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Miracles and ‘Experimental Theism’

Juan Gomez writes…

Greg Dawes pointed out to me a passage in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion where we find the term ‘experimental theism.’ In this text, Hume seems to be referring to an argument given by one of the characters in the dialogue, Cleanthes, where the principle “like effects prove like causes” functions as a premise in an argument for a Deity. But what is really striking is that the term “experimental theism” nicely describes the approach George Turnbull takes in his religious texts, the Principles of Christian Philosophy (1749) and the earlier Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Connexion Between the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ (1731). In this post I want to look at the earlier religious text and examine Turnbull’s exposition of what I believe is his ‘experimental theism’.

Turnbull constantly refers to the way natural philosophy is practised in order to adopt the same methods in inquiries into any kind of knowledge at all, whether moral or natural (see my previous posts here and here). His text on the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ is no exception. The interesting aspect of this text is that Turnbull draws an analogy between experiments and miracles. His argument begins by explaining how we come to know the laws of matter and motion:

    It is by experiment, that the natural philosopher shews the properties of the air, for example, or of any other body. That is, the philosopher shews certain effects which infer certain qualities: or in other words, he shews certain proper samples of the qualities he pretends the air, or any other body that he is reasoning about, hath. Thus is it we know bodies gravitate, attract, that the air is ponerous and elastic. Thus it is, in one word, we come to the knowledge of the properties of any body, and of the general laws of matter and motion.

This is the same way we can know if someone possesses a particular, skill, power, knowledge, or character:

    ’Tis by proper samples or experiments only of power and knowledge, that we can be assured, one actually possesses a certain power of knowledge. Just so it is only by samples or experiments, that we can judge of one’s honesty, benevolence, or good intention.

In the same way, “It is from the works of the Supreme Being, that we infer his infinite wisdom, power and goodness; as from so many samples and experiments, by which we may safely judge of the whole.” This is way of proving through ‘samples and experiments’ is what allows Turnbull to draw the connection between the Doctrines and the miracles. The miracles are sufficient proof of the doctrines, since they are the samples and experiments that show that Jesus has the set of powers entailed by the three kinds of doctrines of Christianity Turnbull identifies: the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, of resurrection of the dead, and of the forgiveness of sins.

Turnbull begins by examinig the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. He tells us that Jesus has claimed that he has the power to raise the dead. How can we tell if this is the case or not? Well we need samples and experiments:

    It was necessary to give samples, or experiments, of this power he claimed. And accordingly he raised from the dead; and gave power to his apostles to raise from the dead. And to put his pretensions beyond all doubt, he himself submitted to death, that he might give an incontestible proof of his being actually possessed of that power, by rising himself from the dead the third day, according to his own prediction.

Within this theory, miracles are analogous to the experiments and facts that work as proof for theories about the natural world. Turnbull examines the other two kinds of doctrine in a similar manner and concludes that Jesus Christ has given proper proof of having the powers he has claimed to have, and as evidence Turnbull cites the many passages in the New Testament where we find anecdotes of the miracles performed by Jesus Christ. The analogy is further explained when Turnbull considers the fact that we cannot understand the nature of miracles. It is not necessary that we understand the nature of the miracle, since it is still proof of the power of performing such miracle. This is the case with attraction in natural philosophy:

    Attraction, say all the philosophers, is above our comprehension: they cannot explain how bodies attract: but experience or samples certainly prove that there is attraction. And proper experiments or samples, must equally prove the power of raising the dead, tho’ we do not understand, or cannot explain, that power.

There are many interesting aspects in Turnbull’s religious thought worth looking into, but for now I’ll leave you with the few snippets provided here. The most relevant feature of Turnbull’s explanation of miracles is that it shows how committed he was to applying the experimental method to any sort of inquiry. He did this in moral philosophy, and here he does it regarding religion. Besides the use of the rhetoric of the experimental philosophy and the consideration of miracles as experiments, he even concludes the text with a list of queries, providing us with some insight of what a work of ‘experimental Theism’ would look like.

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