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Empiricism & Scientism

Empiricism, Scientism, Positivism, the “Enlightenment”

Dallas Willard on Scientism and Inquiry Being Shaped by Its Subject Matter

Go We say “science,” but in actuality there are sciences like physics and biology. We say “religion,” but it would be more accurate to say religions like Christianity or Buddhism. Scientists will tell you that they do have a method, but the method of one science doesn’t work in another science. The method of validating a theory in biology doesn’t work particularly well in astronomy. Method is always tied to subject matter, and in dealing with life in general there is no such thing as a single scientific method. This has become the quandary of our culture, because everything that really matters in guiding life falls outside of science.

Thomas Boys on the Insistence of Miracles


A miracle is an extraordinary manifestation of supernatural power, perceptible to unbelievers as well as believers. Grace is a manifestation to believers only: Miracles are manifestations to unbelievers. A miracle is something perceptible to the senses, or to the intelligence, of a natural man. A miracle, therefore, may be called something tangible: something that we can lay before him and allege to him: something concerning which we can make an appeal to his natural perceptions: something concerning which we can charge it upon his conscience, that he knows within himself that such a thing has taken place. The world, therefore, is opposed to the doctrine of miracles: and opposed to it for this very reason, because they are tangible or perceptible. And mock professors, in like manner, shrink from the doctrine of miracles: because it brings them, at once, to an issue with the world. They shrink not, equally, from the profession of spiritual truths; because these may be eluded by the world, and lead to no issue. Doctrines, the world can explain away: miracles, it cannot. Here is something that it cannot get over. It is easy, for instance, to say to a man sick of the palsy, “Thy sins be forgiven thee;” because there is nothing to shew, at the moment, whether they are so or not: the issue stands over to the day of judgment. But it is not so easy to say to him, “Arise, and walk;” because, if the speaker be an impostor, he knows the sufferer will not rise and walk, and he dreads the consequent exposure.

Charles Townes on the Interaction Between Science and Religion


Science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn’t mean that we’ve found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don’t understand. For example, we don’t know what some 95 percent of the matter in the universe is: we can’t see it – it’s neither atom nor molecule, apparently. We think we can prove it’s there, we see its effect on gravity, but we don’t know what and where it is, other than broadly scattered around the universe. And that’s very strange. ¶ So as science encounters mysteries, it is starting to recognize its limitations and become somewhat more open. There are still scientists who differ strongly with religion and vice versa. But I think people are being more open-minded about recognizing the limitations in our frame of understanding.

Duhemian and Augustinian Science and the Crisis in Non-Empirical Knowledge


A salient feature of the success of any social, religious, or moral movement is the degree to which its advocates understand, shape, and employ the flow of ideas that forms the intellectual backdrop against which those advocates carry out their work. Setting aside Marxist and other self-refuting materialist forms of social determinism, it seems clear that ideas are among the primary things that impede or facilitate revolutionary movements. ¶ Nowhere is this more evident than the pro-life cause. But just exactly what ideas constitute the core components of the milieu in which pro-life advocates live and move and have their being? I am not a sociologist nor the son of one, and I am no expert in the sociology of knowledge. However, I am a philosopher and, as such, I have a take on this question upon which I believe it is important for us to reflect.

E. J. Lowe on Progress in Metaphysics and Philosophy


There is a widespread assumption amongst non-philosophers, which is shared by a good many practising philosophers too, that ‘progress’ is never really made in philosophy, and above all in metaphysics. In this respect, philosophy is often compared, for the most part unfavourably, with the empirical sciences, and especially the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Sometimes, philosophy is defended on the grounds that to deplore the lack of ‘progress’ in it is to misconceive its central aim, which is to challenge and criticise received ideas and assumptions rather than to advance positive theses. But this defence itself is liable to be attacked by the practitioners of other disciplines as unwarranted special pleading on the part of philosophers, whose comparative lack of expertise in other disciplines, it will be said, ill-equips them to play the role of all-purpose intellectual critic. It is sometimes even urged that philosophy is now ‘dead’, the relic of a pre-scientific age whose useful functions, such as they were, have been taken over at last by genuine sciences. What were once ‘philosophical’ questions have now been transmuted, allegedly, into questions for more specialised modes of scientific inquiry, with their own distinctive methodological principles and theoretical foundations.

