The Metaphysical Society. A Reminiscence

The Nineteenth Century 1885
R. H. Hutton

In the autumn of 1868 Mr Tennyson and the Rev. Charles Pritchard–Savilian Professor of Astronomy–were guests together in my house.

A good deal of talk arose on speculative subjects, especially theology. And in the course of it the idea was suggested of founding a Theological Society, to discuss such questions after the manner and with the freedom of an ordinary scientific society.

I volunteered to endeavour to bring such a body together if Mr Tennyson and Mr Pritchard would promise to belong to it, and I then consulted other friends, beginning with Dean Stanley, Dean Alford, Archbishop Manning, the Rev. James Martineau, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, Dr Ward of the Dublin Review, Mr R. H. Hutton of the Spectator, and one or two more, finding them all willing to join. I next went to ‘the opposition’, and, explaining our plan, found Professor Huxley, Professor Tyndall, Mr Froude, Mr Walter Bagehot, Sir John Lubbock, and others equally ready to co-operate.

The originally intended name of Theological Society was dropped in favour of ‘Metaphysical Society’, under which full discussion of the largest range of topics from all points of view could be better insured, and on the 21st of April, 1869, we held our first meeting at Willis’s Rooms.

I remember Mr Froude–who was among our first members–saying, that, if we hung together for twelve months, it would be one of the most remarkable facts in history. But we ‘hung together’ for nearly twelve years, meeting once a month, usually at an hotel, where, after dining together, a paper was read by some member, and afterwards discussed. Mr Tennyson’s remark at an early meeting seemed always borne in mind–that ‘modern science ought, at any rate, to have taught us one thing–how to separate light from heat’.

When the list of members and the character of the subjects discussed are considered, many will agree that it is matter for congratulation, and a pleasant sign of the times, that such a society should have lived its full life in London in entire harmony. It came to an end because, after twelve years of debating, there seemed little to be said which had not already been repeated more than once. The members were as follows:

Mr Tennyson
Mr Gladstone
The Duke of Argyll
Dean Stanley
Archbishop Manning
The Bishop of St David’s
The Archbishop of York
Prof. Huxley
The Bishop of Peterborough
Prof. Tyndall
Mr Frederic Harrison
Lord Selborne
Prof. Clifford
Father Dalgairns
Sir James Stephen
Dr Ward
The Bishop of Gloucester
   and Bristol
Dean Alford
The Dean of St Paul’s
Mr Ruskin
Mr Froude
Mr Grant Duff
Mr Robert Lowe
Rev. Prof. Maurice
Rev. Prof. Pritchard
Prof. Robertson
Sir Alexander Grant
Lord Arthur Russell
Rev. Canon Barry
Rev. James Martineau
Prof. Seeley
Mr Walter Bagehot
Sir John Lubbock
Rev. Mark Pattison
Dr Carpenter
Prof Lushington
Mr Shadworth Hodgson
Dr Andrew Clark
Mr Leslie Stephen
Mr John Morley
Sir William Gulf
Dr Gasquct
Prof. Fraser
Mr George Grove
Rev. Dr Mozley
Mr James Hinton
Prof. Sylvester
Dr Bucknill
Prof. St George Mivart
Prof. Barnes Upton
Mr Henry Sidgwick
Mr R. H. Hutton
Rev. Robert Clarke
Mr W. R. Greg
Mr Matthew Boulton
Mr Frederick Pollock
Dr Acland
Hon. Roden Noel
Mr James Knowles

Amongst our Chairmen–appointed annually, but sometimes serving for two years successively–were Sir John Lubbock, Cardinal Manning, Professor Huxley, Mr Gladstone, Dr Ward, Dr Martineau, Lord Selborne, and Lord Arthur Russell.

The character of the subjects brought forward may be gathered from the titles of some of the papers, and as the discussions were absolutely confidential and unreported, they were almost always of much animation and interest. They suggested to myself (as Hon. Sec. to the society) the idea of the ‘Modern Symposium’ which several times appeared in this Review. The following were amongst the papers read before the society:

[The subjoined article, kindly volunteered by Mr Hutton, was suggested by him, not as a portrait of any actual meeting, but as a reminiscence of the sort of debate which used to go on. Its faithfulness is remarkable, except for the omission of his own valuable part in the discussion.–EDITOR Nineteenth Century.]

The following attempt to give an impression of a typical meeting of the once rather famous ‘Metaphysical Society,’ of which I was throughout a member, must not be regarded as in any sense containing a historical report of an individual debate. No such reports were, so far as I know, ever taken. But to a rather diligent member of the Society there were plenty of opportunities of learning the general views of the more eminent members on such a subject as was discussed at the meeting here selected for treatment; and though it is likely enough that none of them, except of course Dr Ward, whose paper was really read (though he may have made no final reply), spoke on this particular occasion, as I have imputed to them; and though several of those to whom I have attributed remarks may not have been present at this particular discussion at all, yet I do not think I shall be found to have misrepresented any of their views.’ If I have, the responsibility and fault are mine.

