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Not so Abercrombie or Chalmers. The great Scottish theologian "professes to walk by the Baconian philosophy. He acknowledges that knowledge can only be founded on observation, and that we learn ‘by descending to the sober work of seeing and feeling and experimenting.' He prefers what has been seen by one pair of eyes' to all reasoning and guessing. ... He does not propose that we only receive the marvelous facts of Scripture if we cannot explain
He does not ask us to start with a clear understanding of what is possible or impossible. ... What he requires of us on entering into any department of inquiry,' as the best preparation, is a very different thing: namely, that docility of mind which is founded on a sense of our total ignorance of the subject.' "*
“No contrast," Chambers continues, “could well be more complete. In the one case, testimony regarding assumedly natural, though novel, facts and occurrences, is treated with a rigor which would enable us to battle off any thing whatever that we did not wish to receive, if it could not be readily subjected to experiment, or immediately sho in a fresh instance,—and perhaps even then. In the other, the power and inclination of men to observe correctly any palpable fact, and report it truly, is asserted without exception or reserve. . . . It is plain that one or other of these two views of testimony must be wholly, or in a great degree, erroneous, as they are quite at issue with each other. It becomes of importance, both with a regard to our progress in philosophy and our code of religious beliefs, to ascertain which it is that involves the greatest amount of truth.” (p. 6.)
As to the effect, in every-day life, of adopting the scientific view of testimony, he says, “ Just suppose, for a moment, that every fact reported to us by others were viewed in the light of the skeptical system, as to the fallaciousness of the senses and the tendency to selfdeception. Should we not from that moment be at a stand-still in all the principal movements of our lives? Could a banker ever discount a bill ? Could a merchant believe in a market-report? Could the politician put any trust in the genealogy the monarch? Could we rest with assurance upon any legal deed or document heretofore thought essential to the maintenance of property ? Could evidence for the condemnation of the most audacious and dangerous criminal be obtained ? Each geologist distrusting his neighbor as to the actuality of the find of fossils in certain strata, what would be the progress of that science ? Could we, with any face, ask the young
* Pamphlet cited, p. 6. The italics, throughout, are as Chambers has them.
to believe in a single fact of history, or geography, or any science concerned in education? What could be more seriously inconvenient to mortals, short of the withdrawal of the sun from the firmament, than the abstraction of this simple principle from the apparatus of social life, that we can all tolerably well apprehend the nature of an event or fact presented to our senses, and give a fair representation of it in words afterward ?
“I must also make bold to say that the skeptical view appears to me out of harmony with the inductive philosophy. Bacon gives us many warnings against preconceived opinions and prejudices; but he does not bid us despair of ascertaining facts from our own senses and from testimony. He laments that there is an impediment in the acquisition of knowledge from the sense of sight being unable to penetrate the spiritual operation in tangible bodies ;'* but he nowhere tells us that sight is so fallacious that we require a corrective power to assure us that we have really seen any thing.” (p. 8.)
Adverting to Faraday's axiom, that we must set out with clear ideas of the possible and impossible, Chambers shrewdly remarks, “This skeptical method consists very much in vicious circles. You cannot know whether a fact be a fact till you have ascertained the laws of nature in the case; and you cannot know the laws of nature till you have ascertained facts. You must not profess to have learned any thing till you have ascertained if it be possible; and this you cannot ascertain till you have learned every thing.” (p. 9.)
The whole pamphlet is singularly logical, as well as practical in tendency, and will well repay a perusal. Unable, for lack of space, much further to extend my extracts from it, I must not omit to quote entire the concluding paragraph, strictly bearing, as it does, on the respect which should be shown, and the credit which may properly be accorded, to those classes of facts which it is the object of this work to place before the public. Chambers says,
“If I have here given a true view of human testimony, it will follow that, among the vast multitude of alleged things often heard of and habitually rejected, there are many entitled to more respect than they ordinarily receive. It is a strange thought, but possibly some truths may have been knocking at the door of human faith for thousands of years, and are not destined to be taken in for many yet to come,–or, at the utmost, may long receive but an unhonoring sanction from the vulgar and obscure, allowing to this principle of skepticism, that facts are value
* Novum Organum, Book I. aphorism 50.
less without an obvious relation to ascertained law. Should the contrary and (as I think) more inductive principle be ever adopted, that facts rightly testified to are worthy of a hearing, with a view to the ascertaining of some law under which they may be classed, a liberal retrospect along the history of knowledge will probably show to us that even among what have been considered as the superstitions of mankind there are some valuable realities. Wherever there is a perseverance and uniformity of report on almost any subject, however heterodox it may have appeared, there may we look with some hopefulness that a principle or law will be found, if duly sought for. There is a whole class of alleged phenomena, of a mystically psychical character, mixing with the chronicles of false religions and of hagiology, in which it seems not unlikely that we might discover some golden grains. Perhaps, nay, probably, some mystic law, centering deep in our nature, and touching far-distant spheres of "untried being,' runs through these undefined phenomena, -which, if it ever be ascertained, will throw not a little light upon the past beliefs and actions of mankind, -perhaps add to our assurance that there is an immaterial and immortal part within us, and a world of relation beyond that now pressing upon our senses.”*
* Pamphlet cited, p. 24.
ABERCROMBIE, on unlimited skepticism, 64; on a singular dream, 193; ou
importance of the subject of dreaming, 209; narratives attested by,
141, 159, 180, 181, 184, 204.
Belief and knowledge, 56.
world, Appendix, Note B., 517.
any spiritual delusion, 45.
Dangers of the subject best averted by inquiry, 49.