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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

On Hume's Argument Against Miracles

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Title:     On Hume's Argument Against Miracles
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

[1839.]

Hume's argument against miracles is simply this:--Every possible event, however various in its degree of credibility, must, of necessity, be more credible when it rests upon a sufficient cause lying within the field of what is called nature, than when it does not: more credible when it obeys some mechanical cause, than when it transcends such a cause, and is miraculous.

Therefore, assume the resistance to credibility, in any preternatural occurrence, as equal to x, and the very ideal or possible value of human testimony as no more than x, in that case, under the most favorable circumstances conceivable, the argument for and against a miracle will be equal; or, expressing the human testimony by x, affected with the affirmative sign [+x]; and expressing the resistance to credibility on the other side of the equation, by x, affected with the negative sign [-x], the two values will, in algebraical language, destroy each other, and the result will be = 0.

But, inasmuch as this expresses the value of human testimony in its highest or ideal form, a form which is never realized in experience, the true result will be different,--there will always be a negative result= [-y]; much or little according to the circumstances, but always enough to turn the balance against believing a miracle.

'Or in other words,' said Hume, popularizing his argument, 'it will always be more credible that the reporter of a miracle should tell a falsehood, or should himself have been the dupe of appearances, than that a miracle should have actually occurred--that is, an infraction of those natural laws (any or all) which compose what we call experience. For, assume the utmost disinterestedness, veracity, and sound judgment in the witness, with the utmost advantage in the circumstances for giving full play to those qualities; even in such a case the value of affirmative testimony could, at the very utmost, be equal to the negative value on the other side the equation: and the result would be, to keep my faith suspended in equilibrio. But in any real case, ever likely to come before us, the result will be worse; for the affirmative testimony will be sure to fall in many ways below its ideal maximum; leaving, therefore, for the final result a considerable excess to the negative side of the equation.

 

SECTION II.

OF THE ARGUMENT AS AFFECTED BY THE COVERT LIMITATIONS UNDER WHICH IT IS PRESENTED.


Such is the Argument: and, as the first step towards investigating its sanity and its degree--its kind of force, and its quantity of force, we must direct our attention to the following fact, viz., that amongst three separate conditions under which a miracle (or any event whatever) might become known to us, Hume's argument is applied only to one. Assuming a miracle to happen (for the possibility of a miracle is of course left open throughout the discussion, since any argument against that would at once foreclose every question about its communicability),--then it might happen under three several sets of circumstances, in relation to our consciousness. 1st, It might happen in the presence of a single witness--that witness not being ourselves. This case let us call Alpha. 2dly, It might happen in the presence of many witnesses,--witnesses to a vast amount, but still (as before) ourselves not being amongst that multitude. This case let us call Beta. And 3dly, It might happen in our own presence, and fall within the direct light of our own consciousness. This case let us call Gamma.

Now these distinctions are important to the whole extent of the question. For the 2d case, which is the actual case of many miracles recorded in the New Testament, at once cuts away a large body of sources in which either error or deceit could lurk. Hume's argument supposes the reporter of the miracle to be a dupe, or the maker of dupes--himself deluded, or wishing to delude others. But, in the case of the thousands fed from a few loaves and small fishes, the chances of error, wilful or not wilful, are diminished in proportion to the number of observers; [Footnote: 'In proportion to the number of observers.'--Perhaps, however, on the part of Hume, some critical apologist will say--'Doubtless he was aware of that; but still the reporters of the miracle were few. No matter how many were present, the witnesses for us are but the Evangelists.' Yes, certainly, the Evangelists; and let us add, all those contemporaries to whom the Evangelists silently appealed. These make up the 'multitude' contemplated in the second case.] and Hume's inference as to the declension of the affirmative x, in relation to the negative x, no longer applies, or, if at all, with vastly diminished force. With respect to the 3d case, it cuts away the whole argument at once in its very radix. For Hume's argument applies to the communication of a miracle, and therefore to a case of testimony. But, wherever the miracle falls within direct personal cognizance, there it follows that no question can arise about the value of human testimony. The affirmative x, expressing the value of testimony, disappears altogether; and that side of the equation is possessed by a new quantity (viz., ourselves--our own consciousness) not at all concerned in Hume's argument.

Hence it results, that of three possible conditions under which a miracle may be supposed to offer itself to our knowledge, two are excluded from the view of Hume's argument.

