Assent, he says, "is in itself the absolute acceptance of a proposition without any condition," and "it presupposes in order to its being made some concomitant apprehension of its terms'.
When we assent to a proposition, "we consider it for its own sake, and in its intrinsic sense. That sense must be in some degree known to us, else we do but assert the proposition, we in nowise assent to it." He then observes, " The only question is what measure of apprehension is sufficient. And the answer to this question is equally plain,—it is the predicate of the proposition which must be apprehended. In a proposition one term is predicated of another, the subject is referred to the predicate, and the predicate gives us information about the subject; therefore, to apprehend the proposition is to have that information, and to assent to it is to acquiesce in it as true. Therefore, I apprehend a proposition when I apprehend its predicate. The subject need not be apprehended per se in order to a genuine assent, for it is the very'thing which the predicate has to elucidate, and therefore, by its formal place in the proposition, so far as it is the subject, it is something unknown, something which the predicate makes known; but the predicate cannot make it known unless it is known itself." He gives several illustrations, of which it will be enough to quote one:—"If a child asked, 'What is lucern?' and is answered, 'Lucern, is Medicago sativa, of the class Diadelphia and order Decandria,' and henceforth says obediently, 'Lucern is Medicago sativa,' &c., he makes no act of assent to the proposition which he enunciates, but speaks like a parrot. But if ho is told, ' Lucern is food for cattle,' and is shown cows grazing in a meadow, then, though ho never saw lucern, and knows nothing at all about it besides what he learnt from the predicate, he is in a position to make as genuine an assent to the proposition, 'Lucem is food for cattle,' on the word of his informant, as if he knew ever so much more about lucern; and as soon as he has got as far as this, he may go further. He now knows enough about lucern to enable him to apprehend propositions which hare lucern for their predicate, should they come before him for assent, as,' That field is sown with lucern,' or, 'Clover is not lucern.'" (pp. 11-13.)
It appears to me that this theory of the nature of assent and of the apprehension essential to it is wrong, and that for the theory that we can assent to propositions of which we apprehend the predicate we should substitute this :—We can assent to propositions only when we distinctly understand all their terms, and can distinctly imagine, conceive, or otherwise represent to our minds the facts which they state.
I will try to show this by examining Dr. Newman's theory in detail. A child, he says, can assent to this proposition, "Lucern is food for cattle," if it knows the meaning of the words " food for cattle." Suppose the proposition were, " Lucern food for cattle hai." The child might know perfectly well what " food for cattle " means, but unless it happened also to know that "hai" is the Hindoostanee for "is," how could it assent to the proposition, or even know that anything was proposed to it?
Moreover, it could not assent to the proposition in its true meaning, unless it knew that lucern was the name of a sort of vegetable growing in the fields. This appears from Dr. Newman's own words, for he says, " If he is told lucern is food for cattle,and is shown cows grazing in a meadow, then he may give a genuine assent to the proposition, 'Lucern is food for cattle.'" No doubt he may, but that is because he has been told, not indeed by words, but by signs and words combined, that lucern is the name of a plant which grows in fields and is food for cattle; that is to say, he has been made to attach a distinct meaning to every part of the proposition, and to see the connection of its different parts. He can therefore give an intelligent assent to it. The next sentence makes this still more clear. "He now knows enough about lucern to enable him to apprehend propositions (i.e., to understand the predicate of propositions) which have lucern for their predicate, should they come before him for assent, as, 'That field is sown with lucern,' or, 'Clover is not lucern?" Surely this would not be true if the child had not been told by signs or otherwise that lucem is the name of a plant which grows in fields, for if he did not know this, which he certainly could not learn from the predicate of the proposition "Lucern is food for cattle," he might assent to propositions having lucern for their predicate in a sense altogether different from that in which they were proposed to him. Thus, in assenting to, "Clover is not lucern," he might assert that clover was not food for cattle. The inference is that no assent can be given to more of a proposition than the person assenting understands.