At the meeting of the Metaphysical Society which was held on the 10th of December 1872, Dr Ward was to read a paper on the question, ‘Can experience prove the uniformity of Nature?’ Middlemarch had been completed and published a few days previously. On the day following the meeting the Convocation of Oxford was to vote upon the question raised by Mr Burgon and Dean Goulburn, whether the Dean of Westminster (then Dr Stanley) should be excluded for his heresies from the List of Select Preachers at Oxford or not. The ‘Claimant’ was still starring it in the provinces in the interval between his first trial and his second. Thus the dinner itself was lively, though several of the more distinguished members did not enter till the hour for reading the paper had arrived. One might have heard Professor Huxley flashing out a sceptical defence of the use of the Bible in Board Schools at one end of the table, Mr Fitzjames Stephen’s deep bass remarks on the Claimant’s adroit use of his committal for perjury, at another, and an eager discussion of the various merits of Lydgate and Rosamond at a third. ‘Ideal Ward,’ as he used to be called, from the work on the ‘Ideal of a Christian Church’, for which he had lost his degree nearly thirty years earlier at Oxford, was chuckling with a little malicious satisfaction over the floundering of the orthodox clergy, in their attempts to express safely their dislike of Dean Stanley’s latitudinarianism, without bringing the Establishment about their ears. He thought we might as well expect the uniformity of Nature to be disproved by the efforts of spiritualists to turn a table, as the flood of latitudinarian thought to be arrested by Mr. Burgon’s and Dean Goulburn’s attempt to exclude the Dean of Westminster from the List of Select Preachers at Oxford. Father Dalgairns, one of Dr Newman’s immediate followers, who left the English Church and entered the Oratory of St Philip Neri with him, a man of singular sweetness and openness of character, with something of a French type of playfulness in his expression, discoursed to me eloquently on the noble ethical character of George Eliot’s novels, and the penetrating disbelief in all but human excellence by which they are pervaded. Implicitly he intended to convey to me, I thought, that nowhere but in the Roman Church could you find any real breakwater against an incredulity which could survive even the aspirations of so noble a nature as hers. And as I listened to this eloquent exposition with one ear, the sound of Professor Tyndall’s eloquent Irish voice, descanting on the proposal for a ‘prayer-gauge,’ which had lately been made in the Contemporary Review, by testing the efficacy of prayer on a selected hospital ward, captivated the other. Everything alike spoke of the extraordinary fermentation of opinion in the society around us. Moral and intellectual ‘Yeast’ was as hard at work multiplying its fungoid forms in the men who met at that table, as even in the period of the Renaissance itself.

I was very much struck then, and frequently afterwards, by the marked difference between the expression of the Roman Catholic members of our Society and all the others. No men could be more different amongst themselves than Dr Ward and Father Dalgairris and Archbishop Manning, all of them converts to the Roman Church. But, nevertheless, all had upon them that curious stamp of definite spiritual authority, which I have never noticed on any faces but those of Roman Catholics, and of Roman Catholics who have passed through a pretty long period of subjection to the authority they acknowledge. In the Metaphysical Society itself there was every type of spiritual and moral expression. The wistful and sanguine, I had almost said hectic idealism, of James Hinton struck me much more than anything he contrived to convey by his remarks. The noble and steadfast, but somewhat melancholy faith, which seemed to be sculptured on Dr Martineau’s massive brow, shaded off into wistfulness in the glance of his eyes. Professor Huxley, who always had a definite standard for every question which he regarded as discussible at all, yet made you feel that his slender definite creed in no respect represented the cravings of his large nature. Professor Tyndall’s eloquent addresses frequently culminated with some pathetic indication of the mystery which to him surrounded the moral life. Mr Fitzjames Stephen’s gigantic force, expended generally in some work of iconoclasm, always gave me the impression that he was revenging himself on what he could not believe, for the disappointment he had felt in not being able to retain the beliefs of his youth. But in the countenances of our Roman Catholic members there was no wistfulness,–rather an expression which I might almost describe as a blending of grateful humility with involuntary satiety–genuine humility, genuine thankfulness for the authority on which they anchored themselves; but something also of a feeling of the redundance of that authority, and of the redundance of those provisions for their spiritual life of which almost all our other members seemed to feel that they had but a bare and scanty pasturage.

Dr Ward, who was to read the paper of the evening, struck me as one of our most unique members. His mind was, to his own apprehension at least, all strong lights and dark shadows. Either he was absolutely, indefensibly, ‘superabundantly’ certain, or he knew no more ‘than a baby’, to use his favourite simile, about the subjects I conversed with him upon. On the criticism of the New Testament, for instance, he always maintained that he knew no more than a baby, though really he knew a good deal about it. On the questions arising out of Papal Bulls he would often say that he was as absolutely and superabundantly certain as he was of his own existence. Then he was a very decided humourist. He looked like a country squire, and in the Isle of Wight was, I believe, generally called ‘Squeer Ward’, but if you talked to him about horses or land, he would look at you as if you were talking in an unknown language, and would describe, in most extravagant and humorous terms, his many rides in search of health, and the profound fear with which, whenever the animal showed the least sign of spirit, he would cry out, ‘Take me off! take me off!’ He was one of the very best and most active members of our Society, as long as his health lasted–most friendly to everybody, though full of amazement at the depth to which scepticism had undermined the creed of many amongst us. A more candid man I never knew. He never ignored a difficulty, and never attempted to express an indistinct idea. His metaphysics were as sharp cut as crystals. He never seemed to see the half-lights of a question at all. There was no penumbra in his mind; or, at least, what he could not grasp clearly, he treated as if he could not apprehend at all.

