Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Appendix

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage



Note (A), page 394.

It has always occurred to my mind that many difficulties touching Miracles might be reconciled, if men would only take the trouble to agree upon the nature of the phenomenon which they call "Miracle." That writers do not always mean the same thing when treating of miracles is perfectly clear; because what may appear a miracle to the unlearned is to the better instructed only an effect produced by some unknown law hitherto unobserved. So that the idea of miracle is in some respect dependent upon the opinion of man. Much of this confusion has arisen from the definition of Miracle given in Hume's celebrated Essay, namely, that it is the "violation of a law of nature."

Now a miracle is not necessarily a violation of any law of nature, and it involves no physical absurdity.

As Brown well observes, "the laws of nature surely are not violated when a new antecedent is followed by a new consequent; they are violated only when the antecedent, being exactly the same, a different consequent is the result;" so that a miracle has nothing in its nature inconsistent with our belief of the uniformity of nature. All that we see in a miracle is an effect which is new to our observation, and whose cause is concealed.

The cause may be beyond the sphere of our observation, and would be thus beyond the familiar sphere of nature; but this does not make the event a violation of any law of nature. The limits of man's observation lie within very narrow boundaries, and it would be arrogance to suppose that the reach of man's power is to form the limits of the natural world. The universe offers daily proof of the existence of power of which we know nothing, but whose mighty agency nevertheless manifestly appears in the most familiar works of creation. And shall we deny the existence of this mighty energy simply because it manifests itself in delegated and feeble subordination to God's onmipotence?

There is nothing in the nature of a miracle that should render it incredible: its credibility depends upon the nature of the evidence by which it is supported. An event of extreme probability will not necessarily command our belief unless upon a sufficiency of proof; and so an event which we may regard as highly improbable may command our belief if it is sustained by sufficient evidence. So that the credibility or incredibility of an event does not rest upon the nature of the event itself, but depends upon the nature and sufficiency of the proof which sustains it.

Mill, in speaking of Hume's celebrated principle, "that nothing is credible which is contradictory to experience, or at variance with the laws of nature," calls it a very plain and harmless proposition, being, in effect, nothing more than that whatever is contradictory to a complete induction is incredible.

Admit the existence of a Deity, and the possibility of a miracle is the natural consequence. No doubt our examination of the evidence which sustains an unusual phenomenon should be most carefully conducted; but we must not measure the credibility or incredibility of an event by the narrow sphere of our own experience, nor forget that there is a Divine energy which overrides what we familiarly call the laws of nature.

If a miracle is not a suspension or a violation of the laws of nature, it may fairly be asked, What is it?

If we define a miracle as an effect of which the cause is unknown to us, then we make our ignorance the source of miracles! and the universe itself would be a standing miracle.

A miracle might be perhaps defined more exactly as an effect which is not the consequence or effect of any known laws of nature. Dr. Clarke defines a miracle as a singular event produced contrary to the ordinary laws of nature by the intervention of an intelligent Being superior to man. The Abbé Houteville defines a miracle as the result of the general order of the mechanism of the universe. "It is," he says, "a result of the harmony of the general laws which God has decreed for the working out of the system of the universe." Spinosa says, "As men call that science Divine which surpasses the reach of the human mind, so they detect the hand of God in every phenomenon of which the cause is unknown to them." And certain it is that men attach more importance to an apparent suspension or violation of the ordinary laws of nature than to the wonderful harmony and uniformity of the laws of the universe; as though it implied a greater degree of power to suspend or interfere with such laws than to establish them and preserve their uniformity in the economy of the universe. Whilst Nature follows out her ordinary course, man, familiarized with the movement of the celestial orbs, sees myriads of globes revolve in moving harmony about their spheres with a kind of vacant indifference, nor imagines for a moment that he sees aught to excite his wonder or stimulate his intelligence into inquiry; in fact, he does not see God in His works. But if this harmony and uniformity are interrupted for a moment, man detects the power of God in the interruption, albeit he could not perceive it in the uniformity of natural cause and effect. This singular obtuseness of the human mind I leave to the discussion of theologians and philosophers; for my own part, I confess my utter inability to comprehend it. Whatever truly exists must emanate from the will of God, whether the event falls within what we understand by the uniformity of nature, or whether it is otherwise. A miracle must fall within one of these categories; and in either case it is the effect of the will of God. Such an interruption does not imply any notion of caprice or imperfection in the Deity; but, on the contrary, it is one of the attributes of His power, and quite consistent with our notions of the liberty of His will, unrestrained by any laws which it may be His pleasure to promulgate for the government of the universe.

