Beginning in the fall of 1868, Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, met with some of his friends and proposed organizing a discussion club for those who wanted to defend Christian theology against the threat of scientific naturalism. They decided they should include those they identified as "the opposition," so they could try to persuade their opponents that Christian natural theology had not been refuted by modern natural science (Hutton 1885). They would meet once a month at a hotel for nine months of the year. After dining together, they would discuss a paper that one of the members had circulated beforehand. From 1869 to 1880, 62 members produced 95 papers. Attendance at each meeting ranged from as many as 22 members present to as few as 7. At first, they wanted to call this the Theological Society, but then they decided to call it the Metaphysical Society.
The membership was remarkable in their prominence as representing the diverse intellectual and social elites of Great Britain--including poets such as Tennyson, philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick, scientists such as Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, and John Lubbock, Anglican theologians like Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, Catholic theologians such as William George Ward and Henry Edward Manning, politicians such as Lubbock and Prime Minister William Gladstone, lawyers such as James Fitzjames Stephen, and journalists such as Walter Bagehot. Huxley, Tyndall, and Lubbock were the three who were also members of the X-Club.
Their discussions were confidential, and their papers were privately printed for circulation only among the members. But most of the papers were eventually published as articles in journals or chapters in books. The whole set of the original papers was not published until 2015, when Oxford University Press published them in three big volumes: The Papers of the Metaphysical Society.
The conflict between reason and revelation was the most persistent theme. And the fundamental epistemological division was between the "empiricists" arguing that human experience of the world confirmed that everything was governed by natural law with no gaps for supernatural miracles and "intuitionists" arguing that human beings had a divinely implanted religious sense for believing in a supernatural miracle-working God. Over the years, it became clear that neither side could persuade the other because they were locked in an irreconcilable battle between reason and revelation, which is the point later made by Strauss.
Neither side could refute the other, because the empiricists assumed but could not prove the uniformity of nature so as to exclude miracles, and the intuitionists assumed but could not prove the reality of miracles as supernatural interventions in nature. So, for example, William George Ward presented the paper for December 10, 1872, entitled "Can Experience Prove the Uniformity of Nature?," and his answer to the question was no, because, he argued, when the scientific empiricists deny the possibility of miracles as contrary to the uniformity of nature, they simply assume the uniformity of nature without establishing it through experience, and thus it is "a purely arbitrary and ungrounded assumption" (Papers, 1:410-16).
To prove by experience the unexceptional uniformity of nature, Ward contended, the scientific naturalists would have to show that universal experience testifies to this uniformity. They cannot do this, because Catholics will point to the human experience of miracles that have been well authenticated, and the scientific naturalists have not yet proven that all of this testimony for miracles is unreliable. Until they prove, one by one, that miracles have not occurred, their assumption of an unexceptional uniformity of nature is begging the question at issue.
Ward recognizes that many natural scientists think that the assumption of the unexceptional uniformity of nature is the absolute requirement for inductive science, and that affirming the possibility of miracles denies this assumption and thus denies the necessary basis of science. But he argues that this is mistaken, because the idea of miracles actually assumes that nature is usually but not unexceptionally uniform, and that is enough to support empirical science.
So, for example, if I find today by experiment that certain materials combined in certain ways are combustible, then I can expect that these same materials combined in the same way tomorrow will be combustible. But now imagine that when I go into my laboratory tomorrow, I find a man who looks very impressive seated in my laboratory. He tells me that he has been sent by God to give me a divinely authoritative message, and to prove that he has been sent by God, he will perform a miracle. I know that my hand is naturally combustible, but he tells me that if I put my hand in a fire now, it will not burn. If I do that, and it does not burn, I will conclude that he has performed a miracle that testifies to his divine authority. And yet nothing about this miracle gives me any reason to doubt that my hand is naturally combustible. On the contrary, it is precisely because I know my hand is naturally combustible that makes me believe that if fire does not burn my hand, that must be a miracle.
We can even imagine some extreme circumstances in which miracles could become frequent without denying the normal uniformity of natural law, Ward suggests. If England were Catholic again, and if every Englishman, by invoking St. Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas a Becket), could put his hand in a fire without injury, this would reinforce the belief that fire naturally burns, because it would be clear that the Saint's name must be invoked to cause a miraculous suspension of this natural law.