 

SECTION III.

WHETHER THE SECOND OF THESE CONDITIONS IS NOT EXPRESSLY NOTICED BY HUME.


It may seem so. But in fact it is not. And (what is more to the purpose) we are not at liberty to consider it any accident that it is not. Hume had his reasons. Let us take all in proper order: 1st, that it seems so; 2dly, that in fact it is not so; and 3dly, that is no accident, but intentional.

1st. Hume seems to contemplate such a case, the case of a miracle witnessed and attested by a multitude of persons, in the following imaginary miracle which he proposes as a basis for reasoning. Queen Elizabeth, as every body will remember who has happened to read Lord Monmouth's Memoirs, died on the night between the last day of 1602 and the first day of 1603: this could not be forgotten by the reader, because, in fact, Lord M., who was one of Her Majesty's nearest relatives (being a younger son of her first cousin Lord Hunsdon), obtained his title and subsequent preferment as a reward for the furious ride he performed to Edinburgh (at that time at least 440 miles distant from London), without taking off his boots, in order to lay the earliest tidings of the great event at the feet of her successor. In reality, never did any death cause so much posting day and night over the high roads of Europe. And the same causes which made it so interesting has caused it to be the best dated event in modern history; that one which could least be shaken by any discordant evidence yet discoverable. Now, says Hume, imagine the case, that, in spite of all this chronological precision--this precision, and this notoriety of precision--Her Majesty's court physicians should have chosen to propagate a story of her resurrection. Imagine that these learned gentlemen should have issued a bulletin, declaring that Queen Elizabeth had been met in Greenwich Park, or at Nonsuch, on May-day of 1603, or in Westminster, two years after, by the Lord Chamberlain when detecting Guy Faux--let them even swear it before twenty justices of the peace; I for one, says Hume, am free to confess that I would not believe them. No, nor, to say the truth, would we; nor would we advise our readers to believe them.

2dly. Here, therefore, it would seem as if Hume were boldly pressing his principles to the very uttermost--that is, were challenging a miracle as untenable, though attested by a multitude. But, in fact, he is not. He only seems to do so; for, if no number of witnesses could avail anything in proof of a miracle, why does he timidly confine himself to the hypothesis of the queen's physicians only coming forward? Why not call in the whole Privy Council?--or the Lord Mayor and Common Council of London--the Sheriffs of Middlesex--and the Twelve Judges? As to the court physicians, though three or four nominally, virtually they are but one man. They have a common interest, and in two separate ways they are liable to a suspicion of collusion: first, because the same motives which act upon one probably act upon the rest. In this respect, they are under a common influence; secondly, because, if not the motives, at any rate the physicians themselves, act upon each other. In this respect, they are under a reciprocal influence. They are to be reasoned about as one individual.

3dly. As Hume could not possibly fail to see all this, we may be sure that his choice of witnesses was not accidental. In fact, his apparent carelessness is very discreet management. His object was, under the fiction of an independent multitude, to smuggle in a virtual unity; for his court physicians are no plural body in effect and virtue, but a mere pleonasm and a tautology.

And in good earnest, Hume had reason enough for his caution. How much or how little testimony would avail to establish a resurrection in any neutral [Footnote: By a neutral case is meant, 1st, one in which there is no previous reason from a great doctrine requiring such an event for its support, to expect a resurrection; 2dly, a case belonging to a period of time in which it is fully believed that miraculous agency has ceased.] case few people would be willing to pronounce off-hand, and, above all, on a fictitious case. Prudent men, in such circumstances, would act as the judges in our English courts, who are always displeased if it is attempted to elicit their opinions upon a point of law by a proposed fiction. And very reasonably; for in these fictitious cases all the little circumstances of reality are wanting, and the oblique relations to such circumstances, out of which it is that any sound opinion can be formed. We all know very well what Hume is after in this problem of a resurrection. And his case of Queen Elizabeth's resurrection being a perfectly fictitious case, we are at liberty to do any one of three different things:--either simply to refuse an answer; or, 2dly, to give such an answer as he looks for, viz., to agree with him in his disbelief under the supposed contingency; without, therefore, offering the slightest prejudice to any scriptural case of resurrection: i. e., we might go along with him in his premises, and yet balk him of his purpose; or, 3dly, we might even join issue with him, and peremptorily challenge his verdict upon his own fiction. For it is singular enough, that a modern mathematician of eminence (Mr. Babbage) has expressly considered this very imaginary question of a resurrection, and he pronounces the testimony of seven witnesses, competent and veracious, and presumed to have no bias, as sufficient to establish such a miracle. Strip Hume's case of the ambiguities already pointed out--suppose the physicians really separate and independent witnesses--not a corporation speaking by one organ--it will then become a mere question of degree between the philosopher and the mathematician--seven witnesses? or fifty? or a hundred? For though none of us (not Mr. Babbage, we may be sure) seriously believes in the possibility of a resurrection occurring in these days, as little can any of us believe in the possibility that seven witnesses, of honor and sagacity (but say seven hundred) could be found to attest such an event when not occurring.

