Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/On Fallacies of Testimony Respecting the Supernatural
|ON FALLACIES OF TESTIMONY RESPECTING THE SUPERNATURAL.|
By WILLIAM B. CARPENTER, LL. D., F. R. S.
NO one who has studied the history of science can fail to recognize the fact that the rate of its progress has been in great degree commensurate with the degree of freedom from any hind of prepossession with which scientific inquiry has been conducted. And the chapters of Lord Bacon's "Novum Organura," in which he analyzes and classifies the prejudices that are apt to divert the scientific inquirer from his single-minded pursuit of truth, have rightly been accounted among the most valuable portions of that immortal work. To use the felicitous language of Dr. Thomas Brown, "the temple which Lord Bacon purified was not that of Nature herself, but the temple of the mind; in its innermost sanctuaries were the idols which he overthrew; and it was not till these were removed, that Truth would deign to unveil herself to adoration."
Every one, again, who watches the course of educated thought at the present time, must see that it is tending toward the exercise of that trained and organized common-sense which we call "scientific method," on subjects to which it is legitimately applicable within the sphere of religious inquiry. Science has been progressively, and in various ways, undermining the old "bases of belief;" and men in almost every religious denomination, animated by no spirit but that of reverent loyalty to truth, are now seriously asking themselves, whether the whole fabric of what is commonly regarded as authoritative revelation must not be carefully reexamined under the searching light of modern criticism, in order that what is sound may be preserved and strengthened, and that the insecurity of some parts may not destroy the stability of the whole.
I notice, further, among even "orthodox" theologians of the present time, indications of a disposition to regard the New Testament miracles rather as incumbrances, than as props, to what is essential in Christianity; of a feeling that they are rather to be explained away, than adduced as authoritative attestations of the teachings of Jesus; and of a perception that to attempt to enforce a belief in them, on the part of the rising generation, will be either to alienate from the acceptance of those teachings many of the most cultured and most earnest young people of our time, or to reduce their minds to that state of unreasoning subservience to authority which finds its only logical basis in the Roman Catholic Church. And, moreover, I observe it to be among those, in various religious denominations, who are converging to the conclusion that the "authority" of Christianity most surely consists in the direct appeal it makes to the hearts and consciences of mankind, who most fully recognize in the life, teaching, and death of Christ, that manifestation of the Divine (ὰπανγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τὴς νποστάσεως αντον) which constitutes him their Master and Lord, and who most earnestly and constantly aim to fashion their own lives on the model of his—that there is the greatest readiness to admit that the records of that life are tinged by the prepossessions, and subject to the inaccuracies, to which all human testimony is liable.
It was nobly said thirty years ago (I believe by Francis Newman) that "every fresh advance of certain knowledge apparently sweeps off a portion of (so-called) religious belief, but only to leave the true religious element more and more pure; and in proportion to its purity will he its influence for good, and for good only;" and that, "little as many are aware of it, faithlessness is often betrayed in the struggle to retain in the region of faith that which is already passing into the region of science, for it implies doubt of the value of truth." Thoroughly sympathizing with this view—in no spirit of hostility to what is commonly regarded as revealed truth—but with a desire to promote the discriminating search for what really constitutes revealed truth, I offer the following suggestions, arising out of the special studies which have occupied a large part of my life, to the consideration of such as may deem them worthy of attention.
That the whole tendency of recent scientific inquiry has been to strengthen the notion of "continuity" as opposed to "cataclysms" and "interruptions," and to substitute the idea of progressive "evolution" for that of "special creations," cannot but be obvious to every one who is familiar with the progress of inquiry in astronomy, physical geology, paleontology, and biology. But the scientific theist who regards the so-called "laws of Nature" as nothing else than man's expressions of so much of the divine order as it lies within his power to discern, and who looks at the uninterruptedness of this
order as the highest evidence of its original perfection, need find (as it seems to me) no abstract difficulty in the conception that the author of Mature can, if he will, occasionally depart from it. And hence, as I deem it presumptuous to deny that there might be occasions which in his wisdom may require such departure, I am not conscious of any such scientific "prepossessions" against miracles as would prevent me from accepting them as facts, if trustworthy evidence of their reality could be adduced. The question with me, therefore, is simply, "Have we any adequate historical ground for the belief that such departure has ever taken place?"