Michael Ruse on Good and Bad Arguments


I won’t say I accept the ontological argument for the existence of God — the argument that derives God’s existence from his essence — but I do like it (it is so clever) and I am prepared to stand up for it when Dawkins dismisses it with scorn rather than good reasons. In part this is a turf war. I am a professional philosopher. I admire immensely thinkers like Anselm and Descartes and am proud to be one of them, however minor and inadequate in comparison. I am standing up for my own. In part, this is political. Religion is a big thing in America, and often not a very good big thing. I don’t think you are going to counter the bad just by going over the top, like in the Battle of the Somme. I think you have to reach out over no-man’s land to the trenches on the other side and see where we can agree and hope to move forward. ¶ I should say that my Quaker childhood — as in everything I do and think — is tremendously important here. I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that. Finally, I just don’t like bad arguments.

Michael Shermer on Placeholders for Mysteries


Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to state that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” and “paranormal” just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest. ¶ This is what normally happens in science. Mysteries once thought to be supernatural or paranormal happenings — such as astronomical or meteorological events — are incorporated into science once their causes are understood. For example, when cosmologists reference “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters along with the expansion of the universe, they do not intend these descriptors to be causal explanations. Dark energy and dark matter are merely cognitive conveniences until the actual sources of the energy and matter are discovered. When religious believers invoke miracles and acts of creation ex nihilo, that is the end of the search for them, whereas for scientists the identification of such mysteries is only the beginning. Science picks up where theology leaves off.

John G. West on Scientism and Eugenics


[T]he idea that the current scientific consensus on any topic deserves slavish deference betrays stunning ignorance of the history of science. Time and again, scientists have shown themselves just as capable of being blinded by fanaticism, prejudice, and error as anyone else. Perhaps the most egregious example in American history was the eugenics movement, the ill-considered crusade to breed better human beings. During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and progress.” Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science.

The Devil’s Delusion


Militant atheism is on the rise. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have dominated bestseller lists with books denigrating religious belief as dangerous foolishness. And these authors are merely the leading edge of a far larger movement – one that now includes much of the scientific community. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.” A secular Jew, Berlinski nonetheless delivers a biting defense of religious thought. An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics and the sciences, he turns the scientific community’s cherished skepticism back on itself, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions. ~ Product Description

Breaking the Spell


In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ("Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future"). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion. ~ Publishers Weekly

Richard Dawkins on Just Plain Truth


It is simply true that the sun is hotter than the earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification, not temporary approximations of an ever elusive truth, not local truths that might be denied in another culture. They are just plain true. It is forever true that DNA is a double helix, true that if you and a chimpanzee (or an octopus or a kangaroo) trace your ancestors back far enough, you will eventually hit a shared ancestor.

Colin McGinn on the Grammar of Scientific Explanation


Can we gain any deeper insight into what makes the problem of consciousness run against the grain of our thinking? Are our modes of theorizing about the world of the wrong shape to extend to the nature of the mind? I think we can discern a characteristic structure possessed by successful theories, a structure that is unsuitable for explaining consciousness. … It there a “grammar” to science that fits the physical world but becomes shaky when applied to the mental world? ¶ Perhaps the most basic aspect of thought is the operation of combination. This is the way in which we think of complex entities as resulting from the arrangement of simpler parts. There are three aspects to this basic idea: the atoms we start with, the laws we use to combine them, and the resulting complexes … I think it is clear that this mode of understanding is central to what we think of as scientific theory; our scientific faculty involves representing the world in this combinatorial style.



The biologist Edward O. Wilson is a rare scientist: having over a long career made signal contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology, he has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. The result of his lifelong, wide-ranging investigations is Consilience (the word means “a jumping together,” in this case of the many branches of human knowledge), a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” In making his synthetic argument, Wilson examines the ways (rightly and wrongly) in which science is done, puzzles over the postmodernist debates now sweeping academia, and proposes thought-provoking ideas about religion and human nature. He turns to the great evolutionary biologists and the scholars of the Enlightenment for case studies of science properly conducted, considers the life cycles of ants and mountain lions, and presses, again and again, for rigor and vigor to be brought to bear on our search for meaning. The time is right, he suggests, for us to understand more fully that quest for knowledge, for “Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us…. Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” Wilson’s wisdom, eloquently expressed in the pages of this grand and lively summing-up, will be of much help in that search. ~

Thomas Nagel on Cosmic Authority


My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enable modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and desiring as fundamental features of the world. Instead they become epiphenomena, generated incidentally by a process that can be entirely explained by the operation of the nonteleogical laws of physics on the material of which we and our environments are all composed. There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at all, but it seems to be less alarming to most atheists.

