Possibilities and Impossibilities

Agnostic Annual (1892)

Collected Essays V

[192] IN the course of a discussion which has been going on during the last two years,1it has been maintained by the defenders of ecclesiastical Christianity that the demonology of the books of the New Testament is an essential and integral part of the revelation of the nature of the spiritual world promulgated by Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed if the historical accuracy of the Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles is to be taken for granted, if the teachings of the Epistles are divinely inspired, and if the universal belief and practice of the primitive Church are the models which all later times must follow, there can be no doubt that those who accept the demonology are in the right. It is as plain as language can make it, that the writers of the Gospels believed in the existence [193] of Satan and the subordinate ministers of evil as strongly as they believed in that of God and the angels, and that they had an unhesitating faith in possession and in exorcism. No reader of the first three Gospels can hesitate to admit that, in the opinion of those persons among whom the traditions out of which they are compiled arose, Jesus held, and constantly acted upon, the same theory of the spiritual world. Nowhere do we find the slightest hint that he doubted the theory, or questioned the efficacy of the curative operations based upon it.

Thus, when such a story as that about the Gadarene swine is placed before us, the importance of the decision, whether it is to be accepted or rejected, cannot be overestimated. If the demonological part of it is to be accepted, the authority of Jesus is unmistakably pledged to the demonological system current in Judæa in the first century. The belief in devils who possess men and can be transferred from men to pigs, becomes as much a part of Christian dogma as any article of the creeds. If it is to be rejected, there are two alternative conclusions. Supposing the Gospels to be historically accurate, it follows that Jesus shared in the errors, respecting the nature of the spiritual world, prevalent in the age in which he lived and among the people of his nation. If, on the other hand, the Gospel traditions gives us only a popular version of the sayings and doings of [194] Jesus, falsely coloured and distorted by the superstitious imaginings of the minds through which it had passed, what guarantee have we that a similar unconscious falsification, in accordance with preconceived ideas, may not have taken place in respect of other reported sayings and doings? What is to prevent a conscientious inquirer from finding himself at last in a purely agnostic position with respect to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently with respect to the fundamentals of Christianity?

In dealing with the question whether the Gadarene story was to be believed or not, I confined myself altogether to a discussion of the value of the evidence in its favour. And, as it was easy to prove that this consists of nothing more than three partially discrepant, but often verbally coincident, versions of an original, of the authorship of which nobody knows anything, it appeared to me that it was wholly worthless. Even if the event described had been probable, such evidence would have required corroboration; being grossly improbable, and involving acts questionable in their moral and legal aspect, the three accounts sank to the level of mere tales.

Thus far, I am unable, even after the most careful revision, to find any flaw in my argument; and I incline to think none has been found by my critics–at least, if they have, they have kept the discovery to themselves.

[195] In another part of my treatment of the case I have been less fortunate. I was careful to say that, for anything I could "absolutely prove to the contrary," there might be in the universe demonic beings who could enter into and possess men, and even be transferred from them to pigs; and that I, for my part, could not venture to declare a priori that the existence of such entities was "impossible." I was, however, no less careful to remark that I thought the evidence hitherto adduced in favour of the existence of such beings "ridiculously insufficient" to warrant the belief in them.

To my surprise, this statement of what, after the closest reflection, I still conceive to be the right conclusion, has been hailed as a satisfactory admission by opponents, and lamented as a perilous concession by sympathisers. Indeed, the tone of the comments of some candid friends has been such that I began to suspect that I must be entering upon a process of retrogressive metamorphosis which might eventually give me a place among the respectabilities. The prospect, perhaps, ought to have pleased me; but I confess I felt something of the uneasiness of the tailor who said that, whenever a customer's circumference was either much less, or much more, than at the last measurement, he at once sent in his bill; and I was not consoled until I recollected that, thirteen years ago, in discussing Hume's essay on [196] "Miracles," I had quoted, with entire assent, the following passage from his writings: "Whatever is intelligible and can be distinctly conceived implies no contradiction, and can never be proved false by any demonstrative argument or abstract reasoning a priori."2

