In a remote part of the world I read the following notice in a number of the Spectator published in April last:
“This is an extremely good number of the Dublin. The first article, aimed at the doctrine that ‘certainty,’ however legitimate, may generally in ordinary human affairs be exactly proportioned to evidence—may be pared down in proportion as old evidence fails, and made to mount higher in proportion as new evidence accrues—is evidently by the editor, and extremely able. We cannot, of course, go with it in the application which Dr. Ward makes to the faith of Catholics; but its philosophical principle, that certainty, whether legitimate or not, is a state of mind not liable to vary by the subtraction or addition of new items of evidence—i.e. neither is, nor generally ought to be, proportionate to the number of valid arguments by which it may be defended, or in inverse proportion to the number of valid arguments by which it may be assailed, is established beyond all refutation.”As I happen to hold an opinion diametrically opposed to that which you are here said to have ‘established beyond all refutation,’ I procured and read your article. It interested me so much that I decided to take this mode of giving you my thoughts on the subject. Whether or not I have the advantage of addressing Dr. Ward (as the writer in the Spectator suggests), I cannot, of course, say; but if it is so, I am very fortunate in having to do with so able an opponent.
Your article begins by stating the views you ascribe to a class of persons for whom you invent the name of ‘equationists.’ Having refuted them, or I should say us, to your own satisfaction, you go on to say that we ‘may hope to meet the first of your objections’ ‘by asking leave to amend ’ our ‘plea.’ You then are good enough to make the amendment, and to observe that ‘their doctrine certainly deserves much more respectful consideration in its new shape than it deserved in its old,’ and then you proceed to demolish the amended plea.
Permit me to observe that to draw your antagonist’s pleadings, to pick holes in them, to amend his pleas, to compliment him on comparative good sense, and finally to refute him, is a little like playing a game at chess, with your right hand against your left, allowing your left hand to make a bad move, and advising it to be more cautious for the future. If the plea of the ‘equationists’ required amendment, you drew it, and not they, and your compliment about respectful consideration is in reality a reproof to yourself for beginning your argument by misstating your antagonist’s case. It is surely a good rule in controversy to begin by deciding clearly what it is that you propose to encounter. It would have been better if, instead of inventing imaginary pleas and imaginary amended pleas, for men for whom you have found it necessary to coin a completely new and not, I think, a very felicitous nickname, you had referred to the views of some adequate exponent of the doctrine to which you object, and had refuted those views as stated by him. This is the course which Dr. Newman took in the Grammar of Assent, to which you so frequently refer. He addressed himself (with what success I do not now enquire) to the refutation of Locke’s doctrine on the matter in question, and was thus freed from the necessity of adopting the curious procedure to which you have resorted.
This is a matter of no great importance, but it serves as an introduction to what follows. As you want an antagonist, will you kindly accept me as one for fault of a better? I will state my views in my own way, showing incidentally how the arguments advanced in your article apply to them; and if you think it worth while, you will be able to show me where and why I am wrong.
I. In what follows I use the following words in the following senses, unless the contrary appears from the context:
(a) BELIEF.--All states of mind described by such words as conviction, persuasion, opinion, faith, and the like.
(b) ASSENT.--When one person signifies to another the fact that he believes a given proposition, he is said to assent to that proposition.
(c) EVIDENCE.-—All arguments in support of the truth of propositions drawn from matters of fact, and all matters of fact from which any such arguments are drawn.
II. Belief may be absolute or qualified.
Absolute belief is belief unaccompanied by present doubt. It is consistent with a present consciousness of the possibility of future doubt.
Qualified belief is belief accompanied by present doubt as to the truth of the matter believed.
All belief is susceptible of degrees of stability.
III. Belief may be produced in many ways, and amongst others by evidence; but there is no assignable connection between belief and the truth of the matter believed, except in so far as the belief, however produced, is supported by evidence.
IV. If belief is supported by evidence, the probability of its truth depends upon the degree in which the evidence by which it is supported satisfies, or approaches to the satisfaction of, the recognised canons of induction and deduction.
V. Whether belief is supported by evidence or not, there is no assignable connection between its truth and the degree of assurance or stability with which it is held.
I proceed to explain more fully the purport and effect of these propositions; which I will take in their order.
First, as to the sense in which the different words are used. The definition of the word ‘belief’ is intended, amongst other things, to express the opinion that all language which relates to mental operations is of necessity vague and metaphorical. We are obliged to use many words about them which differ from each other only by indefinable shades of meaning, and we gain nothing, and lose a great deal, by attempting to invest them with a precision which is really unattainable. Thus a ‘persuasion’ may perhaps be an opinion adopted without repugnance; a ‘conviction’ probably originally meant an opinion which a man struggled against, but was compelled to adopt with regret ; ‘faith’ rather implies some degree of personal confidence in and affection for a person on whose authority a proposition is believed; ‘opinion’ and ‘ belief’ are much more nearly neutral, but ‘ opinion’ has, so to speak, an intellectual, and ‘belief’ more or less of a moral, complexion. These words, however, and many others, do not denote different things, but rather the same thing looked at from different points of view, namely, the habit of thinking that certain words are true. If I could find a more colourless word than belief to express this idea, I would use it.
The definition of the word ‘assent,’ as distinguished from belief, is intended to guard against an ambiguity which continually recurs in Dr. Newman’s Grammar of Assent, and upon the neglect of which a great art of his argument appears to me to be founded. ‘Assent’ is sometimes used as equivalent to belief, but its more proper use, I think, is the acceptance by one of two persons of a statement or offer made by another. When the word is used as equivalent to belief, the idea conveyed surely is, that the proposition 0 be assented to is suggested to the person assenting by some one else, the person assenting being called upon to say yes or no, just as he might have a contract offered to him which he must either take or leave. Taking the word ‘assent’ in this sense, it is no doubt perfectly true that assent must be absolute and unqualified. A qualified acceptance of a contract is no acceptance at all. It is a new offer, itself requiring acceptance; and in the same sense it may be denied that a qualified assent to a proposition is an assent to it. It seems to me, however, that when we speak of absolute or unqualified assent, or indeed of assent at all, we refer rather to the way in which a man agrees with somebody else to treat a proposition, than to the way in which he regards it in his own mind. If, for instance, two men discuss a subject, and the one affirms and the other assents to a particular proposition, the discussion must proceed throughout on the supposition that that proposition is true. I think, however, that Dr. Newman’s view as to the absolute character of assent is a matter of no importance, for he does not say that this absolute assent is irrevocable; and whether we are to speak of an absolute assent revocable when the evidence on which it was founded is altered, or of an assent which admits of degrees, is a question about the use of language. The allegation that when 1 have once assented to the proposition ‘A is ‘true,’ I can never revoke it, is no doubt of immense importance, but I should think that no one ever made it. If it is admitted that for an absolute assent to the proposition ‘A is true,’ I may, as I see cause, substitute an absolute assent to the propositions ‘A is most probably true,’ ‘A is probably true,’ ‘It is altogether doubtful whether A is or is not true,’ ‘A is probably false,’ ‘A is false,’ I do not see that it much matters whether you do or do not call assent absolute. It seems to me very much the same thing whether you say that the degrees of assent depend on the amount of the evidence; or that assent is always absolute, but that the nature of the proposition to which it is given depends upon the evidence. Does it matter whether a man is absolutely certain that A B’s guilt is highly probable, or whether he gives a degree of assent not quite reaching to certainty, to the proposition that A B is guilty?