Willard V. Quine on Naturalism, Science, and Testability


In science itself I certainly want to include the farthest flights of physics and cosmology, as well as experimental psychology, history, and the social sciences. Also, mathematics, insofar at least as it is applied, for it is indispensable to natural science. What then am I excluding as “some prior philosophy,” and why? Descartes’ dualism between mind and body is called metaphysics, but it could as well be reckoned as science, however false. He even had a causal theory of the interaction of mind and body through the pineal gland. If I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific positions as quarks and black holes. What then have I banned under the name of prior philosophy? ¶ Demarcation is not my purpose. My point in the characterization of naturalism … is just that the most we can reasonably seek in support of an inventory and description of reality is testability of it observable consequences in the time-honored hypothetico-deductive way — whereof more anon. Naturalism need not cast aspersion on irresponsible metaphysics, however deserved, much less on soft sciences or on the speculative reaches of the hard ones, except insofar as a firmer basis is claimed for them than the experimental method itself.

Stephen Jay Gould on an Interdisciplinary Exercise


Clearly, I believe in this interdisciplinary exercise, and I accept the enlightenment that intelligent outsiders can bring to the puzzles of a discipline. The differences in approach are so fascinating—and each valid in its own realm. Philosophers will dissect the logic of an argument, an exercise devoid of empirical content, well past the point of glaze over scientific eyes (and here I blame scientists for their parochiality, for all the world’s empirics cannot save an argument falsely formulated). Lawyers face a still different problem that makes their enterprise even more divergent from science—and for two major reasons.

Stephen Jay Gould on Objectivity and Science


Twenty-five years after N. R. Hanson, T. S. Kuhn, and so many other historians and philosophers began to map out the intricate interpenetrations of fact and theory, and of science and society, the rationale for such a simplistic one-way flow from observation to theory has become entirely bankrupt. Science may differ from other intellectual activity in its focus upon the construction and operation of natural objects. But scientists are not robotic inducing machines that infer structures of explanation only from regularities observed in natural phenomena (assuming, as I doubt, that such a style of reasoning could ever achieve success in principle). Scientists are human beings, immersed in culture, and struggling with all the curious tools of inference that mind permits — from metaphor and analogy to all the flights of fruitful imagination that C. S. Pierce called ‘abduction.’ Prevailing culture is not always the enemy identified by whiggish history­in this case the theological restrictions on time that led early geologists to miracle-mongering in the catastrophist mode. Culture can potentiate as well as constrain­as in Darwin’s translation of Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economic models into biology as the theory of natural selection. In any case, objective minds to not exist outside culture, so we must make the best of our ineluctable embedding.

Willard V. Quine on Objectivity


The philosopher’s task differs from the others’, then, in detail; but in no such drastic way as those suppose who imagine for the philosopher a vantage point outside the conceptual scheme that he takes in charge. There is no such cosmic exile. He cannot study and revise the fundamental conceptual scheme of science and common sense without having some conceptual scheme, whether the same or another no less in need of philosophical scrutiny, in which to work. He can scrutinize and improve the system from within, appealing to coherence and simplicity;but this is the theoretician’s method generally. He has recourse to semantic assent, but so has the scientist. And if the theoretical scientist in his remote way is bound to save the eventual connections with non-verbal stimulation, the philosopher in his remoter way is bound to save them too. True, no experiment may be expected to settle an ontological issue; but this is only because such issues are connected with surface irritations in such multifarious ways, through such a maze of intervening theory.

C.S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery


Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.

Is Free Will A Pseudo-Problem?


