On Orthodoxy

May 26–30, 2002 (edited January 2, 2004)

(What follows are somewhat raw thoughts I had while reading Gilbert Chesterton's Orthodoxy. I was reading an electronic copy so I don't have page numbers, but I'll include some extended quotes for context as appropriate. I also didn't finish the book at the time, but rereading my notes now I see some important thoughts expressed that I want to share.)

I am particularly appreciative of the autobiographical presentation, as this is how I have felt would be the most appropriate way to discuss philosophy. Too often we get stuck arguing over details when we are starting from diverse premises; the autobiographical presentation allows each person to share the development of their belief, and to find common trends, and to show what concerns and challenges each piece of belief came to address. The base concerns are more likely to be common between any two humans, even though the particular details of creed may diverge significantly.

II. The Maniac
It must be understood that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation to health.

Health, psychology—precisely where I'm coming from!

Its approximate statement is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.

Wait—doesn't that turn around the other way, too? That is, if a cosmological theory makes the cosmos "small", doesn't a theological creed make God "small"? God is unknowable—but the creed makes Him known. Also, relates to the Creation issue: Extending the primacy of existence out one meta-level, from the cosmos to the Creator, doesn't resolve the fundamental issue, the feeling that the explanation doesn't capture the essence of experience.

Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you" for the mustard.

This attitude toward determinism is one of my pet peeves. The determinism of physical processes does not negate human will—since a human is physical processes—in the "first person"—it is quite accurate to say that a human making a decision goes through a "decision-making process", which is unique to that human, which is private to that human, which is wonderful and mysterious and even spiritual to that human; the physical processes aren't controlling the person, they are the person. The fatalistic, give-up attitude that some attribute to determinism is unfounded—the determinism of the final decision in no way negates the process of reaching that decision. If the process flows differently, the decision ends differently; if the decision-maker "gives up" to fatalism, that is a distinct psychological state, with a distinct consequence. The optimistic wonder of participating in the life of the universe leads to action; the pessimistic submission of fatalism leads to sloth. The fatalist has made a distinct decision, which we call unhealthy; the optimist has made a distinct decision, which we call healthy. The optimist is determined to action, while the fatalist has in fact freely chosen inaction.

There are those who say that "consciousness" is as apart from the physical, such that no expression can give demonstration of true consciousness. I may be able to tell that they are "aware", but their "first-person" consciousness is inexpressible. But if this consciousness of theirs be inexpressible, I wonder, why do they spend so many pages to express it? No, I think they have become bound up in academic logic. This question has weighed on me, for while I cannot follow the logic of these discussions, at the same time I do feel the emptiness of many of the materialistic treatises which they criticize. In all their detailed theories, something essential does seem to be left unaddressed. But the answer I have come to is this: I understand rather that it is one matter to know a thing, and another matter to be that thing. All the deterministic theories, all the detailed physiology I may study, may allow me to know you better as a physical being, but no amount of inspection will allow me to be you, and so my knowledge of you will always be incomplete, and the insight which is left out I understand to be the consciousness of being you. And even looking at myself through the lens of objective science I will miss the essence of my own being—the I am of me—which I know only from being me, not from any process of inspection.

In passing from this subject I may note that there is a queer fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments or punishments of any kind. ... The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, "Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.

I include that doctrine known as behaviorism in my own creed, and do believe what is here called a "queer fallacy". I could discuss the various psychological theories attesting to the—quite objective—ineffectiveness of punishments (as well as rewards) as reinforcers of behavior, but I am not a psychologist. Instead I should simply point out that just as boiling oil is an environment, my saying to the sinner, "Go and sin no more", is also an environment! There is thus nothing in the behaviorist doctrine to favor corporal manipulation over sympathetic persuasion. However, this is not to diminish the important feeling that somehow determinism encourages cruelty as well as fatalism. This is a common reaction that cannot be addressed merely by arguing for the behaviorist psychology. Somehow this very human concern must be addressed in a very human way.

The concern, I think, is this: that an objective theory of behavior does not give any indication, it is supposed, of what one should do—that is, an ethics to live by—only of what one will do given certain environmental contingencies. How do we get an "ought" from an "is"?

I put this question to myself some time ago: In order to arrive at an ethics which I could live by—what will it take for me to be satisfied living by some ethics?

And I realized that I could look at this question itself objectively. I have turned the "ought" question—what ought I to do?—right back into an "is" question—what kind of answer is satisfactory? And that is a question for psychology, by which I mean the science of human nature.