Now, it can scarcely be questioned that, while the scientific probability of uniform sequence has become stronger, the value of testimony in regard to departures from it has been in various ways discredited by modern criticism. It is clear that the old arguments of Lardner, and the modern reproduction of them by Prof. Andrews Norton (Boston, New England), which in my early days were held as demonstrating the "genuineness of the Gospels," no longer possess their former cogency. For the question has now passed into a phase altogether different from that which it presented a century or two ago. It was then, "Are the narratives genuine or fictitious? Did the narrators intend to speak the truth, or were they constructing a tissue of falsehoods? Did they really witness what they narrate, or were they the dupes of ingenious story-tellers?" It is now, "Granting that the narrators wrote what they firmly believed to be true, as having themselves seen (or thought they had seen) the events they recorded, or as having heard of them from witnesses whom they had a right to regard as equally trustworthy with themselves, is their belief a sufficient justification for ours? What is the extent of allowance which we are to make for 'prepossession'—1. As modifying their conception of each occurrence at the time; and 2. As modifying their subsequent remembrance of it? And 3. In cases in which we have not access to the original records, what is the amount of allowance which we ought to make for the accretion of other still less trustworthy narratives around the original nucleus?"
Circumstances have led me from a very early period to take a great interest in the question of the value of testimony, and to occupy myself a good deal in the inquiry as to what is scientifically termed its "subjective" element. It was my duty for many years to study and to expound systematically to medical students the probative value of different kinds of evidence; and my psychological interest in the curious phenomena which, under the names of mesmerism, odylism, electro-biology, psychic force, and spiritual agency, have been supposed to indicate the existence of some new and mysterious force in Nature, led me, through a long series of years, to avail myself of every opportunity of studying them that fell within my reach. The general result of these inquiries has been to force upon me the conviction that, as to all which concerns the "supernatural" (using that term in its generally understood sense, without attempting a logical definition of it), the allowance that has to be made for "prepossession" is so large as practically to destroy the validity of any testimony which is not submitted to the severest scrutiny according to the strictest scientific methods. Of the manner in which, within my own experience, what seemed the most trustworthy testimony has been completely discredited by the application of such methods, I shall give some examples hereafter.
I would by no means claim for myself or any other scientific man an immunity from idolatrous prepossessions; for we must all be guided in our researches by some notion of what we expect to find; and this notion may be very misleading. Thus, when no metal was known that is not several times heavier than water, it was not surprising that Dr. Pearson, as he poised upon his finger the first globule of potassium produced by the battery of Davy, should have exclaimed, "Bless me, how heavy it is!" though, when thrown into water, the metal floated upon it. But while the true disciple of Bacon is on his guard against "idolatry," and is constantly finding himself rudely handled (as Dr. Pearson was) by "the irresistible logic of facts" if he falls into it, the pledged upholder of any religious system can be scarcely other than, in some degree, an "idolater." The real philosopher, says Schiller, is distinguished from the "trader in knowledge" by his "always loving truth better than his system."
Bacon's classification of "idols" is based on the sources of our prepossessions; and, although his four types graduate insensibly into each other, yet the study of them is very profitable. Sir John Herschel is, I think, less successful when he classifies them as—1. Prejudices of opinion, and 2. Prejudices of sense; because an analysis of any of his "prejudices of sense" shows that it is really a "prejudice of opinion." My first object is to show that we are liable to be affected by our prepossessions at every stage of our mental activity, from our primary reception of impressions from without, to the highest exercise of our reasoning powers; and that the value of the testimony of any individual, therefore, as to any fact whatever, essentially depends upon his freedom from any prepossessions that can affect it.
That our own states of consciousness constitute what are, to each individual, the most certain of all truths—in a philosophical sense (as J. S. Mill says) the only certain truths—will, I suppose, be generally admitted; but there is a wide hiatus between this and the position that every state of consciousness which represents an external object has a real object answering to it. In fact, although we areto speak of "the evidence of our senses" as worthy of the highest credit, nothing is easier than to show that the evidence of any one sense, without the check afforded by comparison with that of another, is utterly untrustworthy.
I might pile up instances of visual illusion, for example, in which the subject would be ready to affirm without the slightest hesitation that he sees something which greatly differs from the object that actually forms the picture on his retina; his erroneous interpretation of that picture being the result of a prepossession derived from antecedent experience. I could show, too, that the same picture may be interpreted in two different modes: a skeleton-diagram, for example, suggesting two dissimilar solid forms, according as the eyes are fixed on one or another of its angles; and a photograph of a coin or fossil being seen as a cameo or as an intaglio, according as the position of the light affects the interpretation of its lights and shadows. Again, I have before me two pieces of card, A and B, of similar form: when A is placed above B, the latter is unhesitatingly pronounced the larger; if their relative positions be reversed, A is pronounced, with equal conviction, to be the larger; yet, when one is laid upon the other, they are found to be precisely equal in size.