In the days when the Verifiability Principle was accepted by its devotees as a secure philosophical truth, one could understand, though one might not agree with, the sweeping claim that many of the traditional problems of philosophy had been shown to be mere ‘pseudo-problems’. It was easy to see how, given the Principle’s validity, most of the leading questions which agitated our forefathers in metaphysics, in ethics, and in theology, automatically become nonsensical questions. What is perplexing, however, is that despite the pretty generally acknowledged deterioration in the Principle’s status to that of a convenient methodological postulate, the attitude to these same questions seems to have changed but little. To admit that the Verifiability Principle is not an assured truth entails the admission that a problem can no longer be dismissed as meaningless simply on the ground that it cannot be stated in a way which satisfies the Principle. Whether or not a problem is meaningless is now something that can only be decided after critical examination of the particular case on its own individual merits. But the old antipathies seem in large measure to have survived the disappearance of their logical basis. One gets the impression that for at least many thinkers with Positivist sympathies the ‘liquidation’ of a large, if unspecified, group of traditional philosophic problems is still established fact. If that impression is mistaken, well and good. One may then hope for an early recrudescence of interest in certain problems that have too long suffered the consequences of an unhappy tabu. If the impression is correct, a real service would be done to philosophy if it were plainly stated which of the traditional problems are still regarded as pseudo-problems, and what are the reasons, old or new, for passing this sentence upon them. The smoke of old battles, perhaps understandably, darkens the philosophic air, to the considerable inconvenience of all concerned.

A.J. Ayer on the Probability of God


What is not so generally recognized is that there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable. Yet this also is easily shown. For if the existence of such a god were probably, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential proposition which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone. But in fact this is not possible. It is sometimes claimed, indeed, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. But if the sentence “God exists” entails no more than that certain types of phenomena occur in certain sequences, then to assert the existence of a god will be simply equivalent to asserting that there is the requisite regularity in nature; and no religious man would admit that this was all he intended to assert in asserting the existence of a god. He would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being who might be know through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestation. But in that case the term “god” is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.

G.K. Chesterton on the Tyranny of Scientism


The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that
really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen — that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics. Vaccination, in its hundred
years of experiment, has been disputed almost as much as baptism in its approximate two thousand. But it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism.

Thomas Reid on Rationalism and Empiricism in the Philosophy of Mind


There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.

Thomas Reid on Induction and Hume’s Skepticism



Of probable Reasoning.

The field of demonstration, as has been observed, is necessary truth; the field of probable reasoning is contingent truth, not what necessarily must be at all times, but what is, or was, or shall be.

No contingent truth is capable of strict demonstration; but necessary truths may sometimes have probable evidence.

Dr Wallis discovered many important mathematical truths, by that kind of induction which draws a general conclusion from particular premises. This is not strict demonstration, but, in some cases, gives as full conviction as demonstration itself; and a man may be certain, that a truth is demonstrable before it ever has been demonstrated. In other cases, a mathematical proposition may have such probable evidence from induction or analogy, as encourages the Mathematician to investigate its demonstration. But still the reasoning proper to mathematical and other necessary truths, is demonstration; and that which is proper to contingent truths, is probable reasoning.

These two kinds of reasoning differ in other respects. In demonstrative reasoning, one argument is as good as a thousand. One demonstration may be more elegant than another; it may be more easily comprehended, or it may be more subservient to some purpose beyond the present. On any of these accounts it may deserve a preference: But then it is sufficient by itself; it needs no aid from another; it can receive none. To add more demonstrations of the fame conclusion, would be a kind of tautology in reasoning; because one demonstration, clearly comprehended, gives all the evidence we are capable of receiving.

The strength of probable reasoning, for the most part, depends not upon any one argument, but upon many, which unite their force, and lead to the fame conclusion. Any one of them by itself would be insufficient to convince; but the whole taken together may have a force that is irresistible, so that to desire more evidence would be absurd. Would any man seek new arguments to prove that there were such persons as King Charles the First, or Oliver Cromwell?

Such evidence may be compared to a rope made up of many slender filaments twisted together. The rope has strength more than sufficient to bear the stress laid upon it, though no one of the filaments of which it w composed would be sufficient for that purpose.


It is a common observation, that it is unreasonable to require demonstration for things which do not admit of it. It is no less unreasonable to require reasoning of any kind for things which are known without reasoning. All reasoning must be grounded upon truths which are known without reasoning. In every branch of real knowledge there must be first principles whose truth is known intuitively, without reasoning, either probable or demonstrative. They are not grounded on reasoning, but all reasoning is grounded on them. It has been shown, that there are first principles of necessary truths, and first principles of contingent truths. Demonstrative reasoning is grounded upon the former, and probable reasoning upon the latter.

That we may not be embarrassed by the ambiguity of words, it is proper to observe, that there is a popular meaning of probable evidence, which ought not to be confounded with the philosophical meaning, above explained.

In common language, probable evidence is considered as an inferior degree of evidence, and is opposed to certainty: So that what is certain is more than probable, and what is only probable is not certain. Philosophers consider probable evidence, not as a degree, but as a species of evidence which is opposed, not to certainty, but to another species of evidence called demonstration.

