Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

In his biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton has only a few things to say about the “Dumb Ox” himself, but that’s the way it is with all his books: the ostensible subject is most of the time fondly neglected for the atmosphere surrounding it. From most writers this would be intolerable, but from Chesterton, somehow, it’s better than tolerable, because almost no one else is so fun to read. Chesterton’s Aquinas is no vague hypothesizer of miniature angels traipsing about in Nana’s sewing kit, but the champion of common sense philosophy, out to rescue medieval Christendom from the slow creep of Platonism, and to return it – with some help from Aristotle – to an affirmation of the reality and value of the material order, and a reasonable sense of our place within it.

Regarding our place within it, Aquinas – and Chesterton – insist that we are at home; that the material order is no catastrophe but essential to human beatitude; that a ghost is no more a complete man than a corpse is; that the senses are windows through which we perceive an actual world beyond, and into which light shines to show us ourselves; that the will is free; that we are kindred to other animals while at the same time elevated by intellect; that human reason has “a divine right to feed upon facts.” My grasp on medieval philosophy is weak, but I know that Chesterton is simplifying things. I also know that the compellingly baited lures of our own “age of uncommon nonsense” (Chesterton’s phrase) are sometimes difficult not to swallow. But I’ll happily take this antique sanity over the sort peddled today by persons like John Gray in Straw Dogs.

*

Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium.

Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett and his ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail. There’s some buzz these days about Thomas Nagel’s attack on this arch-materialism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I have not read and am not qualified to comment on, but Andrew Ferguson’s recent piece for The Weekly Standard gives a summary.

Whatever your personal take on the issue, it’s hard to avoid the sense while reading Straw Dogs that Gray is slowly dismantling his own argument without realizing it. For example, after assuring us of our utter unexceptionality compared to other animals, he goes on to admit at least three exceptions. Per Gray, human beings do, in fact, differ from animals in possessing a sense of selfhood (and hence an understanding of death), in the complex conflicts of their interests, and in their means of employing language.

I’m less sure of these particular points of divergence than Gray is, actually. I’ve known animals with what seemed remarkable notions of their own selfhood – and I could trot out a half-dozen anecdotes suggesting that certain animals, at least, do have a notion of what death means for an individual. But in my opinion, despite the obvious fact of our basic commonalities with other animals, there comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences. No bacterium will ever write a book arguing that bacteria are essentially equivalent to human beings. The fact that Mr Gray’s book exists seems to contradict its own premise.

His strict determinism I find equally unconvincing. According to Gray, determinism extends into the realm of the intellect. There is no free play of mind. People are no more responsible for their perspectives or beliefs than they are culpable for their actions. If this is so, of course, then there’s no point arguing. There’s no point trying to convince anyone to change his mind about anything, and Gray himself can take no credit for his own accidental illumination. Nonetheless, I insist that I can choose to punch a stranger in the face or not. I can likewise choose to endorse Gray’s notion of determinism or not, and the choice I make will have consequences. It will inform my view of life, my interactions with others, my own behaviors and choices. If this is so – if I can freely make even small and relatively inconsequential adjustments in my perspectives or ideas, and if these changes can change me in ways that I would not have changed otherwise – then strict determinism is false.

*

I do give Gray points for his critique of the supernaturalism implicit in popular forms of naturalism today, by which I mean the tendency among certain materialists to pretend that the natural world is a closed system outside of which human beings operate almost as if they were themselves gods. “Cities,” Gray counters, “are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.” Per Montaigne, nothing can be anything but according to nature. However, the lesson for Gray should be to amplify his sense of what nature is – to broaden it to encompass personhood, intellect, moral responsibility, love – rather than to reduce his estimate of man.

In the end there’s something cynical and false in Gray’s posturing as he steps down from the mountain to address the human animals that crowd non-volitionally around him: “You don’t want to hear it, dear species,” he seems to say, “but the sad truth is that no one – absolutely no one – got it right except for Schopenhauer, and of course me….” Chesterton, referring to the John Grays of his own day (1933) writes: “No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind.”

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

  1. Hello Ian,

    Very thoughtful, as always. I should get round to Chesterton’s Aquinas one of these days. For that matter, I should get round to Chesterton, and not only because Frost once lived in his neighborhood outside London (Beaconsfield).

