The Credulities of Scepticism (by Robert Vaughan, 1855).
Nothing in the existing state of society is more curious than the new phase which the controversy between those who are and those who are not Christians has assumed. In the last century, one of the main characteristics of the Christian apologists was their constant and most reasonable demand that the subjects in debate between themselves and their antagonists should be treated with the gravity which befits discussions upon the most important of all conceivable subjects. One of the strongest arguments against the school of Voltaire and his English disciples was their constant use of the argumentum ad ridiculum. We have changed this, amongst other habits of our ancestors. Nearly twenty years ago, a traveller in America described a public controversy between a Christian minister and Mr. Owen, in which the clergyman kept his audience in a constant roar of laughter, to the discomfiture of the Socialist. Something like this has been of late years occurring in England. Theologians have descended into all sorts of of popular arenas, and have done battle with the various tenants of Doubting Castle in a fashion which would have greatly astonished the last generation. If one is to trust disputants of this order, scepticism is confined to a few silly, visionary people, quite unfit for the common business of life, and quite overmatched by their antagonists in the use of the rough-and-ready weapons of modern intellectual warfare. Dr. Cumming, Mr. Binney. or such writers as Dr. Vaughan, are quite prepared to turn anybody inside out, to cover him with ridicule (not of a very choice kind), and make him the butt of inextinguishable laughter, if he does not belong to some one or other of the recognised Christian bodies. It is a sight which we know affords immense satisfaction to a large portion of the public. It is one which we cannot see without deeper pain than we care to express in these columns. In proportion to the depth of our conviction of the vital importance of the Christian faith to the very existence of human society, is our wish that the controversies relating to its foundations should be discussed with judicial dignity and impartiality. It is a great scandal that any of the heat of personal contests should be permitted to enter into the advocacy of so holy a cause. Nothing gives a greater handle to the enemies of Christianity than depreciation of sceptics as such. Taunts, and mockery, and part spirit are not fit weapons for the defenders of Christian truth’. Even the follies and weaknesses with which the enemies of Christianity may be justly chargeable should be dealt with with tenderness and generosity, upon exactly the same principle upon which a well-bred man will pass over a gaucherie in an enemy for which he would rally his friend. Above all, weak and dishonest defences of Christian doctrines should be avoided, for otherwise people will be apt to think that, because they have silenced a self-elected champion of the Christian faith, they have freed themselves from its obligations.
These considerations have induced us to notice a Lecture on The Credulities of Scepticism, lately delivered by Dr. Vaughan, at Exeter Hall, to the Christian Young Men's Association. It appears to us to be one of the weakest defences of an excellent cause that we have ever met with, and as such we think that it cannot be too strongly disavowed all who approve of Dr. Vaughan's objects. We disagree with the whole lecture, from the paradoxical title to the somewhat boastful conclusion. Its object is to show that “there is much in modern scepticism, which lies open to censure, on the ground" that those who entertain it are “more credulous, in order to being doubters, than they needed to have been in order to being believers." There may, Dr. Vaughan thinks, be honest doubters, but many doubt, or affect to doubt from more vanity, and the lecturer’s object is to show them how much there is in modern unbelief which is “unmanly as well as unchristian." Dr. Vaughan takes his first illustration of this from “philosophical scepticism," by which, he means the “tendency which so judges, concerning the means by which we attain to our knowledge, as to affirm that there is no certainty in that knowledge." He thus describes its principal characteristics:—
‘The great point in the system of the philosophical sceptic, consists in his denial of the existence of matter—that is, of the substans, or essence supposed to underlie all material phenomena. The Christian philosopher is challenged to prove the existence of this substance or essence, of which all the properties of matter are said to be attributes. But such proof is not possible —certainly not in the form demanded. What it is we do not know—cannot know; but that it is, is the belief of all men, by the force of an intuition common to our nature. The sceptic, however, while he knows that it is utterly beyond his power to prove that this substans does not exist, is credulous enough to believe that the faith in its existence, which comes as a law of nature upon all men, is a falsehood. It is easier to him to suppose that all mankind have been made to believe a lie, than that they are made so as to believe a truth!’Dr. Vaughan has so many undoubted titles to respect, that we are quite surprised to see him put forward so absurd a misstatement of his antagonist’s case, and such an utterly inconsequent answer to it. Does