But the useful result from all this is, that Mr. Hume is evidently aware of the case Beta, (of last Sect.) as a distinct case from Alpha or from Gamma, though he affects blindness: he is aware that a multitude of competent witnesses, no matter whether seven or seven hundred, is able to establish that which a single witness could not; in fact, that increasing the number of witnesses is able to compensate increasing incredibility in the subject of doubt; that even supposing this subject a resurrection from the dead, there may be assigned a quantity of evidence (x) greater than the resistance to the credibility. And he betrays the fact, that he has one eye open to his own Jesuitism by palming upon us an apparent multitude for a real one, thus drawing all the credit he can from the name of a multitude, and yet evading the force which he strictly knew to be lodged in the thing; seeking the reputation of the case Beta, but shrinking from its hostile force.

 

SECTION IV.

OF THE ARGUMENT AS AFFECTED BY A CLASSIFICATION OF MIRACLES.


Let us now inquire whether Hume's argument would be affected by the differences in miracles upon the most general distribution of their kinds.

Miracles may be classed generally as inner or outer.

I. The inner, or those which may be called miracles for the individual, are such as go on, or may go on, within the separate personal consciousness of each separate man. And it shows how forgetful people are of the very doctrines which they themselves profess as Christians, when we consider, on the one hand, that miracles, in this sense, are essential to Christianity, and yet, on the other hand, consider how often it is said that the age of miracles is past. Doubtless, in the sense of external miracles, all such agencies are past. But in the other sense, there are distinct classes of the supernatural agency, which we are now considering; and these three are held by many Christians; two by most Christians; and the third by all. They are

a.--Special Providences: which class it is that many philosophic Christians doubt or deny.

b.--Grace: both predisposing [by old theologians called prevenient] and effectual.

c.--Prayer considered as efficacious.

Of these three we repeat, that the two last are held by most Christians: and yet it is evident that both presume a supernatural agency. But this agency exists only where it is sought. And even where it does exist, from its very nature (as an interior experience for each separate consciousness) it is incommunicable. But that does not defeat its purpose. It is of its essence to be incommunicable. And, therefore, with relation to Hume's great argument, which was designed to point out a vast hiatus or inconsistency in the divine economy--'Here is a miraculous agency, perhaps, but it is incommunicable: it may exist, but it cannot manifest itself; which defect neutralizes it, and defeats the very purpose of its existence'--the answer is, that as respects these interior miracles, there is no such inconsistency. They are meant for the private forum of each man's consciousness: nor would it have met any human necessity to have made them communicable. The language of Scripture is, that he who wishes experimentally to know the changes that may be accomplished by prayer, must pray. In that way only, and not by communication of knowledge from another, could he understand it as a practical effect. And to understand it not practically, but only in a speculative way, could not meet any religious wish, but merely an irreligious curiosity.

As respects one great division of miraculous agency, it is clear, therefore, that Hume's argument does not apply. The arrow glances past: not so much missing its aim as taking a false one. The hiatus which it supposes, the insulation and incommunicability which it charges upon the miraculous as a capital oversight, was part of the design: such mysterious agencies were meant to be incommunicable, and for the same reason which shuts up each man's consciousness into a silent world of its own--separate and inaccessible to all other consciousnesses. If a communication is thrown open by such agencies between the separate spirit of each man and the supreme Spirit of the universe, then the end is accomplished: and it is part of that end to close this communication against all other cognizance. So far Hume is baffled. The supernatural agency is incommunicable: it ought to be so. That is its perfection.


