RECORD: S118.1 Wallace, A. R. 1866. The scientific aspect of the supernatural, I. English Leader 2 (4): 59-60.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker and John van Wyhe. RN1

NOTE: See the further parts here.

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A MIRACLE is generally defined to be a violation or suspension of a law of nature, and as the laws of nature are the most complete expression of the accumulated experiences of the human race, Hume was of opinion that no amount of human testimony could prove a miracle. Strauss bases the whole argument of his elaborate work on the same ground, that no amount of testimony coming to us through the depth of eighteen centuries can prove that those laws were ever subverted, which the unanimous experience of men now shows to be invariable. Modern science has placed this argument on a wider basis, by showing the interdependence of all these laws, and by rendering it inconceiveable that force and motion, any more than matter, can be absolutely originated or destroyed. Prof. Tyndall, in his paper on The Constitution of the Universe in the Fortnightly Review, says, "A miracle is strictly defined as an invasion of the law of the conservation of energy. To create or annihilate matter would be deemed on all hands a miracle; the creation or annihilation of energy would be equally a miracle to those who understand the principle of conservation." Mr. Lecky in his great work on "Rationalism" shows us that during the last two or three centuries, there has been a continually increasing disposition to adopt secular rather than theological views, in history, politics, and science. The great physical discoveries of the last twenty years have pushed forward this movement with still greater rapidity, and have led to a firm conviction in the minds of most men [of education, that the universe is governed by wide and immutable laws, under which all phenomena whatever may be classed, and to which no fact in nature can ever be opposed. If therefore we define miracle as a contravention of any one of these laws, it must be admitted that modern science has no place for it, and we can not be surprised at the many and varied attempts by writers of widely different opinions, to account for or explain away all recorded facts in history or religion, which they believe could only have happened on the supposition of miraculous or supernatural agency. This task has been by no means an easy one. The amount of direct testimony to miracles in all ages is very great. The belief in miracles has been, till very recently, almost universal, and it may safely be asserted that, of those who are, on general grounds, most firmly convinced of the impossibility of events deemed miraculous, few if any have thoroughly and honestly investigated the nature and amount of the evidence that those events really happened. On this subject, however, I do not now intend to enter. It appears to me that the very basis of the whole question has been to some extent misstated and misunderstood, and that there are, in every case of supposed miracle, alternative solutions which remove some of those insuperable difficulties which on the ordinary view undoubtedly attach to them. The first and simplest of these solutions is, when

The apparent miracle may be due to some yet undiscovered law of nature.

Many phenomena of the simplest kind would appear supernatural to men having limited knowledge. Ice and snow might easily be made to appear so to inhabitants of the tropics. The ascent of a balloon would be supernatural to persons who knew nothing of the cause of its upward motion; and we may well conceive that, if no gas lighter than atmospheric air had ever been discovered, and if in the minds of all (philosophers and chemists included), air had become indissolubly connected with the idea of the lightest form of terrestrial matter, the testimony of those who had seen a balloon ascend might be discredited, on the grounds that a law of nature must be suspended, in order that anything could freely ascend through the atmosphere in direct contravention to the law of gravitation.

A century ago, a telegram from 3000 miles' distance, or a photograph taken in five seconds, would not have been believed possible, and would not have been credited on testimony, except by the ignorant and superstitious who believed in miracles. Five centuries ago, the effects produced by the modern telescope and microscope would have been deemed miraculous, and if testified by travellers only as existing in China or Japan, would certainly have been disbelieved. The power of dipping the hand into melted metals unhurt, is a remarkable case of an effect of natural laws appearing to contravene another natural law; and it is one which certainly might have been, and probably has been regarded as a miracle and the fact believed or disbelieved, not according to the amount or quality of the testimony to it, but according to the credulity or supposed superior knowledge of the recipient. About twenty years ago, the fact that surgical operations could be performed on patients in the mesmeric trance without their being conscious of pain, was strenuously denied by most scientific and medical men in this country, and the patients, and sometimes the operators, denounced as impostors; the asserted phenomenon was believed to be contrary to the laws of nature. Now, probably every man of intelligence believes the facts, and it is seen that there must be some as yet unknown law of which they are a consequence. When Castellet informed Réaumur that he had reared perfect silkworms from the eggs laid by a virgin moth, the answer was Ex nihilo nihil fit, and the fact was disbelieved. It was contrary to one of the widest and best established laws of nature; yet it is now universally admitted to be true, and the supposed law ceases to be universal. These few illustrations will enable us to understand how some reputed miracles may have been due to yet unknown laws of nature. We know so little of what nerve or life-force really is, how it acts or can act, and in what degree it is capable of transmission from one human being to another, that it would be indeed rash to affirm that under no exceptional conditions could phenomena, such as the apparently miraculous cure of many diseases, or perception through other channels than the ordinary senses, ever take place.

