Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Rogers on Hume on Tillotson against Transubstantiation

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Henry Rogers wrote a lovely little philosophical dialogue, which deserves to be better known, called, The Eclipse of Faith: A Visit to a Religious Sceptic. Fortunately it can be found at Project Gutenberg. I don't know how well known it was in the nineteenth century. It went through several editions in just a few years, which sounds good; but I don't know enough about publishing practices of the time to say what that would likely mean in terms of readers.

The dialogue is undeniably worth reading. One of Rogers's excellent literary choices was to write the dialogue as a journal being sent as part of a letter to the narrator's brother; this complicated frame allows for a much greater degree of literary flexibility than is usually available to the writer of philosophical dialogues. Although the work as a whole is a defense of Christianity against philosophical objections, Rogers made another excellent choice when he broke with tradition on these matters and made an honest skeptic, Harrington, the dominant discussant. Usually in a philosophical dialogue the dominant discussant is the character (or characters) most closely conforming to the author's views. In the hands of a masterful dialogue-writer this could turn out well; but usually it just leads to a very one-sided dialogue. Rogers's dialogue, however, is very readable, with characters who seem interesting and (as Rogers hints in his Advertisement) are probably at least very loosely based on real people.

One of the interesting examples of the candor and honesty of Harrington centers immediately on the subject of Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation:

"And do you know," said Harrington, "I have sometimes thought that Hume, so far from representing his argument from 'Transubstantiation' fairly, (there is an obvious fallacy on the very face of it, to which I do not now allude,) is himself precisely in the condition in which he represents the believer in miracles?"

Fellowes smiled incredulously. "First, however," said he, "what is the more notorious fallacy to which you allude?"

"It is so barefaced an assumption, that I am surprised that his acuteness did not see it; or that, if he saw it, he could have descended to make a point by appearing not to see it. It has been often pointed out, and you will recollect it the moment I name it. You know he commences with the well-known argument of Tillotson against Transubstantiation and flatters himself that he sees a similar argument in relation to miracles. Now it certainly requires but a moderate degree of sagacity to see that the very point in which Tillotson's argument tells, is that very one in which Hume's is totally unlike it. Tillotson says, that when it is pretended that the bread and wine which are submitted to his own senses have been 'transubstantiated into flesh and blood,' the alleged phenomena contradict his senses; and that as the information of his senses as much comes from God as the doctrines of Scripture (and even the miracles of Scripture appeal to nothing stronger), he must believe his senses in this case in preference to the assertions of the priest. Hume then goes on quietly to take it for granted that the miracles to which consent is asked in like manner contradict the testimony of the senses of him to whom they appeal is made; whereas, in fact, the assertor of the miracles does not pretend that he who denies them has ever seen them, or had the opportunity of seeing them. To make the argument analogous, it ought to be shown that the objector, having been a spectator of the pretended miracles, when and where they were affirmed to have been wrought, had then and there the testimony of his senses that no such events had taken place. It is mere juggling with words to say that never to have seen a like event is the same argument of an event's never having occurred, as never to have seen that event when it was alleged to have taken place under our very eyes!"

Harrington in the dialogue goes on to argue that Hume has things backwards. If a disbeliever in miracles (among whom Harrington includes himself) were to see one, he would doubt his senses and fall back on the general testimony that such things do not happen. Thus Hume's argument is actually more dangerous for the miracles-skeptic than the believer:

"It appears, then, my good fellow, that the position of those who deny and those who assert miracles is exactly the reverse of Hume's statement. The man who believes 'Transubstantiation' distrusts his senses, and rather believes testimony: and even so would he who has fully made up his mind, on our sublime principle as to the impossibility of miracles, when any thing which has that appearance crosses his path; he is prepared to deny his senses and to trust to testimony,--to that general experience of others which comes to him, and can come to him, only in that shape. It is we, therefore, and not our adversaries, who are liable to be reached by this unlucky illustration."

This is a remarkable argument against Hume's essay on miracles, in part because I can think of no other case in which anyone thinks to use the Tillotsonian parallel in such an interesting way.