When dinner was over and the cloth removed a waiter entered with sheets of foolscap and pens for each of the members, of which very little use was made. The ascetic Archbishop of Westminster, every nerve in his face expressive of some vivid feeling, entered, and was quickly followed by Dr Martineau. Then came Mr Hinton, glancing round the room with a modest half-humorous furtiveness, as he seated himself amongst us. Then Dr Ward began his paper. He asked how mere experience could prove a universal truth without examining in detail every plausibly asserted exception to that truth, and disproving the reality of the exception. He asked whether those who believe most fervently in the uniformity of Nature ever show the slightest anxiety to examine asserted exceptions. He imagined, he said, that what impresses physicists is the fruitfulness of inductive science, with the reasonable inference that inductive science could not be the fruitful field of discovery it is, unless it rested on a legitimate basis, which basis could be no other than a principle of uniformity. Dr Ward answered that the belief in genuine exceptions to the law of uniform phenomenal antecedents and consequents, does not in the least degree invalidate this assumption of the general uniformity of Nature, if these exceptions are announced, as in the case of miracles they always must be, as demonstrating the interposition of some spiritual power which is not phenomenal, between the antecedence and its natural consequent–which interposition it is that alone interrupts the order of phenomenal antecedent and consequent.

. ‘Suppose.’ he said, that ‘every English man, by invoking St Thomas of Canterbury, could put his hand into the fire without injury. Why, the very fact that in order to avoid injury he must invoke the saint’s name, would ever keep fresh and firm in his mind the conviction that fire does naturally burn. He would therefore as unquestioningly in all his physical researches assume this to be the natural property of fire, as though God had never wrought a miracle at all. In fact, from the very circumstances of the case, it is always one of the most indubitable laws of nature which a miracle overrides, and those who wish most to magnify the miracle, are led by that very fact to dwell with special urgency on the otherwise universal prevalence of the law.’ There was a short pause when Dr Ward had concluded his paper, which was soon ended by Professor Huxley, who broke off short in a very graphic sketch he had been making on his sheet of foolscap as he listened.

Dr Ward, said Professor Huxley, had told us with perfect truth that the uniformity of Nature was only held by even the most thoroughgoing of clear-minded physicists, as a fruitful working hypothesis, the assumption of which had led to a vast number of discoveries, which could not have been effected without it. If they could not assume that under heat the vapour of water would expand one day as it had expanded the previous day, no locomotive would be of any use; if they could not assume that under certain given conditions the majority of seeds put into the ground would spring up and reproduce similar seed, no fields would be sown and no harvest would be reaped. In innumerable cases where the same antecedents had apparently not been followed by the same consequents, thinking men had taken for granted that they must have been mistaken in supposing the antecedents to be the same, and had found that they were right, and that the difference in the antecedents had really been followed by the difference in the consequents. He, for his part, should not object at all to examine into any presumptive case of miracle sufficiently strong to prove that in a substantial number of cases Englishmen had been enabled to thrust their hands into the fire without injury, by adopting so simple a safeguard as calling on St Thomas of Canterbury. But the truth was, that asserted miracles were too sparse aid rare, and too uniformly accompanied by indications of either gross credulity or bad faith, to furnish an investigator jealous of his time, and not able to waste his strength on futile inquiries, with a sufficient basis for investigation. Men of science were too busy in their fruitful vocation to hunt up the true explanation of cases of arrested miracle, complicated as they generally were with all sorts of violent prepossessions and confusing emotions. He, for his part, did not pretend that the physical uniformity of Nature could be absolutely proven. He was content to know that his ‘working hypothesis’ had been proved to be invaluable by the test of innumerable discoveries, which could never have been made had not that working hypothesis been assumed. Indeed, what evidence has any man even for the existence of his own home and family, better than that of a fruitful hypothesis, which has time after time resulted in the expected verification? No man can be absolutely certain that the home he left an hour ago is standing where it did, or that the family he left in it are still in life; if he acts on the hypothesis that they are there, he will, in innumerable cases, be rewarded for making that assumption, by finding his expectations verified, and in but a very few cases indeed be disappointed.

If, then, Dr Ward asks, said Professor Huxley, whether or not I hold that experience can, in a mathematical sense, prove the uniformity of Nature, I answer that I do not believe it; that I believe only that, in the assumption of that uniformity of Nature, we have a working hypothesis of the most potent kind, which I have never found to fail me. But further, if I might use the word ‘believe’ loosely, though with much less looseness than that with which men who are not students of science habitually use it, I should not hesitate to avow a belief that the uniformity of Nature is proved by experience, for I should be only too glad to think that half the ‘demonstrated’ beliefs of metaphysicians are even a tenth part as trustworthy as the great working hypothesis of science. The man of science, however, ‘who commits himself to even one statement which turns out to be devoid of good foundation, loses somewhat of his reputation among his fellows, and if he is guilty of the same error often he loses not only his intellectual but his moral standing among them; for it is justly felt that errors of this kind have their root rather in the moral than in the intellectual nature. That, I suppose, is the reason why men of science are so chary of investigating the trustworthiness of the soi-disant miracles to which Dr Ward is so anxious that we should pay an attention much greater than any which in my opinion they deserve. For the scientific man justly fears that if he investigates them thoroughly, he shall wound many amiable men’s hearts, and that if he does not wound amiable men’s hearts he shall compromise his own character as a man of science.