The theory upon which Dr. Newman's illustrations are based seems to me to be characteristic of him. "In a proposition," he tells us, "one term is predicated of another. The subject is referred to the predicate, and the predicate gives us information about the subject." This regards propositions merely as collections of words, and leaves out of account the truth that propositions are important in so far as they deal with things, and that the principal use of words is to supply the place of sensation, as to things which are not within the sphere of our senses, by raising in our minds images like those which would bo raised by the things to which the words apply if we had them before us. A proposition upon this theory is a set of intelligible words so disposed as to excite in the mind a distinct group of images, and upon this view, unless the words which denote the subject and the copula are understood, the predicate conveys no information at all. A proposition no doubt adds to our knowledge, but it does so not by making an intelligible affirmation about something altogether unknown, but by making an intelligible affirmation about something partially known. The proposition "London is the capital of England " does not assume absolute ignorance about London on the part of the person addressed. On the contrary, it assumes that he knows that London is the name of a town, and that he also knows what is meant by " is "and by "the capital of England." That of which he is assumed to be ignorant is the fact that the town so called is the capital of England. Indeed, till the words of a proposition are understood, it is impossible to say which is the subject and which the predicate of any proposition whatever. "Bahut gurm is the capital of British India" is a proposition which would mislead anyone who did not happen to know that 'Bahut gurm' moans 'very hot,' and that those words are therefore the predicate, and not the subject of the proposition, A person who did not know this would probably suppose that "Bahut gurm" was the name of a town, and if he assented to the proposition "Bahut gurm is the capital of British India " under that impression, he would assent not to what he was told, but to something altogether different. "I saw him" is a simple proposition, but unless it is known what both ' I' and ' him' stand for it cannot be assented to. According to Dr. Newman's rule, a man ought to be able to assent to it if he knew to whom ' him' referred, though he was completely ignorant as to who was denoted by " I." This is not all. We must not merely understand all the terms of a proposition, but their collective effect, before we can assent to it. For instance, how could any one possibly assent to these propositions, "Lightning consoles thunder," "It is six miles from one o'clock to London Bridge"? Such combinations of words are, in the strict sense of the term, nonsense, and they suggest a remark which may serve to introduce the consideration of the corollary to Dr. Newman's proposition as to the degree of apprehension necessary to belief, which is that mysteries can be assented to.
I think that many people do not clearly understand the strict sense of the word 'nonsense.' I do not think that Dr. Newman himself does so. He says in one place, " Words which make nonsense do not make a mystery. No one would call Warton's line, 'Revolving swans proclaim the welkin near,' an inconceivable assertion."(p.44.) Perhaps not, nor should I call it nonsense, strictly speaking. It is possible to affix a meaning to it. It may mean, for instance, that the fact that several swans are flying round and round each other or round a common centre shows that the sky is near us, or that it is falling on us. Now these words have a meaning, though they do not, so far as we know, correspond to any fact. The imagination can picture to itself "revolving swans," and can understand the assertions that the sky is a solid sphere capable of approaching or receding from us, and that the revolving swans are a symptom of its approach; but to such a proposition as "Lightning consoles thunder," or " It is six miles from one o'clock to London Bridge," it is as impossible to attach any meaning at all, as if the words forming the so-called propositions had been taken at random out of a dictionary. I say ' so-called' propositions, because in reality they are not propositions at all. A proposition implies, not only words which have an apparent grammatical connection; but words which call up a distinct group of images or thoughts in the mind, and unless the images or thoughts so called up form a coherent whole, the proposition is unmeaning or nonsensical. Meaning, I fear, is only "Meinung," but I have often felt that it ought, so to speak, to be 'going-between,' 'middling,' that image in the mind which goes between the word which excites it and the thing which it resembles. When we say that the word "horse" has a meaning, and that "abracadabra" has no meaning, we say that , the word "horse" calls up an image more or less distinct as we pay greater or less attention to it, whereas "abracadabra" calls up no other image than that of the sound and the letters which express it. "Nonsense" means " not sense, "and this implies that sensation is an indispensable condition of language and of knowledge. Thus where there is no sensation there is no meaning, and where there is no meaning, thought ends and vain jargon begins.