At the same time, while that question may be addressed by appeal to objective science, if ethics is a matter of human nature, and I certainly am human, I will be living ethically merely by living humanly—and I will be inhuman to be unethical. I need only look within—by which I mean to look at the inner conflict between my actions and my instincts—to know what it is to live ethically, to live humanly. And this kind of knowledge of ethical living, of human living, is so much the more real because it is truly being, not merely knowing, ethics. What science brings, then, is an expansion and sharing of the knowledge of ethics—but that is nothing without becoming internal, without being, which comes about through moral teaching.

For example, laws are developed based on shared agreement, but are nothing without the moral teaching to obey laws. For example, we have an innate feeling for vengeance, but now consider it healthier to leave vengeance to the due process of law. In another arena, while I may have some experience of learning, psychology can inspect and compare many varieties of learning and evaluate which are most healthy, most human. Psychology has shown the ineffectiveness of punishment and reward for learning; we still use such contingencies for cases of equity justice, but further study will help to develop alternatives in diverse areas.

From another angle, that of epistemology, as proclaimed by the skeptics, there can be no deductive proof of any existence, of causation, of continuity. We have inductive reasoning, but that is far from logical proof. The only answer we can give to the question—why should we trust (have faith in) inductive knowledge?—is simply that we do. It is in our nature (here is psychology again). We do have faith in our ability to know; and the nature and limits of that faith itself may be explored in science (that is, inductive knowledge made public).

The person who loses this faith—who proclaims not to believe his own senses—we call unhealthy. The person who does not live ethically—who acts out against his nature as a human being—we call unhealthy. And thus the person who announces a deterministic theory not accompanied by an announcement of faith and ethics is the target of some alarm and sincere concern and even fright.

But the important point in all this is that the meaning I attribute to living ethically, living humanly, is ultimately a truly material kind of conception; it is beyond "mere" objective determinism but is in no way supernatural. It may be spiritual, if by spirit we mean the fact of subjective being in a material world.

Further, there remains the question of just what constitutes healthy belief and healthy action. While a rationalist is likely to say that healthy belief is that which is closest to objective reality, what if it is basically healthy, basically human, to believe in gods? Then it is ethical to believe in gods. And in this understanding we can dispense with proof for gods, considering only whether the belief itself is healthy, is human.

III. The Suicide Of Thought
My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth.

Brilliant... Sounds a little like what I said previously, about whether it is ethical to believe in gods because it is healthy to—or, we could say, unhealthy not to.

The real difference between the test of happiness and the test of will is simply that the test of happiness is a test and the other isn't.

I remember reading some neo-Pagan writers who describe "magick" as the exercise of the "true will" (athema?)—the true will being not necessarily the raw will that may be said to inhabit any action. At the time of my reading, I took that to mean something like what I now speak of as healthy action; that is, the true will is the healthy will, the "truly human will". Jumping off a cliff may be the act of a diseased will; and then the course of seeking one's true will and acting according to it is the course of seeking one's mental health and healthy action. The true will is identified with "magick" for the same reason that I mentioned previously, again, about believing in gods (or in this case magick, anyway, something supernatural and spiritual) because it is healthy and natural to do so. The neo-Pagan in practice of magick has found magick in basic human nature.

IV. The Ethics Of Elfland

I am reminded of the question of whether modern science "contradicts" earlier science or primitive notions. My reaction to the question is this: Science never refutes earlier science; newer theories complement older theories in larger or smaller scopes. The old theories still apply, and are still used, in the same scopes that they were developed for. While I "know" that the world is round, as far as I'm concerned walking around it's flat. I know the world rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, but in my day-to-day life I still expect the sun to come up in the morning and go down in the evening, and I expect the seasons to come and go. Relativity and quantum mechanics don't enter my daily thoughts.

And so it is with the primitive conceptions of soul or spirit or consciousness or even morality—I do think that modern psychology will gradually reveal theories more accurate than these conceptions (and that psychology does not need to be modified to include primitive conceptions, since it is in fact an alternative to those conceptions), but at the same time I do want to have a spiritual life, I still want to live according to primitive rather than scientific morality (and psychology should be able to account for these conceptions, in the sense of explaining scientifically why we have experiences in the way we do—although this is not an entirely important goal, since the more important is to simply have these experiences, which has been largely lost in modern society). The problem is that in modern society we have had a tendency to reject such primitive conceptions as science progresses. And I was not raised with primitive morality, so I don't have these conceptions to fall back on. So I am drawn to the science of psychology in order to have a valid starting point in order to go backwards to the primitive.

The belief that modern science "contradicts" primitive beliefs causes conflicts in both directions: Those who are committed to modern science are led by it to reject primitive beliefs; and those who are committed to primitive beliefs are led by it to reject modern science. But both attitudes are equally misled, because of the incorrectness of this belief in "contradiction". §


Sampson Synergetics

Copyright 2002 & 2004 by Justin T. Sampson