§15. Science and Extraordinary Phenomena

87. Science is from the nature of its procedure confined to the investigation of the ordinary course of nature. I do not mean that it cannot investigate individual objects, such as the earth. But all its explanations of such objects must be limited to the supposition that they have come about in the ordinary course of nature. A statistical result may be obtained.

88. We may find that such and such a proportion of calves have five legs. But we never can conclude with any probability that the ratio is strictly zero; and even if we knew that the proportion of men with golden thighs is exactly zero, that would be no argument at all against Pythagoras having had a golden thigh. For something might be true of one man, or any number of men, and yet might occur in the long run in a finite number of cases out of an infinite series. Now a finite number divided by infinity is exactly zero. That Pythagoras had a golden thigh is the testimony of history. It is asserted by Aristotle, of all possible authorities the highest, by both Porphyry and Jamblichus after Nicomachus, by Herodotus, by Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, Aelian, Apollonius,2) etc. This is far stronger testimony than we have for the resurrection of Jesus. Are we then to admit as a part of the science of history that Pythagoras had a golden thigh?

89. To do so would be to make a retroductive inference. Now a retroductive conclusion is only justified by its explaining an observed fact. An explanation is a syllogism of which the major premiss, or rule, is a known law or rule of nature, or other general truth; the minor premiss, or case, is the hypothesis or retroductive conclusion, and the conclusion, or result, is the observed (or otherwise established) fact. Such an explanation, in this case, would be like this:


Every fact about Pythagoras (unless kept secret or insignificant) would be reported by his ancient biographers.

That Pythagoras had a golden thigh was a fact about Pythagoras neither secret nor insignificant.

.·. That Pythagoras had a golden thigh would be reported by all his ancient biographers.


90. But this syllogism may be condemned at once on the ground that it supposes we have statistical knowledge about such kinds of facts as are quite contrary to the usual course of nature. If the reply be made that it could make in regard to the reporting of the fact no difference whether it were a natural one or not, I rejoin, that granting that, it is not to the purpose. It only goes to show that there is no difference between natural and supernatural facts in this respect; from which the only just inference is that no such proposition can be known even in respect to natural facts. This, indeed, is the case. We cannot say that every remarkable public fact about Pythagoras would be reported, but only that every phenomenon would be told as it appeared to people in an almost primitive state of civilization. Nobody can think that the golden thigh was treated as a modern assayer would treat a gold brick. It was probably flexible and therefore its golden appearance was superficial. One of these days, we may find out something about the ancient Persians, Chorasmians, or Brahmins which may make this story significant. At present, it only illustrates the impossibility of science making any assertion about a fact out of the course of nature. Pythagoras was certainly a wonderful man. We have no right, at all, to say that supernal powers had not put a physical mark upon him as extraordinary as his personality. Science can no more deny a miracle than it can assert one.

91. But although science cannot infer any particular violation of the ordinary course of nature, it may very well be that it should find evidence that such violations are so frequent and usual that this fact is itself a part of the ordinary course of nature. For that reason, it is perfectly proper that science should inquire, for example, into the evidences of the fulfillment of prayers, etc. That is something open to experimental inquiry; and until such inquiry has been instituted nobody is entitled to any opinion whatever, or any bias, as to its result.

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