“Unknown Forces” to explain the Supernatural

September 7, 2021 • 14 min

From Lourdes, A History of Its Apparitions and Cures, page n175

We now reach the last resource of our adversaries. The man who no longer knows what to reply to others and to himself, and yet is determined not to acknowledge supernatural causes, takes refuge under the convenient shelter of unknown forces.

One day I was present at a little contest where the vanquished man ended by having recourse to this strategy. I will relate the scene, for it is instructive.

A doctor who was not exclusively engaged in medicine, and a theologian who was not exclusively occupied with theology, happened to meet at Lourdes. It was on the banks of the Gave, near the Grotto, in the beautiful avenue of Carolina poplars which borders the stream.

To the right the foaming stream rushes over great boulders, whilst to the left rises the wooded hill, where firs, plane trees, chestnut and lime trees grow in confusion, and amongst them all, in the spring-time, the acacia, which sheds its white flowers like sweet-smelling snow.

“Since you wish to have a chat, shall we sit here?” said the theologian, approaching a seat near the Gave.

And being of a literary turn, he added: “Perhaps you remember, in one of Plato’s dialogues, that the speakers sat down comfortably under the shadow of the plane trees.”

They sat down, therefore, and the conversation began. It naturally turned on the prodigies which were happening so frequently on every side. The doctor did not deny them, but he interpreted them in his own way.

However, he soon gave up trying to explain them by virtue of the cold water, for cold water works no miracles, as he well knew, and many sick people are cured without even entering the piscinas.

Gradually he yielded therapeutic suggestion, about which he happened to know very little, and whose effects he, like many of his brother doctors, had consequently much exaggerated.

Finally, at his wits end, he brought forward the argument of unknown forces, and here is, as nearly as possible, the conversation that took place.

Doctor: “After all is said and done, M. l’Abbé, what proves to you that natural forces, as yet unknown, do not work the extraordinary cures which you attribute directly to God?”

Theologian: “And to you, doctor, what proves the existence of these natural forces as yet unknown?”

Doctor: “Oh! Nothing, certainly. It is only a theory.”

Theologian: “Yes, but a bad one, a gratuitous theory, one not to be depended on a theory which does not rest on any kind of foundation, and has no excuse unless it be the necessity to remain true to your determination to deny a miracle. But the determination is not justifiable, my dear doctor. If you had not already formed your opinion in advance, I am sure you would never have thought of this airy theory, as fragile as one of those soap bubbles which are swollen out by the breath of a child.”

Doctor: “Perhaps. But even if my theory be gratuitous, what is there reprehensible about it?”

Theologian: “First, the mere fact of its being gratuitous, and then its authorising the wildest dreams of an overwrought imagination. For, allow me to talk nonsense for a minute, doctor: what would you say if I told you I believed that in another century men would be as tall as the Eiffel Tower?”

Doctor: “I should say that you were joking. You have only to consult a biologist, my dear M. l’Abbé, to be told you that the human embryo is incapable of such gigantic development.”

Theologian: “And I should reply: It is incapable of so developing according to actual laws. But I know a doctor, a friend of mine, an amiable and otherwise intelligent man, who believes in unknown laws, as soon as it is a question of facts that actual laws would oblige him to regard as miraculous, and thus to forego some fond but false opinion. If he has the right to establish a gratuitous hypothesis in favour of his prejudice, so have I, so have we all. Existing laws forbid us to believe in these unheard-of developments of our organism. But unknown forces! O biologist! These unknown forces! Those mysterious laws to be discovered in a far and distant future! Who could have foretold a century ago that we should be able to hear in Paris the voice of a friend at Marseilles? Who could have foretold? …”

Doctor: “I know the rest. It’s old and worn out; I have used it myself many times.”

Theologian: “But that is just why I use it; I use your weapons, I borrow your arguments, just to prove to you that they lead to absurdity. I beg your pardon, doctor, the word escaped me, but the idea is so true that you will, I am sure, excuse the one because of the other.”

Doctor: “But pray—go on.”

Theologian: “Well, supposing, for the sake of argument, that you saw a dead tree ooze blood under the axe, or a stone growing leaves and flowers. If now some one told you that this was perfectly natural, and that one day hidden forces of nature would be discovered in virtue whereof a stone might become a tree and a tree an animal?”

Doctor: “Oh! I should think he was pulling my leg, and should request him to desist.”

Theologian: “And rightly too. But still he would be merely stating a gratuitous hypothesis, contrary to all known laws, exactly as you are doing. Believe me, doctor, when a principle leads logically to such absurdities it stands condemned.”

Doctor: “You are somewhat severe, all the same, for I hold that much is to be allowed to avoid recognising the supernatural which offends both reason and science.”

Theologian: "Doctor, now you have betrayed yourself. What! you would rather admit inadmissible things, even absurdities, than admit a miracle? But surely you ought to except, surely you do except, what is absurd.

