determines the judgment, and leaves us as little liberty to believe or disbelieve, as a demonstration does, whether we will know or be ignorant. The difficulty is when testimonies contradict common experience, and the reports of history and witnesses clash with the ordinary course of nature, or with one another; there it is where diligence, attention, and exactness, are required to form a right judgment, and to proportion the assent to the different evidence, and probability of the thing, which rises and falls according as the two foundations of credibility, viz. common observation in like cases, and particular testimonies in that particular instance, favour or contradict it.” Here we have both that mystical balance of contradictory evidences, with which Mr. Hume makes such a display, and the substance of that argument by which some are willing to believe he has sapped the foundations of christianity. But

« ForrigeFortsett »