Published letter (WCP7063.8179)

[1] [p. 82]

Communication from A. R. Wallace, Esq., F.Z.S., Author of "The Malay Archipelago," &c., &c.

Dear Sir,—-Dr. Edmunds having reproduced in his communication to the Committee certain arguments to which I replied in a paper read before the Dialectical Society, I beg that you will publish the enclosed extract from my paper and place it immediately after Dr. Edmund's letter.

I remain,

Yours very truly,

Alfred R. Wallace

G.W. Bennett, Esq.,

Hon. Secretary, Editing Committee.

Published letter (WCP7063.8180)

[1] [p. 83]

Extract from a paper read before the Dialectical Society, on Arguments against the possibility or probability of Miracles.


We will now proceed to some of the more modern arguments against miracles. One of the most popular modern objections consists of making a supposition and drawing an inference, which looks like a dilemma, but which is really none at all.

This argument has been put in several forms, One is, "If a man tells me he came from York by telegraph-wire, I do not believe him. If fifty men tell me they came from York by telegraph wires, I do not believe them. If any number of men tell me the same I do not believe them. Therefore, Mr. Home did not float in the air, notwithstanding any amount of testimony you may bring to prove it."

Another is, "If a man tells me that he saw the lion on Northumberland-house descend into Trafalgar-square and drink water from the fountains, I should not believe him. If fifty men, or any number of men, informed me of the same thing, I should still not believe them."

Hence it is inferred that there are certain things so absurd and so incredible that no amount of testimony could possibly make a sane man believe them.

Now, these illustrations look like arguments, and at first sight it is not easy to see the proper way to answer them; but the fact is that there were utter fal [2] [p. 84] lacies, because their whole force depends upon an assumed proposition which has never been proved, and which I challenge anyone to prove. The proposition is, that a large number of independent, honest, sane and sensible witnesses, can testify to a plain matter of fact which never occurred at all.

Now, no evidence has ever been adduced to show, that this ever has happened or ever could happen. But the assumption is rendered still more monstrous when we consider the circumstances attending such cases as those of the cures at the tomb of Abbe Paris, and the cases of modern scientific men being converted to a belief in the reality of the phenomena of modern Spiritualism; for we must assume that, being fully warned that the alleged facts are impossible and are therefore delusions, and having the source of the supposed delusion pointed out, and all the prejudices of the age and the whole tone of educated thought being against the reality of such facts, yet numbers of educated men, including physicians and men of science, are convinced o the reality of the facts after the most searching investigation. Yet the assumption that such an amount and quality of independent convergence evidence can be all false, must be proved to be a fact if the argument is to have the slightest value otherwise it is merely begging the question. It must be remembered that we have to consider, not absurd beliefs or false inferences, but plain matters of fact; and it cannot be proved, and never has been proved, [3] [p. 85] that any large amount of cumulative testimony of disinterested and sensible men, was ever obtained for an absolute and entire delusion. To put the matter in a simple form, the asserted fact is either possible, or not possible. If possible, such evidence as we have been considered would prove it; if not possible, such evidence could not exist. The argument is, therefore, an absolute fallacy, since its fundamental assumption cannot be proved. If it is intended merely to enunciate the proposition, that the more strange and unusual a thing is the more and the better evidence we require for it, that we all admit; but I maintain, that human testimony increases in value in such an enormous ratio with each additional independent and honest witness, that no fact ought to be rejected when attested by such a body of evidence as exists for many of the events termed miraculous or supernatural, and which occur now daily among us. The burden of proof lies on those who maintain that such evidence can possibly be fallacious; let them point out one case in which such cumulative evidence existed, and which yet proved to be false; let them give not supposition, but proof.

Another modern argument is used more especially against the reality of the so-called spiritual phenomena. It is said, "These phenomena are so uncertain, you have no control over them, they follow no law; prove to us that they follow definite laws like all other groups of natural phenomena, and we will believe them." This argument appears to have [4] [p. 86] weight with some persons, and yet it is really an absurdity. The essence of the alleged phenomena (whether they be real or not is of no importance) is, that they seem to be the result of the action of impeded intelligences, and are therefore deemed to be spiritual or superhuman. If they had been found to follow strict law and not independent will, no one would have ever supposed them to be spiritual. The argument, therefore, is merely the statement of a foregone conclusion, namely, "As long as your facts go to prove the existence of unknown intelligences, we will not believe them; demonstrate that they follow fixed law, and not intelligence, and then we will believe them." This argument appears to me to be childish, and yet it is used by some persons who claim to be philosophical.

Another objection which I have heard stated in public, and received with applause is, that it requires immense scientific knowledge to decide on the reality of any uncommon or incredible facts, and that till scientific men investigate and prove them they are not worthy of credit. Now I venture to say, that a greater fallacy than this was never put forth. The subject is a very common one, but the truth is the exact opposite of what is stated; for I assert that, whenever the scientific men of any age have denied the facts of investigators on a priori grounds, they have always been wrong.

