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On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism: An Answer To The Arguments Of Hume, Lecky, And Others, Against Miracles.:
The Necessity of Scientific Testimony.
Another objection which I have heard stated in public, and received with applause, is, that it requires immense scientific knowledge to decide on the reality of any uncommon or incredible facts, and that till scientific men investigate and prove them they are not worthy of credit. Now I venture to say that a greater fallacy than this was never put forth. The subject is very important, and the error is very common, but the fact is the exact opposite of what is stated; for I assert, without fear of contradiction, that whenever the scientific men of any age have denied the facts of investigators on a priori grounds, they have always been wrong.
It is not necessary to do more than refer to the world-known names of Galileo, Harvey, and Jenner. The great discoveries they made were, as we know, violently opposed by all their scientific contemporaries, to whom they appeared absurd and incredible; but we have equally striking examples much nearer to our own day. When Benjamin Franklin brought the subject of lightning-conductors before the Royal Society, he was laughed at as a dreamer, and his paper was not admitted to the Philosophical Transactions. When Young put forth his wonderful proofs of the undulatory theory of light, he was equally hooted at as absurd by the popular scientific writers of the day.* The Edinburgh Review called upon the public to put Thomas Gray into a strait jacket for maintaining the practicability of railroads. Sir Humphry Davy laughed at the idea of London ever being lighted with gas. When Stephenson proposed to use locomotives on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, learned men gave evidence that it was impossible that they could go even twelve miles an hour. Another great scientific authority declared it to be equally impossible for ocean steamers ever to cross the Atlantic. The French Academy of Sciences ridiculed the great astronomer Arago, when he wanted even to discuss the subject of the electric telegraph. Medical men ridiculed the stethoscope when it was first discovered. Painless operations during the mesmeric coma were pronounced impossible, and therefore impostures.
* The following are choice specimens from Edinburgh Review articles in 1803 and 1804 :—
"Another Bakerian lecture, containing more fancies, more blunders, more unfounded hypotheses, more gratuitous fictions, all upon the same field, and from the fertile yet fruitless brain of the same eternal Dr. Young."
"It teaches no truths, reconciles no contradictions, arranges no anomalous facts, suggests no new experiments, and leads to no new inquiries."
One might almost suppose it to be a modern scientific writer hurling scorn at Spiritualism!
But one of the most striking, because one of the most recent cases of this opposition to, or rather disbelief in facts opposed to the current belief of the day, among men who are generally charged with going too far in the other direction, is that of the doctrine of the "Antiquity of Man." Boué", an experienced French geologist, in 1823, discovered a human skeleton eighty feet deep in the loess or hardened mud of the Rhine. It was sent to the great anatomist Cuvier, who so utterly discredited the fact that he threw aside this invaluable fossil as worthless, and it was lost. Sir C. Lyell, from personal investigation on the spot, now believes that the statements of the original observer were quite accurate. So early as 1715 flint weapons were found with the skeleton of an elephant in an excavation in Gray's-inn-lane, in the presence of Mr. Conyers, who placed them in the British Museum, where they remained utterly unnoticed till quite recently. In 1800 Mr. Frere found flint weapons along with the remains of extinct animals at Hoxne, in Suffolk. From 1841 to 1846, the celebrated French geologist, Boucher de Perthes, discovered great quantities of flint weapons in the drift gravels of the North of France; but for many years he could convince none of his fellow scientific men that they were works of art, or worthy of the slightest attention. At length, however, in 1853, he began to make converts. In 1859-60, some of our own most eminent geologists visited the spot, and fully confirmed the truth of his observations and deductions.
Another branch of the subject was, if possible, still worse treated. In 1825, Mr. McEuery, of Torquay, discovered worked flints along with the remains of extinct animals in the celebrated Kent's Hole Cavern ; but his account of his discoveries was simply laughed at. In 1840, one of our first geologists, Mr. Godwin Austen, brought this matter before the Geological Society, and Mr. Vivian, of Torquay, sent in a paper fully confirming Mr. McEnery's discoveries; but it was thought too improbable to be published. Fourteen years later, the Torquay Natural History Society made further observations, entirely confirming the previous ones, and sent an account of them to the Geological Society of London; but the paper was rejected, as too improbable for publication. Now, however, for five years past, the cave has been systematically explored under the superintendence of a Committee of the British Association, and all the previous reports for forty years have been confirmed, and have been shown to be even less wonderful than the reality. It may be said that "this was proper scientific caution." Perhaps it was; but at all events it proves this important fact—that in this, as in every other case, the humble and often unknown observers have been right; the men of science who rejected their observations have been wrong.
Now, are the modern observers of some phenomena, usually termed supernatural and incredible, less worthy of attention than those already quoted ? Let us take, first, the reality of what is called clairvoyance. The men who have observed this phenomenon, who have carefully tested it through long years or through their whole lives, will rank in scientific knowledge and in intellectual ability as quite equal to the observers in any other branch of discovery. We have no less than seven competent medical men—Drs. Elliotson, Gregory, Ashburner, Lee, Herbert Mayo, Esdaile, and Haddock, besides persons of such high ability as Miss Martineau, Mr. H. G. Atkinson, Mr. Charles Bray, and Baron Reichenbach. With the history of previous discoverers before us, is it more likely that these eleven educated persons, knowing all the arguments against the facts, and investigating them carefully, should be all wrong, and those who say a priori that the thing is impossible should be all right, or the contrary ? If we are to learn anything by history and experience, then we may safely prognosticate that, in this case as in so many others, those who disbelieve other men's observations without enquiry will be found to be in the wrong.