"Opera mutat, consilia non mutat," says St. Augustin. Miracles may be, for anything we know to the contrary, phenomena of a higher order of God's laws, superior to, and, under certain conditions, controlling the inferior order known to us as the ordinary laws of nature.

The great difficulty in the consideration of miracles is, that being in the nature of things incapable of verification, the evidence which would be sufficient to establish the truth of an ordinary event within the sphere of natural phenomena would not be sufficient to command our assent in the case of a miracle. And this does not arise from a miracle being opposed to nature, but on account of the infirmity of our nature; for we are always liable to be deceived, not only by others, but even by our own senses.

The extraordinary character of an event, although it does not necessarily render the truth of its existence incredible, should, nevertheless, put us upon our guard, and render us particularly cautious in examining the evidence upon which its truth is asserted. We should even examine with care and caution the evidence of phenomena of the most ordinary character before we yield our complete assent to the apparent truth of their manifestation; and à fortiori in the examination of the evidence which sustains extraordinary phenomena we should require much stronger evidence, and such as rebuts the possibility of being deceived by other persons, or even by our senses.

But we must be careful to discriminate between our own incapacity to test truth and the necessary improbability of an event. It is plain that from our ignorance of the remote spheres of God's action we cannot judge of His works removed from oar experience; but a fact is not necessarily doubtful because it cannot be reached by our ordinary senses. To recapitulate, we may lay down the following propositions:—

1. That there is no real physical distinction between miracles and any other operations of the Divine energy: that we regard them differently is because we are familiar with one order of events and not the other.

2. There is nothing incredible in a miracle, and the credibility of a miraculous event is to be measured only by the evidence which sustains it. And although the extraordinary character of a phenomenon may render the event itself improbable, it does not, therefore, necessarily render it either incredible or untrue.

St. Athanasius is not the author of the Creed which bears his name. It did not, in fact, exist within a century after his death. It originally appeared in a Latin text, and consequently in the Western provinces. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was less tolerant of its eccentricities, or more sensible to its sublimity even than myself, for he was so amazed at the extraordinary character of its composition that he frankly pronounced it to be the work of a drunken man. See 'Petav. Dogmat. Theologica,' tom. II. lvii. c. 8, p. 687; and Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall,' vol. iv. p. 335. If we may trust La Bletterie for the character of Athanasius, nothing is more improbable than that he could be the author of the Creed still preserving his name. "He was," says La Bletterie, "the greatest man of his age, and perhaps the greatest that the Church has ever possessed. He was endued with a well-balanced, a lively, and penetrating mind; a generous and disinterested heart; a courage and heroism always equal; a lively faith, and a charity without bounds; a profound humility; a Christianity bold, but simple and noble as the Gospel. His eloquence was natural, distinguished by a rare precision of speech."

The foundation of all religion is the belief in a God, and that He exists in certain relation with His creatures. Such belief necessarily leads to the consciousness of some obligation towards the Deity; and this consciousness suggests the duty of worship; and in the selection of the form of this worship originates the various creeds which distinguish and distract mankind. There is a sort of geography of religion; and I regret to think that the majority of mankind take their creed from the clime in which they happen to be born; and that many, and not an inconsiderable portion of mankind, suffer the sacred torch to burn out altogether, in their contact with the world, and then vainly imagine that they can recover the sacred fire by striking a spark out of dogmatic theology!

Addition to the Chapter on Railroads.

One of the most important facts which the engine-driver ought to know is the exact time since the preceding train has passed the point of railroad on which his own engine is.

This may be done by placing signals, about to be described, by the side of or across the road at all places where such knowledge is most important.

The principle to be employed is, that at the passage of those places the engine itself should, in its transit, wind up a weight or spring. That this weight should act upon an arm standing perpendicularly, which would immediately commence moving slowly to the horizontal position. This it should attain by an equable motion at the end of three, five, or any desirable number of minutes.

The means of raising the weight may be derived either from a projection below the engine or by one above it. The latter, which seems preferable, might be attached to a light beam traversing the road to which the apparatus should be fixed.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.