With these observations I pass to the consideration of Dr. Newman's corollary that we can not only assert, but assent to mysteries. It is introduced in the fourth chapter, under the head of "Profession " (pp. 43-50), in these words:— "We have no mental hold upon the incomprehensible, except in so far as we know what is meant to be conveyed by the word. We cannot assent to a proposition which is not only beyond conception, but directly beyond, comprehension. We can but assent to the truth of it."
"This leads me to the question whether belief in a mystery can be more than an assertion. I consider it can be an assent, and my reasons for saying so are as follows :—A mystery is a proposition conveying incompatible notions, or is a statement of the inconceivable. Now, we can assent to propositions (and a mystery is a proposition), provided we can apprehend them; therefore, we can assent to a mystery, for unless we apprehended it we should not recognise it to be a mystery, that is, a statement uniting incompatible notions. The same act, then, which enables us to discern that the words of the proposition express a mystery capacitates us for assenting to it. Words which make nonsense do not make a mystery." "But the question follows,—Can processes of inference end in a mystery? that is, not only in what is incomprehensible, that the stars are billions of miles from each other, but in what is inconceivable in the co-existence of (seeming) incompatibilities? For how, it may be asked, can reason carry out notions into their contradictories ?—since all the developments of a truth must, from the nature of the case, be consistent with it and with each other.
I answer, certainly processes of inference, however accurate, can end in mystery, and I solve the objection to such a doctrine thus :—Our notion of a thing may be only partially faithful to the original; it may be in excess of the thing, or it may represent it incompletely, "and in consequence it may serve for it, it may stand for it, only to a certain point, in certain cases, but no further. After that point is reached the notion and the thing part company, and then the notion, if still used as the representative of the thing, will work out conclusions not inconsistent with itself, but with the thing to which it no longer corresponds." Dr. Newman illustrates this at considerable length, referring, amongst other things, to the application of algebra to geometry, which, he says, might so used so as to imply that space has four dimensions, and which produces the inexplicable formula √—a. This, he says, "has sometimes been considered as an abortive effort to express what is really beyond the capacity of algebraical notation, the direction and position of lines, as well as their length. When the calculus is urged on by the inevitable course of the working to do what it cannot do, it stops short as if in resistance, and protests by an absurdity." He adds, " Our notions of things are never simply commensurate with the things themselves. They are aspects of them, more or less exact, and sometimes a mistake ab initio."
The whole theory, whatever its value may be, appears to me to be vitiated by what I regard as Dr. Newman's mistaken view about the amount of apprehension necessary to enable us to assent to propositions. Of course, if you can assent to every proposition of which you can understand the predicate (which is his theory), you can assent to a proposition "conveying incompatible notions," which is his definition of a mystery. You could assent, e.g., to the proposition, "Black is white." It equally follows that if I am right in saying that you can assent to a proposition only if and in so far as you understand its terms and their relation to each other, you cannot assent to a proposition conveying incompatible notions. Therefore, whether Dr. Newman is right in thinking that mysteries, as ho defines them, can bo assented to, or I, in thinking that they cannot, depends upon the question which of us is right as to the degree of apprehension necessary to assent.
To discuss the value of the theory itself would lead me too far, and would require special knowledge to which I make no claim. I may observe, however, that persons who wish to believe in mysteries appear to me, in many cases, to give simple verbal fallacies, more or less ingenious, as illustrations of mysteries which must be believed, and which thus may serve to humble the human mind. Zeno's puzzles about motion, which are stated at length and energetically defended in Bayle's article on Zeno, have always seemed to me to fall under this category. Many of the arguments used to show that space can neither be infinitely divisible nor not infinitely divisible, seem to me to depend upon using the word " infinite" alternately as meaning too large to be measured and too small to be measured. A well-known algebraical puzzle, which I print in a foot-note, and which was once seriously proposed to me as a mystery, before which reason ought to hold its peace, is in plain words no more than this :—Twice nothing equals once nothing, therefore 2 = 1.
Let a = b. Then a2 = b2 = ab.
∴ a2 — ab = a2 — b2.
∴ a (a — b) = (a — b) (a + b).
∴. a = a + b = 2a.
∴ 1 = 2.Algebraical mysteries are readily solved when we appreciate fully, or even as partially as I do, the symbolical character of algebra.
