Monday, March 20, 2006

Hume on Tillotson Against Transubstantiation

The significance of Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation can be seen in another passage that refers to it:

There is, in Dr. Tillotson's writings, an argument against the real presence, which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says that learned prelate, that the authority, either of the scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the Apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for, the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of his senses. But a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger; and therefore, were the doctrine of the real presence ever so clearly revealed in scripture, it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to give our assent to it. It contradicts sense, though both the scripture and tradition, on which it is supposed to be built, carry not such evidence with them as sense; when they are considered merely as external evidences, and are not brought home to every one's breast, by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit.

Nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument of this kind, which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.

[Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X]

There is a lot of irony in this, given that Tillotson repeatedly insists that miracles are the primary evidence for Christianity. But it is true (and the irony depends on its being true) that Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation and Hume's argument against miracles are of the same genus ("of a like nature"). Tillotson argues that the only possible basis for believing in transubstantiation is undercut if transubstantiation is supposed true, because transubstantiation runs counter to the evidence of the senses, on which testimony depends; likewise, Hume argues that the only possible basis for believing in miracles on testimony is undercut if miracles are supposed true, because miracles run counter to the evidence of the senses, on which testimony depends. Beyond that general resemblance, it's a bit more controversial how far Tillotson's argument serves as a model for Hume's. Is Hume's argument an independent argument, and Hume just recognized that Tillotson's argument was a precursor? Or was Hume's argument formulated in response to Tillotson's? Either way, Hume's argument touched off a considerable amount of discussion about the role and nature of testimony in reasoning.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.