    I would offer an objection to one point you make. I mean this: “Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium. Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and their ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail.”

    I find this hard to square with Dennett and Dawkins, at least as I’ve come to know them. As for that fence coming down between us and bacteria, and as for our being their moral equivalent: this is not a position Dawkins (anyway) would ever take. He simply re-describes the fence, leaving it very much in place. Are men and women (is homo sapiens sapiens) qualitatively different from other organisms? Why, yes, of course. We are indeed “alone,” Dawkins would say. But I’ll let him say it. The following remarks fall toward the end of “The Selfish Gene,” an oft-misunderstood book, which is by no means determinist, in the dispiriting sense of the word. Dawkins has just been discussing, in an entirely thought-experimental way, “memes” (this is where the meme “meme” started its career): “It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

    I think that leaves the fence between us and other animals firmly in place (while nonetheless affirming the unity of our origin).

    Dawkins speaks of “yet another unique quality of man.” He says that “we, alone on earth,” have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to take up the task of determining what piece of work “mankind” shall be, and in fact what kind of world mankind shall inhabit.

    In us evolution by natural selection has stumbled on something that may set itself against a world governed by Darwinian algorithms. Consciousness, the “capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination,” and so on: all of this allows us not simply better to understand how we (and other animals) came to be. “Imagination” and “consciousness” mandate that any desirable social arrangement must be very different indeed from what “nature” alone, without the superaddition of “imagination,” would allow for.

    So, it strikes me that Dawkins would say, “Hear, hear!” to your remarks: “There comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences.”

    Yes: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” And one way to do this is by writing books such as “The Selfish Gene,” the political implications of which are liberal and profoundly democratic. Not having read Gray’s “Straw Dogs,” I can’t say whether that book lends itself to the uses Dawkins has in mind, such as entering into a conspiracy of doves. But what I’ve read of Dawkins and Dennett shows me that their books do. This is what accounts, in part, for the guardedly sunny outlook, the optative mood, and the pragmatism (in the Deweyan & Rorty-esque sense of the word), one so often finds in Dawkins and Dennett. This is what allows Rorty (to take a step further) to embrace the positions of radical Darwinism, and, from them, re-describe philosophy as a mode of “social hope.”

    So we both are and are not merely animals, at least if I understand Dawkins and others of his party. I don’t know whether that’s a Chestertonian sort of paradox (it certainly lacks his wit). I doubt it is a paradox at all.

    I suppose all I am attempting to do is say what Frost says so much more elegantly in his “Letter” to “The Amherst Student” (1935): “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” If I’ve understood Dawkins as he wishes to be understood, that is essentially what he means (though he would be wary of the word “height”): “In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” That “excession” (so to speak) is what tosses us on the other side of the fence from “nature,” strictly understood. That “excession” is what makes mankind not a “natural” animal only but a “cultural” one also––an animal that writes its own history, and imagines its possible futures (in poetry & in politics).

    All of which brings to mind another remark Dawkins makes, this time in “The Devil’s Chaplin.” He is at great pains, he says, to apprise his readers always that he studies Darwinian theory as an oncologist studies cancer: not to advocate its outcomes, but to thwart them (at least insofar as our social arrangements are concerned).

    Well. Thank you, Ian. Very engaging, as ever. Good way to start my day. I woke up glum and a bit hungover. Now I am neither.

    • Ian Wolcott

      Thank you, Mark, for the great reply. I’m sorry it took me so long to approve your comment. WordPress has been acting up lately (at least for me) and I honestly didn’t see your pending comment until today. If I’d seen it earlier, I would, of course, have approved it right away.

      I appreciate the correction on Dawkins. I was apparently lumping together when I shouldn’t have been. In fact, I haven’t read much Dawkins. Hence the “I gather” in my wording; I was taking someone else’s word for it, when I ought to have been more cautious.

      I hope you and yours are well, by the way. Does the North Korean sabre-rattling get much coverage where you are? I would assume it must. Didn’t his father once fire a missile over Japan? What a ridiculous world sometimes.