So, again, in those more complex combinations of natural objects which the pictorial artist aims to represent, the different modes in which the very same scene shall be treated, by two individuals working at the same time and from the same point of view, show how differently they interpret the same visual picture, according to their original constitution and subsequent training. As Carlyle says, "The eye sees what it brings the power to see."
But mental prepossessions do much more than this; they produce sensations having no objective reality. I do not here allude to those "subjective sensations" of physiologists which depend upon physical affections of nerves in their course, the circulation of poisoned blood in the brain (as in the delirium of fever), and the like; but I refer to the sensations produced by mental expectancy, a most fertile source of self-deception. The medical practitioner is familiar with these in the case of "hysterical" subjects; whose pains are as real experiences to them as if they originated in the parts to which they are referred. And I have no reason to doubt that the "sensitives" of Reichenbach really saw the flames they described as issuing from magnets in the dark—as a very honest and highly-educated gentleman assured me that he did, not only when the magnet was there, but when he believed it to be still there (in the dark), after it had been actually withdrawn. So there are "sensitives" in whom the drawing of a magnet along the arm will produce a sensible aura or a pricking pain; and this will be equally excited by the belief that the magnet is being so used, when nothing whatever is done.
Now, the phenomena of which these are simple examples appear to me to have this physiological signification—that changes in the cerebrum which answer to the higher mental states act downward upon the sensorium at its base, in the same manner as changes in the organs of sense act upward upon it; the very same state of the sensorium being producible through the nerves of the internal and of the external senses, and. the very same affection of the sensational consciousness being thus called forth by impressions ab extra and ab intra. Thus, individuals having a strong pictorial memory can reproduce scenes from Nature, faces, or pictures, with such vividness that they may be said to see with their "mind's eye" just as distinctly as with their bodily eye; and there is an instance on record (which Mr. Ruskin fully accredits, as well from having seen the two pictures as from his own similar experiences) in which a painter at Cologne accurately reproduced from memory a large altar-piece by Rubens, which had been carried away by the French. Those, again, who possess a strong pictorial imagination, can thus create distinct visual images of what they have never seen through their bodily eyes. And, although this power of voluntary representation is comparatively rare, yet we are all conscious of the phenomenon as occurring involuntarily in our dreams.
Now, there is a very numerous class of persons who are subject to what may be termed "waking dreams," which they can induce by placing themselves in conditions favorable to reverie; and the course of these dreams is essentially determined by the individual's prepossessions, brought into play by suggestions conveyed from without. In many who do not spontaneously fall into this state, fixity of the gaze for some minutes is quite sufficient to induce it; and the "mesmeric mania" of Edinburgh in 1851 showed the proportion of such susceptible individuals to be much larger than was previously supposed. Those who have had adequate opportunities of studying these phenomena find no difficulty in referring to the same category many of the "spiritualistic" performances of the present time, in which we seem to have reproductions of states that were regarded in ancient times, under the influence of religious prepossession, as results of divine inspiration. I have strong reason to believe (from my conviction of the honesty of the individuals who have themselves narrated to me their experiences) that they have really seen, heard, and felt what they describe, where intentional deception was out of the question; that is, that they had the same distinct consciousness, in states of expectant reverie, of seeing, touching, and conversing with the spirits of departed friends, that most of us occasionally have in our dreams. And the difference consists in this—that while one, in the exercise of his common-sense, dismisses these experiences as the creation of his own brain, having no objective reality, the other, under the influence of his prepossession, accepts them as the results of impressions ab extra made upon him by "spiritual" agencies.
The faith anciently placed, by the heathen as well as the Jewish world, in dreams, visions, trances, etc., has thus its precise parallel in the present day; and it is not a little instructive to find a very intelligent religious body, the Swedenborgians, implicitly accepting as authoritative revelation the visions of a man of great intellectual ability and strong religious spirit, but highly imaginative disposition, the peculiar feature of whose mind it was to dwell upon his own imaginings. These he seems to have so completely separated from his worldly life, that the Swedenborg who believed himself to hold intercourse with the spiritual world and Swedenborg the mechanician and metallurgist may almost be regarded as two distinct personalities.
