A dissertation on miracles: containing an examination of the principles advanced by David Hume, Esq.; in An essay on miracles.
Campbell, George, 1719-1796., Bute, John Stuart, Earl of, 1713-1792, dedicatee.

SECTION VI. Inquiry into the meaning and propriety of one of Mr Hume's favourite maxims.

THERE is a method truly curious, suggested by the author, for extricating the mind, should the evidence from testimony be so great, that its false∣hood Page  56might, as he terms it, be accounted miraculous. In this puzzling case, when a man is so beset with miracles, that he is under a necessity of admitting one, he must always take care it be the smallest; for it is an axiom in this writers DIALECTIC, That the probability of the fact is in the inverse ratio of the quantity of miracle there is in it. "I weigh," says he,

the one miracle against the other, and according to the supe∣riority which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle *.

Now, of this method, which will no doubt be thought by many to be very ingenious, and which appears to the essayist both very momentous and very perspicuous, I own, I am not able to discover either the reasonableness or the use.

First, I cannot see the reasonableness. 'A miracle,' to adopt his own definition,

implies the transgres∣sion,
or rather the suspension,
of some law of na∣ture; and that either by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposal of some invisible agent .
Now, as I should think, from the principles laid down in the preceding section, that it would be for no trifling purpose, that the laws of nature would be suspended, and either the Deity or an invisible agent would interpose; 'tis on the same principles, natural to imagine, that the means, or miracle performed, should bear a proportion in respect of dignity and greatness, to the end proposed. Were I therefore under such a necessity as is supposed by Mr Hume, of ad∣mitting Page  57the truth of a miracle, I acknowledge, that of two contradictory miracles, where all other circum∣stances are equal, I should think it reasonable to be∣lieve the greater. I shall borrow an illustration from the author himself. "A miracle," he says,
may either be discoverable by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence. The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle; the raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a force requisite for that purpose is as real a miracle, tho' not so sensible with regard to us *.
Surely if any miracle may be called little, the last mentioned is intitled to that denomination, not only because it is an undiscoverable and insensible miracle, but because the quantum of miraculous force requisite, is, by the hypothesis, ever so little, or the least conceivable. Yet if it were certain, that God, angel, or spirit, were, for one of those purposes, to interpose in sus∣pending the laws of nature; I believe most men would join with me in thinking, that it would be ra∣ther for the raising of a house or ship than for the rai∣sing of a feather.

But though the maxim laid down by the author were just, I cannot discover in what instance, or by what application, it can be rendered of any utility. Why? Because we have no rule, whereby we can judge of the greatness of miracles. I allow, that in such a singular instance, as that above quoted from the essay, we may judge safely enough. But that can be of no practical use. In almost every case that Page  58will occur, I may warrantably aver, that it will be impossible for the acutest intellect to decide, which of the two is the greater miracle. As to the author, I cannot find that he has favoured us with any light in so important and so critical a question. Have we not then some reason to dread, that the task will not be less difficult to furnish us with a measure, by which we can determine the magnitude of miracles; than to provide us with a balance, by which we can ascertain the comparative weight of testimonies and experiences?

If leaving the speculations of the essayist, we shall, in order to be assisted on this subject, recur to his ex∣ample and decisions: let us consider the miracle which was recited in the third section, and which he declares, would, on the evidence of such testimony as he supposes, not only be probable, but certain. For my part, 'tis not in my power to conceive a great∣ter miracle than that is. The whole universe is af∣fected by it; the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars. The most invariable laws of nature with which we are acquainted, even those which regulate the mo∣tions of the heavenly bodies, and dispense darkness and light to worlds, are violated. I appeal to the author himself, whether it could be called a great∣er, or even so great a miracle, that all the writers at that time, or even all mankind, had been seized with a new species of epidemical delirium, which had given rise to this strange illusion. But in this the au∣thor is remarkably unfortunate, that the principles by which he in fact regulates his judgment and belief, Page  59are often the reverse of those which he endeavours to establish in his theory.

SHALL I hazard a conjecture? It is, that the word miracle, as thus used by the author, is used in a vague and improper sense, as a synonymous term for improbable; and that believing the less, and reject∣ing the greater miracle, denote simply believing what is least, and rejecting what is most improbable; o still more explicitly believing what we think most worthy of belief, and rejecting what we think least worthy. I am aware, on a second perusal of the author's words, that my talent in guessing may be justly questioned. He hath in effect told us himself what he means. "When any one," says he,

tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact he relates, should really have 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 *.
At first indeed one is ready to exclaim, What a strange revolution is here! The belief of miracles then, even by Mr Hume's account, is absolutely inevitable. Miracles them∣selves too, so far from being impossible, or even extraordinary, are the commonest things in nature; Page  60so common, that when any miraculous fact is attested to us, we are equally under a necessity of believing a miracle, whether we believe the fact, or deny it. The whole difference between the essayist and us, is at length reduced to this single point, Whether greater or smaller miracles are intitled to the prefer∣ence. This mystery however vanishes on a nearer inspection. The style, we find, is figurative, and the author is all the while amusing both his readers and himself with an unusual application of a familiar term. What is called the weighing of probabilities in one sentence, is the weighing of miracles in the next. If it were asked, For what reason did not Mr Hume express his sentiment in ordinary and proper words? I could only answer, I know no reason but one, and that is, To give the appearance of novelty and depth to one of those very harmless propositions, which by philosophers are called identical, and which, to say the truth, need some disguise, to make them pass upon the world with tolerable decency.

What then shall be said of the conclusion which he gives as the sum and quintessence of the first part of the essay? The best thing for aught I know, that can be said, is, that it contains a most certain truth, tho' at the same time the least significant, that ever perhaps was ushered into the world with so much solemnity. In order, therefore, to make plainer English of his plain consequence, let us only change the word miraculous, as applyed to the falsehood of human testimony, into improbable, which in this passage is entirely equivalent, and observe the effect produced Page  61by this elucidation.

The plain consequence is, and 'tis a GENERAL MAXIM, worthy of our at∣tention, That NO TESTIMONY IS SUFFICIENT TO ESTABLISH A MIRACLE; UNLESS THE TESTIMONY BE OF SUCH A KIND, THAT ITS FALSEHOOD WOULD BE MORE IMPROBABLE, THAN THE FACT WHICH IT ENDEAVOURS TO ESTABLISH *.
If the reader thinks himself instructed by this discovery, I should be loth to envy him the pleasure he may derive from it.