The Odd Blog

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G.K. Chesterton, Psychics, Reason and the Human Brain

Posted by That Other Mike on 17/02/2008

I have mixed feelings about G. K. Chesterton: he was something of a contradictory figure. On the one hand, he seems a reactionary Catholic bigot with a gift for a well-turned phrase which under closer examination fails to hide an essential vacuity of thought; on the other, he seems to be a deeper thinker with a great desire for social justice and righteousness and a penchant for biting wit.

On many occasions I’ve had dinosaur moments when I’ve read something he said; coming across such gems as

There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man

and

You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution

and

If there were no God, there would be no atheists

which are by turns incorrect, fatuous and ignorant, revealing far less about the author than one would think; by that, I mean of course that they disclose hidden shallows rather than depths.

And yet – I then see the following words and seem to think that perhaps there was something to him, after all:

All but the hard hearted man must be torn with pity for this pathetic dilemma of the rich man, who has to keep the poor man just stout enough to do the work and just thin enough to have to do it

[Capitalism is] that commercial system in which supply immediately answers to demand, and in which everybody seems to be thoroughly dissatisfied and unable to get anything he wants

Our society is so abnormal that the normal man never dreams of having the normal occupation of looking after his own property. When he chooses a trade, he chooses one of the ten thousand trades that involve looking after other people’s property

Fence-sitting bastard. As millions of others have no doubt thought throughout history, life would be a lot simpler if every person we admired were wholly admirable, and every person we disliked were totally evil. And yet they are not; Chesterton was, on the one side, a reactionary Catholic, with all the bigotry and plain old idiocy that implies, and on the other, he was one of the architects of Distributivism, a political philosophy of which I am rather fond, its Catholic roots notwithstanding.

Annoying, really; I should much rather be able to put him in a nice little bigot box. It wouldn’t be hard, if I didn’t have too much self-respect and be slightly OCD about processes legitimising outcomes (more on this another time), to be able write him off as a dyspeptic old fool, especially for comments like

When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.

which on the face of it is so absurd, facile and ignorant as to cause a screaming shitfit. However, I also pride myself on not taking anything on face value – I am a sceptic, and examination beyond the surface is, after all, what we do. It’s kind of our thing. We dig scrutiny, baby.
Consider the context – at the time Chesterton was writing the above sentence, in social terms Atheism barely existed outside a few minority enclaves, and in those, it would often have been a political pose, rather than the result of earnest thought and philosophical enquiry: a corollary to Marxism or Anarchism. Chesterton’s attitudes towards either of those philosophies can charitably be described as unfriendly at best. Socially, one would simply not have run into Atheists as a matter of course. In habit for sure, if not definitely in conviction, England was still a Christian country at the time. It is quite understandable that Chesterton would have something of a jaundiced or unrealistic attitudes, especially given his strong religious beliefs; this would also no doubt leave him less likely to engage in the kind of impartial reasoning which would lead one naturally towards Atheism.
I also think there’s a certain amount of truth in the statement. Was that the thudding noise of jaws dropping to the floor? Let me explain.
The UK has become steadily less and less religious a country over the past half century or so. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) ascribe this to one thing in particular, although I have my suspicions, partly related to relative affluence post-WWII and the rise of religious belief during crisis periods. A significant part of it seems to be apathetic in nature, possibly related to the image of the established churches as being irrelevant.
This apathy towards religions has left a number of people functionally Atheist. That is, they disbelieve, but only because they have no confidence in the traditional religious paradigm. They are not Atheists because they arrived there intellectually but because of abandonment of traditional religions.
In other words, there is a hole which people are looking to fill. They fill this with crystal healing, homeopathy, astrology and other assorted nonsense.
This leads me on to the following news story:

A psychic was paid £60 by a council to rid a County Durham home of a “poltergeist” after ghostly goings-on.

Easington Council employed medium Suzanne Hadwin after Peterlee tenant Sabrina Fallon reported paranormal activity including moving objects.

Miss Fallon had even called police after hearing bangs which terrified her children Shannon, nine, and Amie, one.

Frankly, I’m rather disturbed by this. Not only that public money was spent on the spiritualist fantasies of a woman who is deranged or a con artist, but also that Easington Council legitimised it by engaging with her, on the say-so of some tenants who’d been sufficiently irrational and credulous to immediately suspect an angry spirit of being in their house. Here’s a tip – if you’re dealing with people who think that they are being haunted and so can’t go home, you need to call the local mental health authority before you start handing out to cheques to fraudsters or the equally deranged who believe themselves to be in contact with “spirits”.

As to Mr Burnip’s attempt at defending the Council’s action on the grounds of cost, I find that utterly contemptible. Raw cost is not a sufficient rationale for this; the Council has simply given this family’s ridiculous belief a foundation for the future and opened the door to anyone who wants to buy a psychic using public money.

This country has been left in a void because of its apathetic attitude towards religions, and this needs to be addressed — there cannot simply be accommodation after accommodation of every lunatic belief that comes along. We need to draw a line in the sand, to say that enough is enough, that we will make a concerted effort to teach people to be reasonable beings. We need to do this now, because if we don’t, we will end up with a generation whose first thought on hearing a strange noise is that it is a ghost rather than a creaking floorboard, who will think that crystals and funny water will protect them from disease.

If we allow this kind of thing to go on without question or comment, we strengthen and legitimise nonsense to the point where it becomes the norm, right when we might be able to change society for the better, to make it reasonable and rational through and through.

We’re at a tipping point between religion and rationality. We can climb higher and improve ourselves, or we can allow psychics to flourish and by doing so diminish that which makes us most human: our brains.

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