"As for reason and science, of which you seem so proud, it is I who am defending them now you are deserting their cause. For, in presence of the problem presented by the facts, I act as a mathematician with an equation: I believe human reason capable of finding the solution, and I therefore seek it. Whilst you, on the other hand, judge that human intelligence is not equal to the task. Like a child discouraged by a difficult sum, you say, ‘The answer is somewhere, but I cannot find it out.’ I am not going to try either, but shall just trust to luck. You could not proceed in a less scientific manner. Say, if you will, that my solution is wrong, and prove it so by your own. Or admit that human reason has more to expect from my efforts than from your inactivity, and do not pose as its champion. Moreover, if it were true that new and unknown laws may one day supersede the laws known to us, the present laws would be laws no longer, and consequently science, which is based on them, would not be worth a snap of the fingers. And as for poor human reason, having so long accepted errors as certain truths, it could no longer be deemed capable of distinguishing right from wrong—indeed, to admit that, it would have little to be proud of.

“Reason and science would thus have to be sacrificed. An impossible conclusion, my dear doctor, and one that proves the falsity of your hypothesis.”

Doctor: “I agree with you on this point, still we cannot deny, either you or I, that human intelligence does discover the most unexpected new laws from time to time.”

Theologian: "Ah, you are going back on to the old track—steam, telegraphy, telephony. … I thought you did not want to mention these again.

"Well, but just notice, doctor, that these so-called new laws are often but new applications of very old laws. And when such new laws are discovered, they are always in harmony with the old, never in opposition. The whole of observed facts and the conditions of their production—i.e. laws which are actually laws—have nothing to fear from the discoveries of the future.

“For nature cannot contradict herself; she would carry in her bowels the germs of destruction and death if any of her laws, as yet unknown, could reverse any known existing law. From this point of view there is concordance between the past and the future, not opposition. Nature is not at war with herself. A stone has not life, nor can it give life! This is an established fact. You may be quite certain that nothing will happen to disprove it, however long the world may last.”

Doctor: “And you conclude that …”

Theologian: "And you conclude that if a natural law, clearly proved since the beginning of the world, as, for instance, that a disease is not suddenly cured, that if wounded or rotten tissues do not heal in a moment, we may be quite sure that there is no law to upset this fact in the reserve of hidden laws which have yet to be discovered.

“And I also add that …”

Doctor: “What! you have another reason to bring forward. I must admit that I am on the point of yielding to your arguments.”

Theologian: “But let me just make one other observation to which I attach great importance.”

Doctor: “Oh, certainly, M. l’Abbé, go on—I beg of you.”

Theologian: "Well, doctor, you admit that there are no unknown laws which could upset the certain laws which we know of—that’s understood.

“But supposing, for the sake of argument, that such a law did exist, why should we alone benefit by it? We ignore it as much as the rest of the world, and we know nothing about the conditions necessary to its action.”

Doctor: “Please explain what you mean ; that sounds very interesting.”

Theologian: "I say this: I do not see why the pilgrims to Lourdes should alone have the privilege of profiting by these blessed unknown laws which suddenly give back health and strength, without the slightest remedy, to the sick and dying.

"These laws, if they existed, would be equally known by all classes of humanity. The pilgrims know no more than others; why do they alone reap the benefit?

"For example, the Blessed Sacrament is carried before a double row of sick. Put on one side religious emotion and any idea of suggestion, what remains? A simple promenade along the stretchers of the sick. What then? What attendant circumstances do provoke the action of this unknown law suddenly rendering health to those who have lost it? Again, why do not the rest of the world place themselves in the same conditions and reap the same benefits?

“Do you understand me?”

Doctor: “Perfectly. I cannot even find a loophole of escape.”

Theologian: "Good! We shall end by agreeing. Still allow me to continue a little longer.

"I was saying, then, Why should the Lourdes pilgrims be the only ones to profit by this pretended unknown law which instantaneously restores life to the dying?

"The only possible reason would be that they alone knew the indispensable conditions for action. But whence would they obtain this extraordinary knowledge? Why! they come from all parts of the world. They have never met before, and yet you would maintain that each group, nay, even separate pilgrims, had the happiness of unwillingly and instinctively possessing this hidden and precious knowledge.

“There can be no question of chance or luck. For, if experience were limited to one single case, we might believe that the magical button which moved the mysterious mechanism had been pressed by chance. But this is not so. The facts are multiplied, which would mean that the Lourdes pilgrims are in the know. In this case the rest of mankind must be a set of simpletons not to be able to find out their secret.”

Doctor: “Indeed, all that you say seems most just. You have opened up an entirely new point of view.”

Theologian: "If I have done so, it is because I myself find that point of view irrefutable.

"You see, doctor, the influence of unknown forces must go, in company with that of suggestion and cold water. It explains nothing. No, there is no natural cause, known or unknown, which can account for the marvellous events taking place here.

“All these facts are voices which tell of God and His power. They come from Him, and proclaim His existence.”

Doctor: “My dear M. l’Abbé, I quite agree with you in every respect. Why discuss the matter any further? You have opened my eyes.”

Theologian: “I am delighted. Your defeat is more honourable to you than my victory to me. My part has been merely to sow the seed, your sincere and noble heart has been the furrow which has fertilised it.”

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