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A Gem from Newman

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 09, 2009

John Henry Cardinal Newman’s A Grammar of Assent is a systematic exploration of the varying acts of the human intellect which work together to produce assents of various kinds, and ultimately religious assent. Along the way, of course, the reader is treated continuously to Newman’s exquisitely balanced and expressive prose. Although the entire work would be difficult to summarize, it contains countless small gems, used almost at random to illustrate larger points. I discovered another one this evening in the section on informal inference, where Newman seeks to show how little the pure logic of the syllogism can do for us in settling matters of particular fact. To demonstrate, he takes up the argument of David Hume against miracles:

It is argued by Hume against the actual occurrence of the Jewish and Christian miracles, that, whereas “it is experience only which gives authority to human testimony, and it is the same experience which assures us of the laws of nature,” therefore, “when these two kinds of experience are contrary” to each other, “we are bound to subtract the one from the other;” and, in consequence, since we have no experience of a violation of natural laws, and much experience of the violation of truth, “we may establish it as a maxim that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”
I will accept the general proposition, but I resist its application. Doubtless it is abstractedly more likely that men should lie than that the order of nature should be infringed; but what is abstract reasoning to a question of concrete fact? To arrive at the fact of any matter, we must eschew generalities, and take things as they stand, with all their circumstances. A priori, of course the acts of men are not so trustworthy as the order of nature, and the pretence of miracles is in fact more common than the occurrence. But the question is not about miracles in general, or men in general, but definitely, whether these particular miracles, ascribed to the particular Peter, James, and John, are more likely to have been or not; whether they are unlikely, supposing that there is a Power, external to the world, who can bring them about; supposing they are the only means by which He can reveal Himself to those who need a revelation; supposing He is likely to reveal Himself; that He has a great end in doing so; that the professed miracles in question are like His natural works, and such as He is likely to work, in case He wrought miracles; that great effects, otherwise unaccountable, in the event followed upon the acts said to be miraculous; that they were from the first accepted as true by large numbers of men against their natural interests; that the reception of them as true has left its mark upon the world, as no other event ever did; that, viewed in their effects, they have—that is, the belief of them has—served to raise human nature to a high moral standard, otherwise unattainable: these and the like considerations are parts of a great complex argument, which so far can be put into propositions, but which, even between, and around, and behind these, still is implicit and secret, and cannot by any ingenuity be imprisoned in a formula, and packed into a nut-shell. These various conditions may be decided in the affirmative or in the negative. That is a further point; here I only insist upon the nature of the argument, if it is to be philosophical. It must be no smart antithesis which may look well on paper, but the living action of the mind on a great problem of fact; and we must summon to our aid all our powers and resources, if we would encounter it worthily, and not as if it were a literary essay.

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