As Professor Huxley’s rich and resonant voice died away, Father Dalgairns, after looking modestly round to see whether anyone else desired to speak, began in tones of great sweetness: Professor Huxley has implied that to the scientific student the words ‘I believe’ have a stricter and more binding force than they have to us theologians. If it really be so, it is very much to our shame, for no words can be conceived which are to us more solemn and more charged with moral obligation. But I confess that the drift of Professor Huxley’s remarks hardly bore out to my mind the burden of his peroration. It seems that ‘a working hypothesis’ is the modest phrase which represents even the very maximum of scientific belief, for would Professor Huxley admit that he has any belief, except of course one resting on an immediately present consciousness, deeper than his belief in the uniformity of Nature? I suppose not. Now theologians are accustomed to assert, and I think with justice, that it is impossible to entertain any belief–whether it be only a working hypothesis or something more–in the uniformity of Nature, without basing it on the irrefragable trustworthiness of the human faculties. In one of our earliest discussions Dr Ward proved his case that on the irrefragable trustworthiness of memory, for example, for all facts which it positively asserts, rests the whole structure of human knowledge; and this in a sense much deeper than any such expression as ‘working hypothesis’ will express. Without assuming this irrefragable trustworthiness, Dr Ward has reminded us that I could not now know that I am replying to Professor Huxley at all or indeed who I myself am, or who is Professor Huxley. Without absolutely assuming the trustworthiness of memory, how should I have the least glimmering of a conception of that expressive personality from whose mouth the weighty utterances we have just heard proceeded? Yet if you grant me the trustworthiness of memory, when it speaks positively of a recent experience, can you deny me the trustworthiness of other human faculties equally fundamental? Is my ‘belief’ in the distinction between right and wrong, between holiness and sin, any less trustworthy than my belief in the asseverations of my memory? Did not Professor Huxley himself suggest in his closing remarks that the moral roots of our nature strike deeper than the intellectual roots; in other words, that if memory be much more than a ‘working hypothesis’, if its trustworthiness be the condition without which no working hypothesis would be even possible, there are moral conditions of our nature quite as fundamental as even the trustworthiness of memory itself? I hold it, I confess, most irrational to have an absolute and undoubting belief in the uniformity of Nature based on any accumulation of experience, for no such accumulation of experience is possible at all without an absolute and undoubting belief in the Past, and this no merely present experience can possibly give us. And I hold such a belief in the uniformity of Nature, based on anything but the trustworthiness of our faculties, to be irrational, for precisely the same kind of reason for which I hold it to be irrational to question the belief in God. The solemnity which Professor Huxley attaches to the words ‘I believe’, I attach to them also Moreover. I could not use them in their fullest sense of anything which I regard merely as a ‘working hypothesis’, however fruitful. But I deny that we theologians regard our deepest creed as a working hypothesis at all. We accept the words ‘I believe in God’, as we accept the words ‘I believe in the absolute attestations of memory’, as simply forced upon us by a higher intuition than any inductive law can engender. When I say ‘I believe in God’, I use the word believe just as I use it when I say ‘I believe in moral obligation’, and when I say ‘l believe in moral obligation’, I use the word believe just as I do when I say ‘I believe in the attestations of memory’. ‘God is not necessary only to my conception of morality. His existence is necessary to the existence of obligation.’ I know God by ‘a combination of intuition and experience, which is Kant’s condition of knowledge. If there be a God, our imagination would present Him to us as inflicting pain on the violator of His law, and lo! the imagination turns out to be an experienced fact. The Unknowable suddenly stabs me to the heart.’ I believe in the uniformity of Nature only in the sense in which I believe in every other high probability–for instance, only in the sense in which I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe in God in the sense in which I believe in pain and pleasure, in space and time, in right and wrong, in myself, in that which curbs me, governs me, besets me behind and before, and lays its hand upon me. The uniformity of Nature, though a very useful working hypothesis, is, as Professor Huxley admits, unproved and unproveable as a final truth of reason. But ‘if I do not know God, then I know nothing whatsoever’, for if ‘the pillared pavement is rottenness, then surely also is ‘earth’s base built on stubble’.

There was a certain perceptible reluctance to follow Father Dalgairns, which lasted some couple of minutes. Then we heard a deep-toned, musical voice, which dwelt with slow emphasis on the most important words of each sentence, and which gave a singular force to the irony with which the speaker’s expressions of belief were freely mingled. It was Mr Ruskin. ‘The question,’ he said, ‘Can experience prove the uniformity of Nature? is, in my mind, so assuredly answerable with the negative which the writer appeared to desire, that precisely on that ground the performance of any so-called miracles whatever would be really unimpressive to me. If a second Joshua tomorrow commanded the sun to stand still, and it obeyed him, and he therefore claimed deference as a miracle-worker, I am afraid I should answer, "What! a miracle that the sun stands still?–not at all. I was always expecting it would. The only wonder to me was its going on." But even assuming the demonstrable uniformity of the laws or customs of Nature which are known to us, it remains to me a difficult question what measure of interference with such law or custom we might logically hold miraculous, and what, on the contrary, we should treat only as proof of the existence of some other law hitherto undiscovered. For instance, there is a case authenticated by the signatures of several leading physicians in Paris, in which a peasant girl, under certain conditions of morbid excitement, was able to move objects at some distance from her without touching them. Taking the evidence for what it may be worth, the discovery of such a faculty would only, I suppose, justify us in concluding that some new vital energy was developing itself under the conditions of modern life, and not that any interference with the laws of Nature had taken place. Yet the generally obstinate refusal of men of science to receive any verbal witness of such facts, is a proof that they believe them contrary to a code of law which is more or less complete in their experience, and altogether complete in their conception; and I think it is therefore the province of some one of our scientific members to lay down for us the true principle by which we may distinguish the miraculous violation of a known law from the natural discovery of an unknown one.’ ‘However,’ he proceeded, ‘the two main facts we have to deal with are that the historical record of miracle is always of inconstant power, and that our own actual energies are inconstant almost in exact proportion to their worthiness. First, I say the history of miracle is of inconstant power. St Paul raises Eutychus from death, and his garments effect miraculous cure, yet he leaves Trophimus sick at Miletus, recognises only the mercy of God in the recovery of Epaphroditus, and, like any uninspired physician, recommends Timothy wine for his infirmities. And in the second place, our own energies are inconstant almost in proportion to their nobleness. We breathe with regularity, and can count upon the strength necessary for common tasks, but the record of our best work and our happiest moments is always one of success which we did not expect, and of enthusiasm which we could not prolong.’