Demonstrative evidence has no degrees; but probable evidence, taken in the philosophical sense, has all degrees, from the very least, to the greatest which we call certainty.

That there is such a city as Rome, I am as certain as of any proposition in Euclid ; but the evidence is not demonstrative, but of that kind which Philosophers call probable. Yet, in common language, it would found oddly to fay, it is probable there is such a city as Rome, because it would imply some degree of doubt or uncertainty.

Taking probable evidence, therefore, in the philosophical sense, as it is opposed to demonstrative, it may have any degrees of evidence, from the least to the greatest.

I think, in most cafes, we measure the degrees of evidence by the effect they have upon a found understanding, when comprehended clearly and without prejudice. Every degree of evidence perceived by the mind, produces a proportioned degree of assent or belief. The judgment may be in perfect suspense between two contradictory opinions, when there is no evidence for either, or equal evidence for both. The least preponderancy on one side inclines the judgment in proportion. Belief is mixed with doubt, more or less, until we come to the highest degree of evidence, when all doubt vanishes, and the belief is firm and immoveable. This degree of evidence, the highest the human faculties can attain, we call certainty.

Chap. in. but js itself of different kinds. The chief of these, I shall mention., without pretending to make a complete enumeration.

The first kind is that of human testimony, upon which the greatest part of human knowledge is built.

The faith of history depends upon it, as well as the judgment of solemn tribunals, with regard to mens acquired rights, and with regard to their guilt or innocence when they are charged with, crimes. A great part of the business of the Judge, of Counsel at the bar, of the Historian, the Critic, and the Antiquarian, is to canvass and weigh this kind of evidence ; and no man can act with common prudence in the ordinary occurrences of life, who has not some competent judgment of it.

The belief we give to testimony in many cases is not solely grounded upon the veracity of the testifier. In a single testimony, we consider the motives.a man might have to falsify. If there be no appearance of any such motive, much more if there be motives on the other side, his testimony has weight independent of his moral character. If the/ testimony be circumstantial, we consider how far the circumstances agree together, and with things that are known. It is so very difficult to fabricate a story, which cannot be detected by a judicious examination of the circumstances, that it acquires evidence, by being able to bear such a trial. There is an art in detecting false evidence in judicial proceedings, well known to able judges and barristers; so that I believe few false witnesses leave the bar without suspicion of their guilt..

When there is an agreement of many witnesses, in a great variety of circumstances, without the possibility of a previous con^ cert, the evidence may be equal to that of demonstration*

A second kind of probable evidence, is the authority of those who are good judges of the point in question. The supreme court


of judicature of the British nation, is often determined by the opinion of lawyers in a point of law, of physicians in a point of medicine, and of other artists, in what relates to their several professions. And, in the common affairs of life, we frequently rely upon the judgment of others, in points of, which we are not proper judges ourselves.

A third kind of probable evidence, is that by which we recognise the identity of things, and persons of our acquaintance: That two swords, two horses, or two persons, may be so perfectly alike, as not to be distinguishable by those to whom they are best known, cannot be shown to be impossible. But we learn either from nature, or from experience, that it never happens; or so, very rarely, that a person or thing, well known to us, is immediately recognised without any doubt, when we perceive the marks or signs by which we were in use to distinguish it from all other individuals of the kind..

This evidence we rely upon in the most important affairs of life; and, by this evidence, the identity, both of things and of persons, is determined in courts of judicature.

A fourth kind of probable evidence, is that which we have of mens future actions and conduct, from the general principles of action in man, or from our knowledge of the individuals..



Notwithstanding the folly and vice that is to be found among men, there is a certain degree of prudence and probity which we rely upon in every man that is not insane. If it were not so, no man would be safe in the company of another, and there could be no society among mankind. If men were, as much disposed to • hurt as to do good, to lie as to speak truth, they could not live together; they would keep at as great distance from one another as possible, and the race would soon perish.


We expect that men will take some care of themselves, of their family, friends, and reputation: That they will not injure others without some temptation: That they will have some gratitude for good offices, and some resentment of injuries.

Such maxims with regard to human conduct are the foundation of all political reasoning, and of common prudence in the conduct of life. Hardly can a man form any project in public or in private life, which does not depend upon the conduct of other men, as well as his own, and which does not go upon the supposition that men will act such a part in such circumstances. This evidence may be probable in a very high degree, but can never be demonstrative. The best concerted project may fail, and wife counsels may be frustrated, because some individual acted a part which it would have been against all reason to expect.