  2. Totally with you on this one!

  3. You don’t seem to understand determinism. Strict determinism is not in any way incompatible with your actions having consequences; on the contrary, the former necessarily follows from the latter. Your problem is that you are assuming a special status for your choices that has no rational basis — i. e., you think your choices are fundamentally different from (say) the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the orbit of Jupiter, or the genetic code of a bacterium, so that those things can have empirically verifiable consequences while still being totally determined by immutable physical laws, but your choices can’t. But this distinction is completely arbitrary and nonsensical. Your choices are just one more link in the causal chain, and they are pre-determined by the laws of physics like every other one.

    • Mr Dalrymple

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t publish to this blog anymore (this post is more than five years old) but it’s gratifying to know that people still land on it occasionally. I was using the term “strict determinism” fairly loosely. I wonder if “fatalism” might be a better term for what Gray describes. You’re right, of course, that determinism doesn’t preclude the idea that actions have consequences; it requires that they do. You’re also right, however, that I do affirm a special status for actions which are the result of free choices. I believe in freedom of my own will to choose action A over action B or vice versa. I can choose to sneeze toward my right or left shoulders, with potential consequences for any gnat hovering nearby (and hence for the universe). The Second Law of Thermodynamics, inasmuch as it can be said to “exist” at all, cannot choose to enforce its legislation or grant a reprieve. Do I have a “rational basis” for believing in freedom of the will? Do I need one? I’m simply going to stand with common sense on that point. If you do not believe that free will is a thing, then (per Gray’s suggestion that determinism extends into the realms of the intellect) you are apparently fated to that conclusion, as I am fated my own, so there’s no point arguing.

      • “I can choose to sneeze toward my right or left shoulders, with potential consequences for any gnat hovering nearby (and hence for the universe). The Second Law of Thermodynamics, inasmuch as it can be said to “exist” at all, cannot choose to enforce its legislation or grant a reprieve.”

        That is an irrelevant non-explanation. I could just as easily say: a flipped coin can land either heads or tails, and therefore coin flips are not deterministic, but a person deciding what college to go to can’t land on their tail, and therefore their decision is not deterministic. Your inability to see the factors which inhibited you from choosing to sneeze towards your left shoulders does not mean it was not pre-determined by fundamental physics, anymore than your inability to calculate all the factors which caused a coin to come up heads or a die to land on the number 3 means the coin or die had free will. All it proves is that either you are not yet knowledgable enough to see all the causes of the choice (meaning that if you did know the full causes you would see you never could have chosen differently), or the choice was random and not caused by anything (meaning it was also not caused by your will). Either way “free will” does not enter into the picture.

        “I’m simply going to stand with common sense on that point.”

        That you view this as “common sense” is an accident of the time and place you happen to be born in. Other cultures consider strict determinism to be the “common sense” viewpoint. In Ancient Greece, it was considered normal to believe in strict determinism, and believing in free will was the odd thing; likewise in Scandinavia in Viking times. If there is a basis for believing in free will, it is a basis that countless great philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and artists far smarter than you or I — among them Leibniz, Homer, Marcus Aurelius, and even Einstein, to name just a few — have gone their entire lives without finding and/or understanding. To flippantly declare it as “common sense” is startlingly arrogant and, frankly, idiotic.

        “If you do not believe that free will is a thing, then (per Gray’s suggestion that determinism extends into the realms of the intellect) you are apparently fated to that conclusion, as I am fated my own, so there’s no point arguing.”

        You are again assuming exactly the thing you deny my claim that you assume. You are interpreting my position as something like “the conclusion you reach is pre-determined and therefore independent of the choices made by your free will”, when my whole thesis is that there are no “choices made by my free will” to be rendered pointless. Whether my current position was pre-determined has absolutely no bearing on whether or not it can be changed by arguing.

        Also, I wouldn’t use the term “fated”. It implies the determining process is somehow sentient, which I view as highly unlikely.

  4. Mr Dalrymple

    You’re needlessly abrasive, friend.

    It’s true that various forms of determinism/fatalism have prevailed at various times and places. But most of the examples that come to mind focused on specific significant facts in a person’s life rather than the quotidian choices he or she might make. Oedipus, for example, was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. He could not do otherwise. But I doubt Sophocles meant for us to believe that all of Oedipus’s choices (e.g. whether or not to eat one last olive with dinner) were likewise determined by the gods.