II. But now, as respects the other great order of miracles--viz., the external, first of all, we may remark a very important subdivision: miracles, in this sense, subdivide into two most different orders--1st, Evidential miracles, which simply prove Christianity. 2d, Constituent miracles, which, in a partial sense, are Christianity. And, perhaps, it may turn out that Hume's objection, if applicable at all, is here applicable in a separate way and with a varying force.

The first class, the evidential miracles, are all those which were performed merely as evidences (whether simply as indications, or as absolute demonstrations) of the divine power which upheld Christianity. The second class, the constituent miracles, are those which constitute a part of Christianity. Two of these are absolutely indispensable to Christianity, and cannot be separated from it even in thought, viz., the miraculous birth of our Saviour, and his miraculous resurrection. The first is essential upon this ground--that unless Christ had united the two natures (divine and human) he could not have made the satisfaction required: not being human, then, indeed, he might have had power to go through the mysterious sufferings of the satisfaction: but how would that have applied to man? It would have been perfect, but how would it have been relevant? Not being divine, then indeed any satisfaction he could make would be relevant: but how would it have been perfect? The mysterious and supernatural birth, therefore, was essential, as a capacitation for the work to be performed; and, on the other hand, the mysterious death and consequences were essential, as the very work itself.

Now, therefore, having made this distinction, we may observe, that the first class of miracles was occasional and polemic: it was meant to meet a special hostility incident to the birth-struggles of a new religion, and a religion which, for the very reason that it was true, stood opposed to the spirit of the world; of a religion which, in its first stage, had to fight against a civil power in absolute possession of the civilized earth, and backed by seventy legions. This being settled, it follows, that if Hume's argument were applicable in its whole strength to the evidential miracles, no result of any importance could follow. It is clear that a Christianized earth never can want polemic miracles again; polemic miracles were wanted for a transitional state, but such a state cannot return. Polemic miracles were wanted for a state of conflict with a dominant idolatry, It was Christianity militant, and militant with childlike arms, against Paganism triumphant. But Christianity, in league with civilization, and resting on the powers of this earth allied with her own, never again can speak to idolatrous man except from a station of infinite superiority. If, therefore, these evidential miracles are incommunicable as respects their proofs to after generations, neither are they wanted.

Still it will be urged--Were not the miracles meant for purposes ulterior to the transitional state? Were they not meant equally for the polemic purpose of confuting hostility at the moment, and of propping the faith of Christians in all after ages? The growing opinion amongst reflecting Christians is, that they were not: that the evidential miracles accomplished their whole purpose in their own age. Something of supernatural agency, visibly displayed, was wanted for the first establishment of a new faith. But, once established, it was a false faith only that could need this external support. Christianity could not unroot itself now, though every trace of evidential miracle should have vanished. Being a true religion, once rooted in man's knowledge and man's heart, it is self-sustained; it never could be eradicated.

But, waiving that argument, it is evident, that whatever becomes of the evidential miracles, Christianity never can dispense with those transcendent miracles which we have called constituent,--those which do not so much demonstrate Christianity as are Christianity in a large integral section. Now as to the way in which Hume's argument could apply to these, we shall reserve what we have to say until a subsequent section. Meantime, with respect to the other class, the simply evidential miracles, it is plain, that if ever they should be called for again, then, as to them, Hume's argument will be evaded, or not, according to their purpose. If their function regards an individual, it will be no just objection to them that they are incommunicable. If it regards a multitude or a nation, then the same power which utters the miracle can avail for its manifestation before a multitude, as happened in the days of the New Testament, and then is realized the case Beta of Sect. II, And if it is still objected, that even in that case there could be no sufficient way of propagating the miracle, with its evidence, to other times or places, the answer must be,--

1st. That supposing the purpose merely polemic, that purpose is answered without such a propagation.

2dly. That, supposing the purpose, by possibility, an ulterior purpose, stretching into distant ages, even then our modern arts of civilization, printing, &c.;, give us advantages which place a remote age on a level with the present as to the force of evidence; and that even the defect of autopsy may be compensated by sufficient testimony of a multitude, it is evident that Hume himself felt, by his evasion in the case of the imaginary Elizabethan miracle proposed by himself.

RECAPITULATION.

Now let us recapitulate the steps we have made before going on to the rest.


We have drawn into notice [Sect. II.] the case Beta,--overlooked by Hume in his argument, but apparently not overlooked in his consciousness,--the case where a multitude of witnesses overrules the incommunicability attaching to a single witness.

