Our Swerving Universe: Chesterton on Paradoxes

orthodoxyI’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy recently.  Reading Chesterton is a bit like climbing into the backseat of a wild taxi driver–you may have no idea where he is taking you but you’re enjoying the ride.  He’s got a way of expression that is poignant and fresh, and he uses illustrations instead of logical arguments in a way that stretches the mind.

The Paradoxes of our Universe.

In chapter 4 of Orthodoxy, Chesterton launches into a very interesting argument concerning the irregularities of our universe.  He says, “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one.  The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite…It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is.”  We live in a world where materialism and naturalism reign supreme.  What is left to be discovered will be uncovered by the scientific genius of systematic experimentation, or so our culture thinks.  Chesterton, however, argues that though the world is mostly consistent and regular, there are unexpected irregularities on our universe.

Consider this prime example:

Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate.  A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left.  Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain.  At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other.  And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

This example illustrates the way in which “silent swerving from accuracy by an inch…is the uncanny element in everything.”  The universe is almost exact.  But if there is one thing that can be expected about all things in the universe, it is that there will always be something unexpected among the mundane and regular.  The human heart is an outlier in a body of exact symmetry.  The universe is almost scientific.  However, the ways in which the universe refuses to cooperate challenge our philosophic systems.

Rationalism Has Its Limits.

Chesterton continues, “Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable.”  The point of Chesterton’s line of argument is that a man who pursues knowledge in this universe only by way of rationalism will end up a fool.  He will insist there must be two hearts inside a man.  He will be unable to explain why the earth is almost a sphere.  Rationalism as a complete philosophy is unable to completely explain the universe–only almost.  

Chesterton then puts forward this assertion: “Actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises.”  The value of a system of philosophy lies not in its ability to explain what is plain and obvious, but in its ability to predict the unpredictable.  A system that aligns with irregularities, even expecting certain surprises, is more extraordinary than the system that conforms to the 95% that is unsurprising in this universe.  He returns to his example from earlier:

If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain.  But if he guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician.  Now this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity.

Christianity: A Paradoxical Anomaly

The strength of Christianity, according to Chesterton, is its uncanny ability to predict anomalies.  The places where the rules of the universe are bent, so is Christianity.  When something unexpected is found, Christianity has already discovered it.  Chesterton puts it, “Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected.  It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth.”

Christianity fits the contours of this universe because it too is almost rational.  However, in unexpected places and at surprising times, Christianity swerves.  And where it does, we find the universe following in its skid marks.  Chesterton concludes this portion of the chapter by way of this summary: “Whenever we felt there is something odd in Christian theology, we generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”

Chesterton’s argument is nothing if not intriguing.  Different philosophies vie with one another to see whose can cover the most truth in the universe.  Which system can best explain the most?  Chesterton has taken a completely different line of argument.  The value of a philosophy lies not in its ability to explain the plain truth.  A philosophy that stands out from the rest is one that can explain unexpected truth.  Systems fight over who can blanket the largest part of our rational universe.  Chesterton wants to know which system has covered the irrational parts.  Christianity, he argues, is just such a philosophy.

[note: When I use the word ‘rational’, I mean philosophical rationalism.  Christianity is a ‘rational’ philosophy in that it is reasonable, but it is not pure rationalism.  As Augustine once put it: “I believe in order that I might understand.”  Faith comes before reason.]