The sense in which I use the word ‘evidence’ requires three remarks. First, I use it in that wide popular sense in which it is used, for instance, in the title of Paley’s Evidences.
Secondly, I restrict the word to arguments founded upon facts and to the facts upon which the arguments are founded; and by facts I understand things which have an independent existence, of which existence we are assured by some means of perception on which mankind usually rely. That which we see, hear, or touch, is a fact; the internal feelings, to which we give the names of love, hope, fear, will, and the like are facts: and when we assert the existence of anything to be a fact, what we mean is that we or some other sentient being does, or if favourably situated for the purpose would perceive it.
Thirdly, I do not confine the word ‘evidence’ to sound arguments. I comprehend in it all arguments drawn from facts and all the facts from which they are drawn. The conditions under which evidence is a test of truth are referred to in proposition No. IV.
My second proposition consists of several parts, which I will explain successively.
‘Belief may be absolute or qualified.’ This distinction I need not dwell upon, as you would admit it.
‘Absolute belief is belief unaccompanied by present doubt.’ This again requires no explanation, but the succeeding clause does. ‘It is consistent with a present consciousness of the possibility of future doubt.’ Almost every incident of our daily life is an illustration of this. Every man absolutely believes a great number of propositions, which, if he thinks of the subject at all, he would admit himself to be ready to doubt if circumstances altered, or if facts now unknown to him came to his knowledge. His confidence in what he believes is in fact measured accurately by his confidence in the nonexistence of such present or future facts. This applies equally to cases to which we attach the very highest and the very lowest importance. An illustration from each end of the scale will set this in a clear light. A man believes absolutely in his wife’s virtue. No shadow of a doubt on the subject has ever crossed his mind even in imagination, yet every man would admit that if he had before him ocular demonstration of the contrary he would believe it, or that if he were to see love letters written by his wife to another man he would be forced to doubt. His absolute belief in his wife is a belief that he never has had, has not now, and never will at any future time have, reasonable grounds for changing it. If it were a mere determination never to change it, even in the event of his having reasonable grounds for doing so, he would be an object of contempt, and his wife would feel that the belief in question was not belief in her virtue, but obstinate attachment in his own fancies.
To pass to the other end of the scale, a man reads in the news paper a list of the births, deaths and marriages of people who are strangers to him. He absolutely believes the assertions made to be true; that is, he feels no doubt whatever on the subject, because he knows that such announcements as usually true, and does not care to enquire into matters with which he has no concern. Next day he reads in the same paper a contradiction as to one of the deaths announced. He absolutely believes that, and surely under the circumstances his conduct is perfectly rational.
I may here introduce an incidental remark upon your argument on what you consider the more rational form of what you call ‘equationism.’ As stated by you, that doctrine is as follows: ‘Everyone should take heed that he hold no proposition with absolute assent for which he does not possess evidence abundantly sufficient,’ and you yourself concede that with certain exceptions, it ‘would be a great advantage if no one yielded more unreserved assent to any proposition ‘than is warranted by the evidence he possesses.’ Surely you leave out of account a further equation which you might have noticed, namely, an equation between the trouble of an enquiry, and the value of the result. The faintest rumour is evidence amply sufficient for the absolute belief of all indifferent proposition which a man is ready at a moment’s notice, if need be, to exchange for absolute disbelief or for any other state of mind which the evidence may warrant. Did any author of reputation ever maintain the proposition, that all persons ought expressly aim at holding no proposition with absolute assent for which they do not possess evidence abundantly sufficient, whatever may be the nature of the proposition to which such assent is given, and whatever may be the qualifications of the persons concerned for undertaking the enquiry? This is what you regard as the most reasonable form of ‘equationism,’ and this is the view against which your arguments and illustrations are directed.
The next member of my second proposition is, ‘Qualified belief is belief accompanied by present doubt as to the truth of the matter believed.’
This might be worded thus: ‘Many states of mind commonly called belief are consistent with some degree of conscious doubt.’
This may, perhaps, require more illustration than the rest of the proposition of which it forms part. Ordinary people when they appear as witnesses in a Court of Justice almost invariably indicate the presence of some degree of doubt in their minds by the use of the word ‘believe.’ ‘Is that the man?’ ‘It is,’ is the expression of absolute belief. ‘I believe it is,’ is the expression of qualified belief. ‘Do you swear positively or only to the best of your belief? ’ is a question which I suppose was never misunderstood, or supposed to mean anything else than, ‘Are you quite sure, or do you feel some little doubt coexisting with a general feeling of belief?’ Everyone who has had much to do with Courts of Justice must have been struck with the number of forms of expression by which witnesses, whom it was impossible to suspect of any speculative tendencies, would seek to express the idea that whilst they themselves believed in the existence of some fact, they were conscious of defects in the grounds of their belief, which produced some degree of misgiving as to its truth.
Perhaps an even better illustration may be found in the use of the words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ in reference to religion. ‘Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief,’ is surely the language of a person who, when he uttered these words, had immediate personal experience of the fact that belief and doubt may coexist, or at all events, succeed each other in such rapid alternation that it is impossible to say that they do not coexist. Look, again, at the contrast between faith and sight, seeing in ‘a glass darkly,’ and ‘seeing face to face.’ Expressed in modern language, what more is meant by such phrases than this? In this life we can never have demonstrative certainty of a future state, but only a passionate anticipation of it, based upon grounds which do not warrant certainty, but when we are actually in it we shall positively know it. Theodore Parker (if I am not mistaken, for I cannot verify my reference) observed in some of his writings that when he actually found himself in the next world he should not be a bit surer of its existence than he was when he wrote; and that if the dead were to rise and appear to him, he should ask them why they gave themselves so much trouble, as he wanted no additional evidence on the point. I never heard of anyone out of America who was so completely satisfied upon these subjects. I think it is impossible to suppose that such was the case with St. Paul. Did not Johnson reply to Boswell’s remark, that we have ample evidence of a future state, ‘Sir, I want more’?