If, then, the high scientific attainments of some of the prominent advocates of "spiritualism," and our confidence in their honesty, be held to require our assent to what they narrate as their experiences, in regard to a class of phenomena which they declare that they have witnessed, but which they cannot reproduce for the satisfaction of other men of science who desire to submit them to the rigorous tests which they regard as necessary to substantiate their validity, then we must, in like manner, accept the records of Swedenborg's revelations as binding on our belief. That they were true to him I cannot doubt; and, in the same manner, I do not question that Mr. Crookes is thoroughly honest when he says that he has repeatedly witnessed the "levitation of the human body." But I can regard his statements in no other light than as evidence of the degree in which certain minds are led, by the influence of strong "prepossession," to believe in the creations of their own visual imagination.
All history shows that nothing is so potent as religious enthusiasm, in fostering this tendency; the very state of enthusiasm, in fact, being the "possession" of the mind by fixed ideas, which overbear the teachings of objective experience. These, when directed to great and noble ends, may overcome the obstacles which deter cooler judgments from attempting them; but, on the other hand, may also move not only individuals but great masses of people to extravagances at which sober common-sense revolts; as the history of the Flagellants, the Dancing Mania, and other religious epidemics of the middle ages, forcibly illustrates. And nothing is more remarkable, in the history of these epidemics, than the vividness with which people who were not asleep saw visions that were obviously inspired by the prevalent religious notions of their times. Thus, some of the dancers saw heaven opened, and the Saviour enthroned with the Virgin Mary; while others saw hell yawning before their feet, or felt as if bathed in blood; their frantic leaps being prompted by their eagerness to reach toward the one or to escape from the other.
In the next place, I would briefly direct attention to the influence of prepossessions on those interpretations of our sensational experiences which we are prone to substitute for the statement of the experiences themselves. Of such misinterpretations, the records of science are full; the tendency is one which besets every observer, and to which the most conscientious have frequently yielded; but I do not know any more striking illustrations of it than I could narrate from my own inquiries into mesmerism, spiritualism, etc. The most diverse accounts of the facts of a séance will be given by a believer and a skeptic. One will declare that a table rose in the air, while another (who had been watching its feet) is confident that it never left the ground; a whole party of believers will affirm that they saw Mr. Home float out of one window and in at another, while a single honest skeptic declares that Mr. Home was sitting in his chair all the time. And in this last case we have an example of a fact, of which there is ample illustration, that during the prevalence of an epidemic delusion the honest testimony of any number of individuals on one side, if given under a "prepossession," is of no more weight than that of a single adverse witness—if so much. Thus I think it cannot be doubted by any one who candidly studies the witchcraft trials of two centuries back, that, as a rule, the witnesses really believed what they deposed to as facts; and it further seems pretty clear that in many instances the persons incriminated were themselves "possessed" with the notion of the reality of the occult powers attributed to them. No more instructive lesson can be found, as to the importance of the "subjective" element in human testimony, than is presented in the records of these trials. Thus, Jane Brooks was hung at Chard assizes in 1658, for having bewitched Richard Jones, a sprightly lad of twelve years old; he was seen to rise in the air and pass over a garden-wall some thirty yards; and nine people deposed to finding him, in open daylight, with his hands flat against a beam at the top of the room, and his body two or three feet from the ground? If this "levitation of the human body," confirmed as it is in modern times by the testimony of Mr. Crookes, Lord Lindsay, and Lord Adair, to say nothing of the dozen witnesses to Mrs. Guppy's descent through the ceiling of a closed and darkened room, has a valid claim on our belief, how are we to stop short of accepting, on the like testimony, all the marvels and extravagances of witchcraft? If, on the other hand, we put these witnesses out of court, as rendered untrustworthy by their "prepossession," what credit can we attach to the testimony of any individuals or bodies dominated by a strong religious "prepossession;" that testimony having neither been recorded at the time, nor subjected to the test of judicial examination?
Though I have hitherto spoken of "prepossessions" as ideational states, there are very few in which the emotions do not take a share; and bow strongly the influence of these may pervert the representations of actual facts, we best see in that early stage of many forms of monomania, in which there are as yet no fixed delusions, but the occurrences of daily life are wrongly interpreted by the emotional coloring they receive. But we may recognize the same influence in matters which are constantly passing under our observation; and a better illustration of it could scarcely be found than in the following circumstance, mentioned to me as having recently occurred in the practice of a distinguished physician: The head of a family having been struck down by serious illness, this physician was called in to consult with the ordinary medical attendant; and, after examining the patient and conferring with his colleague, he went into the sitting-room where the family were waiting in anxious expectation for his judgment on the case. This he delivered in the cautious form which wise experience dictated: "The patient's condition is very critical, but I see no reason why he should not recover." One of the daughters screamed, "Dr. —— says papa will die!" another cried out, in a jubilant tone, "Dr. —— says papa will get well." If no explanation had been given, the two ladies would have reported the physician's verdict in precisely opposite terms, one being under the influence of fear, the other of hope.