Another kind of probable evidence, the counterpart of the last, is that by which we collect mens characters and designs from their actions, speech, and other external signs.

We fee not mens hearts, nor the principles by which they are actuated ; but there are external signs of their principles and dispositions, which, though not certain, may sometimes be more trusted than their professions; and it is from external signs that we must draw all the knowledge we can attain of “men’s characters.

The next kind of probable evidence I mention, is that which Mathematicians call the probability of chances.

We attribute some events to chance, because we know only the remote cause which must produce some one event of a number; but know not the more immediate cause which determines a particular event of that number in preference to the others.


I think all the chances about which we reason in mathematics CHAP. Hi. are of this kind. Thus, in throwing a just die upon a table, we fay it is an equal chance which of the six sides shall be turned up; because neither the person who throws, nor the bystanders know the precise measure of force and direction necessary to turn up any one side rather than another. There are here therefore six events, one of which must happen; and as all are supposed to have equal probability, the probability of any one side being turned up, the ace, for instance, is as one to the remaining number five.

The probability of turning up two aces with two dice is as one to thirty-five; because here there are thirty-six events, each of which has equal probability.

Upon such principles as these, the doctrine of chances has furnished a field of demonstrative reasoning of great extent, although the events about which this reasoning is employed be not necessary, but contingent, and be not certain, but probable.

This may seem to contradict a principle before advanced, that contingent truths are not capable of demonstration; but it does not: For, in the mathematical reasonings about chance, the conclusion demonstrated, is not, that such an event shall happen, but that the probability of its happening bears such a ratio to the probability of its failing; and this conclusion is necessary upon the suppositions on which it is grounded.

The last kind of probable evidence I shall mention, is that by which the known laws of Nature have been discovered, and the effects which have been produced by them in former ages, or which may be expected in time to come.

The laws of Nature are the rules by which the Supreme Being governs the world. We deduce them only from facts that fall within our own observation, or are properly attested by those who have observed them.

The knowledge of some of the laws of Nature is necessary to all men in the conduct of life. These are soon discovered even by savages. They know that fire burns, that water drowns, that bodies gravitate towards the earth. They know that day and night, summer and winter, regularly succeed each other. As far back as their experience and information reach, they know that these have happened regularly; and, upon this ground, they are led, by the constitution of human nature, to expect that they will happen in time to come, in like circumstances.

The knowledge which the Philosopher attains of the laws of Nature differs from that of the vulgar, not in the first principles on which it is grounded, but in its extent and accuracy. He collects with care the phenomena that lead to the fame conclusion, and compares them with those that seem to contradict or to limit’ it. He observes the circumstances on which every phenomenon depends, and distinguishes them carefully from those that are accidentally conjoined with it. He puts natural bodies in various situations, and applies them to one another in various ways, oh purpose to observe the effect; and thus acquires from his fenses a more extensive knowledge of the course of Nature in a short time, than could be collected by casual observation in many ages.

But what is the result of his laborious researches? It is, that, as far as he has been able to observe, such things have always happened in such circumstances, and such bodies have always been found to have such properties. These are matters of fact, attested by fense, memory and testimony, just as the few facts which the vulgar know are attested to them.

And what conclusions does the Philosopher draw from the facts he has collected? They are, that like events have happened in former times in like circumstances, and will happen in time to come; and these conclusions are built on the very fame ground on which the simple rustic concludes that the fun will rife to-morrow.


Facts reduced to general rules, and the consequences of those general rules, are all that we really know of the material world. And the evidence that such general rules have no exceptions, as well as the evidence that they will be the fame in time to come as they have been in time past, can never be demonstrative. It is only that species of evidence which Philosophers call probable. General rules may have exceptions or limitations which no man ever had occasion to observe. The laws of Nature may be changed by him who established them. But we are led by our constitution to rely upon their continuance with as little doubt as if it was demonstrable.

I pretend not to have made a complete enumeration of all the kinds of probable evidence; but those I have mentioned are sufficient to show, that the far greatest part, and the most interesting part of our knowledge, must rest upon evidence of this kind; and that many things are certain for which we have only that kind of evidence which Philosophers call probable.

David Hume on Hard Reality vs. Faith


We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.