As a third and last illustration, take the direction which judges always give to juries in criminal cases, that they ought to be sure, ‘beyond all reasonable doubt,’ of the prisoner’s guilt before they convict him. The turn of the phrase, and the way in which it is continually applied, show the compatibility of a certain sort of certainty with a certain sort of doubt. Without going into the subject at length, I think you will find upon examination that the following is the true account of the matter. When for any practical purpose we have determined to assume the truth of a particular hypothesis, notwithstanding the possibility that it may be false, we habitually think of it as true, and turn our minds away from the possibility that it may be false. We thus both believe and doubt; but regarding the belief as on the whole prudent, we put the doubt out of sight, and as the matter takes its place among past events the doubts fade and the belief remains. The mind of man is not so constituted that it can long retain the attitude of thinking that the odds in favour of a certain event having happened, are, say, ninety-nine to one. After acting upon the supposition that the event occurred, the conviction that it did occur rapidly comes to be the abiding one in our minds, though the possibility that it may not have occurred is still recognised and may under particular circumstances assume renewed force. At all events, the case is one in which belief and doubt coexist, and though verdicts given in trials are perhaps the most pointed illustration of belief of this kind, it is, I think, a class in which nearly all the decisions on which people base their practical conduct in the common affairs of life might be included.
The next member of the second proposition is, ‘All belief is susceptible of degrees of stability.’
This is one answer to your argument against what you falsely suppose to be the less rational form of what you call ‘equationism.’
You argue thus: Equationists say that ‘there is an obligation on everyone who loves truth of setting himself expressly to the task of effecting an equation between the strength of his convictions and the amount of proof on which they rest.’
To this you object, ‘There are no degrees of certitude, and consequently when complete certitude is once obtained additional proofs can add nothing to the certitude itself as regards all absence of doubt,’ and you enforce this objection by two illustrations; which, slightly compressed, are as follows:
Illustration 1. I was as sure of the existence of Paris many years ago, and before I actually visited it, as I am now, when I have visited it, yet the strength of my proof of its existence has increased.
Illustration 2. By many years experience I know my father to be a very good man, and I continue to think so, although some years ago ‘a heavy charge was brought against his morals, and he privately told me that he was wholly unable for the moment to explain those suspicions which pressed against him so heavily.’
The ‘equationist’ is forced by this argument, and these illustrations, to ‘ask leave to amend his plea.’
The answer to this argument is twofold. The second answer I shall give in considering the last member of the proposition under consideration.
The first answer is, that even absolute belief, and, à fortiori, qualified belief, admits of degrees of stability, just as equilibrium does. The true way of testing the strength of convictions is not by referring to the earnestness with which particular people hold them, as to which shall have more to say hereafter, but by testing the difficulty of removing them from the mind of a man amenable to reason. You believe a fact on the evidence of two witnesses. One is proved to be a notorious liar. You still believe the fact; but the strength of your conviction, that is the difficulty of removing it, is diminished, and if the other witness were also proved to be a liar, your conviction would cease. A sheet of lead covering ten square yards, and six inches thick, is in a state of equilibrium, so is a spoon balanced on the edge of a glass; but the degree of stability, which, if you like, you may call the strength of the equilibrium, differs enormously in the two cases. To take your own illustrations: can you seriously deny that it would be more difficult to persuade a man of the non-existence of a city which he had actually seen than to persuade him of the non-existence of a city of which he had only heard or read? Or that a degree of evidence is easily conceivable which might convince the most affectionate son that his father was a hypocrite and a liar? Or that each successive instance in which an unexplained charge was brought against the father's character would be a step in the process? A wall continues to stand long after the first cannon-ball has struck it, but the final breach is the accumulated effect of all the balls that are fired, the first no less than the last: and it is the same with convictions; they continue to exist long after those who hold them are aware of arguments or evidence against their truth; but at last, by degrees, or suddenly, as the case may be, they give way and cease to exist. Surely this proves that their strength may be gradually diminished.
My next proposition is, that belief may be produced in various ways, and amongst others by evidence; but there is no assignable connection between belief and the truth of the matter believed, except in so far as the belief, however produced, is supported by evidence.
That belief may be produced by evidence, no one will deny. That it may be produced by other means, is a proposition of which the full importance has not been observed. There is hardly any cause which in particular cases may not give rise to belief. People believe what they hope, what they fear, what gives them pleasure, what gives them pain, what they have always been taught to believe, what they have always been warned against believing, quite irrespectively of the evidence; and the energy and fervour of the beliefs which originate in these various passions is, to say the least, as great as if the belief had been produced by evidence. I should say it was generally greater.
If any illustration of this is needed, look at the case of religious belief. In a majority of cases, so great that no numerical proportion could express it, religious belief is produced, not by evidence, but by some other cause, the commonest of which is probably a combination of custom and education with moral sympathy. You meet with this in all creeds. It is true not merely of every form of Christianity, but of Mahometanism, Buddhism, Hindooism, and Fetishism. Perhaps it is to be seen more clearly than anywhere else in the newest forms of intuitional Theism or Deism. The fact, however, is so notorious, and illustrations of it are so abundant, that I need not insist upon the truth of what I say.
So far I think we might go in company. I am not quite sure whether you would deny my next proposition or not: “There is no assignable connection between belief and the truth of the matter believed, except in so far as the belief, however produced, is supported by evidence.”
The proposition, you will observe, avoids saying that true beliefs must always be produced by good evidence. Belief, as I have already observed, may be produced in numberless ways, and, however it is produced, it may happen to be true. For instance, A dreams of B's death, and thereupon believes B to be dead. B actually is dead. Here is a case of true belief produced by bad evidence, but capable of being supported by good evidence. The good evidence was not the cause of the belief, but it is the only rational warrant for its continuance. If B could still be seen alive and well and occupied in his usual pursuits, A’s belief would either be given up or would be very likely to consign A to a madhouse.
It is not easy to prove the negative, that there is no assignable connection between belief and the truth of the matter believed, ‘except in so far as belief is supported by evidence;’ but I will offer a few observations in support of it. In the first place, no one denies the proposition, that there is an assignable connection between belief and the evidence by which it is supported; you, at all events, do not, as I shall show immediately. In what cases, then, if any, is there an assignable connection between the belief and the truth of a proposition not supported by evidence at all?