It is not necessary to do more than refer to the [5] [p. 87] world-known names of Galileo, Harvey, and Jenner; the great discoveries they made were, as we all know, violently opposed by their scientific contemporaries, to whom they appeared absurd and incredible; but we have equally striking examples much nearer to our own day. When Benjamin Franklin brought the subject of lightning conductors before the Royal Society, he was laughed at as a dreamer, and his paper was not admitted to the Philosophical Transactions. When Young put forth his wonderful proofs, of the undulatory theory of light, he was equally hooted at as absurd by the popular scientific writers of the day. The Edinburgh Review called upon the public to put Thomas Gray into a straight jacket for maintaining the practibility of railroads. Sir Humphry Davy laughed at the idea of London ever being lighted with gas. When Stephenson proposed to use locomotives on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, learned men gave evidence that it was impossible that they could go even twelve miles an hour. Another great scientific authority declared it to be equally impossible for ocean steamers to ever cross the Atlantic. The French Academy of Sciences ridiculed the great astronomer Arago, when he wanted even to discuss the subject of the electric telegraph. Medical men ridiculed the stethoscope when it was first discovered. Painless operations during the mesmeric coma were pronounced impossible, and therefore impostures.

But one of the most striking, because one of the [6] [p. 88] most recent cases of this opposition to, or rather disbelief in facts opposed to the current belief of the day, among men who are generally charged with going too far in the other direction, is that of the doctrine of the "Antiquity of Man." Boune, an experienced French geologist, in 1823, discovered a human skeleton eighty feet deep in the loess or hardened mud of the Rhine. It was sent to the great anatomist Cuvier, who so utterly discredited the fact that he threw aside this invaluable fossil as worthless, and it was lost. Sir C. Lyell, from personal investigation on the spot, now believes that the statements of the original observer were quite accurate. So early as 1715 flint weapons were found with the skeleton of an elephant in an excavation in Gray's-inn-lane, in the presence of Mr. Conyers, who placed them in the British Museum, where they remained utterly unnoticed till quite recently. In 1800, Mr. Frere found flint weapons along with the remains of extinct animals at Hoxne, in Suffolk. From 1841 to 1846, the celebrated French geologist, Boucher de Perthes, discovered great quantities of flint weapons in the drift gravels of the North of France, but for many years he could convince none of his fellow scientific men that they were works of art, or worthy of the slightest attention. At length, however, in 1853, he began to make converts. In 1859-60, some of our own most eminent geologists visited the spot, and fully affirmed the truth of his observations and deductions. [7] [p. 89]

Another branch of the subject was, if possible, still worse treated. In 1825, Mr. McEnery, of Torquay, discovered worked flints along with the remains of extinct animals in the celebrated Kent's Hole Cavern, but his account of his discoveries was simply laughed at. In 1840, one of our first geologists Mr. Godwin Austen, brought this matter before the Geological Society, and Mr. Vivian, of Torquay, sent in a paper fully confirming Mr McEnery's discoveries, but it was thought to improbable to be published. Fourteen years later, the Torquay Natural History Society, made further observations, entirely confirming the previous ones, and sent an account of them to the Geological Society of London, but the paper was rejected as too improbable for publication. Now, however, for five years past, the cave has been systematically explored under the superintendence of a Committee of the British Association, and all the previous reports for forty years have been confirmed, and have been show to be even less wonderful than the reality. It may be said that this was proper scientific caution." Perhaps it was; but at all events it proves this important fact, that in this, as in every other case, the observers have been right, those who rejected their observations have been wrong.

Now, are the modern observers of some phenomenons usually termed supernatural and incredible, less worthy of attention than these already quoted? Let us take, first, the reality of what is called clair [8] [p. 90] voyance. The men who have observed this phenomenon, who have carefully tested it through longer years or through their whole lives, will rank in scientific knowledge, and in intellectual ability, as quite equal to any observers in any other branch of discovery. We have no less than seven eminent medical men, Drs. Elliotson, Gregory, Ashburner, Lee, Herbert Mayo, Esdaile, and Haddock, besides persons of such high ability as Miss Marineau, Mr. H. G. Atkinson, Mr. Charles Bray, and Baron Reichenbach. With the history of previous discoverers before us, it is more likely that these eleven educated persons, knowing all the arguments against the facts, and investigating them carefully, should be all wrong, and those who say a priori that the thing is impossible should all be right, or the contrary? If we are to learn anything by history and experience, then we may safely prognosticate that, in this as as in so many others, the disbelievers in other men's observations will be found to be in the wrong.

A. R. Wallace.

Please cite as “WCP7063,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection accessed on 10 April 2021, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP7063