These considerations make me very sceptical as to the possibility of laying a foundation for Dr. Newman's argument, but admitting under protest that this can be done, the argument itself seems to me to supply a good illustration of a habit, which is eminently characteristic of its author, the habit of drawing from given premisses the opposite conclusion to that which they suggest to an ordinary mind. He tells us that a mystery is a "proposition conveying incompatible notions;" and he explains the process by which he thinks we may arrive at mysteries, by telling us that our notions about things are never simply commensurate with the things themselves, and that in consequence it. often happens that our common language applies to that which it describes only up to a certain point, after which it ceases to apply to it, and so produces contradictions and absurdities. This conception of a mystery implies that it is an absurdity which marks the point at which language fails to express the facts which it was originally meant to express. To use Dr. Newman's own vigorous metaphor, "the notion and the thing have parted company, and then the notion, if still used as the representative of the thing, will work out conclusions not inconsistent with itself, but with the thing to which it no longer corresponds." If so, a mystery is a reductio ad absurdum of inadequate premisses, manifesting their incompetency to represent the facts which they profess to represent. When language, legitimately used, presents absurd and conflicting results, the inference is that the terms with which we originally started must have been inadequate. "Our notions of things," as Dr. Newman says, "are sometimes a mistake ab initio." How can we ever have a better proof that this is so in any particular case, than the proof given by their producing absurdities and contradictions when they are worked out to their legitimate results?
This being so, I cannot understand how a mystery, as Dr. Newman defines it, can possibly be the object of assent or belief in any case. If reached in the manner described by him, it is a mere absurdity, a contradictory proposition testifying to the weakness of human language, and its inadequacy to describe certain facts. Under such circumstances, language surely becomes useless, and all that a rational person can do, is to confess his own ignorance and incompetence to deal with the subject at, or rather away from, which his language impotently points. The mystery, the proposition combining incompatible notions, suggests not that the premiss which leads to it represents the truth, but that it does not represent the truth. This is no mystery at all, but a confession of ignorance, an admission that we have got into a region of which we know nothing, and therefore ought to say nothing. To speak of a combination of contradictory words as in any sense the object of belief is, I think, a mere abuse of language; such words mark the point at which belief, knowledge, distinct or profitable thought of any kind, becomes impossible.
The only escape that I can see from this is by saying that the incompatibility is only seeming, and that the apparent mystery could be cleared up by facts with which we are unacquainted, if only we were, acquainted with them. Such a mystery, it may be said, can bo the object of assent. I cannot think so. We might in such cases, to use Dr. Newman's own phrase, assent to the truth of the mystery,—that is to say, we might assent to the proposition, 'Those words mean something true to somebody,' but we could not assent to the mystery or inconsistent proposition itself, because it would be to us unmeaning. A mystery so conceived is a mere riddle, and no one can assent to a riddle unless he knows the key to it. The point of a riddle is that it combines propositions as inconsistent, or at least as incongruous as possible, relating to the same word, or parts of that same word, understood in different senses. Here is an instance which appeared to me pretty:—
"My first is a sounding sea,It is easy to believe all this when you are told that it applies to a cod. But till this information is obtained, all that any one can believe on the subject is, that there is something (if one could but think of it) to which all the different and apparently incongruous propositions may be applied. Perfectly ambiguous propositions also throw light upon the impossibility of believing mysteries. If a man says that he believes "Aio te iEacida Eomanos vincere posse," or "Charles told James that unless he rode to London directly on his horse he would' be ruined," the incorrectness of his assertion might be immediately shown by the question whether he believed that Pyrrhus could conquer the Eomans, or that the Romans could conquer Pyrrhus ; that Charles or that James must ride to London on Charles's or on James's horse, lest Charles or lest James should be ruined. In all such cases as these the mysterious character of the proposition proposed for acceptance renders assent to it and belief in it impossible, as long as it lasts and as far as it goes.
And my last is a rushing river,
And though I am filled with a thousand sounds,
I am doomed to be dumb for ever."
To sum up the whole in a few words, if a mystery really purports to combine incompatibilities, it is nonsense, and cannot be believed at all.