Your article does not suggest any answer to this question, though, as I shall presently show, it suggests something which might be mistaken for one, connected with what you describe as belief on implicit processes. Beliefs which are always true, and yet are supported by no facts and no arguments founded on facts, are difficult even to imagine. I hardly know, indeed, what meaning you can assign to the word ‘true,’ except that of a proposition which corresponds with facts, and the word ‘ evidence,’ in the sense in which I now use it, means the facts and arguments which show the correspondence between the two. This is almost identical with the proposition, that there is no assignable connection between belief and truth, except through the medium of evidence, because evidence is what connects belief with truth.
Again, belief, however irrational, is always caused by some facts or other—by evidence in some form, if the very weakest possible hint is allowed to be good evidence. If a man believes a thing because he has dreamed of it, or because he has an unaccountable impression that it has happened or is about to happen, or because something has happened which he regards as an omen, or because he believes it to have been supernaturally revealed either to himself or to some one else; the dream, presentiment, omen, or supposed revelation is the evidence on the strength of which he believes. Now suppose a man does believe a particular thing on some such ground; suppose, for instance, he believes that a friend is dead because he has dreamed of his death, would it be relevant and appropriate to point out to him that he had often dreamed the same thing before when his friend was not dead, that he had often had such dreams after reading stories which affected him, one of which he had read the day before his dream, that if his friend had died he would probably have since heard of it independently, which was not the case, and so on? The admission that such arguments might be used is an admission that belief, to be true, ought to be supported by good evidence. A denial that such arguments might be used would remove the person who made it beyond the pale of discussion.
Perhaps, however, I am doing you an injustice by labouring this point, for your article concludes by setting forth the evidence on which men ought to believe in God and the Church. If you admit that these beliefs rest upon evidence, I do not suppose you would say that there are any which do not. Indeed, even self-evident truths do so. ‘Two and two make four,’ ‘ Two straight lines cannot enclose a space,’ ‘ I am,’ are all assertions of a state of facts which we perceive as often as we open our eyes, or are conscious of our own existence.
I will conclude what I have to say on this proposition by noticing a topic to which you give great prominence in your article—I mean the subject of what you call ‘Implicit Processes.’ You refer to a previous article in the Dublin Review, which I have not had the advantage of seeing, called, 'Explicit and Implicit Thought.' You say that a man of ‘the most cultivated mind has not always the power of confronting his conclusion with the grounds on which it rests, in order to estimate its reasonableness. In many cases those grounds are no longer accessible in their original shape, having left behind them but a vague record on the memory.’ You contrast a ‘third-rate practitioner who forms his conclusions theoretically’ with a ‘physician of genius,’ who ‘forms a conclusion based on the whole phenomena before him,’ and you ask, ‘Is that conclusion to be accounted unreasonable until he is able to produce those phenomena one by one before his conscious observation?’ You triumphantly add, ‘Then all the most important cures have been wrought by unreasonable men.’ A little before you remark, ‘Every acute and intelligent person who has lived an active life among men possesses, stored within, all sorts of miscellaneous convictions on the fit way of dealing with mankind, the result of his past experience. These are, indeed, his most valuable possessions as far as this world is concerned; and yet it would be the merest child's play if he professed to remember the individual experiences which have gradually built them up.’
You use these arguments to refute a proposition which I do not maintain, namely, ‘That there is an obligation on everyone who loves truth of setting himself expressly to the task of effecting an “equation” between the strength of his convictions and the amount of proof on which they respectively rest.’ If you can find anyone who maintains that proposition, I think he would have little difficulty in showing that you have not refuted it. As, however, I do not maintain it, I will point out how your remarks are related to the propositions which I do maintain. They do not, in any way, touch them. They merely direct attention to the fact that a particular kind of evidence deserves great weight in particular cases. All that you say, may be reduced to this form. When a person of much experience and observation draws an inference from a number of facts which he observes, but cannot describe in words or classify so as to exhibit their logical relation to each other, his opinion is entitled to weight, even after he has forgotten the facts on which it was originally based, or when he is incompetent to state them. Who ever denied this? Who ever doubted that if an experienced physician on looking carefully at a person who wished to insure his life recommended a board not to insure him, they would do well to act upon that advice although the physician might not be able to analyse the grounds on which he gave it? You might give still stronger illustrations than you do. Take the power which a savage possesses of finding his way through an apparently pathless forest, and the instinctive likings and dislikings which children and dogs are said to exhibit for particular persons.
The question is not whether such evidence as this is of weight, but whence its weight is derived? Is it to be believed because it is inarticulate, or if and in so far as it is observed to lead to the truth? Surely the present answer is the right one. In the case of the physician and the insurance office the confidence of the board would depend upon their general opinion of the physician's skill. They would have observed that he was usually right in such matters, and would accordingly presume that he was right in the particular case in question. So with the savages. The reason why such confidence is accorded to then, is that they are found in fact to be able to reach the places to which they profess to act as guides. You trust a bloodhound, not because he cannot explain himself, but because experience shows that he can track down his prey. You trust a sailor, a weather-wise peasant, a child’s instinctive aversion, not because they cannot give their reasons, but if and in so far as experience shows that the inarticulate processes through which they go land them in true conclusions. What is more common than for people to be very inarticulate and very positive, and yet to be entirely wrong?
Perhaps the strongest general illustration that can be given of the fallibility of implicit processes of thought, is falling in love. Here you have the most passionate belief proceeding upon implicit processes, which no one could present to himself or others in their logical relation, but the truth of the belief bears no sort of proportion to its fervour. In some cases mutual passionate admiration is justified by the perfect adaptation of two persons to each other. In some cases the result is the bitterest of all deceptions, and every conceivable shade of difference intervenes between these extremes.
There is a sort of romance and mystery about these implicit mental processes which disposes people to attach too much weight to them; but surely you will admit that the weight which a reasonable man ought to attach to them would depend on the degree in which they are verified by experience. However stupid and inarticulate a man might be, even if he were to all appearance an absolute idiot, I should not believe him when he told me it was going to rain, unless I had observed on former occasions that his prophecies came true.