I shall now give a few illustrative examples, from recent experiences, of the contrast between the two views taken of the same phenomena (1) by such as are led by their "prepossessions" at once to attribute to "occult" influences what they cannot otherwise explain, and (2) by those who, under the guidance of trained and organized common-sense, apply themselves, in the first instance, to determine whether there be any thing in these phenomena which "natural" agencies are not competent to account for:
1. When, in 1853, the "table-turning" epidemic had taken so strong a hold of the public mind that Prof. Faraday found himself called upon to explain its supposed mystery, he devised a very simple piece of apparatus for testing the fundamental question, whether there is any evidence that the movements of the table are due to any thing else than the muscular action of the performers who place their hands upon it. And having demonstrated by its means (1) that the table never went round unless the "indicator" showed that lateral pressure had been exerted in the direction of the movement, while (2) it always did go round when the "indicator" showed that such lateral pressure was adequately exerted, he at once saw that the phenomenon was only another manifestation of the involuntary "ideo-motor" action which had been previously formulated, on other grounds, as a definite physiological principle; and that there was, therefore, not the least evidence of any other agency. Yet it is still asserted that the validity of Faraday's test is completely disproved by the conviction of the performers that they do not exert any such agency; all that this proves being that they are not conscious of such exertion—which, to the physiologist, affords no proof whatever that they are not making it.
3. About twenty-five years ago, when the old phenomena of the oscillations of suspended buttons, developed by Dr. H. Mayo into a pseudo-scientific theory of od-force, were strongly exciting public attention, a medical friend of great intelligence, then residing in the south of France, wrote me long letters giving the results of his surprising experiences, and asking what I regarded as their rationale. My reply was simply, "Shut your eyes, and let some one else observe the oscillations." In a short time I heard from him again, to the effect that his reinvestigation of the matter under this condition had satisfied him that there was no other agency concerned than his own involuntary muscular movement, directed by his mental expectancy of the results which would ensue.
In the foregoing cases, the honest beliefs of the agents themselves brought about the results; in the following these beliefs were taken up by the witnesses to the performances of others, in spite of all common-sense probability to the contrary, under the influence of their own strong "prepossessions."
4. At a spiritualistic séance at which I was present, at an early stage of the present epidemic, the "medium" pressed down one side of a large loo table supported on a pedestal springing from three spreading feet, and left it resting on only two of its feet, with its surface at an angle of about 45°. Having been admitted to this séance under a promise of non-interference, I waited until its conclusion; and then, going over to the table, set it up and left it in the same position. For I had observed, when this was done by the "medium," that the edge of the broad claw of each foot, and the edge of its castor, bore on the ground together, so as to afford a base which, though narrow, was sufficient for the table to rest on, its weight happening to be balanced when thus tilted half over. Several persons of great intelligence who were present at this séance (Mr. Robert Chambers among the rest) assured me that, if it had not been for my exposure of this trick, they should have gone away in the belief that the table was sustained by "spiritual" influence, as in no other way could they suppose it to have kept its position against the force of gravity.
6. During the meeting of the British Association at Belfast in 1874, a lady-medium of great repute held spiritualistic séances, at which she distributed flowers, affirmed to have been brought to her then and there by the spirits, fresh from the garden, with the dew of heaven upon them. As there was nothing more in this performance than is done every day by an ordinary conjurer, only the confidence entertained in the good faith of the medium could justify a belief in the "spiritual" transport of the flowers; but this belief, aided by the general "prepossession," had been implicitly accepted by many of the witnesses on such occasions. An inquisitive young gentleman, however, who was staying in the same house, and did not share in this confidence, found a basin-full of these flowers (hollyhocks) in a garret, with a decanter of water beside it; and strongly suspecting that they had been stored there with a view to distribution at the séance, and that the dew would be supplied, when wanted, from the decanter, he conveyed into the water a chemical substance (ferrocyanide of potassium), in quantity so small as not to tinge it, and yet to be distinctly recognizable by the proper test. On the subsequent application of this test (a per-salt of iron) to the flowers distributed by the "medium," they were found to give Prussian blue.—This is no piece of hearsay, but a statement which I have in the hand of the gentleman himself, with permission to make it public.