If a mystery purports to combine seeming incompatibilities which are not real, it is a riddle, and cannot be believed till it is explained, and so ceases to be a mystery.
If contradictory consequences can be drawn from premisses which are apparently true and complete, the proper inference is, not that the contradictions are true, but that the premisses are not really true and complete. This will, in most cases, be equivalent to the inference that human language, and the observation upon which it is founded, and which it describes, are alike imperfect.
It will be observed that these consequences follow from Dr. Newman's own premisses, modified only by what I venture to regard as a correction of his error as to the degree of apprehension necessary to assent to a proposition. If I am right, he proves that every mystery is either nonsense, or a riddle, or a monument of the incurable defects of human language and human observation.
I now proceed to make some remarks on a subject which, though separate from, is closely connected with, the one first discussed.
In the second chapter of the "Grammar of Assent" Dr. Newman dwells upon and illustrates at some length the difference between assenting to a proposition and assenting to the truth of a proposition. The distinction seems to me to be so broad that the only objection to the language employed is, that it conveys a false impression of a greater similarity between two very different things than really exists. To assent to a proposition is mentally to assert its truth. To assent to the truth of a proposition is to assert that words of which the meaning is not understood by the assertor mean something true to some one else. Any one who understands English can assent to the proposition that the Trojans performed funeral rites at Hector's grave. No one who does not understand Greek can go beyond assenting to the truth of the proposition, Οϊγ άμφίεπον τάφον Εχτορος. Before considering the conditions under which it is reasonable to assent to the truth of propositions, when we cannot assent to the propositions themselves, I wish to express my dislike of the phrase "assenting to the truth of a proposition," and to explain its grounds. In a passage already quoted, Dr. Newman says, " There is a way in which a child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot, indeed, without care assent to that proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do more than assert that lucern is Medicago sativa, but he can assent to the proposition that lucern is Medicago sativa is true." (p. 13.)
In another part of his book, Dr. Newman describes assenting to the truth of propositions thus:—" This virtual, interpretative, prospective belief is called to believe implicitè." 'The effect of this phraseology is to lead people to think that express and implied belief are two species of the same genus belief, and that a man who believes "implicitè" does the same thing under slightly different circumstances as a man who believes explicitly. I think, indeed, that in the common, popular use of language, implicit belief would be regarded as a stronger, deeper sort of faith than explicit belief. I doubt, indeed, whether one person in ten thousand knows the difference. "When you tell me that he is a good man, I believe you implicitly," would generally mean,
"I believe you absolutely, without a shadow of doubt"; in other words, it would generally mean, " I believe you explicitly." In opposition to this, I maintain that the act of believing an intelligible proposition to be true, and the act of trusting another person's assertion that an unintelligible statement is a true proposition, have so little in common that they ought not be called by the same name. To illustrate this, I will give an instance of a proposition, to the truth of which only (to use Dr. Newman's expression) most members of this Society would probably be able to assent. Let it be supposed that it is affirmed on competent authority that the following words embody a truth :—"Tu Khudáwand ko, jo terá Khudá hai, apne sáre dil, aur apni sári ján, aur apne sáre zor, aur apni sárí samajh se piyár kar; aur jaisá áp ko, waisá hí, apne parosi ko" Suppose this to be believed on competent authority, what effect could that belief have on any one's mind? How would it differ from believing this proposition on the same authority? It is true that "Iská tarjuma Yunani zabán se zabán i Urdú men Banaras men kiyá gayá." Each belief would be of equal value, and would, indeed, amount only to this,—that the person believing supposed the person speaking to speak the truth, or what he believed to be the truth. Next, suppose that the propositions themselves, and not the truth of the propositions, are assented to. To assent to the first proposition is to assert mentally. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. A man who really asserted this, who did actually believe it, would have adopted a principle of action capable of colouring his whole life. To assent to the second proposition would be to assert that the translation from Greek into Hindoostanee (from which the quotations are taken) was made at Benares, an assertion which could have no moral value or effect whatever. It seems to me that to call a belief in the truth of either of these propositions an implicit or indirect belief in the proposition itself is an abuse of language certain to mislead those who make use of it. It is as if "Barmecide's feast " or "dining with Duke Humphrey" were described as "implicit eating."