It is curious that you and Dr. Newman should be disposed to attach so much weight, as you apparently do, to this sort of evidence. It would be possible to turn it to a purpose which you hardly seem to suspect. You write as if all the implicit evidence (to adopt your own phraseology) were favourable to the religious view of things. Do not you neglect a good deal of evidence of the same kind which looks in the other direction? Look at the past history and present condition of thought upon religious subjects. Can it be said that the implicit processes of the minds of men in general, the deliberate semiconscious judgment of mankind, pronounced not formally, but gradually, and embodied rather in acts and habits of mind than in express words, has affirmed what you regard as religious truth? Archbishop Manning once said, that ‘politics and science had in these latter days fallen away from the faith.’ Your constant complaint against the generation in which you live is its unbelief, its apostasy from the faith which you hold. The commonest theme of preachers of all persuasions is, that men’s lives are not in harmony with what they profess to believe, a proof, surely, and the strongest of which the nature of the case admits, that they do not really believe what they profess to believe. Now, what is all this but a judgment proceeding upon an implicit process of thought, that religion as you understand it is not true? You must take this fact into account when you dwell upon the importance of these implicit forms of thought, unless, indeed, you are prepared to lay down this canon—the implicit processes of thought by which I and my friends arrive at our creed, ought to be trusted.
My fourth proposition is as follows: If belief is supported by evidence, the probability of its truth depends upon the degree in which the evidence by which it is supported satisfies the recognised canons of inductive and deductive proof.
I have shown in my third proposition that the truth of beliefs not supported by evidence is a mere matter of chance. If, for instance, you believe that a Mr. Smith lives in a certain house in London, you may be right; but it is a mere chance whether you are or not, unless you can appeal to some fact or other as the cause of your belief, and to some argument to show a connection between that fact and the belief caused by it. The present proposition goes a step further, and specifies the sort of connection which you must show between the evidence and the belief founded upon it in order that the belief might be proved to be true. The kind of connection which you must establish is that which Mr. Mill describes in that part of his work on Logic which explains the process of induction and deduction. A passage in your article admits the validity of these processes.
A man, you say, is convinced by the expression of a “certain relative's face that he is out of sorts with him.’ You give his reasons, which are as follow: ‘There is an enormous number of past instances in which the symptoms have coexisted with ill-humour’ (your friend, by the way, must be rather ill-tempered); ‘there is no single case in which they have existed without it; they all admit of being referred to ill-humour as effects to their cause; they are so heterogeneous that any other cause except ill-humour which shall account for them all is quite incredible; while it is no less incredible that they coexist fortuitously, &c., &c., &c. Why, in all probability the very Newtonian theory of gravitation does not rest on firmer and more irrefragable grounds.’ You could not make a clearer admission that, in the main at least, you agree in Mr. Mill's analysis of the process of proof as to matters of fact, and that you consider that the inductive and deductive processes described by him are safe guides to truth. The passage quoted is a summary of the greater part of what he says about the method of agreement, the method of difference, and the like; and it would appear, from the last sentences of the extract that you regard the application of such methods as constituting demonstration of your friend's ill-humour or of the system of the universe, as the case may be. This is a pretty wide range to take, but I entirely agree with you. I fully admit that the process by which you arrive at the truth in the two cases is identical in principle; and I go farther. I say it is the only one by which propositions as to matters of fact can ever be proved to be true at all, and that except in so far as assertions about facts are proved or are capable of being proved by it, they cannot be shown to be true. This requires full illustration.
I see a book on my table, and I believe there is a book on my table. Why? Because the presence of permanent and consistent/sensation consolidated by reason (whatever that may be) into the form of a proposition is inconsistent with the absence of the fact which that proposition affirms. Whether or not the fact, and the sensations so consolidated, are not one and the same thing, is a question which I leave you, if so minded, to discuss with Bishop Berkeley. This is an instance of the application of Mr. Mill's method of difference. Book and perception of a book go together. No book and no perception go together, but there is a perception of a book: therefore, there is a book.
A says to B, “I dined yesterday with C. Hereupon A believes the fact stated. What is the process through which he arrives at that belief? Drawn out in form, it would be as follows. B tells me that he dined yesterday with C. Why did he say so? Either (1) because it was true, or (2) because he thought it was true, though it was not, or (3) because he wished to deceive me. Now it is impossible that he could be mistaken, and I cannot imagine from what I know of him that he wished to deceive me. Therefore, it is true. Here again we have the method of difference. The argument is from the effect (B's assertion) to the cause (the truth of the assertion); and the process of transition from the one to the other consists in enumerating the causes which could have produced the effect, and showing that each of them, except the one inferred from the effect, is inconsistent with known facts, viz. the knowledge and the integrity of the man who makes the statement. You will find that the same principle applies to every sort of fact which can form the subject of investigation for every purpose, historical, judicial, or scientific. Take the standing riddles of history. Did Sir Philip Francis write Junius? Did Mary murder Darnley? Is Socrates according to Plato or Socrates according to Xenophon most like the real man? Who wrote Homer? Take contemporary events.’ Did Prince Bismark deceive Louis Napoleon, or did Louis Napoleon try to conspire with Prince Bismark? Take judicial proceedings: Is the person who describes himself as Roger Tichborne a real baronet or an impostor? Did Miss Saurin or Miss Storr tell the truth about their squabbles in the nunnery? Take scientific enquiries. Does the sun move round the earth, or the earth round the sun? Is there a force of gravitation, and does it vary inversely as the square of the distance, or how otherwise? What is the true theory of dew? Is what we see of the sun a gaseous envelope with a comparatively dark kernel, or is it a blazing mass, parts of which are at times comparatively dark? In all of these and an infinite number of other enquiries the method which we employ is fundamentally the same, though of course it leads to infinitely various results.
In many cases we cannot reach certainty because there are possibilities which we are unable for want of evidence to exclude, or if you prefer that mode of expression, the certainty at which we arrive is in most cases hypothetical, as thus—Unless A and B and C are either telling a lie or are mistaken, each of which hypotheses is improbable, D owes a debt to E. Unless there are facts about the murder of Julius Caesar with which we are unacquainted, he was murdered in the Senate House at Rome in the manner usually described. The solution of every question about facts, however, which can be conceived, is reducible to this shape—the facts are so and so. The possible manners of accounting for them are such and such, and of these so many must be rejected as inconsistent with such and such facts. If all but one are rejected, the truth of that one is proved. If more than one inference is not rejected, all the unrejected inferences are probable in a greater or less degree according to the commonness of their occurrence in the ordinary course of nature or human affairs.
Suppose, for instance, the question is whether the heavenly bodies are or are not inhabited by beings like ourselves, how can we proceed? In the first place we know that human life cannot be sustained at all except under certain conditions, such as the presence of atmosphere and water. Further, we know that there are no atmosphere and no water on that side of the moon which is turned towards us. We are thus able to say with certainty that, on that side of the moon at least, there can be no inhabitants like ourselves. The argument is where there is no atmosphere there can be no beings like men. But on the visible side of the moon there is no atmosphere. Therefore, on the visible side of the moon there are no beings like men. We have, on the other hand, strong reason to believe that in the planet Mars some of the conditions exist which render life possible on the earth. With regard to Mars, therefore, we may affirm that we cannot say that it is not inhabited by creatures like ourselves, but that we cannot say that it is, inasmuch as we have no knowledge of the conditions which are consistent with the absence of inhabitants from a heavenly body, and are altogether unable to prove whether in the case of Mars those conditions or any of them exist or not. With regard to many other heavenly bodies we are obviously altogether ignorant; and our belief that they are or are not inhabited, is, if it exists at all, a mere uncertified guess, suggested by our own fancy.