Now, it is certain that the existence of demons can be distinctly conceived. In fact, from the earliest times of which we have any record to the present day, the great majority of mankind have had extremely distinct conceptions of them, and their practical life has been more or less shaped by those conceptions. Further, the notion of the existence of such beings "implies no contradiction." No doubt, in our experience, intelligence and volition are always found in connection with a certain material organisation, and never disconnected with it; while, by the hypothesis, demons have no such material substratum. But then, as everybody knows, the exact relation between mental and physical phenomena, even in ourselves, is the subject of endless dispute. We may all have our opinions as to whether mental phenomena have a substratum distinct from that which is assumed to underlie material phenomena, or not; though if any one thinks he has demonstrative evidence of either the existence or the non-existence of a "soul," all I can say is, his notion of [197] demonstration differs from mine. But, if it be impossible to demonstrate the non-existence of a "substance" of mental phenomena–that is, of a soul–independent of material "substance"; if the idea of such a "soul" is "intelligible and can be distinctly conceived," then it follows that it is not justifiable to talk of demons as "impossibilities." The idea of their existence implies no more "contradiction" than does the idea of the existence of pathogenic microbes in the air. Indeed, the microbes constitute a tolerably exact physical analogue of the "powers of the air" of ancient belief.

Strictly speaking, I am unaware of any thing that has a right to the title of an "impossibility" except a contradiction in terms. There are impossibilities logical, but none natural. A "round square," a "present past," "two parallel lines that intersect," are impossibilities, because the ideas denoted by the predicates, round, present, intersect, are contradictory of the ideas denoted by the subjects, squared, past, parallel. But walking on water, or turning water into wine, or procreation without male intervention, or raising the dead, are plainly not "impossibilities" in this sense.

In the affirmation, that a man walked upon water, the idea of the subject is not contradictory of that in the predicate. Naturalists are familiar with insects which walk on water, and imagination has no more difficulty in putting a man in place of [198] the insect than it has in giving a man some of the attributes of a bird and making an angel of him; or in ascribing to him the ascensive tendencies of a balloon, as the "levitationists" do. Undoubtedly, there are very strong physical and biological arguments for thinking it extremely improbable that a man could be supported on the surface of the water as the insect is; or that his organization could be compatible with the possession and use of wings; or that he could rise through the air without mechanical aid. Indeed, if we have any reason to believe that our present knowledge of the nature of things exhausts the possibilities of nature, we might properly say that the attributes of men are contradictory of walking on water, or floating in the air, and consequently that these acts are truly "impossible" for him. But it is sufficiently obvious, not only that we are at the beginning of our knowledge of nature, instead of having arrived at the end of it, but that the limitations of our faculties are such that we never can be in a position to set bounds to the possibilities of nature. We have knowledge of what is happening and of what has happened; of what will happen we have and can have no more than expectation, grounded on our more or less correct reading of past experience and prompted by the faith, begotten of that experience, that the order of nature in the future will resemble its order in the past.

The same considerations apply to the other [199] examples of supposed miraculous events. The change of water into wine undoubtedly implies a contradiction, and is assuredly "impossible," if we are permitted to assume that the "elementary bodies" of the chemists are, now and for ever, immutable. Not only, however, is a negative proposition of this kind incapable of proof, but modern chemistry is inclining towards the contrary doctrine. And if carbon can be got out of hydrogen or oxygen, the conversion of water into wine comes within range of scientific possibility–it becomes a mere question of molecular arrangement.

As for virgin procreation, it is not only clearly imaginable, but modern biology recognizes it as an every-day occurrence among some groups of animals. So with restoration to life after death. Certain animals, long as dry as mummies, and, to all appearance, as dead, when placed in proper conditions resume their vitality. It may be said that these creatures are not dead, but merely in a condition of suspended vitality. That, however, is only begging the question by making the incapacity for restoration to life part of the definition of death. In the absence of obvious lesions of some of the more important organs, it is no easy matter, even for experts, to say that an apparently dead man is incapable of restoration to life; and, in the recorded instances of such restoration, the want of any conclusive evidence that the man [200] was dead is even more remarkable than the insufficiency of the testimony as to his coming to life again.

It may be urged, however, that there is, at any rate, one miracle certified by all three of the Synoptic Gospels which really does "imply a contradiction," and is, therefore, "impossible" in the strictest sense of the word. This is the well-known story of the feeding of several thousand men, to the complete satisfaction of their hunger, by the distribution of a few loaves and fishes among them; the wondrousness of this already somewhat surprising performance being intensified by the assertion that the quantity of the fragments of the meal, left over, amounted to much more than the original store.