I may observe, in general, that the words "virtual," "interpretative," "prospective," "constructive," and the like, always appear to me to indicate an intention on the part of the person using them to escape from an error by a fiction. Legal instances of this were once common. The law relating to contracts does not provide for certain cases, let us call them implied contracts. The definition of murder (killing with malice aforethought) is too narrow. Instead of admitting this, and amending it, let us extend it by inventing a thing which we will call implied malice or malice in law. The law of high treason is not wide enough. Well, let us stretch it a little by the doctrine of constructive treason. Whatever we do, let us never, in any case, admit that the law itself is wrong. This used to be the policy of lawyers, though it is now given up. Dr. Newman's implicit faith appears to me to be much the same sort of contrivance. "Believe and you shall be saved, do not believe and you will be damned." "I am most anxious to do what you wish, but I really do not understand you, and how can I believe what I do not understand?" "Well, of course, you cannot really believe, that is, expressly believe, what you do not understand, but you can do so virtually, and interpretatively, and implicitly, and constructively ; in short, you can believe that whatever I say is true, whatever it means; and if that is not quite the same thing as believing what I say, it is very nearly the same, and it will do just as well for all practical purposes. The one is assenting to a proposition, the other is assenting to the truth of a proposition which is an indirect assent to the proposition itself. You see there is no real difference." Language of this sort may be highly convenient, but I cannot call it either sincere or accurate.
I pass, however, to the question of the conditions under which we can properly believe that words which we cannot understand do express a truth to some one else. This question cannot be fully discussed within the limits of a paper, for it is substantially identical with the question what circumstances ought to induce us to place confidence in assertions which we cannot verify by the use of our own senses. If a man tells me that a letter which he has burnt contained such and such statements, in what cases ought I to believe and in what cases ought I to disbelieve him? This question, as I have said, cannot be completely answered. As each particular case occurs, we have to decide what course we will take about it, under its special circumstances. A few observations, however, may be made which will throw some light on the subject.
The proposition Log. cos. 20° 14' = 9.5388801 is, to the great mass of mankind, absolutely unmeaning. I believe it, because I found it so stated in Todhunter's trigonometry, which is a well-known text-book on the subject to which it relates; because I know enough of mathematics to know in a very general way what a logarithm is, and to have an idea of what is meant by the logarithm of the cosine of an angle of a certain number of degrees ; and because I know that it is of great practical importance to. work out such formulae correctly, and that competent persons are employed to do it. In other words, though I do not understand the particular proposition, I have strong grounds to believe that those by whom it is affirmed do understand it, and I know of my own knowledge that methods of inquiry upon such subjects are in use which lead to correct results in similar cases.
This example admits of being generalised. It shows that one case in which it is reasonable to believe, on the authority of another, what you do not yourself understand, is the case in which you understand the method by which the unintelligible result is said to have been obtained, and in which you can see that the result may have been attained by it, though it is out of your power to see for yourself that such actually was the case. I know not whether any one now living except a few computers at Observatories know, of their own knowledge, that the common tables of logarithms are correct; but a very slight degree of mathematical knowledge is sufficient to enable any one to understand the principle upon which logarithms are calculated, to know that the correctness of the calculations actually made is continually being tested by practice, and to be aware that correct results are in fact brought out every day by innumerable processes which presuppose the correctness of the tables.
This principle will, I think, account for nearly every case in which it would be generally admitted that reasonable men ought to believe what they cannot themselves understand. In dealing with so wide and difficult a subject, I should be sorry to affirm positively that no other case can be put in which such a belief would be reasonable, but none occurs to me. The difficulty of putting such a case may be illustrated, by considering some instances in which it would be unreasonable to believe the truth of an unintelligible proposition.
Suppose A were to call upon us to believe that Conx Ompax was true, and suppose he were to accompany the demand with an admission that neither he himself nor any one else had the least notion as to what Conx Ompax meant, to what department of knowledge it referred, who "knew it to be true, or by what method the person who did know it to be true had arrived at his knowledge. I cannot see that any quantity of goodness, wisdom, and veracity which any one chooses to ascribe to A would afford the slightest reason for believing that Conx Ompax was true, in the face of A's admissions as to his own ignorance.