Perhaps it would be hard to suggest a case in which a lower degree of probability is proved as to any proposition than the degree of probability, if so it is to be called, which has been proved that Mars is inhabited. It is like a first step made upon a journey of which the length and the direction are utterly unknown to us; for, in order to prove, otherwise than by ocular demonstration, that Mars is inhabited by men, it would be necessary to disprove every hypothesis consistent with its being uninhabited by men. But we are utterly ignorant as to what these hypotheses are. We know that the absence of an atmosphere is one of them, and we have disproved that one; but there may be millions of others utterly unknown to us, and unaffected by any fact which is known to us. All therefore, that a reasonable person can affirm as to the inhabitants of Mars is, the absence of one condition which would be inconsistent with their existence.
To take an illustration from the other end of the scale, look at any criminal trial which attracts special attention. Dr. Newman refers to the trial of Müller the German who murdered a man in a railway carriage in London a few years ago, and it will do as well as any other. In this and in all similar cases the question was whether the facts proved excluded the hypothesis of the prisoner’s innocence, as the phrase is, ‘beyond all reasonable doubt.’ The phrase assumes, as I have already observed, that some room is left for doubt, and that the testimony of others, although we may believe and act upon it, always leaves room for a possibility of error or deception, which is excluded in cases where we have the sustained continuous independent action of several of our own senses to depend upon. In a regular trial, such as Müller’s, the various hypotheses of which the facts admit are carefully stated, and the reasons for rejecting all, except the hypothesis of the prisoner’s guilt, are separately weighed and debated. The result usually arrived at when a man is convicted is, that every other hypothesis than that of his guilt is so improbable that twelve average men agree in thinking that for all practical purposes the possibility that any one of them may be true may be disregarded.
I may observe that it is at this point that Dr. Newman introduces his doctrine of an ‘illative sense;’ which as far as I can understand it appears to be this. The rules of logic cannot be applied to questions of fact, but as you can attain to certainty about facts, there must be a special faculty which warrants it in particular cases, and this faculty he calls the ‘illative sense.’ If it were not disrespectful to make such a supposition, I should have been led to believe by the Grammar of Assent that Dr. Newman had never read Mr. Mill's Logic. He never refers to it. He never shows the smallest acquaintance with any other sort of logic than the purely verbal one. Of the logic of facts, of the whole process of induction and deduction which Mr. Mill describes and of which all physical science, all history, all criticism, all rationally conducted judicial proceedings, are so many exemplifications, he may for aught that appears in the Grammar of Assent be altogether ignorant. If this were not so, I cannot understand how he could have found it necessary to invent a new faculty, the function of which appears to be to draw positive conclusions from insufficient premisses. Surely the whole subject which he has contrived to spin into so strange and new a form is as plain and simple as any subject can possibly be. A man who clearly understands the process which I have stated can apply it to facts as they arise with the aid of no mental faculties other than those which are common to all mankind, and have been always acknowledged and described by well-known names. In all sorts of common matters, people apply the methods of agreement and difference without having ever heard of them, and a man of science conducting a scientific enquiry or a judge trying a complicated case simply applies the same process rather more accurately and with a more distinct appreciation of its character.
Twist the matter backwards and forwards how you will, you will never get out of it either more or less than this. A proper application of the inductive and deductive methods to the evidence relating to any given proposition, will enable a person who understands those methods to give to the proposition itself a degree of belief, proportioned to the degree of completeness of the proof; or if you prefer that form of expression, to give an absolute assent to the proposition that it is more or less probable that the matter proposed for belief is true—the degree of probability being proportioned to the completeness of the proof.
You may say that in theory this may be all very well, but that in practice people do believe unreservedly, and even passionately in numberless cases in which the proof falls far short of the conditions required by the methods induction and deduction, that such beliefs are often true, and that they are so useful that without them all the common business of life would come to a standstill.
If this were so, it would pro only that people's feelings about t truth of a proposition are no test all of its truth—a matter of which I shall, say more hereafter—but think it is an over-statement. The beliefs to which you refer are always or nearly always supposed those who hold them to comply with the conditions of the method of difference, though not one person in ten thousand of those who hold them may ever have heard such a method. This appears from the circumstance that as soon their attention is drawn to the fa that the evidence respecting the facts so believed does not satisfy the conditions of that method, the belief ceases. The commonest and strongest of all such cases is that in which a person believes a fact because some one in whom he puts confidence directly asserts its existence. Such a belief, as I have already shown, satisfies the condition of the method of difference because no other cause for the assertion can be assigned, except mistake or deception, which by the supposition are excluded; but admit either of these suppositions, show the person who believes the assertion any probable ground for supposing that his informant may have been mistaken or have wished to deceive him — show him, in other words, that the method of difference is not complied with— and his belief ceases at once. You will find it very hard to give a case of a man, who, on the one hand, is distinctly conscious of the fact that his premisses are imperfect, and on the other is perfectly certain that his conclusion is true. I speak of common life and of the ordinary transaction of affairs. I am well aware that in religious matters the opposite is very often the case, and this is the reason why I and many others think that religious people are often dishonest upon principle. A juryman who returned a verdict merely because some one item of evidence struck his fancy, and although he was distinctly aware and admitted to himself in so many words that the evidence in question left untouched reasonable hypotheses as to the facts and inconsistent with the Verdict, would perjure himself. A man of science who admitted that two theories were equally consistent with ascertained facts, and who nevertheless vehemently affirmed the truth of one to the exclusion of the other, would be laughed at. A person in common life who placed absolute confidence in the word of a man whom he admitted to have been frequently mistaken in reference to similar subjects, or to have an inclination to deceive him, would be called a fool; but if I understand Dr. Newman and his ‘illative sense,’ the sort of foundation on which religious belief should stand is this:—look out a few topics which as they stand render your creed probable, and then by the help of your ‘illative sense’ get a certitude of its truth before you have had time to consider any facts which look in the other direction.’ I can hardly be mistaken in supposing that this is Dr. Newman’s opinion, for his ‘illative sense’ is a mere superfluity in cases in which the canons of inductive logic are satisfied.