As Mr Ruskin ceased, Walter Bagehot, the then editor of the Economist, and a favourite amongst us for his literary brilliance, opened his wide black eyes, and, gulping down what seemed to be an inclination to laugh at some recollection of his own, said: Mr Ruskin’s remark that he had always been expecting the sun to stand still was to me peculiarly interesting, because, as I have formerly told the Society, whatever may be the grounds for assuming the uniformity of Nature, I hold that there is nothing which the natural mind of man, unless subjected to a very serious discipline for the express purpose of producing that belief, is less likely to assume. A year or two ago I ventured to express in this room the opinion that credulity is the natural condition of almost every man. ‘Every child,’ I said, ‘believes what the footman tells it, what the nurse tells it, and what its mother tells it, and probably everyone’s memory will carry him back to the horrid mass of miscellaneous confusion which he acquired by believing all he heard.’ I hold that children believe in the suggestions of their imaginations quite as confidently as they believe in the asseverations of their memories; and if grown-up men do not, it is only that their credulity has been battered out of them by the hard discipline of constant disappointment. What can be better evidence that there is at least no a priori belief in the uniformity of Nature than the delight in fairy tales, which, certainly in childhood, are accepted with quite as much private belief that some great enchanter’s wand will be triumphantly found at last, as are the dullest and most matter-of-fact of histories. Indeed, you will find in almost every young person of any promise the profoundest tendency to revolt against the law of uniform succession as too dull to be credible, and to exult in the occasional evidence which the history of their time affords that ‘truth after all is stranger than fiction’. Is not the early love of tales of marvel, and the later love of tales of wild adventure and hair-breadth escapes, and again, the deep pleasure which we all feel in that ‘poetic justice’ which is so rare in actual experience, a sufficient proof that men retain, even to the last, a keen prepossession against the doctrine that laws of uniform antecedency and consequence can be traced throughout the most interesting phases of human life? Even in the City, where so many hopes are crushed every day, the ‘Bull’ goes on believing in his own too sanguine expectations, and the ‘Bear’ in his own dismal predictions, without correcting his own bias as experience should have led him to correct it. I believe it will be found that nothing is more difficult than to beat into the majority of minds the belief that there is such a thing as a ‘law of nature’ at all. So far as I can judge, nine women out of ten have never adequately realised what a law of nature means, nor is the proportion much smaller for men, unless they have been well drilled in some department of physics. Of course I heartily agree with Dr. Ward that experience cannot prove the uniformity of Nature, and for this very good reason, amongst others, that it is impossible to say what the uniformity of Nature means. We cannot exhaust the number of interfering causes which may break that uniformity. I at least cannot doubt that, so far as mind influences matter there may be a vast multitude of real disturbing causes introduced by mind to break through those laws of uniformity in material things, of which at present we know only the elements. But of this I am very sure, that at present we are much apter to accept superficial and inadequate evidence of the breach of laws of uniformity than we ought to be; that education does not do half enough to beat out of our minds that credulous expectation that there is some disposition in the governing principles of the universe, either to favour us or to persecute us, as the case may be, which springs, not from experience, but from groundless prejudice and prepossession; and that much greater efforts should be made to set before young people the true inexorability of Nature’s laws than is actually made at present. It is quite true that no man can say positively either that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that an iron bar will fall to the ground if the hand drops it. We do not absolutely know that the sun may not blaze up and go out before tomorrow, as it is said that some stars of considerable magnitude have blazed up and gone out. We do not know that there may not be some enormously powerful and invisible magnet in the neighbourhood which will attract the iron bar upwards with more force than that with which the earth pulls it downwards. But we do know that in millions and billions of cases expectations founded on the same sort of evidence as the expectation that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that the dropped bar will fall to the earth, have been verified, and that the imaginative illusion which half-educated people still so often indulge, that exceptions will occur, for the occurrence of which there is no rational evidence, is a most mischievous one, which we ought to try to eradicate. We ought to engage what I have ventured in this Society to call the ‘emotion of conviction’, the caprices of which are so extravagant and so dangerous, much more seriously on the side of the uniformity of Nature than we have ever hitherto done. We should all try to distinguish more carefully than we do between possibility, probability and certainty. It is not as certain that the sun will rise tomorrow as it is that I was cold before I entered this room; it is not as certain that Messrs Baring’s acceptances will be paid, as it is that the sun will rise tomorrow; it is not as certain that Peel’s Act will always be suspended in a panic, as it is that Messrs Baring’s acceptances will be paid. And it is difficult for ‘such creatures as we are’ to accommodate our expectations to these varying degrees of reasonable evidence. But though experience, however long and cumulative, can never prove the absolute uniformity of Nature, it surely ought to train us to bring our expectations into something like consistency with the uniformity of Nature. And as I endeavour to effect this in my own mind I certainly cannot agree with Mr Ruskin that I have always been ‘expecting’ the sun to stand still. Probably as a child I was always expecting things quite as improbable as that. But if I expected them now I should not have profited as much by the disillusionising character of my experience as I endeavour to hope that I actually have.

