Section 10

Miracles

January 22, 2020

The doctrine of miracles is not significant.

But Dr. Tillotson argues against the reality of miracles. His argument is the most concise, elegant, and strong against miracles.

The authority of Christian scriptures is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles.

  • They were the eye-witnesses to the miracles of our Saviour.
    • Those miracles proved his divine mission.

The evidence for the truth of the Christian religion is therefore less than the truth from our senses. This is because even in the first authors of our religion, the evidence was no greater.

The original evidence from those disciples decreases as it passes from them to us. No man nowadays can say confidently that the testimony of those disciples was the immediate object of own senses.

A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger. Thus, the doctrine of the reality in the scripture is directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to make us assent to it.

It contradicts our own senses because both the scripture and tradition do not have evidence similar to that from our own senses. Those evidences are supposed to be brought by the Holy Spirit to everyone.

This decisively silences the most arrogant bigotry and superstition. It frees us from their impertinent solicitations.

I myself have a similar argument which will check against all kinds of superstitious delusion forever. It will be useful as long as the world endures.

The accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.

  1. Experience is our only guide in reasoning on facts. This guide is not infallible. Sometimes it lead us into errors.

In Britain, we expect better weather in June than in December.

, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken.

However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that contrariety of events, which we may learn from a diligent observation.

All effects do not follow with like certainty from their supposed causes. Some events are found to be constantly conjoined together. Others are found to be more variable. Sometimes, they disappoint our expectations. This means that everything we think as fact all have varying degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest kind of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

In effets that always match experience, he expects the event with certainty. In other cases, he proceeds more carefully.

He weighs the opposite experiments. He considers which side is supported by more experiments and favors that side. He decides based on probability.

All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side overbalances the other and produces a degree of evidence, proportional to the superiority.

100 experiments on side A. 50 on side B. These afford a doubtful expectation of any event, though 100 uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance.

In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

  1. To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word.

Our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction;

We should not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree, had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood:

Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villany, has no manner of authority with us.

The evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable.

The ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in our judgements, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of argument as in every other kind of evidence.

We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.

  1. This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances.

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations.

There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony. Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual.

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradition there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

I would not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a proverbial saying in Rome, even during the lifetime of that philosophical patriot.20

The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority.

The Indian prince, 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, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience.

Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.21 90. But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. A firm and unalterable experience has established these laws. The proof against a miracle is complete as any argument from real experiences.

It is more probable that:

  • all men eventually die
  • lead cannot levitate itself
  • fire consumes wood and is extinguished by water\

These events match the laws of nature. Common things that match nature are not called miracles.

It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.

Thus a uniform experience on a phenomenon renders that phenomenon as not a mircale. Uniform experience amounts to a proof against the existence of any miracle. Such a proof cannot be destroyed. The miracle cannot be nade credible, but by an opposite superior proof.22

  1. This leads to a general maxim: ‘No testimony is enough to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish. Even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments. The superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I ask myself which is more probable:

  • he was deceived or
  • it really happened

I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

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