2dly. We have drawn into notice the class of internal miracles,--miracles going on in the inner economy of every Christian's heart; for it is essential to a Christian to allow of prayer. He cannot be a Christian if he should condemn prayer; and prayer cannot hope to produce its object without a miracle. And to such miracles Hume's argument, the argument of incommunicability, is inapplicable. They do not seek to transplant themselves; every man's personal experience in this respect is meant for himself alone.

3dly. Even amongst miracles not internal, we have shown--that if one class (the merely evidential and polemic) are incommunicable, i.e. not capable of propagation to a remote age or place, they have sufficiently fulfilled their immediate purpose by their immediate effect. But such miracles are alien and accidental to Christianity. Christ himself reproved severely those who sought such signs, as a wicked, unbelieving generation; and afterwards he reproved, with a most pathetic reproach, that one of his own disciples who demanded such a sign. But besides these evidential miracles, we noticed also,

4thly. The constituent miracles of Christianity; upon which, as regarded Hume's argument, we reserved ourselves to the latter section: and to these we now address ourselves.

But first we premise this

Lemma:--That an a priori (or, as we shall show, an a posteriori) reason for believing a miracle, or for expecting a miracle, will greatly disturb the valuation of x (that is, the abstract resistance to credibility), as assumed in Hume's argument. This is the centre in which we are satisfied, lurks that πρωτον ψενδος which Hume himself suspected: and we add, that as a vast number of witnesses (according to a remark made in Sect. II.) will virtually operate as a reduction of the value allowed to x, until x may be made to vanish altogether,--so in the reverse order, any material reduction of value in x will virtually operate exactly as the multiplication of witnesses; and the case Alpha will be raised to the case Beta.

This Lemma being stated as a point of appeal in what follows, we proceed to

 

SECTION V.

ON HUME'S ARGUMENT, AS AFFECTED BY THE PURPOSE.


This topic is so impressive, and indeed awful, in its relation to Christianity, that we shall not violate its majesty by doing more than simply stating the case. All the known or imagined miracles that ever were recorded as flowing from any Pagan origin, were miracles--1, of ostentation; 2, of ambition and rivalship; 3, expressions of power; or, 4, were blind accidents. Not even in pretence were any of them more than that. First and last came the Christian miracles, on behalf of a moral purpose. The purpose was to change man's idea of his own nature; and to change his idea of God's nature. Many other purposes might be stated; but all were moral. Now to any other wielder of supernatural power, real or imaginary, it never had occurred by way of pretence even, that in working miracles he had a moral object. And here, indeed, comes in the argument of Christ with tremendous effect--that, whilst all other miracles might be liable to the suspicion of having been effected by alliance with darker agencies, his only (as sublime moral agencies for working the only revolution that ever was worked in man's nature) could not be liable to such a suspicion; since, if an evil spirit would lend himself to the propagation of good in its most transcendent form, in that case the kingdom of darkness would be 'divided against itself.'

Here, then, is an a posteriori reason, derived from the whole subsequent life and death of the miracle-worker, for diminishing the value of x according to the Lemma.

 

SECTION VI.

ON THE ARGUMENT OF HUME AS AFFECTED BY MATTERS OF FACT.

It is a very important axiom of the schoolmen in this case--that, a posse ad esse non valet consequentia, you can draw no inference from the possibility of a thing to its reality, but that, in the reverse order, ab esse ad posse, the inference is inevitable: if it is, or if it ever has been--then of necessity it can be. Hume himself would have admitted, that the proof of any one miracle, beyond all possibility of doubt, at once lowered the--x of his argument (i.e. the value of the resistance to our faith) so as to affect the whole force of that argument, as applying to all other miracles whatever having a rational and an adequate purpose. Now it happens that we have two cases of miracles which can be urged in this view: one a posteriori, derived from our historical experience, and the other a priori. We will take them separately.