There was a general smile as Bagehot ceased, but the smile ceased as Mr Fitzjames Stephen–the present Sir James Stephen–took up the discussion by remarking in the mighty bass that always exerted a sort of physical authority over us, that while the Society seemed to be pretty well agreed upon the main question, namely, that the uniformity of Nature could not be absolutely proved by experience, or, indeed, by any other method, there was a point in Dr Ward’s paper, namely, the challenge to examine seriously into the authenticity of miracles, which had not been dealt with. For my part, he said, I am quite ready to examine into the evidence of any so-called miracle, that is, into the evidence of any unusual event which is offered to prove Divine interference in our affairs, when it comes before me with sufficient presumption of authority to render it worth my while to investigate it; though I probably should not agree with Dr Ward as to what constitutes such a presumption. Certainly a bare uncorroborated assertion by a person professing to be an eye-witness of an event is not sufficient evidence of that event to warrant action of an important kind based upon the supposition of its occurrence. When you are obliged to guess, such an assertion may be a reason for making one guess rather than another. Less evidence than this would make a banker hesitate as to a person’s credit, or would lead a customer to doubt whether his banker was solvent; but in such cases all that is possible is a guess more or less judicious, and a guess, however judicious, is a totally different thing from settled rational belief. As regards all detailed matters of fact, I think there is a time, greater or less, during which the evidence connected with them may be collected, examined, and recorded. If this is done a judgment can be formed on the truth of allegations respecting them at any distance of time. Such judgments are rarely absolute; they ought always or nearly always to be tempered by some degree of doubt, but I do not think they need be affected by lapse of time. If, however, this opportunity is lost, if no complete examination is made at the time of an incident, or if being made it is not properly or fully recorded, clouds of darkness which can never be dispelled settle down upon it almost immediately. All that remains behind is an indistinct outline which can never be filled up. Under certain conditions rare occurrences are quite as probable as common ones. The main condition of the probability of such an event is that the rare occurrence should, from its nature and from the circumstances under which it occurs, be capable of being observed, and that the evidence of it should be recorded in the manner which I have already described. If a moa were caught alive and publicly exhibited for money, or if the body of a sea-serpent were to be cut up upon the coast and duly examined by competent naturalists, the existence of moas and sea-serpents could be proved beyond all reasonable doubt. The reason why their existence is disbelieved or doubted is not that they are seen, if at all, so seldom, but because in each particular instance they are seen, if at all, in such an unsatisfactory way that it is doubtful whether they ever were seen. There are innumerable ghost-stories in circulation, but as far as I know no instance has ever yet been even alleged to exist in which the existence of a ghost has been properly authenticated as readily and as conclusively as that of any other being whatever. Stories of the interference of unseen agents stand upon exactly the same footing, speaking generally. Isolated instances occur in all ages and countries, but the common characteristic of them all is to be unauthenticated. Ten cases distinctly proved under the conditions referred to . . . would do more to settle the question of the existence of miracles as a class than innumerable cases depending on assertions which were not properly examined when they were originally made, and which can now never be examined. On the other hand, what reason can possibly be suggested why the action of an invisible person upon matter should not be ascertained just as clearly as the action of a visible person? The restoration of a dead body to life might, if it occurred, be proved as conclusively and as notoriously as the death of a living person, or the birth of a child. If such events formed a real class to which new occurrences might be assigned, a large number of instances of those occurrences would be, so to speak, upon record, established beyond all doubt, and the very existence of the controversy shows that nothing of the sort exists.’