    Furthermore, if absolute determinism were broadly accepted, wouldn’t it preclude any discussion of ethics? Wouldn’t moral questions be rendered meaningless since no one could act otherwise than he did? And yet ethical questions were certainly raised by the Greeks. It would be hard to identify any culture that never raised questions touching on the morality of choice. The mere raising of ethical questions assumes the idea that we are free to act one way rather than another.

    You’re perfectly right that it is difficult, and maybe impossible, to prove freedom of the will by any kind of rational argument. (To attempt it seems to me a kind of tautology, since in forming an argument for something we assume our interlocutor is convincible, which – to my mind, at least – assumes again a freedom to intentionally change one’s mind). In the end, I think that most of us, when we’re living day to day and not trying to maintain a thesis at all costs, implicitly grant free will. It would be difficult to live in any other manner. We simply sense that we are free to choose A or to choose B. Perhaps that’s not enough for you, but it will do for me.

    • “But I doubt Sophocles meant for us to believe that all of Oedipus’s choices (e.g. whether or not to eat one last olive with dinner) were likewise determined by the gods.”

      I don’t particularly care whether you doubt it, unless your doubts are based on some evidence.

      “Furthermore, if absolute determinism were broadly accepted, wouldn’t it preclude any discussion of ethics?”

      No.

      “Wouldn’t moral questions be rendered meaningless since no one could act otherwise than he did? And yet ethical questions were certainly raised by the Greeks. It would be hard to identify any culture that never raised questions touching on the morality of choice. The mere raising of ethical questions assumes the idea that we are free to act one way rather than another.”

      Your expectations of a society that believes in determinism are completely unrealistic. If I convinced you that determinism was true, you would not stop believing murder was bad. The simple fact that free will has been argued for on the basis that it follows from the existence of morality, but never the other way around, proves that people’s confidence in the existence of morality is and has always been both independent of and greater than their confidence in the existence of free will. Otherwise, the argument would be useless because the starting premise could not be granted until the conclusion had already been proven by some other means.

      “To attempt it seems to me a kind of tautology, since in forming an argument for something we assume our interlocutor is convincible, which – to my mind, at least – assumes again a freedom to intentionally change one’s mind”

      Why? You keep repeating this, but you seem either unable or unwilling to defend or clarify it at all.

      “In the end, I think that most of us, when we’re living day to day and not trying to maintain a thesis at all costs, implicitly grant free will. It would be difficult to live in any other manner”

      Yes, and when I flip a coin, I act as though there is a chance of it turning either heads or tails. When I roll a die, I act as though there is a chance of it landing on any integer from one to six. In both cases, the results are in reality completely pre-determined by fundamental physics, but the processes determining them are far too complicated to realistically account for in the time it takes to make a decision. It is exactly the same when a person makes a decision.

      • Graychin

        Do you honestly believe that all of your actions and choices (and opinions, for that matter) are determined by laws of physics, that you have no agency whatsoever?

        Speaking only from my own experience, I see that people will often claim to believe things they don’t really believe. They will adhere to an idea or system of ideas because it appeals to their sense of aesthetics, because it associates them with a group of people they admire or distinguishes them from a group they despise, or because it meets some other psychological need in themselves. I’ve been guilty of these things in my life (I’m in my mid-forties), and it may be that none of us ever entirely escapes the mental illusions we create for ourselves. I think, however, that the best way to judge what you yourself believe is to set aside what you *claim to believe* and to look at how you actually live your life. If I behave in my daily life as though I have free will and agency, then in fact I believe I have free will and agency, despite my claims to the contrary. And I think it is safe to say that this implicit belief in free will has been shared by the vast majority of people through all of history. Certain philosophers have questioned it, as you point out, but just as many have assumed it, and both alike believe in practice that they are free to fling themselves off the cliff or not, to sneeze to right or left, to order the burger or the BLT.

        Is it possible to prove freedom of the will by rational argument? I don’t really care. To require a rational basis for all that we do and think would make for a pretty stilted and inhuman life.

  5. “Do you honestly believe that all of your actions and choices (and opinions, for that matter) are determined by laws of physics, that you have no agency whatsoever?”