But every form of "prepossession" has an involuntary and unsuspected action in modifying the memorial traces of past events, even when they were originally rightly apprehended. A gradual change in our own mode of viewing them will bring us to the conviction that we always so viewed them; as we recently saw in the erroneous account which Earl Russell gave of his action as Foreign Secretary in the negotiations which preceded the Crimean War. His subsequently acquired perception of what he should have done at a particular juncture wrought him up to the honest belief that he really did it. To few persons of experience in life has it not happened to find their distinct impressions of past events in striking discordance with some contemporary narrative, as perhaps given in a letter of their own. An able lawyer told me not long since that he had had occasion to look into a deed which he had not opened for twenty years, but which he could have sworn to contain certain clauses; and, to his utter astonishment, the clauses were not to be found in it. His habitual conception of the purpose of the deed had constructed what answered to the actual memorial trace.
Now, this constructive process becomes peculiarly obvious, in a comparison of narratives given by the believers in mesmerism, spiritualism, and similar "occult" agencies, when there has been time for the building-up of the edifice, with contemporary records of the events, made perhaps by the very narrators themselves. Every thing which tends to prove the reality of the occult influence is exaggerated or distorted; every thing which would help to explain it away is quietly (no doubt quite unintentionally) dropped out. And convictions thus come to be honestly entertained which are in complete disaccordance with the original facts. This source of fallacy was specially noticed by Bacon;
"When the mind is once pleased with certain things, it draws all others to consent, and go along with them; and though the power and number of instances that make for the contrary are greater, yet it either attends not to them, or despises them, or else removes them by a distinction, with a strong and pernicious prejudice to maintain the authority of the first choice unviolated. And hence in most cases of superstition, as of astrology, dreams, omens, judgments, etc., those who find pleasure in such kind of vanities always observe where the event answers, but slight and pass by the instances where it fails, which are much the more numerous."—Novum Organon.
Of the manner in which this constructive process will build up a completely ideal representation of a personality (with or without a nucleus of reality), which shall gain implicit acceptance among a whole people, and be currently accepted by the world at large, we have a "pregnant instance" in the William Tell tradition. For the progressive narrowing-down of his claims, which has resulted from the complete discordance between the actions traditionally attributed to him and trustworthy contemporary history, leaves even his personality questionable; while the turning-up of the apple-story in Icelandic sagas and Hindoo myths seems to put it beyond doubt that this, at any rate, is drawn from far older sources. The reality of this process of gradual accretion and modification, in accordance with current ideas in regard to the character of an individual or the bearing of an event, cannot now be doubted by any philosophic student of history. And the degree in which such constructions involve ascriptions of supernatural power can be shown in many instances to depend upon the prevalent notions entertained as to what the individual might be expected to do.
No figure is more prominent in the early ecclesiastical history of Scotland than that of St. Columba, "the Apostle of the Scoto-Irish," in the sixth century. Having left Ireland, his native country, through having, by his fearless independence, been brought into collision with its civil powers, and been excommunicated by its Church-synods, he migrated to Scotland in the year 563, and acquired by royal donation the island of Iona, which was a peculiarly favorable centre for his evangelizing labors, carried on for more than thirty years among the Picts and Scots, and also among the northern Irish. No fewer than thirty-two separate religious foundations among the Scots, twenty-one among the Picts, and thirty-seven among the Irish, many of which occupied conspicuous places in the monastic history of the earlier middle ages, seem to have been planted by himself or his immediate disciples; the most celebrated of all these being the college of the Culdees, at Iona, which kept alive the flame of learning during a prolonged period of general ignorance and superstition, and became a centre of religious influence, which extended far beyond the range of its founder's personal labors, and caused his memory to be held in the deepest veneration for centuries afterward. The point on which I here desire to lay stress is the continuity of history, as trustworthy as any such history can be; the incidents of St. Columba's life having been originally recorded in the contemporary fasti of his religious foundation, and transmitted in unbroken succession to Abbot Adamnan, who first compiled a complete "Vita" of his great predecessor, of which there still exists a manuscript copy, whose authenticity there is no reason to doubt, which dates back to the early part of the eighth century, not much more than one hundred years after St. Columba's death. Now, Adamnan's "Vita" credits its subject with the possession of every kind of miraculous power. The saint prophesied events of all kinds, trivial as well as grave, from battles and violent deaths down to the spilling of an ink-horn, the falling of a book, the omission of a single letter from a writing, and the arrival of guests at the monastery. He cured numbers of people afflicted with inveterate diseases, accorded safety to storm-tossed vessels, himself walked across the sea to his island-home, drove demons out of milk-pails, outwitted sorcerers, and gave supernatural powers to domestic implements. Like other saints, he had his visions of angels and apparitions of heavenly light, which comforted and encouraged him at many a trying juncture, lasting, on one occasion, for three days and nights.
