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,
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,
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,
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.