Next suppose that A, being a man of extraordinary goodness and veracity, and of wonderful knowledge on all sorts of subjects, were to say, "I know that the words ' Conx Ompax ' express a truth of the highest importance, though I do not choose to tell you how I know it, or to what department of things it belongs, Would it be reasonable to believe him? I think that the reasonable state of mind would be neither belief nor disbelief, but doubt. The assertion that a proposition is true, is a fact from which we may or may not draw the inference that it is true. Continual experience, varied in every possible way, shows us that assertions are frequently made, not because they are true, but for some other reason, and that the argument, "he says it, therefore it is true," is inconclusive, unless we are in a position to judge both of the motives and of the means of knowledge of the assertor and of the generic resemblance of the matter asserted to other matters of the same kind. The proof of this is to be found in carrying the illustration I have given further.'
The real test of belief, to my mind, is the influence of an opinion on practice, its weight as a motive. I do not think anybody quite knows what he really does believe on any subject till circumstances call upon him to risk something on his opinion. The vulgar remark, " What will you bet?" And the vulgar inference that if a man will not back his opinion, it is because he does not really believe in it, has, I think, the deepest possible root in human nature. Applying, then, this stringent test, let us suppose A to draw practical inferences from the alleged truth of Conx Ompax; and let us see in what cases we ought to act on them.
Suppose, first, that A, in the most pathetic and persuasive manner, and with the help of arguments and illustrations coming home to every one, were to call upon us to practise the virtue of charity partly because Conx Ompax was true. "For my sake, and for the sake of Oonx Ompax, love your neighbour as yourself." Such an exhortation would, no doubt, be influential, apart from Conx Ompax and the touch of mystery, the appeal for some degree of personal confidence, would greatly increase the effect of the appeal itself upon many people. People like to be asked to make sacrifices, especially intellectual sacrifices which remind them of their ignorance and excuse their weakness.
In order to show how the Oonx Ompax part of this statement really affects the case considered as an argument, it is necessary to vary the illustration. Suppose, then, A to declare that it follows from the truth expressed by Conx Ompax that every one ought to say the words "Conx Ompax," and that every one who does so will thereby avoid grievous miseries after his death. As there is no obvious or assignable objection to saying " Conx Ompax," it might perhaps be prudent to say so in the case supposed.
Next, let us suppose that the practical inference was that every one ought to cut off his hands and feet or put out his eyes. As a matter of mere argument, it would be difficult to show that this inference was less probable than the one last mentioned. Indeed, plausible reasons might be suggested for considering the latter inference the more probable of the two. It is possible to imagine some unknown power which might be gratified by a voluntary mutilation, though it is difficult to form a notion of any power which would care to make men utter two unmeaning words. I think, however, that we should all agree that a person who was ready to cut off his hands and feet and put out his eyes because any one, however wise and virtuous, advised him to do so because Conx Ompax was true, was a contemptible fanatic, whose sufferings one would in no degree pity if they turned out to be utterly useless. It seems to me at least to be a simple insult to any rational being to call upon him to mutilate himself for any object, except one which he can himself perceive and feel to be important enough to counterbalance the pain and the loss of the mutilation.
Lastly, let us suppose the inference suggested to be that we ought to accept as a divine command an intimation from A that the sins of the world would be atoned for by a human sacrifice on a large scale, accompanied with every circumstance of horror,—for instance, by burning alive a certain number of persons who could not or would not assert the truth of Conx Ompax. Very plausible arguments and respectable precedents for such a suggestion might be found, but I suppose I need not discuss the question whether such a proposal ought to be rejected with horror and disgust.
An easy and complete explanation of these illustrations is to be found in the simple reflection that the assertion of the truth of Conx Ompax under the circumstances suggested would afford no reasonable ground for anything more than a suspicion that it might be true, and that therefore it might perhaps be prudent to follow the advice of the person who asserted its truth, so long as he suggested practical inferences which could do no harm and give no trouble, though it would be the height of folly or crime, as the case might be, to follow his advice if he suggested acts which apart from it would be foolish or criminal.
