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74

HUME'S DEFINITION

stated in plain terms. "I regard my past experience as firm and unalterable. If a witness, no matter how credible, testifies to any occurrence which is contrary to that experience, I do not argue with such a man: he is only worthy of derision."

Though, in our day, hundreds who ought to know better act out this very doctrine, I would not be understood as asserting that Hume intended to put it forth. We often fail to perceive the legitimate issue of our own premises.

But let us proceed a step further. Let us inquire under what circumstances we have the right to say, “such or such an occurrence is incredible, for it would be miraculous.”

The question brings us back to our first inquiry,--as to what a miracle is. Let us examine Hume's defini. tion:

“A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” I remark, in passing, that the expression “by the interposition of some invisible agent” is an inaccuracy. Cold is an invisible agent: it is not even a positive agent at all, being only the withdrawal or diminution of heat. Yet cold suspends what the Indian prince had strong reason for regarding as a law of nature.

But the main proposition remains. “A miracle is a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity."

Here again the language seems unhappily chosen. When we speak of a thing as happening by the will of God, we rationally intend, by the expression, only that it is the act of God; for God's intentions are inscrutable to us, except as they appear in His acts. Can we say

"*

* Hume's Essays, vol. ii., Note K, p. 480.

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of any thing which occurs at all, that it does not occur by volition of the Deity ?

The word "transgression,” too, seems not the best that could have been employed.* It must, of course, be taken in its original sense of a going or passing beyond. The author evidently meant a suspension for the time to suit a particular emergency; and that would have been the more appropriate phrase.

Hume's idea, then, would seem to be more fittingly expressed in these terms:"A miracle is a suspension, in a special emergency and for the time only, of a law of nature, by the direct intervention of the Deity." We might add, to complete the ordinary conception of a miracle, the words, in attestation of some truth."

And now arises the chief question, already suggested. How are we to know, as to any unusual phenomenon presented to us, that it is an effect of the special intervention of God ? in other words, whether it is miraculons ?

But I will not even ask this question as to ourselves, finite and short-sighted as we are.

It shall be far more forcibly put. Let us imagine a sage, favored beyond living mortal, of mind so comprehensive, of information 80 vast, that the entire experience of the past world, century by century, even from man's creation, lay patent before him. Let us suppose the question addressed to him. And would he,-a being thus preternaturally gifted,-would even he have the right to decide,

* It would be hypercriticism to object to this expression in a general way. The best authors have employed it as Hume does, yet rather in poetry than in prose, as Dryden :

Long stood the noble youth, oppressed with awe,
And stupid at the wondrous things he saw,

Surpassing common faith, transgressing Nature's law." But a looseness of expression which may adorn a poetic phrase, or pass anchallenged in a literary theme, should be avoided in a strictly logical argument, and more especially in a definition of terms.

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MEN CAN ESTABLISH

would he have the means of deciding, as to any event which may happen to-day, whether it is, or is not, a miracle?

He may know, what we never can, that a uniform experience, continued throughout thousands of years and unbroken yet by a single exception, has established, as far as past experience can establish, the existence of a natural law or constant sequence; and he may observe a variation, the first which ever occurred, to this law. But is it given to him to know whether the Deity, to meet a certain exigency, is suspending His own law, or whether this variation is not an integral portion of the original law itself? in other words, whether the apparent law, as judged by an induction running through thousands of years, is the full expression of that law, or whether the exception now first appearing was not embraced in the primary adjustment of the law itself, when it was first made to act on the great mechanism of the Universe ?

Has the Creator of the world no power to establish for its progressive government laws of what we may call) a change-bearing character? preserving, (that is,) through the lapse of many ages, constancy of sequence, and then, at a certain epoch, by virtue of that character, (impressed upon it by the same original ordination which determined the previous long-enduring constancy,) made to exhibit a variation ?

We, his creatures, even with our restricted powers, know how to impress upon human mechanism laws of just such a character. The illustration furnished by Babbage's Calculating Machine, familiar though it may be, so naturally suggests itself in this connection, that I may be pardoned for presenting it here

Mr. Babbage's engine, intended to calculate and print mathematical and astronomical tables for the British Government, offers interesting incidental results. Of

CHANGE-BEARING LAWS.

77

these, the following, supplied by the inventor himself, is an example; and one of such a character that no knowledge of the mechanism of the machine, nor acquaintance with mathematical science, is necessary to comprehend it.

He bids us imagine that the machine had been adjusted. It is put in motion by a weight, and the spectator, sitting down before it, observes a wheel which moves through a small angle round its axis, and which presents at short intervals to his eye, successively, a series of numbers engraved on its divided surface. He bids us suppose

the figures thus seen to be the series of natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, &c.; each one exceeding its antecedent by unity. Then he proceeds

“Now, reader, let me ask how long you will have counted before you are firmly convinced that the engine, supposing its adjustments to remain unaltered, will continue, whilst its motion is maintained, to produce the same series of natural numbers ? Some minds, perhaps, are so constituted, that after passing the first hundred terms they will be satisfied that they are acquainted with the law. After seeing five hundred terms few will doubt; and after the fifty thousandth term the propensity to believe that the succeeding term will be fifty thousand and one will be almost irresistible. That term will be fifty thousand and one : the same regular succession will continue; the five millionth and the fifty millionth term will still appear in their expected order; and one anbroken chain of natural numbers will pass before your eyes, from one up to one hundred million.

“ True to the vast induction which has thus been made, the next term will be one hundred million and one; but after that the next number presented by the rim of the wheel, instead of being one hundred million and two, is one hundred million ten thousand and two. The whole series, from the commencement, being thus :

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ILLUSTRATION FROM

1 2 3 4

99,999,999

100,000,000 regularly as far as 100,000,001

100,010,002 the law changes.
100,030,003
100,060,004
100,100,005
100,150,006
100,210,007

“ The law which seemed at first to govern this series failed at the hundred million and second term. This term is larger than we expected by 10,000. The next term is larger than was anticipated by 30,000; and the excess of each term above what we had expected is found to be 10,000, 30,000, 60,000, 100,000, 150,000, &c.; being, in fact, what are called the series of triangular numbers, each multiplied by 10,000.”

Mr. Babbage then goes on to state that this new law, after continuing for 2761 terms, fails at the two thousand seven hundred and sixty-second term, when another law comes into action, to continue for 1430 terms; then to give place to still another, extending over 950 terms; which, like all its predecessors, fails in its turn, and is succeeded by other laws, which appear at different intervals.

Mr. Babbage's remarks on this extraordinary phenomenon are as follows:

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