Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chesterton on Science and Darwinism

            In contemporary thought, science is considered to prize above all else the rational faculty of the human mind, and its ability to gain gradual and careful knowledge of the world around it. The freedom and ability of the individual that science implies is frequently contrasted with the rigid and outdated doctrines that religion hands down to its rationally-oppressed followers. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton proposes a reversal of this view, where it is in fact science that limits and confines the human mind, while Christian orthodoxy emancipates it. This reassessing of the scientific mentality on a whole can be convincingly applied to the scientific microcosm of Darwinism, and as such, is indispensible to the study of critical responses to Darwin's work.

            Chesterton's argument rests heavily on his definitions of 'intellectual freedom' and 'intellectual restriction.' Admittedly, there is a way of understanding intellectual freedom to be the crux of science, insofar as it can imply the autonomy of the individual mind, without dependence upon authoritarian bodies like the Church. However, this is not how Chesterton intends to employ the phrase, and because he builds his argument using alternative definitions that he offers to the reader early on, his argument sits on a sound foundation.

Chesterton sees intellectual freedom as being the at-peace mental state of orthodoxy and faith, and of mental health and sanity. The mind is free when it knows that it cannot understand or explain everything, and is consequently satisfied with there being some mystery in the universe. The underlying axiom is that the universe is too great and complex to be grasped by human reason. The mind is then restricted, oppressed, and dissatisfied when it exists within the confines of a worldview that says everything can be explained rationally, when it actually cannot. As Chesterton says, "As long as you have mystery, you have mental health.... [allow] one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid." (23)

Science demonstrates this idea of intellectual restriction for Chesterton. Science, defined by a materialist ontology, is a worldview 'of insane simplicity' because it rejects mystery. (Chesterton 18) Darwinism, if it is a scientific dismissal of supernatural mystery, posits a mechanism by which nature – without direction, aim, or greater purpose – requires of organisms slow but constant change. All life can be explained this way. Objectively speaking, adhering to this mechanistic view is to explain the world using a process devoid of inherent meaning, which claims to be able to explain all life, and which cannot be escaped. Natural selection is thus, as Chesterton says, "a fixed and godless fate" and an "incurable routine of the cosmos." (124)

It follows then that Darwinism cannot possibly be a liberal, intellectually emancipating worldview, just as science on a whole cannot be. By rejecting anything supernatural and mysterious in favour of singular, inevitable meaninglessness, this brand of Darwinism actually rejects intellectual freedom, and so for Chesterton, sanity itself.

Finally, while Chesterton's method of defamiliarizing us with science leads to orthodoxy being a much saner and more fulfilling doctrine, it remains to be proven beyond doubt that orthodoxy is the only reasonable source of mystery. If Darwinism and science are flawed systems, then it is possible that orthodoxy is imperfect as well. 

- Krisha Dhaliwal

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