1. The a priori miracle we call such--not (as the unphilosophic may suppose) because it occurred previously to our own period, or from any consideration of time whatever, but in the logical meaning, as having been derived from our reason in opposition to our experience. This order of miracle it is manifest that Hume overlooked altogether, because he says expressly that we have nothing to appeal to in this dispute except our human experience. But it happens that we have; and precisely where the possibilities of experience desert us. We know nothing through experience (whether physical or historical) of what preceded or accompanied the first introduction of man upon this earth. But in the absence of all experience, our reason informs us--that he must have been introduced by a supernatural agency. Thus far we are sure. For the sole alternative is one which would be equally mysterious, and besides, contradictory to the marks of change--of transition--and of perishableness in our planet itself,--viz. the hypothesis of an eternal unoriginated race: and that is more confounding to the human intellect than any miracle whatever: so that, even tried merely as one probability against another, the miracle would have the advantage. The miracle supposes a supersensual and transcendent cause. The opposite hypothesis supposes effects without any cause. In short, upon any hypothesis, we are driven to suppose--and compelled to suppose--a miraculous state as introductory to the earliest state of nature. The planet, indeed, might form itself by mechanical laws of motion, repulsion, attraction, and central forces. But man could not. Life could not. Organization, even animal organization, might perhaps be explained out of mechanical causes. But life could not. Life is itself a great miracle. Suppose the nostrils formed by mechanic agency; still the breath of life could not enter them without a supernatural force. And a fortiori, man, with his intellectual and moral capacities, could not arise upon this planet without a higher agency than any lodged in that nature which is the object of our present experience. This kind of miracle, as deduced by our reason, and not witnessed experimentally, or drawn from any past records, we call an a priori miracle.

2. But there is another kind of miracle, which Hume ought not to have overlooked, but which he has, however, overlooked: he himself observes, very justly, that PROPHECY is a distinct species of the miraculous; and, no doubt, he neglected the Scriptural Prophecies, as supposing them all of doubtful interpretation, or believing with Porphyry, that such as are not doubtful, must have been posterior to the event which they point to. It happens, however, that there are some prophecies which cannot be evaded or 'refused,' some to which neither objection will apply. One, we will here cite, by way of example:--The prophecy of Isaiah, describing the desolation of Babylon, was delivered about seven centuries before Christ. A century or so after Christ, comes Porphyry, and insinuates, that all the prophecies alike might be comparatively recent forgeries! Well, for a moment suppose it: but, at least, they existed in the days of Porphyry. Now, it happens, that more than two centuries after Porphyry, we have good evidence, as to Babylon, that it had not yet reached the stage of utter desolation predicted by Isaiah. Four centuries after Christ, we learn from a Father of the Christian Church, who had good personal information as to its condition, that it was then become a solitude, but a solitude in good preservation as a royal park. The vast city had disppeared, and the murmur of myriads: but as yet there were no signs whatever of ruin or desolation. Not until our own nineteenth century was the picture of Isaiah seen in full realization--then lay the lion basking at noonday--then crawled the serpents from their holes; and at night the whole region echoed with the wild cries peculiar to arid wildernesses. The transformations, therefore, of Babylon, have been going on slowly through a vast number of centuries until the perfect accomplishment of Isaiah's picture. Perhaps they have travelled through a course of much more than two thousand years: and from the glimpses we gain of Babylon at intervals, we know for certain that Isaiah had been dead for many centuries before his vision could have even begun to realize itself. But then, says an objector, the final ruins of great empires and cities may be safely assumed on general grounds of observation. Hardly, however, if they happen to be seated in a region so fertile as Mesopotamia, and on a great river like the Euphrates. But allow this possibility--allow the natural disappearance of Babylon in a long course of centuries. In other cases the disappearance is gradual, and at length perfect. No traces can now be found of Carthage; none of Memphis; or, if you suppose something peculiar to Mesopotamia, no traces can be found of Nineveh, or on the other side of that region: none of other great cities--Roman, Parthian, Persian, Median, in that same region or adjacent regions. Babylon only is circumstantially described by Jewish prophecy as long surviving itself in a state of visible and audible desolation: and to Babylon only such a description applies. Other prophecies might be cited with the same result. But this is enough. And here is an a posteriori miracle.

Now, observe: these two orders of miracle, by their very nature, absolutely evade the argument of Hume. The incommunicability disappears altogether. The value of--x absolutely vanishes and becomes = 0. The human reason being immutable, suggests to every age, renews and regenerates for ever, the necessary inference of a miraculous state antecedent to the natural state. And, for the miracles of prophecy, these require no evidence and depend upon none: they carry their own evidence along with them; they utter their own testimonies, and they are continually reinforcing them; for, probably, every successive period of time reproduces fresh cases of prophecy completed. But even one, like that of Babylon, realizes the case of Beta (Sect. II.) in its most perfect form. History, which attests it, is the voice of every generation, checked and countersigned in effect by all the men who compose it.