Dr. Vaughan seriously mean that Bishop Berkeley was not a Christian? Does he think that all Christian philosophers are bound to believe in “a substans or essence" underlying “all material phenomena?" Is no man a Christian unless he supposes that, after you have deprived a sheet of paper of colour, form, weight, and all its other properties, the essence of the paper still remains? We fear that in that case there are very few Christians left in the world, and perhaps no Christian philosophers at all. We supposed—without considering ourselves sceptics ——that everyone now believed that matter was nothing else than an aggregate of certain qualities. If we find hardness, smoothness, colour, weight, and shape, combined in a certain manner, we call the compound marble; and if we find them compounded in another manner, we call it glass, without resorting to any mysterious essence of marble or glass connecting together the different qualities. It is simply false in fact to say that "all men," by the force “of an intuition common to our nature," believe in the existence of such an essence. Most people have no opinion at all about the subject; a very large proportion of mankind would be quite incapable of forming any opinion if they tried; and of those who have formed an opinion, hardly any, in the resent day at least, agree with Dr. Vaughan. But Dr. Vaughan asserts that sceptics are credulous because they believe (which they do not) that all mankind are mistaken (upon a subject on which they have no opinion). He says, all mankind put a particular meaning upon the word “matter." His (totally imaginary) sceptic would say, if he might speak for himself, “Hardly anybody thinks about the question at all, and very few even understand your meaning." Dr. Vaughan retorts, “What a credulous follow you must be, to believe that all the world are mistaken." He quite overlooks the fact that the "sceptic" joins issue not only upon the truth of the opinion, but also upon the general belief of mankind. The case to be met is that the belief in any substans or essence is an obscure metaphysical inference, and not a matter of “intuition" at all.
There is something exquisitely clumsy in an argument which in one sentence inveighs against anybody who distrust: his senses, and in the next makes it an article of faith to believe in the existence of a material thing which can neither be touched, tasted, smelt, heard, nor seen. Yet Dr. Vaughan falls into this error in his refutation of the “sceptic." That convenient personage is made to suppose that, as “men do not all see or taste alike, do not think or feel alike, do not all reason alike," "where the diversities are so great, the error must be great; and who is to tell when the influences which do so often lead us astray do not lead us astray?" To "such a man" Dr. Vaughan feels that he has a right to say, “ Of course, then, when your senses tell you that it is midday, and not midnight, you do not believe them?" We never yet knew any human being, not even Dr. Vaughan himself, who was not “such a man." The question "When do in senses, when does my reason, tend to end me astray?"—which he supposes is only asked by his bête noir—“the sceptic," is in fact asked and answered by all mankind all day long. Dr. Vaughan answers it as often as he sees a straight stick bent in the water, or refrains from putting out his hand to touch something beyond his reach. Not to mention that it was this very question which led Newton to discover the law of gravitation, and which lies at the bottom of all experimental philosophy, we are constantly correcting the information derived, from one sense by other information derived from the same or other senses. When my eyes show me certain colours disposed in a certain order, I do not at once conclude that I see a man's face. I look to see whether there are not other colours surrounding it which will show me that I am only looking at a picture. I do not immediately conclude that it is night because it is dark, but I look at the hands of my watch or at the position of the sun. No one ever acts upon the information of his senses. What we really act upon is our own mental inference from their operation.
No man‘s senses ever tell him that it is mid-day or midnight, His eyes tell him that it is light or dark, his ears tell him that the street is noisy or quiet, his nerves tell him that the air is bracing or relaxing, and from these and many other circumstances he infers the time of the day. Suppose, however, that a man's senses did tell him that it was mid-day, and that he had not entire confidence in the truth of their information, would it follow that he “would go upon ‘Change as often at midnight as at mid-day" or, “walk upon the sea as often as on dry land?" If Dr. Vaughan will refer to Butler's Analogy, he will find that there is such a thing as probable evidence; and the sceptic must have the benefit of it as well as the Christian. If our senses lead us right ten times and wrong once, we should certainly follow their suggestions, though with some uncertainty as to the result. The true inference from Dr. Vaughan's premises is, not that a man would walk on what his senses told him was sea as often as on what his senses told him was land, but that, always walking on what his senses told him was land, he would sometimes find himself in a scrape—which we greatly suspect he would, unless be corrected the reports of his senses very carefully.
