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CHAPTER VI
BABBAGE ON MIRACLE

"If the children of men are silent, iron and stone shall cry out Hosannah."

Charles Babbage is chiefly known to the world as the inventor of a machine intended to spare the labour of calculating numerical series. In the course of its construction, he had to make a thorough study of the Laws of natural sequence, so far as these are embodied in processes of successive additions. But the man who would think of undertaking such a task at all was sure to see the importance of saturating himself with a further knowledge of Nature's series. He investigated not only those mathematical series the equations of which are known, and which underlie such natural curves as planet-paths, lines of refraction, &c.; but also those forms of Natural sequence the mathematical expressions of which have not yet been ascertained, such as geologic changes, the development of plants and animals, &c. He had nothing to lose or gain by any conclusion to which he might be led; he had one all-absorbing end in view, the perfecting of his machine; and, for that object, it mattered nothing what the Laws of Nature should turn out to be; the one desideratum was that he, Babbage, should know what they were, and embody them truly in the construction of his cogs and wheels. One of the facts which he discovered was this:—For one series (numerical or phenomenal) which goes on uniformly, there are an almost infinite number which either sooner or later have interruptions or Singular Terms. His arguments cannot be fully entered on here; but the main result is this:—Whoever adduces the inflexibility of Law to prove the improbability of Miracle, only proves that he does not understand the connection between Law and Phenomena. No miracle, Mr. Babbage considers, could be, à priori, so improbable as it is that man should learn the true law of any sequence by observing an uninterrupted series of phenomena. He says:—"It is more probable that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be subject to one of those violations which, according to Hume's definition,[1] constitute a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected. . . . The class of laws subject to interruption is far more extensive than that of laws which are uninterrupted. It is, in fact, infinitely more numerous. Therefore the probability of any law with which we have become acquainted by observation being part of a much more extensive law, and having, to use mathematical language, singular points or discontinuous functions contained within it, is very large." " Miracles are not deviations from the laws assigned by the Almighty for the government of matter and of mind. . . . They are the exact fulfilment of much more extensive laws than those we suppose to exist. In fact, if we were endued with acuter senses and higher reasoning faculties, they are the very points we should seek to observe, as the test of any hypothesis we had been led to frame concerning the nature of those laws. Even with our present imperfect faculties we frequently arrive at the highest confirmation of our views of the laws of Nature by tracing their action under singular circumstances." "A miracle may be only an exact fulfilment of a general law of Nature, under such singular circumstances that, to those imperfectly acquainted with that law, it appears to be in direct opposition to it." "All miracles are prophecies; . . . they are revelations, more or less in advance, of events which, although in real accordance, are apparently in direct contradiction to the laws of Nature."

The work from which the above extracts are taken[2] forms probably the best introduction in our language to the art of inductive reasoning. It is simple in style, almost entirely free from technicalities, and very reverent in tone. It makes no attacks on the special beliefs of any sect, but confines itself to neutralizing the poisonous doctrines of those who oppose Science to Religion, by showing that all attacks made on Faith in the name of Science must necessarily rest on a mistaken apprehension of the bearing of scientific observation. There are, probably, out of the Scriptures, few sublimer conceptions than Mr. Babbage's Vision of future rewards and punishments; he pictures the cruel man, not tortured by an angry Deity, but mercifully awakened to true self-knowledge, by being endowed with senses fine enough to perceive things as God sees them; and to hear the reverberations, through the infinite ether-spaces, of the long-silenced cries of his victims. It might have been supposed that the book would immediately take a place among educational text-books, among which it is well suited to rank high. But the education of the country was, in those days, in the hands of ecclesiastical parties; and, by common consent, the book was ignored.

The study of Mathematics seems to have a wonderful tendency both to induce religious faith and to counteract the influence of dogmatists; and the instinct of the latter class seems to detect this without their being able to give any rational explanation of their dislike. There is a mysterious link, more easy to perceive than to describe, between mathematical truth and the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God in its old Mosaic sense. Of course, the fact of learning at second-hand, and applying to practical uses results arrived at by the investigations of others, has no relation to any sort of religion; it leaves the field equally clear for dogma or for atheism. But whoever has truly apprehended the nature of the process of mathematical discovery, knows henceforth that the mind in him which can go through such a process is the child of the Creator. Contact with the Mathesis which underlies human thought constitutes an absolute revelation or unveiling of Deity. For this reason mathematicians are usually disliked by priests; the true mathematician has (though in a very humble manner and small degree) "seen God"; and the slightest glimpse of that vision is often sufficient to destroy the possibility of believing in priest-made and partial deities. Mr. Babbage says nothing against any particular doctrine; but under all his statements there resounds perpetually, as a deep harmonic undertone, the implied thought: "Nature is the representation of the action of those mathematical laws which can also be represented by interrupted numerical series; I have made a machine which is able to represent to the eye the action of some mathematical laws and the existence of certain interrupted series; therefore my mind is, in its own little way, akin to the Creative Mind. I believe that some such events as those called miraculous must have taken place during some portion of the history of our planet; but my faith in God rests on no testimony concerning such past wonders; for I stand in presence of the perpetual miracle that man is made in the Image of God; a sharer in His power to understand numerical law and impose it on matter; a sharer in His power to apprehend moral law and to be the author of joy and woe: a sharer in His power to trace events to their causes; and therefore a sharer in His own immortality. I am, by natural inheritance, a child of the Living God; and when He has anything to say to me He can say it without the intervention of a priest." The clergy decided that Mr. Babbage was "an unbeliever"; and the then rising generation lost the benefit of his aid, to the great injury of both Religion and Science—"Friends whom we cannot think apart"; but which, thanks to ecclesiastical jealousies, are made to "seem each other's foe." It is impossible not to detect, in the antagonism excited by such work as that of Mr. Babbage, the same feelings which caused some persons in an Irish town to ill-use a sick and inoffensive stranger (who, as it afterwards turned out, was a Jewess); "She says she don't want the parson, nor yet the priest; so she must be something queer"—the same spirit which has made Gentiles in all ages taunt Judaism with the question—"Where is thy God?"

The result of introducing Mr. Babbage's book into a school, is a spontaneous development of the feeling expressed in the Pentateuch: that properly taught people are a nation of priests and can find God each for himself. The book to which he gave the name "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise" can occasionally be procured at second-hand; and whoever reads it carefully finds it the entrance to a rich mine of religious truth, of a peculiarly elastic and liberal kind. Its teaching leaves the mind free to believe without difficulty in the existence of any order of phenomena, however miraculous-seeming, for which there may appear to be sufficient evidence; but destroys the inclination to address actual worship to anything except the Divine Unity.

  1. Hume had "deduced the à priori probability against the occurrence of miracle from universal experience."
  2. Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. Murray.