Undoubtedly, if the operation is stated in its most general form; if it is to be supposed that a certain quantity, or magnitude, was divided into many more parts than the whole contained; and that, after the subtraction of several thousands of such parts, the magnitude of the remainder amounted to more than the original magnitude, there does seem to be an a priori difficulty about accepting the proposition, seeing that it appears to be contradictory of the senses which we attach to the words "whole" and "parts" respectively. But this difficulty is removed if we reflect that we are not, in this case, dealing with magnitude in the abstract, or with "whole" and "parts" in [201] their mathematical sense, but with concrete things, many of which are known to possess the power of growing, or increasing in magnitude. They thus furnish us with a conception of growth which we may, in imagination, apply to loaves and fishes; just as we may, in imagination, apply the idea of wings to the idea of a man. It must be admitted that a number of sheep might be fed on a pasture, and yet there might be more grass on the pasture, when the sheep left it, than there was at first. We may generalize this and other such facts into a perfectly definite conception of the increase of food in excess of consumption; which thus becomes a possibility, the limitations of which are to be discovered only by experience. Therefore, if it is asserted that cooked food has been made to grow in excess of rapid consumption, that statement cannot logically be rejected as an a priori impossibility, however improbable experience of the capabilities of cooked food may justify us in holding it to be.

On the strength of this undeniable improbability, however, we not only have a right to demand, but are morally bound to require, strong evidence in its favour before we even take it into serious consideration. But what is the evidence in this case? It is merely that of those three books,3 which also concur in testifying to the truth [202] of the monstrous legend of the herd of swine. In these three books, there are five accounts of a "miraculous feeding," which fall into two groups. Three of the stories, obviously derived from some common source, state that five loaves and two fishes sufficed to feed five thousand persons, and that twelve baskets of fragments remained over. In the two others, also obviously derived from a commons source, distinct from the preceding, seven loaves and a few small fishes are distributed to four thousand persons, and seven baskets of fragments are left.

If we were dealing with secular records, I suppose no candid and competent student of history would entertain much doubt that the originals of the three stories and of the two are themselves merely divergent versions of some primitive story which existed before the three Synoptic gospels were compiled out of the body of traditions current about Jesus. This view of the case, however, is incompatible with a belief in the historical accuracy of the first and second gospels.4 For these agree in making Jesus himself speak of both the "four thousand" and the "five thousand" miracle. "When I brake the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces took ye up? They say unto him twelve. And when the seven among the four [203] thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces took ye up? And they say unto him, seven."

Thus we are face to face with a dilemma the way of escape from which is not obvious. Either the "four thousand" and the "five thousand" stories are both historically true, and describe two separate events; or the first and second gospels testify to the very words of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples which cannot have been uttered.

My choice between these alternatives is determined by no a priori speculations about the possibility or impossibility of such events as the feeding of the four or of the five thousand. But I ask myself the question, What evidence ought to be produced before I could feel justified in saying that I believed such an event to have occurred? That question is very easily answered. Proof must be given (1) of the weight of the loaves and fishes at starting; (2) of the distribution to 4-5,000 persons, without any additional supply, of this quantity and quality of food; (3) of the satisfaction of these people's appetites; (4) of the weight and quality of the fragments gathered up into the baskets. Whatever my present notions of probability and improbability may be, satisfactory testimony under these four heads would lead me to believe that they were erroneous; and I should accept the so-called miracle as a new and unexpected example of the possibilities of nature.

[204] But when, instead of such evidence, nothing is produced but two sets of discrepant stories, originating nobody knows how or when, among persons who could believe as firmly in devils which enter pigs, I confess that my feeling is one of astonishment that any one should expect a reasonable man to take such testimony seriously.

I am anxious to bring about a clear understanding of the difference between "impossibilities" and "improbabilities," because mistakes on this point lay us open to the attacks of ecclesiastical apologists of the type of the late Cardinal Newman; acute sophists, who think it fitting to employ their intellects, as burglars employ dark lanterns for the discovery of other people's weak places, while they carefully keep the light away from their own position.

When it is rightly stated, the Agnostic view of "miracles" is, in my judgment, unassailable. We are not justified in the a priori assertion that the order of nature, as experience has revealed it to us, cannot change. In arguing about the miraculous, the assumption is illegitimate, because it involves the whole point in dispute. Furthermore, it is an assumption which takes us beyond the range of our faculties. Obviously, no amount of past experience can warrant us in anything more than a correspondingly strong expectation for the present and future. We find, practically, that [205] expectations, based upon careful observations of past events, are, as a rule, trustworthy. We should be foolish indeed not to follow the only guide we have through life. But, for all that, our highest and surest generalizations remain on the level of justifiable expectations; that is, very high probabilities. For my part, I am unable to conceive of an intelligence shaped on the model of that of man, however superior it might be, which could be any better off than our own in this respect; that is, which could possess logically justifiable grounds for certainty about the constancy of the order of things, and therefore be in a position to declare that such and such events are impossible. Some of the old mythologies recognised this clearly enough. Beyond and above Zeus and Odin, there lay the unknown and inscrutable Fate which, one day or other, would crumple up them and the world they ruled to give place to a new order of things.