In response to Ward, Huxley admitted that he could not prove by experience the uniformity of nature, but he said that this did not weaken his confidence in this principle as a "working hypothesis" guiding his scientific research.
After this paper by Ward, over the subsequent four years, other members wrote a series of papers on miracles. On November 9, 1875, James Fitzjames Stephen presented "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles" (2:325-44). Stephen was a judge as well as historian and codifier of English criminal law. He was also a prolific journalist known for a series of articles criticizing John Stuart Mill's political theory. For three years (1869-1872), he was in India as a legal member of the Viceroy of India's council. He had been reared in an evangelical Anglican household, but he found that his legal training in the rules of evidence challenged his faith. During his time in India, he studied the ancient texts of Hindu law; and he saw that these texts began with accounts of the divine creation of the world that resembled the Biblical story of creation, and that these miracles of creation gave divine sanction to the Hindu caste system of social order. He saw that the Hindu faith in their miraculous divine code was as firm as the Jewish or Christian faith in their miraculous divine code. Seeing such contradictions in the divine codes in the ancient history of humanity turned Stephen into a skeptic.
The source of Stephen's doubt corresponds to what Strauss said about the ancient belief that "the right way must be a divine law" from the ancestors, the authority of which becomes questionable when someone sees "a variety of divine laws or codes, each of which is the work of a divine or semidivine being." And "what is decisive is the fact that the various codes contradict one another in what they suggest regarding the first things. . . . Thus the question arises as to which code is the right code and which account of the first things is the true account. The right way is now no longer guaranteed by authority; it becomes a question or the object of a quest. . . . It will prove to be the quest for what is good by nature as distinguished from what is good merely by convention" (NRH, 84-86).
When he returned to England in 1872, Stephen was invited to join the Metaphysical Society, and he became one of the most active members. In his "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles," he employed the legal standards of evidence for challenging the reliability of the testimony for miracles. The testimony for miracles would hardly be accepted in a court of law, he argued, because it generally suffers from five weaknesses. First, the testimony is often only an uncorroborated assertion. Second, the event that is alleged to have occurred is highly improbable. Third, there is often no record of what other spectators at the scene saw. Fourth, the testimony is often hearsay--someone is reporting what he has heard and not what he has seen for himself. Fifth, there is usually no record of a complete examination of the testimony conducted at the time of the alleged event. For example, these weaknesses characterize the reports of miracles in the New Testament, which is a collection of texts written long after the events alleged by authors who are biased in their judgment.
Stephen concluded his paper by saying that stories about miracles are only "wild absurdities," and he offered as an example quotations from "The Institutes of Menu" that start with a divine creation story of miracles sanctioning Hindu law. He also quoted from the introduction by the English translator of these texts saying: "The faith of a Gentoo (misguided as it is, and groundless as it may be), is equally implicit with that of a Christian, and his allegiance to his own supposed revelations of the Divine Will altogether as firm. He, therefore, esteems the astonishing miracles attributed to a Brihma, a Raam, or a Krishen, as facts of the most indubitable authenticity."
The discussion after Stephen's presentation of his paper was so intense and so prolonged that it was decided that the meeting for February 15, 1876, should be devoted to continuing the discussion, without any new paper being presented. These discussions of miracles were becoming acrimonious. Arthur Russell wrote to his brother: "Our debate was brisker than usual. Frederic Harrison declared that he considered a belief in miracles as the commencement of insanity, and His Eminence [Cardinal Manning] replied that he considered an incapacity to believe in the supernatural as a commencement of ossification of the brain."
The discussions became even more acrid after Huxley's presentation on January 11, 1876, on "The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection" (2:366-72). Here Huxley doubted the evidence for the most important miracle of Christian theology. Speaking as a biologist testifying before a court, he applied the science of animal physiology, employing legal standards of evidence, to conclude that Jesus was probably not truly dead after his crucifixion, and therefore he was not resurrected from being dead. He probably suffered from "somatic death" (the cessation of some of the functions of the living body) but not "molecular death" (the cessation of the organic activities of the living molecules of the body). One can be revived from somatic death but not from molecular death.
