« PreviousContinue »
Mr. Hume charged with some fallacies in his way of managing
the argument. IN the essay there is frequent mention of the word experience, and much use made of it. It is strange that the author hath not favoured us with the definition of a term of so much moment to his
argument. This defect I shall endeavour to supply; and the rather, as the word appears to be equivocal, and to be used by the essayist in two very different senses.
The first and most proper signification of the word, which, for distinction's sake, I shall call personal experience, is that given in the preceding section. • It is,' as was observed,
« founded in • memory, and consists solely of the general maxims or conclu* sions, that each individual hath formed, from the comparison
of the particular facts he hath remembered. In the other signification, in which the word is sometimes taken, and which I shall distinguish by the term derived, it may be thus defined. * It is founded in testimony, and consists not only of all the ex*periences of others, which have through that channel been communicated to us, but of all the general maxims or con
clusions we have formed, from the comparison of particular facts attested.'
In proposing his argument the author would surely be understood to mean only personal experience; otherwise, his making testimony derive its light from an experience which derives its light from testimony, would be introducing what logicians term a circle in causes. It would exhibit the same things alternately, as causes and effects of each other. Yet nothing can be more limited, than the sense which is conveyed under the term experience, in the first acceptation. The merest clown or peasant derives incomparably more knowledge from testimony, and the communicated experience of others, than in the longest life he could have amassed out of the treasure of his own memory. Nay, to such a scanty portion the savage himself is not confined. If that therefore must be the rule, the only rule, by which every testimony is ultimately to be judged, our belief in matters of fact must have very narrow bounds. No testimony ought to have any weight with us, that doth not relate an event, similar at least to some one observation, which we ourselves have had access to make. For example, that there are such people on the earth as negroes, could not, on that hypothesis, be rendered credible to one who had never seen a negro, not even by the most numerous and
the most unexceptionable attestations. Against the admission of such testimony, however strong, the whole force of the author's argument evidently operates. But that innumerable absurdities would flow from this principle, I might easily evince, did I not think the task superfluous.
The author himself is aware of the consequences; and therefore, in whatever sense he uses the term experience in proposing his argument; in prosecuting it, he with great
dex. terity shifts the sense, and ere the reader is apprised, insinuates another. “ It is a miracle,” says he, “ that a dead man < should come to life, because that has never been observed “ in any age or country.
There must therefore be an uniform “ experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the “ event would not merit that appellation*.” Here the phrase, an uniform experience against an event, in the latter clause, is implicitly defined in the former, not what has never been observed by us, but (mark his words) what has never been obseroed IN ANY AGE OR COUNTRY.Now, what has been observed, and what has not been observed, in all ages and countries, pray how can you, Sir, or 1, or any man, come to the knowledge of? Only I suppose by testimony, oral or written. The personal experience of every individual is limited to but a part of one age, and commonly to a narrow spot of one country. If there be any other way of being made acquainted with facts, it is to me, I own, an impenetrable secret; I have no apprehension of it. If there be not any, what shall we make of that cardinal point, on which his argument turns? It is in plain language, • Testimony is not entitled to the least degree of faith, but as 'far as it is supported by such an extensive experience, as if
we had not had a previous and independent faith in testi. mony, we could never have acquired.'
How natural is the transition from one sophism to another! You will soon be convinced of this, if you attend but a little to the strain of the argument. “A miracle,” says he, "! is a “ violation of the laws of nature ; and as a firm and unaltera « ble experience hath established these laws, the proof against " a miracle is as entire, as any argument from experience can
possibly be imaginedt.” Again, “ As an uniform experi“ ence amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full “ from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any mi
must once more ask the author what is the precise meaning of the words firm, unalterable, uniform ?. An experience that admits no exception, is surely the only experience, which can with propriety be termed uniform, firm, unal
terable. Now since, as was remarked above, the far greater part of this experience, which compriseth every age and every country, must be derived to us from testimony; that the ex. perience may be firm, uniform, unalterable, there must be no contrary testimony whatever. Yet by the author's own hypothesis, the miracles he would thus confute, are supported by testimony. At the same time to give strength to his argument, he is under a necessity of supposing, that there is no exception from the testimonies against them. Thus he falls into that paralogism, which is called begging the question. What he gives with one hand, he takes with the other. He admits, in opening his design, what in his argument he-implicitly denies.
But that this, if possible, may be still more manifest, let us attend a little to some expressions, which one would imagine he had inadvertently dropt. “So long," says he, “ as the “ world endures, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and
prodigies be found in all profane history*.” Why does he presume so?