Now, it seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt that St. Columba was one of those men of extraordinary energy of character and earnest religious nature who have the power of strongly impressing most of those with whom they come into contact, moulding their wills and awakening their religious sympathies, so as to acquire a wonderful influence over them; this being aided by the commanding personal "presence" he is recorded to have possessed. And it is not surprising that, when themselves the subjects of what they regarded as "supernatural" power, they should attribute to him the exercise of the same power in other ways. In fact, to their unscientific minds it seemed quite "natural" that he should so exert it; its possession being, in their belief, a normal attribute of his saintship. That he himself believed in his gifts, and that many wonders were actually worked by the concurrent action of his own faith in himself and his followers' faith in him, will not seem unlikely to any one who has carefully studied the action of mental states upon the bodily organism. And that round a nucleus of truth there should have gathered a large accretion of error, under the influence of the mental preconception whose modus operandi I have endeavored to elucidate, is accordant with the teachings of our own recent experience, in such cases as that of Dr. Newton and the Zouave Jacob. In these and similar phenomena, a strong conviction of the possession of the power on the part of the healer seems to be necessary for the excitement of the faith of those operated on; and the healer recognizes, by a kind of intuition, the existence of that faith on the part of the patient. Do not several phrases in the gospel narratives point to the same relations as existing between Jesus and the sufferers who sought his aid? The cure is constantly attributed to the "faith" of the patient; while, on the other hand, we are told that Jesus did not do many mighty works in his own country "because of their unbelief"—the very condition which, if these mighty works had been performed by his own will alone, would have been supposed to call forth its exertion, but which is perfectly conformable to our own experience of the wonders of mesmerism, spiritualism, etc. So Paul is spoken of as "steadfastly beholding" the cripple at Lystra, "and seeing that he had faith to be healed."
The potency of influences of the opposite kind upon minds predisposed to them, and through their minds upon their bodies, is shown in the "Obeah practices" still lingering among the negroes of the "West India colonies, in spite of most stringent legislation. A slow pining away, ending in death, has been the not unfrequent result of the fixed belief on the part of the victim that "Obi" has been put upon him by some old man or old woman reputed to possess the injurious power; and I see no reason to doubt that the Obi men or women were firm believers in the occult power attributed to them.
Every medical man of large experience is well aware how strongly the patient's undoubting faith in the efficacy of a particular remedy or mode of treatment assists its action; and, where the doctor is himself animated by such a faith, he has the more power of exciting it in others. A simple prediction, without any remedial measure, will sometimes work its own fulfillment. Thus, Sir James Paget tells of a case in which he strongly impressed a woman, having a sluggish, nonmalignant tumor in the breast, that this tumor would disperse within a month or six weeks; and so it did. He perceived the patient's nature to be one on which the assurance would act favorably, and no one could more earnestly and effectually enforce it. On the other hand, a fixed belief on the part of the patient that a mortal disease has seized upon the frame, or that a particular operation or system of treatment will prove unsuccessful, seems in numerous instances to have been the real occasion of the fatal result.
Many of the so-called "miracles" of the Romish Church, such as that of the "holy thorn" (narrated in the "History of the Port-Royalists"), which stood the test of the most rigid contemporary inquiry, carried on at the prompting of a hostile ecclesiastical party, seem to me fully explicable on the like principle of the action of strongly-excited "faith" in producing bodily change, whether beneficial or injurious; and nothing but the fact that this strong excitement was called forth by religious influences, which in all ages have been more potent in arousing it than influences of any other kind, gives the least color to the assumption of their supernatural character.
I might draw many other illustrations from the lives of the saints of various periods of the Roman Catholic Church, as chronicled by their contemporaries, many of whom speak of themselves as eye-witnesses of the marvels they relate; thus, the "levitation of the human body"—i. e., the rising from the ground, and the remaining unsupported in the air for a considerable length of time—is one of the miracles attributed to St. Francis d'Assisi. But it will be enough for me to refer to the fact that some of the ablest ecclesiastical historians in the English Church have confessed their inability to see on what grounds—so far asevidence is concerned—we are to reject these, if the testimony of the Biblical narratives is to be accepted as valid evidence of the supernatural occurrences they relate.