But, it will be said, it is only the least important class of miracles that can possibly be explained in this manner. In many cases dead matter is said to have been endowed with force and motion, or to have been suddenly increased immensely in weight and bulk; things altogether non-terrestrial are said to have appeared on earth, and the orderly progress of the great phenomena of nature is affirmed to have been suddenly interrupted. To render any of these things intelligible or possible from the point of view of modern science, we must have recourse to another postulate, which we may state as follows:—

It is possible that intelligent beings may exist, capable of acting on matter, though they themselves are uncognisable directly by our senses.

That intelligent beings may exist around and among us, unperceived during our whole lives, and yet capable under certain conditions of making their presence known by acting on matter, will be inconceivable to some, and will be doubted by many more, but we venture to say, that no man acquainted with the latest discoveries and the highest speculations of modern science, will deny its possibility. The difficulty which this conception presents, will be of quite a different nature from that which obstructs our belief in the possibility of miracle, when defined as a contravention of those great natural laws which the whole tendency of modern science declares to be absolute and immutable. The existence of sentient beings uncognisable by our senses, would no more contravene these laws, than did the discovery of the true nature of the Foraminifera, those structureless gelatinous organisms which exhibit so many of the higher phenomena of animal life without any of that differentiation of parts or specialisation of organs which the necessary functions of animal life seem to require. The existence of such preterhuman intelligences if proved, would only add another and more striking illustration than any we have yet received, of how small a portion of the great cosmos our senses give us cognisance. Even such sceptics on the subject of the supernatural as Hume or Strauss, would probably not deny the validity of the conception of such intelligences, or the abstract possibility of their existence. They would perhaps say, "We have no sufficient proof of the fact; the difficulty of conceiving their mode of existence is great; most intelligent men pass their whole lives in total ignorance of any such unseen intelligences; it is amongst the ignorant and superstitious alone that the belief in them prevails. As philosophers we cannot deny the possibility you postulate, but we must have the most clear and satisfactory proof before we can receive it as a fact."

But it may be argued, even if such beings should exist, they could consist only of the most diffused and subtle forms of matter. How then could they act upon ponderable bodies, how produce effects at all comparable to those which constitute so many reputed miracles? These objectors may be

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reminded, that all the most powerful and universal forces of nature are now referred to minute vibrations of an almost infinitely attenuated form of matter; and that, by the grandest generalisations of modern science, the most varied natural phenomena have been traced back to these recondite forces. Light, heat, electricity, magnetism, and probably vitality and gravitation, are believed to be but "modes of motion" of a space-filling ether; and there is not a single manifestation of force or development of beauty, but is derived from one or other of these. The whole surface of the globe has been modelled and remodelled, mountains have been cut down to plains, and plains have been grooved and furrowed into mountains and valleys, all by the power of etherial heat vibrations set in motion by the sun. Metallic veins and glittering crystals buried deep down under miles of rock and mountain, have been formed by a distinct set of forces developed by vibrations of the same ether. Every green blade and bright blossom that gladdens the surface of the earth, owes its power of growth and life to those vibrations we call heat and light, while in animals and man the powers of that wondrous telegraph whose battery is the brain and whose wires are nerves, are probably due to the manifestation of a yet totally distinct "mode of motion" in the same all- pervading ether. In some cases we are able to perceive the effects of these recondite forces yet more directly. We see a magnet, without contact, or impact of any ponderable matter capable to our imagination of exerting force, yet overcoming gravity and inertia, raising and moving solid bodies. We behold electricity in the form of lightning riving the solid oak, throwing down lofty towers and steeples, or destroying man and beast, sometimes without a wound. And these manifestations of force are produced by a form of matter so impalpable, that only by its effects can it ever be known to us. With such phenomena everywhere around us, we must admit that if intelligences of what we may call an etherial nature do exist, we have no reason to deny them the use of those etherial forces which are the everflowing fountain from which all force, all motion, all life upon the earth originate. Our limited senses and intellects enable us to receive impressions from, and to trace some of the varied manifestations of etherial motion under phases so distinct as light, heat, electricity, and gravity; but no thinker will for a moment assert that there can be no other possible modes of action of this primal element. To a race of blind men, how utterly inconceivable would be the faculty of vision, how absolutely unknowable the very existence of light and its myriad manifestations of form and beauty. Without this one sense, our knowledge of nature and of the universe could not be a thousandth part of what it is. By its absence our very intellect would have been dwarfed, we cannot say to what extent; and we must almost believe that our moral nature could never have been fully developed without it, and that we could hardly have attained to the dignity and supremacy of man. Yet it is possible and even probable that there may be modes of sensation as superior to all ours, as is sight to that of touch and hearing. In the next chapter we shall consider the bearings of this view of the subject on the more recent developments of so-called supernaturalism.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (

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