Hereupon the Archbishop of Westminster, looking at Mr Stephen with a benign smile, said: Mr Stephen’s investigations into the evidence of the interference of unseen agents in human affairs are hardly on a par with some of those undertaken by the Church to which I belong. In canonising, or even beatifying those who are lost to us, the Holy See has long been accustomed to go into the evidence of such events as those to which Mr Stephen has just referred, and that with a disposition to pick holes in the evidence, which, if he will allow me to say so, could hardly be surpassed even by so able a sifter of evidence as Mr Stephen himself. Nor is it indeed necessary to go into the archives of these laborious and most sceptically conducted investigations. If there were but that predisposition amongst Protestants to believe in the evidence of the unseen which Dr Ward desired to see, there would, I am convinced, be many believers in miracles of the most astounding kind, and of the miracles that have happened in our own time, many within the last year. Let those who choose, for instance, look into the evidence of the most astonishing cure of varicose veins which took place only last year in the south of France–a malady of thirty years standing, and of steady progress throughout that time, attested on the positive evidence of French physicians, who had themselves, repeatedly seen and prescribed for the patient. Yet they admitted that all they could do would be at most to alleviate his sufferings by the application of mechanical pressure–and they nevertheless declared the cure to have been effected in a single night, the only new condition having been the believing application of the Lourdes water to the body of the sufferer. Here is a case where all Mr Fitzjames Stephen’s conditions are satisfied to the full. I do not, however, apprehend that Mr Stephen will sift the evidence, or even regard it as worth his serious attention. He has hardly assigned sufficient force to that strong predisposition to incredulity which is so widely spread at this moment in the Protestant world, a predisposition which I cannot entirely reconcile with Mr Bagehot’s very striking remarks on the universal credulousness of the natural man. Perhaps, however, there may be such credulousness where there is no prejudice, and yet incredulity still more marked where there is. I have been a careful observer of the attitude of Protestants in relation to the controversy between the natural and supernatural. I have seen its growth. I have watched its development. I am persuaded that Mr Stephen is quite wrong in supposing that the matter can be settled as one of evidence alone. You must first overcome that violent prejudice in your minds which prevents you from vouchsafing even a glance at the evidence we should have to offer you. But I will, if the Society permits me, leave that part of the subject, and return to the principal question before us–the impossibility of proving the uniformity of Nature from experience alone. Now, how do we Catholics, who have a philosophy the value of which we imagine that you believers in Spencer and Mill and Bain greatly underrate, account for the uniformity of Nature without trenching in any way on the supernatural basis of that nature? I will show you. Aquinas says in his Summa– and the Archbishop, of course, pronounced his Latin in the Continental manner–‘Tota irrationalis natura comparatur ad Deum sicut instrumentum ad agens principale’–the whole of inanimate and irrational Nature bears to the Divine being the relation of an instrument to the principal agent. That is to say, the Divine intellect conceives the law which the Divine will sanctions and enforces by a great methodical instrument. The natura naturans makes use of the natura naturata. The law determines the instrument it is to use, and the instrument it is to use determines the world. Why, then, should the law be regular and not variable? Why, because it is the instrument of a being who is not variable. The Schoolmen tell us that Nature has an appetite, a desire to accomplish its ends. They say of Nature ‘appetit’, ‘desiderat’. Such are the phrases they use. And as no constant aim, no true development can be attained by capricious, inconsistent, inconsequent action, by instruments incoherent, part-with-part–for the gratification of Nature’s appetite, for the fulfilment of her desire, and the attainment of her purpose, a constancy and fixity of method are essential which are never interrupted, save where the Divine power modifies the instrument for its own good purpose. Thus the uniformity of Nature is based upon the wisdom of God, and the wisdom of God is manifested in the uniformity of Nature. St Thomas has said: ‘Proprium est naturae rationalis ut tendat in finem quasi se agens et ducens ad finem.’ And again: ‘Necessitas naturalis inhaerens rebus, quâ determinantur ad unum, est impressio quaedam Dei dirigentis ad finem, sicut necessitas quâ sagitta agitur ut ad certum signum tendat, est impressio sagittantis et non sagittae;’ that is, the necessity, or may we not say the uniformity of Nature, is a career impressed upon it by the Divine archer, who never misses his mark; it is not the arrow which determines that career, but the archer who points and who dismisses the arrow in its flight. But St Thomas goes on: ‘Sed in hoc differt, quod id quod creaiurae a Deo recipiunt est earurn natura, quod autem ab homine rebus naturalibus imprimitur praeter earum naturam ad violentiam pertinet.’ Dr Ward will correct me if I am wrong, but I interpret this as meaning that if what men engraft on lower creatures is spoken of by the angelic doctor as doing them a certain violence, altering, I suppose, their mere involuntary qualities by infecting them with a certain human purposiveness not their own, how much more is it evidently open to the Divine purpose to engraft on this uniformity of nature a supernatural bent of its own, to open it, as it were, to the power of miracle, to infuse it with the significance of revelation?

Dr Ward, I thought, winced a little when this appeal was made to him; whether it was that he differed with the Archbishop as to the drift of the passage quoted, or whether he regarded the Society as in general too little educated in philosophy to appreciate arguments derived from the teaching of St Thomas. As the Archbishop ceased a good many eyes were turned upon Dr Martineau, as if we had now got into a region where no less weighty a thinker would be adequate to the occasion.

I think, said Dr Martineau, speaking with a singularly perfect elocution, and giving to all his consonants that distinct sound which is so rare in conversational speech, I think that the course of this discussion has as yet hardly done justice to the à priori elements in human thought which have contributed to the discovery of the general uniformity of Nature, and to the axiomatic character of the principle which we are discussing. I should not entirely agree with the Archbishop or with St Thomas if I rightly apprehended the quotations from him, that we ought to ground our belief on the uniformity of Nature primarily on our belief in the constancy of the Divine mind. Historically, I doubt whether that could be maintained. For example, the Hebrew Scriptures, which are full of the praise of the moral constancy of the Creator, appear to attach very little importance to the uniformity of Nature’s methods, which they often treat as if they were as pliant as language itself to the formative thought behind it. Still less can I agree with Mr Bagehot’s view that everything which rushes into the mind is believed without hesitation till hard experience scourges us into scepticism. I should say rather that the understanding is prepared to accept uniform laws of causation by the very character of human reason itself. It is remarkable enough that Aristotle fully recognises the close connection between the necessary character of human inference and the necessary relation of cause with effect, that he treats the ‘beginning of change’ [Greek phrase] as either the cause which necessarily results in an effect, or the reason which necessarily results in an inference. ‘An efficient cause therefore may be found in any beginning of change either in the physical world or the logical. In both cases it has the same characteristics: necessity, whether in the form of inevitable sequence or in that of irresistible inference; and consecutive advance, a step at a time, along a determinate line, whether in outward nature or in inward thought. Whatever is, it either acts out or thinks out what is next. So far therefore as the universe is at the disposal of efficient causes, its condition at each moment results purely from the immediately prior, without the possibility of any new beginning. If an experienced observer could compress into a formula the law of all the simultaneous conditions, he would be able to foresee the contents of any future moment–not, however, to modify them, for his prescience depends on their being in themselves determinate, and on his calculations embracing all the elements of the problem, including the states of his own mind. This efficient causality can be denied by no one who admits the dynamic idea at all; and no phenomenon can dispense with it.