V. This brings me to my fifth proposition, which is this: Whether belief is supported by evidence or not, there is no assignable connection between its truth and the degree of assurance or stability with which it is held.
In his Apologia Dr. Newman tells us that he learnt, when at Oxford, to distinguish between certitude, a state of mind, and certainty, a quality of propositions; this distinction would make it possible to express the proposition stated above very shortly, as follows: ‘There is no assignable connection between certitude and certainty.’ Perhaps, however, such antitheses do more harm than good in speculative enquiries. It will therefore be better to attempt to prove the proposition given above, as it is stated. I have tried to show, in my third proposition, that belief may be the effect of a vast variety of causes, according to the temper and position of the believer; I have also argued that the intensity of this belief is often greatest where the cause which excited it had least to do with the truth. Different men at the same time, and the same men at different times, have believed contradictory propositions upon every sort of subject, with an ardour which torture and death only increased. That the Pope is Antichrist, that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ; that fifty different religious creeds are true, that those same creeds are false; that the Stuarts were rightful kings, that they were rebels or criminals; that there is a God and a future state, and that these doctrines are the foundation of all human society; that there is no God and no future state, and that these doctrines are a pernicious fraud, preventing the establishment of a rational condition of human society; all these and numberless other beliefs have inspired men in various ages with the most passionate conviction, and have turned them into persecutors, martyrs, heroes, fanatics, saints, monsters, what you will. If mere passionate ardour of belief could prove anything at all, it would prove each half of all these and of numberless other contradictions. The inference is, that it proves nothing. It is an effect which may be produced by many causes, and therefore it is unsafe to infer any one of them from the fact of its existence.
There is one special class of cases in which this consideration is of much importance. These are cases in which belief is partly the effect of evidence and partly the effect of temperament. It is probable that Dr. Newman’s theory about ‘illative sense’ would be applied principally to cases of this kind. He says, in substance, ‘I cannot assert that the truth of Christianity is proved to such an extent that every other reasonable way of accounting for the facts before us is disproved: I can and do say that there are facts which point to its truth, and from those facts my “illative sense,” draws a certitude.’ If this were merely an obscure and peculiar way of saying, ‘I think it probable that Christianity is true, and I am content to act upon that probability,’ I, for one, should not have a word to say to the contrary. But it is something more than this. Dr. Newman’s theory—and yours too, if I understand it correctly—seems to me to be that a certain feeling in your own mind can produce an effect upon facts outside of you; that your certitude can convert a probability into a certainty; that is, can cause a given set of facts to fulfil conditions which they would not otherwise fulfil. It seems to me just as rational to say that if you saw an object through amist, which might be either a man or a bush, your conviction that it was a man could make it into a man. Let us suppose that three hypotheses, and three only, viz. A, B, and C, account for a given fact, and that A is inconsistent with fact 1, and B with fact 2, then C is certainly true, whether you believe it or not. Now suppose that fact 2 does not exist, then either B or C may be true. You may feel in your own mind quite positive that C and not B is true, and you may call that feeling a certitude or whatever else you please, and what is more your belief may be right; but if your certitude was caused by no facts at all, it was merely a lucky guess. If it was founded upon facts—forgotten, dimly perceived, incapable of being described or specified, if you please—then the case which I put has not arisen, because your belief in the truth of C as opposed to B was founded on facts which were inconsistent with the truth of B.
You, as well as Dr. Newman in his Grammar of Assent, are fond of insisting on the circumstance that certitude, the feeling in the mind, does not depend upon the strength of the evidence, and in this I think you are right. You say, and truly, that you believe in the existence of Moscow or Delhi as firmly as if you had seen them: that if a common fact is proved to be true by two credible witnesses, you believe it as firmly as if it was proved by three ;that the broad outlines of history appear to you as certain as if you yourself had been present at Waterloo or Blenheim, or at the scenes of the first French Revolution. How came you not to see that this proves only what a very treacherous guide certitude is? A fact proved by many witnesses, as I have already shown, is far more difficult to disprove than a fact proved by few, and yet the mind feels towards the one fact just as it feels towards the other. If seventeen witnesses of undoubted credit and with ample means of knowledge asserted that they saw Mr. Gladstone in the House of Commons on a particular occasion, and twenty-three witnesses of the same order made a similar assertion as to another occasion, you would not feel more sure of the truth of the second than of the truth of the first assertion. You would not find it easier or more difficult to lift a weight of three tons than to lift a weight of five tons, but it does not follow that three tons weigh as much as five, or that the evidence of twenty-three witnesses is not weightier than the evidence of seventeen. What follows is that your feelings are no test upon such matters, and that if you must resort to other means for arriving at a true conclusion upon them; you must suppose the witnesses to contradict each other flatly, or the weights to be placed in opposite scales. To try to weigh evidence by the feelings which it excites in minds agitated by a thousand conflicting interests and passions, often most imperfectly acquainted with the theory of evidence, and almost always unaccustomed to its application, is just like testing the strength of materials by touching them with your fingers. A deal board, an oak plank, an iron plate eight inches thick, and fifty other things are equally impenetrable to the finger-point; but the deal board may be pierced by small shot, the oak plank would turn an ordinary musket ball, the iron plate would resist all but the heaviest rifled cannon. It is just so with evidence. A person may feel equally positive as to the truth of some floating scandal which happens to gratify his spite; as to an ordinary fact stated to him by a credible witness of it; and as to a Scientific truth, in the study of which great part of his life has been passed; but his certitude stands in no relation at all to the certainty of the various propositions which he believes. I have already illustrated the immense variety of contradictory propositions of which people have been perfectly certain. In the face of all this, I cannot understand how a reasonable man can say that the certitude felt by any person as to any proposition is any test of its truth.