To illustrate this, Huxley pointed to wheel animalcules (or rotifers) that are microscopic animals with tiny brains found in freshwater, which can survive dessication for long periods: they become inert, and then they resume activity when they are rehydrated. It is dubious, however, that this is an apt illustration, because human beings cannot do anything like this.
What Huxley calls "somatic death" might correspond to what today would be called "clinical death"--brain death followed by cessation of heart and lung functions, which is followed within minutes by the death of cells and organs. If that is so, it's hard to see how the "somatic death" of Jesus was not true death.
Since Huxley presented his paper, many medical doctors and forensic pathologists have written research reports to determine the cause of Jesus' death by crucifixion. There have been as least ten different medical theories of the cause of death--including cardiac rupture, heart failure, asphyxia, and hypovolaemic shock (Maslen and Mitchell 2006). One theory follows Huxley in hypothesizing that Jesus did not really die--that at the crucifixion, Jesus lost consciousness because of diminished blood supply to the brain, although the oxygen supply was above a critical level; and then when he was taken down from the cross, circulation was restored (Lloyd Davies and Lloyd Davies 1991). What is most noteworthy in this research is the great variety of conflicting hypotheses and the failure to reach any agreement based on a reasonable assessment of the evidence.
The fundamental problem is that we don't have enough reliable evidence. The New Testament stories are unreliable, because the books of the New Testament were written many years after the time of Jesus by people who were not eyewitnesses of the events reported, and who were writing with the bias of true believers propagating their faith. Moreover, miracles like the resurrection of the dead to life are so improbable that we should not believe them to be true without overwhelming evidence. That's why even those people who believe in such miracles believe that most reports of miracles are false.
But then the very fact that we can openly debate the credibility of such miracles is itself a remarkable tribute to the success of liberalism in allowing freedom of thought and speech about the reason/revelation debate.
Huxley's paper on the resurrection pushed the limits of such freedom in Victorian England. Huxley and John Morley decided not to publish the paper in Morley's Fortnightly Review--one of the most radical journals of the time--because Morley said that such a "deadly routing of the most sacred article in theology" was for scholars to discuss, not for "the profane crowd" (Desmond 1997, 466-67).
Two years before Huxley's paper, Walter Bagehot presented a paper on "The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration," February 10, 1874 (2:116-24), which pointed to the limits of toleration. He said that the impulse to persecute those who question popular opinion is rooted in human nature, and that this natural impulse is particularly strong in ancient societies where the political order is understood to be a "religious partnership," and early law is identified with religious ritual. The toleration of the freedom to question religious beliefs can come only in modern societies that have entered the "age of debate," when open discussion does not destroy the social order.
The philosophical debates in the Metaphysical Society show the remarkable freedom of liberal toleration. But one can also see the limits of that toleration in late Victorian England. One can see that, for example, in the persecution of Charles Bradlaugh, the founding president (1866-1890) of the National Secular Society, which advocated the complete disestablishment of the Anglican Church and freedom of thought for atheists. Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament, but he was prohibited from taking his seat because he refused to take the sacred oath of allegiance to the Crown, which required religious belief: "I, ---- do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God." It was not until 1888 that Parliament passed the Oaths Act proposed by Bradlaugh that allowed people to choose to make a "solemn affirmation" rather than swearing an oath to God (Niblett 2010).
This continuing progress of the Liberal Enlightenment can be confirmed by various kinds of empirical historical evidence (such as the Human Freedom Index), which has been the subject of various posts here, here, here, and here.
Desmond, Adrian. 1997. Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Hutton, R. H. 1885. "The Metaphysical Society: A Reminiscence." The Nineteenth Century 18: 177-96.
Lloyd Davies, Margaret, and Trevor Lloyd Davies. 1991. "Resurrection or Resuscitation?" Journal of the Royal College of London. 25: 167-70.
Marshall, Catherine, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. 2015. The Papers of the Metaphysical Society, 1869-1880. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maslen, Matthew, and Piers D. Mitchell. 2006. "Medical Theories on the Cause of Death in Crucifixion." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99: 185-88.