    That depends on how you define “agency”. If agency requires being able to act in a non-deterministic way, yes. My body, including the part of my brain that makes decisions, is made of atoms, and the physical laws governing the motion of atoms are deterministic, therefore my body’s motion and all my actions are deterministic.

    In any case, arguing about whether I actually believe what I’m saying is just a way of avoiding the question. If determinism were false, then it would remain false even if I actually believed in it. Being as it is true, it will remain true even if I don’t actually believe in it.

    “They will adhere to an idea or system of ideas because it appeals to their sense of aesthetics, because it associates them with a group of people they admire or distinguishes them from a group they despise, or because it meets some other psychological need in themselves.”

    I know. But if any of those three things were motivating me, I would not be a determinist. On the other hand, your belief in free will quite evidently ticks all three boxes: by your own admission, you consider a belief in free will a requirement justify your existing sense of right and wrong. That’s both fulfilling a basic psychological need, and appealing to your sense of aesthetics. It presumably also associates you with people you admire, because if belief in free will is needed to recognize right and wrong, it logically follows that people who believe in free will are likely to lead moral lives and therefore be more worthy of admiration.

    “I think, however, that the best way to judge what you yourself believe is to set aside what you *claim to believe* and to look at how you actually live your life”

    I don’t care what you think is the best way to judge what I believe. I know more about my beliefs than you do.

    “If I behave in my daily life as though I have free will and agency, then in fact I believe I have free will and agency, despite my claims to the contrary. And I think it is safe to say that this implicit belief in free will has been shared by the vast majority of people through all of history”

    What, exactly, would constitute behaving as though I DON’T have free will and agency? It seems to me that you think “implicit belief in free will” is a prerequisite for any action at all. Has it occurred to you that perhaps the reason no determinist acts the way you expect a real determinist would is because of a fault in your understanding, and not mine nor theirs?

    “Certain philosophers have questioned it, as you point out, but just as many have assumed it, and both alike believe in practice that they are free to fling themselves off the cliff or not, to sneeze to right or left, to order the burger or the BLT.”

    And they “believe in practice” that the coin could turn either heads or tails, and that the die could land on any number. Both of these ideas are definitely false, but in everyday life they are more useful than the truth. You continue to fail to explain why you think these scenarios are any different from “believing” in free will “in practice”.

    • Graychin

      Welcome back. I appreciate the time you’ve given it but I worry this conversation isn’t benefiting either of us. I’m simply not a materialist and I’m not likely to be become one. I’m a traditionalist and (for all intents and purposes) a Catholic. I honestly believe that various non-material things have as much reality (and sometimes more) as material objects. This seems nonsensical to you, and I certainly couldn’t prove my position to your satisfaction. All I can do is point to the fact that we live as though this were true. I consider philosophy valueless if impractical. You seem to believe, essentially, that only atoms exist and that they follow predictable rules in their interactions with one another. How you reconcile that with the lived experience of personhood (the inward life, the world of ideas, emotion, etc.) is a mystery to me. Presumably you also believe that matter is eternal and has been interacting with itself forever. This seems wrong to me, but perhaps I’m a fool.

      I do want to address one thing you wrote: You said that my belief in free will “presumably also associates you with people you admire, because if belief in free will is needed to recognize right and wrong, it logically follows that people who believe in free will are likely to lead moral lives and therefore be more worthy of admiration.” I disagree with this in two respects. First, I do not think someone needs to have an explicit belief in free will in order to distinguish between right and wrong. Children can distinguish between them, and you can too. Secondly, I don’t think it “logically follows” or accords with experience in general that people who do explicitly believe in free will are more likely to lead moral lives or be worthy of admiration. It’s often quite the opposite. Persons who believe in freedom of the will and are (or should be) particularly attuned to moral distinctions may often be more susceptible to seduction by the glamour of evil. We see this all the time, unfortunately.

      Now, if you’re interested, I’ll point you to a couple blog posts by Bill Vallicella (academic philosopher, retired, I think). These were forwarded to me by an online friend and I found them interesting. It may be that Bill speaks your language on these issues better than I am able to do:

      https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/consciousness-and-qualia/

      https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/free-will/

      Best wishes.

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