Unquestionably it is often useful in the conduct of life to act upon a probable supposition as if it was true, and as I have already observed, it often happens that the mere fact that we have adopted a probability as a truth makes us think of it and feel about it as if it were true. Our intellectual processes are, as a rule, rough and summary; how can they well be otherwise? Few subjects are worth the trouble of the most complete investigation which it would be possible for an ingenious man to bestow upon them. We have to judge as well as we can and act for the best, and few intellectual defects are practically more mischievous than inopportune indecision and hesitation. Now when we have once considered a subject, and decided upon any practical course in reference to it, when, to use a most expressive phrase, we have ‘made up our minds’ about it, we naturally regard the conclusion at which we have arrived as true, and constantly forget the grounds upon which it originally rested, and accept it as a matter not to be disputed. No man can have mixed much in practical affairs without observing innumerable instances of this. No man, I think, can have seen much of the world without also seeing that in practice it is of the highest importance to steer between indecision and obstinacy; to avoid, on the one hand, the fault of being blown about by every wind of doctrine, and on the other the equally dangerous fault of refusing to disturb our convictions when once formed, whatever new evidence or alteration of circumstances may come to our knowledge. This is a practical problem on which I need say nothing except this: that though the feeling of positiveness, or the certitude which probabilities produce in the minds of persons who have determined for any practical purpose to act upon the supposition that the probability represents actual truth, is a natural, and in many cases, a useful state of mind, its existence forms no additional evidence, either to the person who feels it or to anyone else, that the probable hypothesis is actually true. To refuse to recognise a theory as merely probable, when the question whether it is probable or certain is brought up by circumstances, because you have acted on the supposition that it is true, is a mere weakness—the weakness of a person who does not like to be disturbed in matters on which he has decided. To refuse to act upon a probable proposition as true when such a course is necessary to effective action is also weakness—the weakness of a man who shrinks from acting for the best. nothing else, though millions upon millions not only believe it to be true, but assert, however correctly, that if it were false their whole lives would lose their meaning, and become vain and useless dreams. The test, and the only test, by which its character as a truth or a probability can be measured is this. Is the evidence on which it rests such as to exclude every supposition, except that of its truth? If yes, it is proved to be true. If no, it is at most probable, in a greater or less degree according to circumstances. As to certitudes, people can if they please adjust their belief to the evidence before them, in which case they will usually believe what is true, but it is an idle dream to suppose that they can alter the effect of the evidence by their feelings about it. A good deal of what is written on the subject in the present day might be reduced to this form: ‘Only love your evidence sufficiently, and you will get it to prove whatever you please.’
I must here recur for a moment to the implicit states of mind of which you say so much. Their value as evidence has nothing to do with the firmness of the conviction in which they result. If a very modest person, whose guesses were seldom wrong, said, ‘I do not like that man’s looks,’ his remarks might carry more weight than the positive assertion of a self-confident person, frequently mistaken, that the man in question was an abandoned villain. In all cases in which we have to do with an estimate of probabilities, it is essential even to moderate correctness to know something of the temperament and circumstances of the person who forms the estimate. The eagerness with which a lover or a jealous person will fasten upon something which a person not in love or jealous would not perceive at all, is one of the common topics of fiction, and both the jealous man and the lover are often right; but then, also, they are often wrong; and no one, I suppose, would regard as otherwise than a weakness, amiable or not as it might happen, the certitudes engendered in them by trifles.
It would not be difficult to show that as the feeling of certitude produced by a mere probability is often disproportionately strong, so the feeling of certitude produced by the most complete evidence is often much weaker than it might have been expected to be. The strongest possible illustration of this is supplied by the case of a mathematical demonstration imperfectly mastered. Either Pascal or Fénelon, if I am not mistaken, compares Descartes’ demonstration of the existence of God to a view of which you can just get a glimpse by drawing yourself up by your hands to a high window, but which is lost as soon as your muscles relax; and the image is a very expressive one. Till a demonstration is so completely mastered that the mind can retrace its steps at will, with a complete understanding of each and all, the belief which it produces is rather a belief that a certain process is most probably a demonstration than a belief in the truth of the proposition demonstrated by it. There is much truth, too, in the old tag about convincing a man against his will. There is hardly human passion which, if interested in disputing a conclusion, would not enable a man to doubt in the face of demonstration.
Upon these grounds I conclude that no inference at all can be drawn from the warmth with which any belief is held, to the truth of the matter believed. A probability remains a probability and nothing else, though millions upon millions not only believe it to be true, but assert, however correctly, that if it were false their whole lives would lose their meaning, and become vain and useless dreams. The test, and the only test, by which its character as a truth or a probability can be measured is this. Is the evidence on which it rests such as to exclude every supposition, except that of its truth? If yes, it is proved to be true. If no, it is at most probable, in a greater or less degree according to circumstances. As to certitudes, people can if they please adjust their belief to the evidence before them, in which case they will usually believe what is true, but it is an idle dream to suppose that they can alter the effect of the evidence by their feelings about it. A good deal of what is written on the subject in the present day might be reduced to this form: ‘Only love your evidence sufficiently, and you will get it to prove whatever you please.’
Having now completed the statement of my own case on this subject, I will proceed to make a few observations as to what I do not say, which will incidentally answer some of the things which you do say.
I do not say that it is expedient for all men always to believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as far as it is accessible to them by the use of reasonable means, though I myself think so. I confine myself at present to the proposition, that if you wish to believe the truth you must act on certain principles, and not otherwise.
I do not say that it is wise in every man at all times to try to produce an equation (as you put it) between his opinions and the truth. I say that if he wishes to do so, he must take a certain course for that purpose. The question what enquiries is it wise for A B to undertake, and in what cases would A B do well to be satisfied with adopting the current opinions of his age, his class, or his country, without enquiry, is one which cannot be answered unless A B is, according to the expression attributed to Lord Eldon, ‘clothed in circumstances.’ You would advise a poor peasant woman with a large family of children and a husband to look after, to take one course, and a gentleman with full command of his time, a turn for intellectual pursuits, and an excellent education, to take another.
Truth maybe good or bad. It may be attainable or not. It may be the common heritage of all men, or a remote treasure accessible only to a few. With all these matters, on the present occasion, I have nothing to do. I say only if you want truth, and intend to try to attain it, this is the road. A well-known and well-defined intellectual process based upon facts—upon the result, that is, of the joint action of reason and sensation—is a sure guide to truth, and nothing else is. So long as you allege that your religious belief is justified by this process, and that you are content to hold it if and in so far as, and so long as, that process continues to justify it and not farther, or longer, or otherwise, it is a question of detail whether your opinions are true or false. To assert any other truth than this, to set up any higher authority, no matter how sacred may be the subject under consideration, is to promote a delusion. If it is done consciously in order to work out a particular result, it is telling a lie.
This general principle supplies the foundation for all that I need say about the part of your article in which you speak of the evidence of the existence of God and the Infallibility of the Church. If you are willing to apply to these doctrines the test of all serious enquiry, if you will try the question whether there is a God, whether the Church is infallible, whether Jesus Christ rose from the dead, as men try the questions, Do heavenly bodies gravitate towards the sun? What is the nature of dew? Is a man accused of crime guilty or innocent? then I have nothing to say. But if you set up any other test of religious truth than such tests as these, and if you fail to show that the tests which you set up are in common use with satisfactory results in relation to other subjects, then I say you mean by truth in religion not what we men of the world mean by truth in common matters, but whatever happens to suit your fancy.
I am your obedient servant, F.
Fraser’s Magazine, January 1872.