I sincerely hope that I shall not be accused of Pyrrhonism, or of any desire to weaken the foundations of rational certainty. I have merely desired to point out that rational certainty is one thing, and talk about "impossibilities," or "violation of natural laws," another. Rational certainty rests upon two grounds–the one that the evidence in favour of a given statement is as good as it can be; the other that such evidence is plainly insufficient. In the former case, the statement is to be [206] taken as true, in the latter as untrue; until something arises to modify the verdict, which, however properly reached, may always be more or less wrong, the best information being never complete, and the best reasoning being liable to fallacy.

To quarrel with the uncertainty that besets us in intellectual affairs, would be about as reasonable as to object to live one's life, with due thought for the morrow, because no man can be sure he will be alive an hour hence. Such are the conditions imposed upon us by nature, and we have to make the best of them. And I think that the greatest mistake those of us who are interested in the progress of free thought can make is to overlook these limitations, and to deck ourselves with the dogmatic feathers which are the traditional adornment of our opponents. Let us be content with rational certainty, leaving irrational certainties to those who like to muddle their minds with them. I cannot see my way to say that demons are impossibilities; but I am not more certain about anything, than I am that the evidence tendered in favour of the demonology, of which the Gadarene story is a typical example, is utterly valueless. I cannot see my way to say that it is "impossible" that the hunger of thousands of men should be satisfied out of the food supplied by half-a-dozen loaves and a fish or two; but it seems to me monstrous that I should be asked to believe it on the faith of the five stories which testify to such an [207] occurrence. It is true that the position that miracles are "impossible" cannot be sustained. But I know of nothing which calls upon me to qualify the grave verdict of Hume: "There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned goodness, education, and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts, performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men."5

The preceding paper called forth the following criticism signed "Agnosco," to which I append my reply:–

"While agreeing generally with Professor Huxley's remarks respecting miracles, in 'The Agnostic Annual for 1892,' it has seemed to me that one of his arguments at least requires qualification. The Professor, in maintaining that so-called miraculous events are possible, although the evidence adduced is not sufficient to render them probable, refers to the possibility of changing water into wine by molecular re-composition. He tells us that, 'if carbon can be got out of hydrogen or oxygen, the conversion of water into wine comes within range of scientific possibility.' But in maintaining that miracles (so-called) have [208] a prospective possibility, Professor Huxley loses sight–at least, so it appears to me–of the question of their retrospective possibility. For, if it requires a certain degree of knowledge and experience, yet far from having been attained, to perform those acts which have been called miraculous, it is not only improbable, but impossible likewise, that they should have been done by men whose knowledge and experience were considerably less than our own. It has seemed to me, in fact, that this question of the retrospective possibility of miracles is more important to us Rationalists, and, for the matter of that, to Christians also, than the question of their prospective possibility, with which Professor Huxley's article mainly deals. Perhaps the Professor himself could help those of us who think so, by giving us his opinion."

I am not sure that I fully appreciate the point raised by "Agnosco," nor the distinction between the prospective and the retrospective "possibility" of such a miracle as the conversion of water into wine. If we may contemplate such an event as "possible" in London in the year 1900, it must, in the same sense, have been "possible" in the year 30 (or thereabouts) at Cana in Galilee. If I should live so long, I shall take great interest in the announcement of the performance of this operation, say, nine years hence; and, if there is no objection raised by chemical experts, I shall accept the fact that the feat has been performed, without hesitation. But I shall have no more ground for believing the Cana story than I had before; simply because the evidence in its favour will remain, for me, exactly where it is. Possible or impossible, that evidence is worth nothing. To leave the safe ground of "no evidence" for speculations about impossibilities, consequent upon the want of scientific knowledge of the supposed workers of miracles, appears to me to be a mistake; especially in view of the orthodox contention that they possessed supernatural power and supernatural knowledge.

T. H. Huxley.

1 1889-1891. See the next essay (VII) and those which follow it.

2 Inquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, p. 5; 1748. The passage is cited and discussed in my Hume, pp. 132, 133.

3 The story in John vi. 5-14 is obviously derived from the "five thousand" narrative of the Synoptics.

4 Matthew xvi. 5-12; Mark viii. 14-21.

5 Hume, Inquiry, sec. x., part ii.

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume V, Science and Christian Tradition, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: Agnosticism [1889], pages 209-262.

Previous article: The Value of Witness to the Miraculous [1889], pages 160-191.



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Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden