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On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism:

An Answer To The Arguments Of Hume, Lecky, And Others, Against Miracles.


from "On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism", 1876


it is now generally admitted, that those opinions and beliefs in which men have been educated generation after generation, and which have thus come to form part of their mental nature, are especially liable to be erroneous, because they keep alive and perpetuate the ideas and prejudices of a bygone and less enlightened age. It is therefore in the interest of truth that every doctrine or belief, however well established or sacred they may appear to be, should at certain intervals be challenged to arm themselves with such facts and reasonings as they possess, to meet their opponents in the open field of controversy, and do battle for their right to live. Nor can any exemption be claimed in favour of those beliefs which are the product of modern civilisation, and which have, for several generations, been held unquestioned by the great mass of the educated community; for the prejudice in their favour will be proportionately great, and, as was the case with the doctrines of Aristotle and the dogmas of the schoolmen, they may live on by mere weight of authority and force of habit, long after they have been shown to be opposed alike to. fact and to reason. There have been times when popular beliefs were defended by the terrors of the law, and when the sceptic could only attack them at the peril of his life. Now, we all admit that truth can take care of itself, and that only error needs protection. But there is another mode of defence which equally implies a claim to certain and absolute truth, and which is therefore equally unworthy and unphilosophical—that of ridicule and misrepresentation of our opponents, or a contemptuous refusal to discuss the question at all. This method is used among us even now; for there is one belief, or rather disbelief, whose advocates claim more than papal infallibility, by refusing to examine the evidence brought against it, and by alleging general arguments which have been in use for two centuries to prove that it cannot be erroneous. The belief to which I allude is, that all alleged miracles are false; that what is commonly understood by the term supernatural does not exist, or if it does is incapable of proof by any amount of human testimony; that all the phenomena we can have cognisance of depend on ascertainable physical laws, and that no other intelligent beings than man and the inferior animals can or do act upon our material world. These views have been now held almost unquestioned for many generations; they are inculcated as an essential part of a liberal education; they are popular, and are held to be one of the indications of our intellectual advancement; and they have become so much a part of our mental nature that all facts and arguments brought against them are either ignored as unworthy of serious consideration, or listened to with undisguised contempt. Now this frame of mind is certainly not one favourable to the discovery of truth, and strikingly resembles that by which, in former ages, systems of error have been fostered and maintained. The time has, therefore, come when it must be called upon to justify itself.

This is the more necessary, because the doctrine, whether true or false, actually rests upon a most unsafe and rotten foundation; for I propose to show that the best arguments hitherto relied upon to prove it are, one and all, fallacious, and prove nothing of the kind. But a theory or belief may be supported by very bad arguments, and yet be true; while it may be supported by some good arguments, and yet be false. But there never was a true theory which had no good arguments to support it. If, therefore, all the arguments hitherto used against miracles in general can be shown to be bad, it will behove sceptics to discover good ones; and if they cannot do so, the evidence in favour of miracles must be fairly met and judged on its own merits, not ruled out of court as it is now.

It will be perceived, therefore, that my present purpose is to clear the ground for the discussion of the great question of the so-called supernatural. I shall not attempt to bring arguments either for or against the main proposition, but shall confine myself to an examination of the allegations and the reasonings which have been supposed to settle the whole question on general grounds.

One of the most remarkable works of the great Scotch philosopher, David Hume, is An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, and the tenth chapter of this work is On Miracles, in which occur the arguments which are so often quoted to show that no evidence can prove a mi ado. Hume himself had a very high opinion of this part of his work, for he says at the beginning of the chapter, "I flatter myself 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; for so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane."

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