Philosophical scepticism, Dr. Vaughan dismisses somewhat summarily, though we have dwelt upon his exposition at some length because it shows what hasty incorrect thought a man of his abilities thinks good enough for Exeter Hall. The greater part of the lecture consists of evidence to show that in fact credulity and scepticism often go together. This is illustrated by reference to the revelations of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, to those vouchsafed to Davies the Poughkeepsie Seer, and to Mr. Atkinson. The worst of this line of argument is that it is so easily retorted. There are no religious persons who do not believe in the supernatural world; and many religious persons pass from faith in the unseen to credulity . It may have been foolish in Lord Herbert to believe that he heard a voice from heaven bidding him publish his book, but; had Baxter no revelations? Did not John Wesley write an account of the ghost who rattled his father's wine bottles? Are “sceptics" the only pen is who have seen visions and dreamed dreams? Was Joanna Southcote a see tic? Was Irving a seeptic? Are the Mormonites sceptics? Were the French prophets in the seventeenth an eighteenth centuries, sceptics? To show that some individuals whose opinions you do not agree with are credulous, and thence to argue that “much in modem unbelief is unmanly as well as unchristian," is a mere indulgence in personalities, and proves nothing at all. If Dr. Vaughan could show that there was some connexion in principle between credulity and disbelief, and if he could go on to show that, as a matter of fact, sceptics are generally credulous, and credulous people usually sceptical, he would show something worth proving; but he breaks down both in his logic and in his evidence. Thus, for example, he contends that, by showing that the world has not existed as it is from eternity, it appears that the only alternative left to the sceptic is belie in a God or belief in the self-development of certain elements. The credulous sceptic, he Says, embraces the latter and the more difficult branch of the alternative. If he did, he would be no “sceptic," for he would have had his questions answered; but does Dr. Vaughan really believe that the dilemma which he puts is exhaustive? Is he really ignorant that the commonest of all existing forms of infidelity consists in the giving up of such questions as altogether insoluble? Is it quite inconceivable that a man should say, I neither know myself, nor do I believe that on or that anyone else can tell me, how the world was made, or whether it ever was made at all? This is the case which the Christian philosopher has to meet, and which Butler has met.
We can assure Dr. Vaughan that we have known, and that he may know, a vast number of sceptics who are anything but credulous, and who want a deeper answer than his Lecture can afford. We have known shrewd men of business, well educated, in very many respects well conducted ——men of honour and men of talent—who had given up all attempts whatever to put any interpretation upon theological problems, and whose minds were completely vacant upon the subject. The fact that this is so is one of the most terrible facts of the day. It cannot be denied, it cannot be evaded; it must be met by our Christian apologists; and to persist in representing sceptics as a totally insignificant, weak-minded, sentimental, or, at any rate, totally abandoned and sensual class of people, is the most foolish, as it is almost the least honest, way of treating the subject which can be devised.
If Dr. Vaughan will set the faith of the Christian Young Men, or any other men, on a firm foundation, he will indeed have merited infinitely well of his country; but such lectures as this seem to u likely to answer no other purpose than that of irritating his antagonists, and giving them an easy victory over him, which will recoil on the sacred cause which he defends. We wish with all our hearts that our Christian advocates would learn not to despise their antagonists. Infidelity is neither contemptible nor ridiculous. No doubt, many people profess it from mere vanity, and many persons have professed and do profess religion from hypocrisy, from love of power, or from a thousand other unworthy motives. Nothing is more likely to pique a man into a logical unbelief than a constant refusal to consider him a serious antagonist. We confess that we greatly fear the effect of these petits écrits. They have an inevitable tendency to harden all theological controversies into party strife, to perplex those who sincerely wish in discover the truth, to alienate them from teachers from whom they might otherwise learn much, and (which is more serious than all) to suggest that the advocate quibbles because he dare not go into the merits of his cause. Dr. Vaughan‘s professional position as head of one of the dissenting colleges, ought to attract the confidence of many persons whose minds are exercised upon theological difficulties. We can imagine nothing better calculated to repel such confidence than the tone of such a lecture as this—made up, as it is, partly of the most palpable sophisms, partly of smart sayings, and more or less funny stories at the expense of his adversaries. Let us show by all means that the medicines prescribed by those who repudiate the gospel are no remedies at all; but do not let us insist too much on the fact that those who prescribe them are fallible and often foolish men. Very often they are so, but such a line of argument lays open those who employ it, not only to a crushing tu quoque, but also to the imputation that to humiliate a contemptible antagonist is a pleasanter, as it is a far easier, task than to establish truth by Christian philosophy, and a reverent handling of that which, even in its worst errors, is the Divine handiwork—the mind and reason of man.
Saturday Review, March 8, 1856.