The difficulty of giving any other explanation may be shown by some further illustrations. Let us suppose A to be a physician of the highest possible scientific attainments; and let us suppose that instead of affirming the truth of Conx Ompax, he were upon examining his patient to tell him that unless he submitted at once to the amputation of both his legs he would infallibly die in a few hours, and were to state his grounds for this opinion. In this case the patient would bo guilty of as much weakness and cowardice in not submitting to mutilation, even though he did not understand the surgeon's reasons, as he would be if in the other case he submitted to it. Suppose, again, that a number of shipwrecked passengers were at sea in a boat, that one of them was taken ill, and that A declared that he must die in a day or two, and that unless he was thrown overboard at once he would infect and so kill all the rest. Would any one in this case hesitate to throw him overboard?
Here we have two cases of submission to mutilation, one an act of courage, the other an act of fanatical madness ; and two cases of human sacrifice, one an abominable crime, and the other a case of justifiable homicide. The submission to mutilation is courageous when the person who submits to it has no reasonable doubt that it is necessary for the preservation of his life. It is disgusting and contemptible when he has some ground to conjecture that it may be highly beneficial to him after death. The human sacrifice is justifiable when those who perform it have no reasonable doubt that it is necessary for the preservation of human lives. It is an abominable crime when there is some slight evidence that it will appease some unknown being able to inflict consequences worse than death on the whole human race. This can be only because in the one case doubt is, whereas in the other it is not, reasonable. The reasonableness or otherwise of the doubt turns upon such considerations as the following. On the one hand, every one knows that in some cases surgical operations are necessary, that it is possible to ascertain by study and observation what those cases are, that a particular class of men do study and observe the subject with a good deal of success, and that A is a distinguished member of that class of men. In the other case, though by the supposition it is known that A is a good man and an extraordinary person, his means of knowledge, the extent of his liability to error, his motives for speaking the truth, his motives for deception, his power of judging what is best for those whom he advises, are all matters of conjecture; and these elements of uncertainty ought, I think, to have this effect,—that the persons addressed should do nothing merely because A told them to do it, unless apart from his authority it is either unobjectionable or advisable, or at least advisable upon hypotheses not improbable in themselves. No doubt, the positive assertion by a good and wise man that he knows a not improbable hypothesis to be true adds something to its probability. But it does not seem to me to add much till he explains himself as to his means of knowledge.
In order to disentangle the subject from all questions collaterally connected with it, I have presented it in the barest and most abstract form, but I may observe in conclusion that the "Conx Ompax" illustration is designedly made quite unlike anything ever said to have been revealed to men by any person claiming to be divinely authorised to make a revelation. The history of religious controversy and of the gradual development of theology, when properly considered, deprives abstract speculations about the terms on which unmeaning Words may be believed to be true of nearly all their practical importance. Theological mysteries, so far as I am aware, are never put forward in the "Conx Ompax " form. If they were, they would have absolutely no effect at all on the human mind. Most theological mysteries do not at once appear to be mysteries; they do not seem to involve incompatibilities when they are first stated. Vivid statements are made which excite devotional feelings in the highest degree, and the belief in which affords satisfaction to numbers of people, who wish to have some ideal object of love and devotion. The difficulties are discovered by degrees, as attempts are made to reconcile these statements with others referring to cognate subjects. These difficulties are met by carefully constructed propositions, devised to defend the original statements against objectors; and such propositions are alleged to be mysteries. Theological mysteries are thus in many cases in the nature of explanations, and were by no means regarded by those who devised them as propositions conveying incompatible notions. It is as impossible to me to believe that the author of the Athanasian Creed or the author of the doctrine of Transubstantiation supposed himself to be putting together unmeaning words, which were to be admitted to be true, whatever they meant, as it is to believe that the Athanasian Creed and the doctrine of Transubstantiation were revealed straight out of heaven. They bear upon their faces all the marks of being the result of controversies of the ordinary type, which, as a matter of historical fact, we know they were.
Read at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, January 12, 1875.