 

SECTION VII.

OF THE ARGUMENT AS AFFECTED BY THE PARTICULAR WORKER OF THE MIRACLES.


This is the last 'moment,' to use the language of Mechanics, which we shall notice in this discussion. And here there is a remarkable petitio principii in Hume's management of his argument. He says, roundly, that it makes no difference at all if God were connected with the question as the author of the supposed miracles. And why? Because, says he, we know God only by experience--meaning as involved in nature--and, therefore, that in so far as miracles transcend our experience of nature, they transcend by implication our experience of God. But the very question under discussion is--whether God did, or did not, manifest himself to human experience in the miracles of the New Testament. But at all events, the idea of God in itself already includes the notion of a power to work miracles, whether that power were over exercised or not; and as Sir Isaac Newton thought that space might be the sensorium of God, so may we (and with much more philosophical propriety) affirm that the miraculous and the transcendent is the very nature of God. God being assumed, it is as easy to believe in a miracle issuing from him as in any operation according to the laws of nature (which, after all, is possibly in many points only the nature of our planet): it is as easy, because either mode of action is indifferent to him. Doubtless this argument, when addressed to an Atheist, loses its force; because he refuses to assume a God. But then, on the other hand, it must be remembered that Hume's argument itself does not stand on the footing of Atheism. He supposes it binding on a Theist. Now a Theist, in starting from the idea of God, grants, of necessity, the plenary power of miracles as greater and more awful than man could even comprehend. All he wants is a sufficient motive for such transcendent agencies; but this is supplied in excess (as regards what we have called the constituent miracles of Christianity) by the case of a religion that was to revolutionize the moral nature of man. The moral nature--the kingdom of the will--is esentially opposed to the kingdom of nature even by the confession of irreligious philosophers; and, therefore, being itself a supersensual field, it seems more reasonably adapted to agencies supernatural than such as are natural.

GENERAL RECAPITULATION.

In Hume's argument,--x, which expresses the resistance to credibility in a miracle, is valued as of necessity equal to the veiy maximum or ideal of human testimony; which, under the very best circumstances, might be equal to +x, in no case more, and in all known cases less. We, on the other hand, have endeavored to show--

1. That, because Hume contemplates only the case of a single witness, it will happen that the case Beta [of Sect. II.] where a multitude of witnesses exist, may greatly exceed +x; and with a sufficient multitude must exceed x.

2. That in the case of internal miracles--operations of divine agency within the mind and conscience of the individual--Hume's argument is necessarily set aside: the evidence, the +x, is perfect for the individual, and the miraculous agency is meant for him only.

3. That, in the case of one primary miracle, viz. the first organization of man on this planet, the evidence greatly transcends x: because here it is an evidence not derived from experience at all, but from the reflecting reason: and the miracle has the same advantage over facts of experience, that a mathematical truth has over the truths which rest on induction. It is the difference between must be and is--between the inevitable and the merely actual.

4. That, in the case of another order of miracles, viz. prophecies, Hume's argument is again overruled; because the +x in this case, the affirmative evidence, is not derived froms human testimony. Some prophecies are obscure; they may be fulfilled possibly without men's being aware of the fulfilment. But others, as that about the fate of Babylon--about the fate of the Arabs (the children of Ishmael)--about the fate of the Jews--are not of a nature to be misunderstood; and the evidence which attends them is not alien, but is intrinsic, and developed by themselves in successive stages from age to age.

5. That, because the primary miracle in No. 3, argues at least a power competent to the working of a miracle, for any after miracle we have only to seek a sufficient motive. Now, the objects of the Christian revelation were equal at the least to those of the original creation. In fact, Christianity may be considered as a second creation; and the justifying cause for the constituent miracles of Christianity is even to us as apparent as any which could have operated at the primary creation. The epigenesis was, at least, as grand an occasion as the genesis. Indeed, it is evident, for example, that Christianity itself could not have existed without the constituent miracle of the Resurrection; because without that there would have been no conquest over death. And here, as in No. 3, +x is derived--not from any experience, and therefore cannot be controlled by that sort of hostile experience which Hume's argument relies on; but is derived from the reason which transcends all experience..


[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's Essay: On Hume's Argument Against Miracles

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