Here we have, as I conceive, the clue to the principle of the uniformity of Nature. So far as Nature is purely dynamic, and so far as force is measured by reason, we cannot stray from the rigid logic of fact, and the equally rigid logic of thought. Doubtless it will be replied that, as in the mind of man there is a free spring of force, which is as yet undetermined, which is potential and not actual force, so there is behind Nature a free spring of force which is as yet undetermined, which is potential and not actual nature–in short, a power above nature, and capable of modifying it; in other words, supernatural. And that doctrine I should heartily accept.

The uniformity of Nature is the uniformity of force, just as the uniformity of reasoning is the uniformity of thought. But just as the undeterminateness of creative will stands behind the determinateness of the orbit of force, so the indeterminateness of creative purpose stands behind the determinateness of the orbit of thought or inference. I hold that man is not wholly immersed in dynamic laws, that though our physical constitution is subject to them, our mental constitution rises above them into a world where free self-determination is possible. I do not wonder, therefore, that we find it difficult to realise the rigidity of the laws of efficient causation even so far as it would be good for us to realise them. But I cannot think that anyone who has once contracted the habit of even fixing his own attention, can doubt for a moment that cause and effect are connected together by efficient links, nor that, if force outside us means the same thing as the force inside us, the relation of cause and effect is as necessary–unless some higher power interfere to modify the cause–as the relation of premises to conclusion. With regard to Dr Ward’s invitation to us to examine more carefully the credentials of miracle, I am inclined to agree with Mr Stephen, that if there were any tangible number of incontrovertible miracles, there could be no controversy on the question whether or not such things can be. But then I should not apply that remark to any case of internal consciousness of supernatural influence, because, from the very circumstances of the case, the evidence of the existence of such influence cannot be open to any mind, except that which is the subject of it, and in my view it is quite unreasonable to deny that there are indirect but yet conclusive proofs in history, that such supernatural influences have transformed, and do still habitually transform, the characters of the very greatest of our race. But it is one thing to see the evidence of spiritual influence in every page of human history, and quite another to attach importance to such preternatural occurences as the Archbishop has recently referred to, which are usually so mixed up with superstitions of all kinds, and so great a variety of hysterical emotions, that I for one should despair of any good result from investigating minutely these curious conquests effected by pretentious physical marvels over the gaping intellectual credulity of moral coldness and disbelief.

Here the general discussion ended, but Dr Ward, who had the right of reply, exercised it with alertness and vigour I cannot understand, he said, Dr Martineau’s position, that because the best testimony which we have in modern times to the interference of Divine power in the chain of physical causation is more or less mixed up with what he would regard as superstition and hysterical emotion, therefore it is perfectly justifiable to leave such matters uninvestigated, and to pass by on the other side. Surely the whole character of modern civilisation would be altered if we could prove satisfactorily for ordinary minds that the Divine will is a true cause, which manifests itself habitually to those who humbly receive the Divine revelations. Is not Dr Newman’s celebrated assertion that England would be in a far more hopeful condition if it were far more superstitious, more bigoted, more disposed to quail beneath the stings of conscience, and to do penance for its sins, than it is, at least plausible for one who, like Dr Martineau, believes profoundly that the true worship of a righteous will is the highest end of all human life? Can anything be more superabundantly evident, more conspicuously and, so to say, oppressively clear, than that ninety-nine men out of every hundred live as if God were at most nothing more than a remote probability, which it is hardly worth while to take into account in the ordinary routine of life? Suppose, if you please, that the majority of men by studying the Lourdes miracles will be brought, if they are convinced at all, to burn an immense number of wax tapers to the holy Virgin, and to dress up a number of very gaudy dolls in the churches dedicated to her, by way of showing their gratitude to her for curing paralytics and other miserable sufferers by the application of Lourdes water. Is that so much more superstitious after all than attributing similar cures to the transit of St Peter’s shadow, or to handkerchiefs taken from St Paul’s body, as the author of the Acts of the Apostles certainly did? Nor, indeed, is it a matter of the very highest moment whether people show their faith foolishly or whether it overshoots the mark, and attributes imaginary effects to a real cause. What is a matter of the highest moment is whether or not they feel or do not feel their religious faith in every action of their life. If God is really ruling you, is it not better to feel His eye upon you even though you show your sense of that vigilance unreasonably and foolishly, than to live on very much as you would do, if, as Isaiah said, God were on a journey or had gone to sleep? Can anyone deny that any awakening, however rude its consequences, to the reality of Divine power, would be infinitely better than the rapidly growing habit of living as if behind Nature there were no God? I do not of course say this to any member of our Society who doubts the reality of God’s government, but only to those who, with Dr Martineau, regard it as the very first of all truths. But to them I say, if miracles still exist, if they still exist in the very form in which they are said to have existed in the Acts of the Apostles, if they can be attested by men of science themselves, if, in any Church, they happen not merely every year, but in considerable numbers every year, and admit of all the tests to which Mr Stephen has referred us, then surely it can be nothing but a most reprehensible and guilty fastidiousness to give the go-by to the evidence of these things, simply on the ground that they are mixed up with a great deal of vulgar taste and of hysterical feeling. Is it not better to have a vulgar belief in God, than to have a fine susceptibility to scientific methods? Is it not better to have a feverish longing to do His Will, than to have a delicate distaste for morbid devotion? The uniformity of Nature is the veil behind which, in these latter days, God is hidden from us. I believe in the uniformity of Nature, but I believe in it far more fervently as the background on which miracle is displayed, than I do merely as the fertile instrument of scientific discovery and of physical amelioration.



C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University