A man so much attached to experience, can hardly be suspected to have any other reason than, because such accounts have hitherto been found in all the histories, profane as well as sacred, of times past. But we need not recur to an inference to obtain this acknowledgment. It is often to be met with in the essay. In one place we learn, that the witnesses for miracles are an infinite numbert; in another, that all religious records of whatever kind abound with themt. I leave it therefore to the author to explain, with what con. sistency he can assert, that the laws of nature are established by an uniform experience, (which experience is chiefly the result of testimony) and at the same time allow, that almost all human histories are full of the relations of miracles and prodigies, which are violations of those laws. Here is, by his own confession, testimony against testimony, and very ample on both sides. How then can one side claim a firm, uniform, and unalterable support from testimony ?
It will be in vain to object, that the testimony in support of the laws of nature, greatly exceeds the testimony for the violations of these laws; and that, if we are to be determined by the greater number of observations, we shall reject all mio racles whatever. I ask, Why are the testimonies much more numerous in the one case than in the other? The answer is obvious: Natural occurrences are much more frequent than such as are preternatural. But are all the accounts we have of the pestilence to be rejected as incredible, because, in this
country, we hear not so often of that disease, as of the fever? Or, because the number of natural births is infinitely greater than that of monsters, shall the evidence of the former be regarded as a confutation of all that can be advanced in proof of the latter? Such an objector needs to be reminded of what was proved in the foregoing section ; that the opposite testimonies relate to different facts, and are therefore not contradictory ; that the conclusion founded on them, possesseth not the evidence of the facts on which it is founded, but only such a presumptive evidence, as may be surmounted by the slightest positive proof. A general conclusion from experience is in comparison but presumptive and indirect ; sufficient testimony for a particular fact is direct and positive evidence.
I shall remark one other fallacy in this author's reasoning, before I conclude this section.“ The Indian prince," says he, “who refused to believe the first relations concerning the “ effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required “ very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, which
arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquaintWed, and bore so little analogy to those events, of which he “ had had constant and uniform experience. Though they 6 were not contrary to his experience, they were not conforms able to it*.” Here a distinction is artfully suggested, between what is contrary to experience, and what is not conformable to it. The one he allows may be proved by testimony, but not the other. A distinction, for which the author seems to have so great use, it will not be improper to examine.
If my reader happen to be but little acquainted with Mr. Hume's writings, or even with the piece here examined, I must intreat him, ere he proceed any farther, to give the essay an attentive perusal; and to take notice paticularly, whether in one single passage, he can find any other sense given to the terms contrary to experience, but that which has not been experienced. Without this aid, I should not be surprised, that I found it difficult to convince the judicious, that a man of şo much acuteness, one so much a philosopher as this author, should, with such formality, make a distinction, which not only the essay, but the whole tenour of his philosophical writings, shows evidently to have no meaning. Is that which is contrary to experience a synonymous phrase for that which im plies a contradiction? If this were the case, there would be no need to recur to experience for a refutation; it would refute itself. But it is equitable that the author himself be heard, who ought to be the best interpreter of his own words
# When the fact attested," says he," is such a one, as has “ seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two
opposite experiences.” In this passage, not the being never experienced, but even the being seldom experienced constitutes an opposite experience. I can conceive no way but one, that the author can evade the force of this quotation; and that is, by obtruding on us, some new distinction between an opposite and a contrary experience. In order to preclude such an attempt, I shall once more recur to his own authority...“ It is " no miracle that a man in seeming good health, should die of
a sudden.” Why? “ Because such a kind of death, though “more unusual than any other, hath yet been frequently ob"served to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should
come to life.” Why? Not because of any inconsistency in the thing. That a body should be this hour inanimate, and the next animated, is no more inconsistent, than the reverse that it should be this hour animated, and the next inanimate ; though the one be common, and not the other. But the author himself answers the question : “ Because that has never been “ observed in any age or countryf.”. All the contrariety then that there is in miracles to experience, doth, by his own concession, consist solely in this, that they have never been observed ; that is, they are not conformable to experience. To his experience personal or derived, he must certainly mean; to what he has had access to learn of different ages and coun. tries. To speak beyond the knowledge he hath attained, would be ridiculous. It would be first supposing a miracle, and then inferring a contrary experience, instead of concluding from experience, that the fact is miraculous.
Now, I insist, that as far as regards the author's argument, a fact perfectly unusual, or not conformable to our experience, such a fact as, for aught we have had access to learn, was never observed in any age or country, is as incapable of proof from testimony, as miracles are ; that, if this writer would argue consistently, he could never, on his own principles, reject the one and admit the other. Both ought to be rejected or neither. I would not, by this be thought to signify, that there is no difference between a miracle and an extraordinary event. I know that the former implies the interposal of an invisible agent, which is not implied in the latter. All that I intend to assert is, that the author's argument equally affects them both. Why doth such interposal appear to him incredible? Not from any incongțuity he discerns in the thing itself. He doth not pretend it. But it is not conformable to his experience.