But the most remarkable example I have met with in recent times of the "survival" in a whole community of ancient modes of thought on these subjects (the etymological meaning of the term "superstition") has been very recently made public by a German writer, who has given an account of the population of a corner of Eastern Austria, termed the Bukowina, a large proportion of which are Jews, mostly belonging to the sect of the Chassidim, who are ruled by "Saints" or "Just Ones." "These saints," says their delineator, "are sly impostors, who take advantage of the fanaticism, superstition, and blind ignorance of the Chassidim in the most barefaced manner. They heal the sick by pronouncing magic words, drive out devils, gain lawsuits, and their curse is supposed to kill whole families, or at least to reduce them to beggary. Between the 'saint' and 'God' there is no mediator, for he holds personal intercourse with the Father of all, and his words are oracles. Woe to those who should venture to dispute these miracles in the presence of these unreasonable fanatics! They are ready to die for their superstitions, and to kill those who dispute them."
Now, I fail to see what stronger external evidence there is of any of the supernatural occurrences chronicled in the Old Testament than that which is afforded by the assured conviction of this Jewish community as to what is taking place at the present time under their own eyes. And, assuming, as I suppose most of us should be ready to do, that the testimony of these contemporary wonders would break down under the rigorous test of a searching examination, I ask whether we are not equally justified in the assumption that a similar scrutiny, if we had the power to apply it, would in like manner dispose of many of the narratives of old time, either as distortions of real occurrences or as altogether legendary.
In regard to the New Testament miracles generally, while failing to see in what respect the external testimony in their behalf is stronger than it is for the reality of the miracles attributed to St. Columba, I limit myself for the present to the following questions:
1. Whether the "miracles of healing" may not have had a foundation of reality in "natural" agencies perfectly well known to such as have scientifically studied the action of the mind upon the body. In regard to one form of these supposed miracles—the casting out of devils—I suppose that I need not in these days adduce any argument to disprove the old notion of "demoniacal possession," in the face of the fact that the belief in such "possession" in the case of lunatics, epileptics, etc., and the belief in the powers of "exorcists" to get rid of it, are still as prevalent among Eastern nations as they were in the time of Christ. And I suppose, too, that, since travelers have found that the pool of Bethesda is fed by an intermittent spring, few now seriously believe in the occasional appearance of an "angel" who moved its water; or in the cure of the first among the expectant sick who got himself placed in it, by any other agency than his "faith" in the efficacy of the means. I simply claim the right to a more extended application of the same critical method.
2. Whether we have not a similar right to bring to bear on the study of the Gospel narratives the same principles of criticism as guided the early fathers in their construction of the canon, with all the enlightenment which we derive from the subsequent history of Christianity, aided by that of other forms of religious belief. The early Christian fathers were troubled with no doubts as to the reality of miracles in themselves; and they testified to the healing of the sick, the casting out of devils, and even the raising of the dead, as well-known facts of their own time. But they rejected some current narratives of the miraculous which they did not regard as adequately authenticated, and others as considering them puerile. Looking at it not only as our right, but as our duty, to bring the higher critical enlightenment of the present day to bear upon the study of the Gospel records, I ask whether both past and contemporary history do not afford such a body of evidence of a prevalent tendency to exaggeration and distortion, in the representation of actual occurrences in which "supernatural" agencies are supposed to have been concerned, as entitles us, without attempting any detailed analysis, to believe that, if we could know what really did happen, it would often prove to be something very different from what is narrated.
By such a general admission, we may remove the serious ties to which I alluded at the outset, difficulties which must, I think, have been present to the mind of Locke, when he recorded, in the commonplace-book published by Lord King, the remarkable aphorism that "the doctrine proves the miracles, rather than the miracles the doctrine."—Contemporary Review.
- Thus theologians of the "philosophic" school argue that miracles are not to be regarded as departures from the divine order, but are parts of the order originally settled in the divine mind—as typified by the well-known illustration supplied by Mr. Babbage from his calculating-machine. But this obviously puts altogether on one side the notion of miracles as extraordinary interpositions, involving a more direct personal agency than the ordinary uniformity.
- "The brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person."
- Prospective Review, vol. i., p. 53.
- E. Kilian, in Fraser's Magazine for December, 1875.